From Fantasy to Feasibility; or, the Romance of the
Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel. Utopian Thought in the Western World. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard UP, 1979. 896 + vi p. $25.00.
The Manuels have written an interesting and impressive book, full of convincing
analyses of the lives of the writers they discuss, of sound textual interpretation, and of
useful historical insight. Personal and college libraries should certainly acquire it for
their collections; given these inflationary times, the price is right for this hefty and
handsome volume of almost 900 pages. It is an enjoyable book, written in a very fine and
sometimes elegant academic style, and it is a very good book; but, I'm afraid, it is
neither a magnificent one nor a definitive one nor, finally, a very important one. What
the Manuels do they do very well; and one can easily believe that they have been at this
project for more than 25 years, as they tell us in the first paragraph of their preface.
But they have in Utopian Thought in the Western World avoided defining their
subject matter, and at times only haphazardly followed through on their own framework of
"seven major utopian constellations," the structure which is meant to unify the
34 chapters and suggest "general lines of development" from Thomas More to the
present. To be sure, the Manuels' analyses of individual writers can be brilliant and
engrossing, and often sequences of three, four, or five chapters can be persuasive,
solidly and tightly written. But Utopian Thought in the Western World lacks an
idea (not that it does not abound in ideas large and small), a conception which will
provide a focus for all their meticulous scholarship, offer a viable approach to the mass
of materials which may be considered "utopian," and produce a book that is a
book, and not just a series of studies arranged in roughly chronological order. Moreover,
as I will argue, the Manuels ask some very interesting questions of their "great
utopians" but they do not ask the right ones of the subject matter.
Where do the Manuels go wrong? It is worth examining their approach, I believe, and
useful to suggest, as I will attempt to do later, how a critical approach to utopian
writing might be undertaken.
1. First, the reader of Utopian Thought in the Western World is never given a
definition of what constitutes a "utopia" or what makes thought
"utopian." To say that it is "that myth of heaven which lies at the heart
of utopian fantasy" (p. 1) which defines the following 814 pages of expository prose
is to define the subject matter so vaguely as not to define it at all. Alternatively, to
suppose that all "who have renewed the myth of paradise in a secular
translation" (Preface) are utopian thinkers is equally imprecise. Not all of the
writers considered here are fantasists; some are most certainly political theorists, some
ideologues, some philosophers of history. In a similarly evasive manner, the Manuels
abjure other distinctions, such as "the established oppositions between utopia and
ideology, utopianism and millenarianism, the utopian and the pastoral" (pp. 12-13).
Despite the historically conditioned nature of Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia (first
published in 1929), one of the enduring differences Mannheim points to is that which gives
his classic study its title: "utopias" are essentially fantasies, ideologies are
essentially about the solutions which are feasible. Secondly, Mannheim's taxonomy of
utopian thought--there are four basic types of utopia: chiliastic, liberal-humanitarian,
conservative, and socialist-communist--is at least a place to begin. Nowhere in Utopian
Thought will the reader find much of an attempt at any similar distinctions or
taxonomy. At times, the Manuels refer to the utopia which is a "speaking
picture" (Sir Philip Sidney's term for More's Utopia in his Defence of
Poesy) as opposed to the utopia which is an "action program" (the Manuels'
own term for practical suggestions for improved structures), but the difference
does not really mean much in their book. Similarly, they add "euchronia" and
"eupsychia" to "eutopia" as part of the necessary glossary for the
reader, but never do these terms result in useful distinctions for approaching the
contrasts within "utopian thought."
Without any workable definition, Utopian Thought in the Western World becomes
a somewhat eccentric selection of mostly European and a few American writers who have
published their thoughts, in a widely ranging number of generically disparate forms and
formats, about "what if" such-and-such were different in the future.
The vagueness of Utopian Thought about the nature of "utopian
thought" becomes fairly clear at the very outset. The Manuels posit something they
label a "utopian propensity":
The bypassing of a rigid definition may distress some philosophical intelligences who
demand that at the opening of an inquiry its terms be spelled out in contractual language;
but as the whole of this work is intended to endow the idea of utopia with historical
meaning, those looking for a dictionary label or a pat phrase had better try elsewhere.
