Utopian Commonplace Book

by John Holbo on October 18, 2017

Per my previous post, I’m thinking about utopia/dystopia. Do you have any fun quotes from philosophers or poets? Here are a few:

We have thus learnt to recognize in the State the means by which egoism, endowed with the faculty of reason, seeks to avoid its own evil consequences that turn against itself; and then each promotes the well-being of all, because he sees his own well-being bound up therewith. If the State attained its end completely, then, since it is able to make the rest of nature more and more serviceable by the human forces, united in it, something approaching a Utopia might finally be brought about to some extent by the removal of all kinds of evil. But up to now the State has always remained very far from this goal; and even with its attainment, innumerable evils, absolutely essential to life, would still always keep it in suffering. Finally, even if all these evils were removed, boredom would at once occupy the place vacated by the other evils. Moreover, even the dissension and discord of individuals can never be wholly eliminated by the State, for they irritate and annoy in trifles where they are prohibited in great things. Finally, Eris, happily expelled from within, at last turns outwards; as the conflict of individuals, she is banished by the institution of the State, but she enters again from without as war between nations, and demands in bulk and all at once, accumulated debt, the bloody sacrifices that singly had been withheld from her by wise precaution. Even supposing all this were finally overcome and removed by prudence based on the experience of thousands of years, the result in the end would be the actual over-population of the whole planet, the terrible evil of which only a bold imagination can conjure up in the mind.

– Schopenhauer, The World As Will and Representation, Vol 2

I know not what the younger dreams —
Some vague Utopia — and she seems,
When withered old and skeleton-gaunt,
An image of such politics.

William Butler Yeats

[Dickens] knew well that the greatest happiness that has been known since Eden is the happiness of the unhappy. So far he is admirable. And as long as he was describing the ecstasy of the poor, the borderland between pain and pleasure, he was at his highest. Nothing that has ever been written about human delights, no Earthly Paradise, no Utopia has ever come so near the quick nerve of happiness as his descriptions of the rare extravagances of the poor; such an admirable description, for instance, as that of Kit Nubbles taking his family to the theatre. For he seizes on the real source of the whole pleasure; a holy fear. Kit tells the waiter to bring the beer. And the waiter, instead of saying, “Did you address that language to me,” said, “Pot of beer, sir; yes, sir.” That internal and quivering humility of Kit is the only way to enjoy life or banquets; and the fear of the waiter is the beginning of dining. People in this mood “take their pleasures sadly”; which is the only way of taking them at all.

– G. K. Chesterton [really there are too many Chesterton quotes to pick from. He loves Utopia, or at least ‘Utopia’.]

The Cause of “Altruism.” — Men have on the whole spoken of love with so much emphasis and adoration because they have hitherto always had so little of it, and have never yet been satiated with this food: in this way it became their ambrosia. If a poet wished to show universal benevolence in the image of a Utopia, he would certainly have to  describe an agonising and ridiculous state of things, the like of which was never seen on earth, — every one would be surrounded, importuned, and sighed for, not as at present, by one lover, but by thousands, by everybody indeed, as the result of an irresistible craving which would then be as vehemently insulted and cursed as selfishness has been by men of past ages. The poets of this new condition of things, if they had sufficient leisure to write, would be dreaming of nothing but the blissful and loveless past, the divine selfishness of yore, and the wonderful possibilities in former times of remaining alone, not being run after by one’s friends, and of even being hated and despised — or any other odious expressions which the beautiful animal world in which we live chooses to coin.

– F. Nietzsche, Daybreak

The seventeenth century suffers from humanity as from a host of contradictions (“l’amas de contradictions” that we are ); it endeavour’s to discover man, to co-ordinate him, to excavate him: whereas the eighteenth century tries to forget what is known of man’s nature, in order to adapt him to its Utopia. “Superficial, soft, humane” — gushes over “humanity.”

– F. Nietzsche, The Will To Power




Adam Roberts 10.18.17 at 3:11 pm

In a couple of essays and the odd poem, W.H. Auden makes the point that you have four modernist world views: one Auden called New Jerusalem. New Jerusalem is the technological super city where everything is bright and shiny and clean, and all problems have been solved by the beneficent application of science. The underside of New Jerusalem is Brave New World. That’s the city where everything is regimented and standardized and we all wear the same uniform. The two may just be the same thing, looked at from different angles. It’s not so much a real difference in the cities themselves as it is a temperamental difference in the observers. In the same way, Auden pointed out, you have a rural counterpart to this pairing. There are people who see rural life as what Auden called Arcadia. Arcadia is that wonderful place where everyone eats natural foods and no machine larger than one person can fix in an hour is allowed in. Throughout Arcadia the breezes blow, the rains are gentle, the birds sing, and the brooks gurgle. But the underside of Arcadia is the Land of the Flies. In the Land of the Flies, fire and flood and earthquake—as well as famine and disease—are always shattering the quality of life. And if they don’t shatter it, then the horrors of war are always in wait just over the hill to transform the village into a cess ridden, crowded, pestilential medieval fortress town under siege.

