Utopia: Three Thousand Years of Seeking Perfection

The fantasy of Utopia has flirted with the human mind since the dawn of civilisation. The ancient Egyptians tried to establish it in cities dedicated to their gods, the ancient Greeks and Romans founded schools of philosophy upon it, the French went through a bloody revolution to found it and many religions declared it as something not quite from this world. The dilemma of whether it is attainable or not has been expressed in great works of philosophy and literature over the centuries; beginning with great positivity, utter impracticality through to ironic reality, down to pessimism and complete despair. This article goes through the development of the utopian concept from the ancient times to the modern world by briefly exploring Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, H.G Wells’ Men Like Gods, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Orwell’s 1984.

Plato’s Republic is one of the earliest and most significant visualisation of a utopia in the ancient world. As a philosopher, he dissected the inhabitants of his utopian state into three classes based on their mental cleverness. Philosophers like himself would be the ruling elite, those who are a degree less in intelligence would be trained on military tactics to become the army personnel of the state. Those at the bottom of the intelligence scale, in other words the majority, are deemed to be the workers of the state. The idea at a first glance may seem very naive, like many of Plato’s thoughts, but the significance of it originates from the fact that it is the earliest known philosophical attempt of establishing an ideal world based on intellect rather than oratory or wealth as was the case in ancient Greece. It is also an attempt by Plato to rid his society from an unworthy elite class as those who sentenced his teacher Socrates to death. Irony plays a big role here as it will with all the Utopian writings that will follow. First, Plato’s republic can’t be democratic, simply because the majority of the citizens do not have the right to rule, they can only choose between a very limited number of individuals which make up the philosopher-elite class to rule over them. Second, the naivety of the idea is the biggest proof that a philosopher is not always the best person to rule. Politics requires cunning, charisma and the ability to move the masses, and neither Plato nor Socrates, his father in philosophy, enjoyed any of these attributes.
Thomas More’s Utopia is a Renaissance attempt of reproducing the classical utopian ideal in a Christian form to suit the beliefs of the time. More dressed his ideal island state in a fictional gown, alluded to archangels, and monasterial life. He allowed religious freedom, but ironically not atheism. What counts for More though is the equality he allowed in his ideal society between men and women, and by banning private ownership and allowing only communal one, he provided a very early notion of socialism as a means of establishing a perfect society. More depicted a community based on belief in God which leads to an ultimate trust between the community members, but ironically his life ended by a death sentence decreed by his king and life time friend.

One of the most mature attempts of reproducing the concept of Utopia is Huxley’s Brave New World, but before discussing this magnificent book, another important novel has to be mentioned. It is believed that H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods is the father of Brave New World. Wells’ perfect parallel world is very beautiful indeed and the closest a human mind has got to a utopia. There human civilisation has reached the peak of scientific research and managed to get rid of disease for man, animal and plant. Wild animals like lions and tigers have been treated in a way so as to make them tame. Plants have been treated to yield more crops, even climate has been modified and controlled. Human beings have grown taller, healthier and more beautiful, but the same science that had allowed humans such luxuries would turn back on them. Through an experiment aimed at exploring other worlds, a gap gets opened onto the normal world and a group of imperfect human beings pass through to the perfect world by chance. They take with them earthly bacteria and disease to which the Utopian humans have lost immunity and people start to die. The group of humans manage their way back to the ordinary world in the end, but the reader is left to reflect on the vulnerability of this utopian world, and the concept of vulnerable beauty emerges unconsciously with the enigmatic end of the novel.
Huxley’s Brave New World establishes a more sophisticated world, as the title says it is brave and new, but unlike Wells’ world it is not beautiful. It is ugly, basely pragmatic and lacking in morality. In a way Brave New World marks the beginning of human despair in the concept of utopia. Written after WWI, by a writer who belongs to the so called lost generation, the book is a dystopia rather than a utopia. Like Plato, Huxley is obsessed with order. Society is divided according to intellect. Babies are grown in labs upon the demand of the state with certain levels of skill, cleverness and body size modified to suit the requirements of the role the individual is being created for. For example, alpha males are tall, broad and smart and so on. Like Plato also, ruling is exclusive to certain elitist individuals. Everything is censored in this world, and no depths of feelings are allowed, no literature, no art. Men and women are encouraged to have sex actively as a form of hedonistic escapism, and recommend sex mates to each other openly. Everybody is fed on pills that are an equivalent to alcohol to keep their minds at bay. Ironically enough, only a savage who got born outside this orderly and morally degraded society manages to see through the high tech of the brave world and hangs himself in the end in despair, disgusted with himself after being sucked into its lowly ways.

1984 is another dystopian production of the modern world, classed by many as the best of its kind. Written briefly after WWII, London was still being rebuilt, public morale was very low, and the status of the British Empire on the top of world countries rankings had been undermined, if not lost for good. New super powers were emerging, changing the political map of the world with treaties alliances and a looming cold war. In 1948, Orwell captured all that and took it a step further in his prophesying masterpiece 1984. He drew the world into three large countries who are constantly at war with eachother which required ceaseless manipulation of human and natural resources, continuous implementation of intelligence and censorship and complete suppression of individuality. In this dark world everybody is being watched, everybody has got his/her own function which he/she is required to fill by duty to the country and deny his/her own natural needs like freedom of thought and feeling. Any banned thoughts or feelings are met with ruthless punishments. Men and women only get intimate with each other upon orders by the state for the practical need of producing more man power. Winston, the main character in the novel who works as a history distorter for the party, eventually meets a girl and falls in love with her. Together they start a banned relationship, get caught, brain washed and tortured till they learn only to love the party and Big Brother. Again, the irony lies in the fact that true love did not survive, and only fed love through brain washing prevailed in the end.

Arriving at Orwell, humanity has gone a long way from the initial naivety of Plato’s utopia; through to Huxley’s sophistication, and ending by Orwell’s mature despair. Flawed human beings have always aspired for perfection, sought the possibility of it, and attempted imagining a world where it has been achieved, discovering in the end that utopia is a mirage: seen, sought, but has never existed and will never be.