Utopia acquires plural meanings in the course of our study, in which we presuppose the
existence of a utopian propensity in man as William James in his famous lectures assumed a
"religious propensity" while pointedly refusing to define religion. We aim to
communicate the diversity of experiences in which this propensity has manifested itself in
Western society. Experience here is a mental act that takes the form of speech. The
utopian propensity is no more equally distributed among men in all times and places than
the religious propensity, though it is doubtful whether anyone is totally devoid of it.
There may even be a utopian vocation. (p. 5)
While the reader may readily agree that there exists such a "propensity," he
may also wish to have it distinguished from other "propensities" which he would
probably also readily recognize: man's religious, aesthetic, moral, reproductive, and
nostalgic propensities, for example. To say, to put it very crudely, that man always
imagines images of the future to guide his approach to it would offer a starting point,
but the reader is not given even that much.
Here the Manuels miss a wonderful critical opportunity for defining the relationship of
the utopian and the religious propensities. In their analyses of most of the writers in
the Middle Ages through the 17th century, and even the 18th for the most part, they are
continually collapsing the utopian thought of their texts into the religious backgrounds
and hopes of those who produced superficially secular versions of a future paradise on
earth. Leibniz is, for the Manuels, motivated by the love of God. The Prior Anne Robert
Jacques Turgot, Baron de l'Aulne, is returned to the adventures of theodicy; the motive
for his theories of progress is reduced to the quotation from his discourse on universal
history: "The universe viewed in its totality, in the whole range of the
progressions, is a most glorious spectacle, witness to the wisdom which presides over
it" (p. 484). Even Rousseau is brought back to the fold in the Manuels' analysis of
his yearning to be "a citizen of the moi commun of a Heavenly Geneva" (p. 452).
In at least half of their book, therefore, the Manuels could very well regard
"utopian propensity" as a subspecies of the "religious propensity."
Apparently, the Manuels would rather keep this aspect of their subject matter--an
aspect which seems fertile ground for analysis--vague and mysterious:
The origin of the utopian propensity is, in an absolute sense, not knowable; its
application and incorporation in given utopian configurations or constellations are. These
become the main subject of our inquiry. Commentary upon them, with psychological knowlege
of persons and historical analysis of circumstances, constitutes the body of this
narrative. Historical analysis involves recognition of the persistence of symbolic and
residual utopian forms, as well as consciousness of the "hot" motivation
generated by immediate socioeconomic, political, or philosophicoreligious dissatisfaction
and anguish. (p. 13; it is revealing that the worst prose of the book occurs in the first
The Manuels proceed to follow this method faithfully, except for a few chapters in
which more than one thinker is discussed.
While I certainly do not wish to question the legitimacy of psychological and
historical analysis, their approach tends to isolate the thought and the thinker within a
biographical and historical frame, so that the chapters become portraits in a gallery,
discrete units, with often the most tenuous and fabricated relationship to a "major
utopian constellation." First, the reader is given an author's background, then the
psychology which emerges from the biography, then interpretation of the author's works in
general, and then commentary on a specific "utopian" text, which in turn is
related to the psychology and other writings. Each of these portraits, with a few
exceptions, does help the reader understand, and some of them are quite fascinating; but
the method is limiting and, worse than that, requires that the Manuels turn up a
psychological key to unlock every door, since they are assuming that all doors are locked.
The assumptions behind providing the reader with each utopian thinker's economic,
familial, and religious background, along with his sexual eccentricities or normalities,
are never really spelled out anywhere. No doubt, knowing that Restif de la Bretonne was a
shoe-fetishist and the son a of a peasant or that Condorcet spent his first eight years in
skirts and was therefore soft and servile in his "intimate relationships" (p.
488) yields some insight into their utopian thinking. The reader does need to know that
Auguste Comte at the age of 19 became Saint-Simon's secretary and "adopted son"
(p. 717); but should the student of utopian thought care that Comte, estranged from the
family of the woman whom he had fallen in love with and who was dying of tuberculosis,
bolted the door of her sickroom so that she "died in his presence alone" (p.
719)? While such biographical keys seem appropriate to the discussion of a "queer
duck" like Fourier, at other times they are definitely digressive, an obligation to
the intimate portrait.
What bothers me about such matters of psychoanalyzing biographies is the implicit
Freudian assumption that writers in their publications are unconsciously seeking the means
for satisfying the libido which are unavailable in reality. In his many remarks upon the
relation of art and neurosis, Freud found the wishful thinking of fantasy compensation for
reality's repressed or failed erotic and ambitious wishes. The Manuels leave the reader
with little doubt that they agree in almost every one of their psychological portraits.