But once again, Auden points out, fundamentally we have a temperamental split here. Those people who are attracted to New Jerusalem will always see rural life as the Land of the Flies, at least potentially. Those people who are attracted to Arcadia will always see urban life as some form of Brave New World.
— Samuel R. Delany


Trader Joe 10.18.17 at 3:39 pm

“Human beings will be happier – not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my utopia.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Sounds like he’d have gotten along just fine in the Shire.


Tyrone Slothrop 10.18.17 at 5:54 pm

There is utopia and utopia. The kind imposed by an elite in the name of a historical imperative—that utopia is hell. It must lead to terror and then, terror exhausted, to cynicism and torpor. But surely there is another utopia. It cannot be willed either into existence or out of sight, it speaks for our sense of what may yet be.
— Irving Howe


Raven Onthill 10.18.17 at 6:16 pm

James Blish commented multiple time in slightly different language (I cannot find an exact quote, alas) that every fictional utopia he had encountered seemed to him a description of hell. In The Day After Judgement (reprinted as the second half of The Devil’s Day, he sends his character to actual hell, and before they see Dante’s hell, they see a modernist utopia, a perfect passionless place where “there were no children, and no animals.”


Mario 10.18.17 at 6:54 pm

By far the best known modern Utopias are those of H. G. Wells. Wells’s vision of the future is almost fully expressed in two books written in the early Twenties, The Dream and Men Like Gods. Here you have a picture of the world as Wells would like to see it or thinks he would like to see it. It is a world whose keynotes are enlightened hedonism and scientific curiosity. All the evils and miseries we now suffer from have vanished. Ignorance, war, poverty, dirt, disease, frustration, hunger, fear, overwork, superstition all vanished. So expressed, it is impossible to deny that that is the kind of world we all hope for. We all want to abolish the things Wells wants to abolish. But is there anyone who actually wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia? On the contrary, not to live in a world like that, not to wake up in a hygenic garden suburb infested by naked schoolmarms, has actually become a conscious political motive. A book like Brave New World is an expression of the actual fear that modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which it is within his power to create. A Catholic writer said recently that Utopias are now technically feasible and that in consequence how to avoid Utopia had become a serious problem. We cannot write this off as merely a silly remark. For one of the sources of the Fascist movement is the desire to avoid a too-rational and too-comfortable world.


Dickens can describe a poverty-stricken family tucking into a roast goose, and can make them appear happy; on the other hand, the inhabitants of perfect universes seem to have no spontaneous gaiety and are usually somewhat repulsive into the bargain.

Orwell, in Why Socialists Don’t Believe In Fun. I like the whole piece a lot. The title is clickbait from before there were clicks.


bob mcmanus 10.18.17 at 7:49 pm

Utopia thus now better expresses our relationship to a genuinely political
future than any current program of action, where we are for the moment only
at the stage of massive protests and demonstrations, without any conception
of how a globalized transformation might then proceed. But at this same time,
Utopia also serves a vital political function today which goes well beyond mere
ideological expression or replication. The formal flaw – how to articulate the
Utopian break in such a way that it is transformed into a practical-political
transition – now becomes a rhetorical and political strength – in that it forces
us precisely to concentrate on the break itself: a meditation on the impossible,
on the unrealizable in its own right. This is very far from a liberal capitulation
to the necessity of capitalism, however; it is quite the opposite, a rattling of
the bars and an intense spiritual concentration and preparation for another
stage which has not yet arrived.
–Fredric Jameson


Jake Gibson 10.18.17 at 10:58 pm

I suppose I am too pessimistic to
believe in Utopia. Instead, I am anti-dystopian. Any Utopia will be a Dystopia
for some. It seems to that some on the right
are actively dystopian.
The piece by Orwell was interesting and reminds me of the many similarities of the
Soviets and religious fundamentalists.
They share a puritanical view of social behavior as well as rigid authoritarianism.
For one, the state is the ultimate authority.
For the other it is the unchanging, unbending deity.


alfredlordbleep 10.18.17 at 11:59 pm

Perhaps the most vital bit of writing on this subject is the famous passage in which Tertullian explains that one of the chief joys of Heaven is watching the tortures of the damned.—G Orwell [see link @5]


