Utopia: Nowhere and Nothing


The word utopia first appeared in 1516 with the publication of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. The word comes from the Greek prefix ou- (not) and topos- (place) and the suffix -ia (which is a toponym). Thus, utopia translates to no-place or nowhere. Utopia was More’s satire of 16th century Catholicism and life. The true reasons why More would write this form of satire are heavily debated, as he was a devout Catholic. The point of his book, as it would seem, would be to point out that yes, it would be fantastic for there to be a utopia, but as the name tells us, it won’t happen. This view, a very Catholic one, is one borne out of how you view human nature. Take the dichotomy between Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Hobbes thought that the natural man must be restrained from his ultimate freedom. If we want a stable, prosperous society, we must sacrifice some, if not most, of our freedom. Rousseau argued, in contrast, that man is born free “but everywhere in chains.” Thus, for man to be free, the constraints must not only be removed but he must be allowed to be free.

This dichotomy was broken down by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. He broke this down into the negative and positive conceptions of freedom. In his essay Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin breaks down the various conceptions of liberty into two primary groups; negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty can be simply defined as “freedom from.” That is the freedom from interference or coercion by the State. To be coerced is tantamount to slavery if it’s carried beyond a certain minimum of freedom. Freedom, in the name of security, equality, etc.. can be curtailed, but not beyond this minimum. An individual’s incapacities do not count as obstacles to their freedom.

Positive liberty, on the other hand, can simply be defined as the “freedom to.” That is the freedom to be your own master; to self-actualize to master one’s self. For Berlin, this conception of freedom brought with it the threat of totalitarianism for the reason that ideologies like Fascism and communism believed that individualism trapped the true self. This opens the way for the State to be able to force an individual to do things for them to “self-actualize.” They need to be forced to be free. This is why Berlin favors negative liberty, not because it is horrible to self-actualize, but because it allows the individual to pursue their own good uncoerced.

To take the idea of human nature even further, we can simply ask what man will do if left to his own devices? For the Daoists, we have the concept of Wu Wei which, in the realm of politics, can be interpreted as “the government that governs least, governs best.” Philosophers like Robert Nozick have argued that man left in his natural state will establish the very bare minimum of government. Man tends toward freedom and will, thus, govern himself best.

In opposition to Daoism is Confucianism, which argues that the only way for a good and moral state to be maintained is through strict governance and hierarchy. You do not have to go far to hear people on both the mainstream left and populist right speaking of capitalism run amok. That corporations are run purely by greed. Which of course they are, but, you know, their entire purpose is to make money so…

This is all to say that how we view utopia, whether aspirational or fantastic, comes fundamentally down to how we see human nature. This reminds this author of the old political joke that neo-cons are just liberals mugged by reality. Some of the most ardent anti-communists are themselves former communists. Samuel Moyn argued that the human rights movement came about in the 1970s not through the world realizing that human rights were essential, but rather through disillusionment with the world around them; both the Communist East and Liberal Democratic West had failed to meet the ideals. Another avenue was needed. This of course leads immediately to the question of how useful is the idea of a utopia then, but that is a question for a later post.

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