Though it would be unfair to say that the Manuels ever use the biography exclusively to
"explain" the utopian thought, again the stress upon the individuality of their
authors separates the chapters rather than unifies their study. If these men were strongly
motivated to make over the future to fit their idiosyncrasies, this Freudian bias clashes
with the seriousness which the Manuels have devoted to their project. Again, their
utopians become portraits in a museum; perhaps it is my bias, but I would prefer more
emphasis upon what is still living in their writings. When the reader is told that
Saint-Just "is an interesting type case" (p. 564), he begins to wonder just what
sort of inquiry Utopian Thought is.
These little psychodramas abound, sometimes becoming wildly speculative. Babeuf's
revolutionary fervor, for example, is attributed to his rebellion against a father over 70
and to the continual humiliation his "tender soul" suffered in the houses of the
nobles who employed him as a feudiste (title searcher): "The final
wound," write the Manuels in explaining the birth of the Conspirator of the Equals,
"was perhaps inflicted by the tone of his employer's voice or the disdain in a
grimace" (p. 569).
Less irritating but equally problematic and certainly more crucial is the Manuels'
notion of major utopian constellations. These are formed by the common elements of utopian
thinking within "reasonably well marked timespace perimeters" (p. 13),
contemporaries having more resemblances than predecessors or descendants. Sometimes this
works out quite well--as we might expect it to: problems in the same century in the same
geographical area evoke related attempts at solution. However, if de Sade, Restif de la
Bretonne, Saint-Just, and Babeuf form a "constellation," the critical historian
of utopian thought must persuade the reader that they do, rather than merely group them
together, and convince him that these "four" form a major utopian
constellation. The section in which the Manuels' concept of a constellation works best
also demonstrates the weakness of their organization. Part III, "Flowering and Death
of the Christian Utopia," begins with a convincing chapter which identifies
"Pansophism," the dream of uniting religion and science within one order of
knowledge, as the common element shared by 17th-century utopians. The thesis stated
here--"The seventeenth-century utopian philosophers shared a presupposition that the
reorganization of knowledge was fundamental to the reform of society" (p. 213)--helps
the reader to understand the intellectual relationships among Bruno, Bacon, Campanella,
Andreae, Comenius, and Leibniz: each was in his own way attempting a utopian synthesis
"for the spiritual renovation of all mankind" (p. 288). But between Comenius and
Leibniz come intervening chapters on the English and French utopians. Although Hobbes
might be thought of with this group, the utopias of the Levellers, Diggers, and Fifth
Monarchists have nothing to do with pansophism,; they are legalistic, constitutional,
moral, religious, or millenarian. Vairasse's little-known History of the Sevarambians is
interested in the state's regulatory power to create a highly virtuous populace, and
Fenelon's Arcadian shepherds in Telemachus know nothing of the new science,
content as they are in their Greco-Roman pastoral simplicities. Once the Manuels return to
the theme of Pansophism in the following chapter on Leibniz, they become persuasive again,
though the preceding essays on the English Civil War and the enemies of Louis XIV still
seem interruptions, clusters of minor stars which do not belong to this major utopian
2. Since I have been in these pages so critical of the kinds of questions Utopian
Thought in the Western World asks and of the ways in which it structures its answers,
I should briefly suggest what I believe would be better ones. As a professor of
literature, my mode of discussion may seem somewhat slanted toward the genre of fiction we
call utopian, but by no means do I wish to exclude the philosophers of history who have
believed in the ideal of progress, the philosophical anthropologists who have discovered
the nature of human nature, the political theorists who have devised perfect states, the
religious prophets who have seen into the future, nor any others who have done their
utopian thinking in discursive prose. Because utopian thinking is primarily the
imagination of forms of social harmony or cultural unity which will permit the optimal
circumstances for the individual's pursuit of happiness or virtue or wealth or salvation
or whatever, both fictional and discursive utopias should be open to the kind of analysis
we apply to any work of imagination.
Although utopians have told of their travels to foreign lands and have tried to restore
the ideals of past cultures, Utopia is essentially the romance of the future, that always
present, uncharted territory of hope and fear, enormous possibility and limitless anxiety.