lampoon 10.19.17 at 12:11 am

[O]ne of my convictions is that some moral, social and political values conflict. I cannot conceive of any world in which certain values can be reconciled. I believe, in other words, that some of the ultimate values by which men live cannot be reconciled or combined, not just for practical reasons, but in principle, conceptually. Nobody can be both a careful planner and, at the same time, wholly spontaneous. You cannot combine full liberty with full equality – full liberty for the wolves cannot be combined with full liberty for the sheep. Justice and mercy, knowledge and happiness can collide. If that is true, then the idea of a perfect solution of human problems – of how to live – cannot be coherently conceived. It is not that such a perfect harmony cannot be created because of practical difficulties: the very idea of it is conceptually incoherent. Utopian solutions are in principle incoherent and unimaginable. Such solutions want to combine the uncombinable. Certain human values cannot be combined, because they are incompatible with one another; so there have to be choices. Choices can be very painful. If you choose A, you are distressed to lose B. There is no avoiding choices between ultimate human values, ends in themselves. Choices can be agonizing, but unavoidable in any world we can conceive of. Incompatible values remain incompatible in them all. All we can do is to protect choices from being too agonizing, and that means that what we need is a system which permits pursuit of several values, so that, so far as possible, there arises no situation which makes men do something which is contrary to their deepest moral convictions. In a liberal society of a pluralist kind there is no avoiding compromises; they are bound to be made: the very worst can be averted by trade-offs. So much for this, so much for that. How much equality, how much liberty? How much justice, how much mercy? How much kindness, how much truth? Knowledge and happiness cannot always be combined. A man who discovers he has cancer is not made happy by his knowledge. This means the idea of some ultimate solution of all our problems is incoherent. Those who believe in the possibility of a perfect world are bound to think that no sacrifice for that can be too great. For attaining perfection no price can be too high. They believe that if blood must be shed to create an ideal society, let it be shed, no matter whose or how much. You have to break eggs to make this supreme omelette. But once people get into the habit of breaking eggs, they don’t stop – the eggs are broken but the omelette is not made. All fanatical belief in the possibility of a final solution, reached no matter how, cannot but lead to suffering, misery, blood, terrible oppression.
Isaiah Berlin, from Conversations with Isaiah Berlin by Ramin Jahanbegloo


MFB 10.19.17 at 7:42 am

Apropos dystopia/utopia, I rather admire Auden’s remarks on the subject in “The Shield of Achilles” (quoting from memory here):

Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as blank and level as the place
No-one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.


Jim Harrison 10.19.17 at 5:52 pm

I’m reminded of how people say “I wouldn’t want to be immortal.” Immortality, however, is not on offer. Neither is utopia or cloud cuckoo land. The genuine awfulness of some proposed utopias is part of what lies behind the bad general reputation of utopias, but I think a lot to it is sour grapes. If we’re ever going to have an empirical test of the advantages of immortality, I for one will bravely volunteer to take the serum. Same goes for a trial of a world where all is Luxe, Calme, et Volupte.


Stephen 10.19.17 at 7:03 pm

There is no theory so obviously daft that it has not been proposed by some academic or other. Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Divinatione, 44 BC


Gabriel 10.19.17 at 9:50 pm


Very interesting, but if the last fifty years has taught us anything, it’s that New Jerusalem has it’s share of war, and the natural disasters, instead of threatening a village, threaten the world, eh?


bad Jim 10.20.17 at 7:45 am

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all happy families are happy in their own way. Two weeks ago half the family invaded my capacious bachelor estate. The kids know by now the toys are in the old cupboard, and they ran riot all around the yard. I have issues with my eldest nephew, my sister in law has issues with her eldest stepdaughter, whose brother stopped by en route from Colombia to Hong Kong, and sister’s just back from Brussels. My brother the grandfather joined us on Facetime from Hawaii.

It’s just another birthday party for us, but from the perspective of a previous century these goings on are practically miraculous. It’s silly to think of utopia as an end state; I spent much of the next day cleaning up.


floopmeister 10.20.17 at 11:46 pm

Utopia = no place.

More nailed it when he invented the word in the first place.


JAFD 10.21.17 at 10:58 pm

Possibly apropos:

From Eric Berne, _Sex in Human Loving_, © 1970, p. 187 (1971 paperback edition), “Sex and Ethics” section

“Somewhere there has to be a simple and sensible system of values, and I propose one that is not only simple, but that I think makes some sort of sense. Furthermore, it can be judged from one set of pretty reliable figures, so that different countries can be compared and barroom arguments settled with a wet thumb in the right book. It is based on the single idea that if anything in life is significant and worthwhile, it is the love between mother and child. It assumes that mothers (and fathers and uncles and grandparents too) want their babies to live. Although this is not always so, it is as hard a fact as anything that can be said about human desires. The proposed ethical system is therefore based on one item which comes out of that. Here is my proposition. The goodness or badness of any society shall henceforth be judged by its infant mortality rate. If that is low, the society is good; if it is high, the society is bad. In between there are gray areas for those who don’t like black and white. (The infant mortality rate is the number of deaths of children under one year per 1,000 live births.) This mortality rate is really a matter of national management and is decided by the prejudices of each government and where it puts its money…

We consider the total infant mortality rate from all causes (disease, starvation, ignorance, and murder, whether in peace or war) in all the territories controlled by a government…

By using this approach, all problems of sexual ethics can be solved by asking only one question: which decision will result in fewer deaths among babies born alive ? It is not a question of making babies; almost anybody can do that. The real test is to keep them going after their first cry, and that takes careful thought, good governing, and decent concern for things that count…”


Bill Benzon 10.22.17 at 1:45 pm

Some years ago, back at The Valve, Adam Roberts and I had an interesting conversation about King Solomon’s Mines as a Utopia. As Adam quipped, “…what happened to ‘utopia’ in the twentieth-century: it went to New Zealand.”


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