Social Poetry

Anthony Pagden

  • Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times by Krishan Kumar
    Blackwell, 506 pp, £24.50, January 1987, ISBN 0 631 14873 6
  • Lectures on Ideology and Utopia by Paul Ricoeur, edited by George Taylor
    Columbia, 353 pp, £21.90, December 1986, ISBN 0 231 06048 3
  • Visions of Harmony: A Study in 19th-Century Millenarianism by Anne Taylor
    Oxford, 285 pp, £25.00, February 1987, ISBN 0 19 211793 9

Prophetically, the Island of Utopia is set in or near the Americas – More, characteristically, forgot to ask exactly where. And it was in the Americas that the most extensive, long-lived, and most fantastical, utopian experiments were conducted. The New World’s open spaces provided a constant challenge to the quirkier side of the European social and moral imagination until the end of the 19th century. Most of the early settlers came in quest of some new life. Most wished to live out some version of the privileged worlds they had been denied access to in their home countries. But there were others who came with ambitions to fabricate wholly new worlds, cities on a hill, where life could be made better, happier or morally more complete. In the Catholic South such experiments were largely confined to various attempts to reconstruct the primitive apostolic Church. One Franciscan, with an annotated copy of More’s book in his habit, went so far as to take some at least of the ‘features in the Utopian commonwealth’ and test them out on the Indians of Michoacan. The famous Jesuit ‘reductions’ in Paraguay – the subject of The Mission and now, improbably, of a Jesuit comic-book – though far from traditionally utopian, operated with the same sense that out there in the tropical rain-forests man could retrace his steps and begin again. In the North, such utopian communities were private ventures: and they proliferated – Oneida, New Harmony, Equality, True Inspiration. There was even one called Utopia. ‘We are all a little wild here,’ Emerson wrote to Carlyle in 1840, ‘with numberless projects of social reform. Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket.’

Most ‘Utopias’, however, are not drafts of new communities but exercises in a particular kind of political theory. They are, as Paul Ricoeur says, ‘social poetry’, a poetry which, in the end, ‘may dissolve politics’. And like all poetry they reject precise literary definition. For the historian of political thought this poses quite serious definitional problems, problems which Krishan Kumar’s book does little to resolve. The Golden Age, the Land of Cokaygne, Joachimism, the Revelation of St John, the free-market economy, socialism and Marxism, democracy, America and the Soviet Union: these and more are all dragged into a history of what he calls ‘visions of ideal otherness’ which begins with Hesiod and ends sometime about now. Its great merit lies in the enormous range of its detail. Whatever the argument – and I remain unclear as to just what it is – the reader is bound to come away with a very strong sense of the depth and extension of the European social imagination. But a work which locates The City of God, Emile and Montaigne’s essay on cannibals within the same history is certain, sooner or later, to run into serious conceptual difficulties. Heuristic genealogies, educational programmes, sceptical observations on the ubiquity of natural law, economic theories or islands where nature provides for all that man needs, really do not belong in the same imaginative space as Utopia or Campanella’s City of the Sun. True, Kumar separates out some of the earlier instances of what he calls the ‘utopian conception’ into ‘pre-echoes’ or ‘prehistoric fragments’, but the distinction between this prehistory and his history is never very clear.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in