Because fictional utopias assume the task of mapping out this unexplored land (the
temporal translated into the spatial), they belong within the literary category of
romance, as also does their kin, SF; however, though they share many of the same narrative
characteristics with the stories of Chretien de Troyes, Edmund Spenser, Sir Walter Scott,
and Ursula Le Guin, utopian fictions have their own definite varieties of romance
conventions. The differences result from the likeness of purpose with the discursive
utopia: to present a convincing portrait of social harmony. If we use a simplistic chart
such as this:
Mode: Fiction Argument
Form: "Speaking Picture" "Action Program"
Genre: Fantasy Theory
Method: Satirical Inversion Critical analysis
Subject: Mythical places with
we may see that the two approaches to utopian thinking are not so far apart and that
each influences the other or, rather, that the translation of fiction into argument or
argument into fiction often requires little sleight of hand. Both modes of utopian
thinking must answer the same fundamental question: what is the nature of human nature?
The answers--often the hidden assumptions-- will provide the shape of the utopia; more
important perhaps for the historical analyst, they will shape the utopian dialectic of the
work, be it fiction or discourse.
The Manuels pay too little attention to such considerations, considerations which would
unify their studies. When they do--and it is rarely--they fail to exploit their
Were mankind aligned on opposite sides of the nature-nurture controversy, the utopians
among them would be found in the camp of the nurturists. Since the fifteenth century,
secular utopians have believed, almost without needing to make their views explicit, that
the environment in which children are reared and mature persons go about their business is
the major determinant in fashioning their character and subsequent pattern of conduct.
They may have differed about which aspects of the environment exerted the most potent
influence--was it the architecture of the city, the educational system, social and
political arrangements, the organization of work relations. the form of religious
worship?--but they would join in agreement on the power of human institutions to create
both good and evil. (p. 682)
Here is an important debate--between soft and hard primitivism, to use A.O. Lovejoy`s
terms--one largely initiated by 16th-century travellers' reports and one to which
Montaigne's Of Cannibals and Shakespeare's The Tempest are
"utopian" contributions. An even more fruitful dialectic for the study of
utopias lies within the "nurture" side of this debate. Is man essentially
destructive? Do his activities tend toward conflict--the acquisition of status, property,
pleasure, and inequality through violence of one sort or another? Given a "yes,"
the utopian model will be restrictive, social institutions performing the role of
eliminating aggression through control and restriction. Is man essentially cooperative? Do
his activities tend toward justice, equality, and other forms of creative sharing? Given a
"yes," the utopian model will be advisory and assertive, social institutions
making recommendations to promote man's creative tendencies and assisting him in carrying
them out. Of course, a few utopian thinkers follow either definition of human nature, and
therein lies the dialectical nature of utopian thought. One recurrent movement in the
utopian dialectic is from a restrictive to an advisory model. Man has to be educated in
his goals, wants, and needs; he has to be retrained in what to desire.
This need not take the extreme form of behavioral engineering and the types of
conditioning advocated by B.F. Skinner; it is clear enough in More's Utopia.
Another possibility is the division of society into a governing class and a labor class.
This need not take the form of guardianship as in Plato's Republic; it may result
in the benevolent amelioration of work conditions: shorter hours, mechanizations and
computerizations, Muzak, and non-toxic workplaces. Yet it should be no surprise that most
dystopias posit a society built on just such a division. Again, such a realization should
lead us to see neither blueprints for reform nor more equitable distributions of goods as
the basic subject of the utopian dialectic. Utopias teach man what to desire, what
pleasures to yearn for, what goals are the best possible; the creation of the best
possible world provides the encouragement for dreaming such desires possible of
If the discussion of a utopian dialectic is necessary, so too is the outline of a
utopian logic. The utopian thinker recognizes one or two fundamental aspects of human
nature as responsible for the ills of society and sets about creating social frameworks to
discourage or eliminate those tendencies. Thomas More saw pride as the root of all evils,
and with this assumption his utopia becomes committed to certain strategies of fiction.
All emblems of pride must disappear: jewels, houses, money, dress, and all other elements
of personal property, including most of those socially conferred: rank, title, and so on.
The specifics of the work obey the logic consistently; granted More's assumptions, the
frequent comparison among critics between Utopia and a monastery is hardly surprising.
Second, the logic of utopian thinking calls for an encyclopedic method. If the utopia
is to be an anatomy of a better society, all institutions which are crucial must be at
least sketched, and the controlling "root of all evils" eliminated in their
re-creation. In utopian fictions, because of the encyclopedic survey, most of the
"characters" are types of social occupations. If they are not abstract and
one-dimensional, they generally fall into two categories: the committed raisonneur
and the naive listener to whom the former does his explaining. Similarly, because the
utopia has resolved all conflicts, there exists little drama except in the intellectual
process of discovery by the newcomer.
Third--and this applies to fictional and discursive utopias as well-- utopian thinking
involves the transformation or transvaluation of images, conventions and customs. This
transformation is often implicit in the Manuels' analyses but the reader must see it
between the lines. For example, Condorcet explains the aberrations of human history by
concluding that what seems evil is good in the long run; the belief in
"progress" has replaced the belief in God, and irony replaces providence as a
mode of explanation. The principle of transformation is clear also in Turgot's belief that
"the battle between the spirit of novelty and the spirit of routine, between the
desire for movement and the tendency toward quiescence, was the underlying conflict of
human destiny, a new philosophical version of the religious war between good and
evil" (p. 464). Such changes in the terms of explanation without substantial changes
in the structure of explanation are typical, I believe, of utopian thinking; at least,
this type of consideration would provide questions we could ask of all utopian thinkers.
The transformation of imagery in utopian thought has been examined recently by Melvin
Lasky in his Utopia and Revolution; there he has shown the limitedness of the
utopian and revolutionary vocabulary of images and rhetorics. I might add that the utopian
logic I have been describing works as well in anti-utopias and dystopias. Usually, the
dystopia begins with the description of a false utopia in which these three
conditions--the elimination of aggression through the eradication of the "root of all
evil," the encyclopedic anatomy, and the transvaluation and transformation of images
and conventions--have been met. The dystopian then proceeds to unravel this placid harmony
by introducing an element of conflict which destroys the entire structure; the logic fans
apart. These too are romances; if they seem more realistic, it is because they attack the
romance conventions of the straight utopias.
3. What motivates the maker of utopia? How do we evaluate a utopia? What social
function does it fulfill?
Aristotle writes in Book VII of the Politics: "Before we can undertake
properly the investigation of our next theme--the nature of an ideal constitution--it is
necessary for us first to determine the nature of the most desirable way of life. As long
as that is obscure, the nature of the ideal constitution must also remain obscure"
(1323al4; Barker's translation). Utopia-making involves more than the array of various
arrangements of political institutions and distributions of public offices. Creating the
best state depends upon creating in man the desire for the best way of life. It should be
no surprise that education is most often the central institution in the utopian society.
Only superficially is the utopian motive to draw a definite blueprint for the future.
Utopias educate their readers' imaginations.
The motive for utopian thinking implies reexamining how utopias are evaluated. If we
judge the utopia by criteria of feasibility, in terms of viable social reform, we shall
badly misinterpret the work; if we judge it according to stylistic yardsticks, in terms of
its narrative interest and vitality as prose, and even if we evaluate it in terms of its
logical consistency, we may only see a part of its social and psychological energy. The
best utopias radically alter personal and social conceptions and perspectives, and,
historically, utopias have often had an impact upon a far greater number of readers than
later historians of literature and political thought think reasonable; for example, the
influence of Harrington's Oceana and Bellamy's Looking Backward seems
far beyond their intellectual or literary merit. The "life" of the utopia often
is more historically meaningful than its ideas themselves.
Utopian thinkers also have defined and sometimes introduced the terms of political
debate which in turn have influenced other forms of discourse, and this contribution makes
any survey of utopian thought very difficult. Aldous Huxley's response to H.G. Wells's SF
and George Orwell's response to Huxley's Brave New World in 1984
can represent a large part of the utopia/anti-utopia debate within five decades or more of
political thought. Similarly, part of the "constellation" of 20th-century
utopian thought must be the perversions of utopian thought in the very real world of
action: the programs of Mussolini and Hitler, for example. The Manuels totally neglect the
ugly face of utopia. Significantly, such experiments are formally identical to other
utopias: the citizenry is "educated" in the superiority of one way of life, of
the state's institutions, of its national mission. Together with other modern instances,
China and Cuba, for example, these recent experiences have generated a fear of utopia
among many, and this marks a radical change in one's attitude toward the social function
of utopian thinking.
On the other hand, sometimes an entire period may be characterized as
"utopian," at least in one of its dominant perspectives. Besides the
philosophers of civic humanism and architects of ideal cities, discussed by the Manuels,
many other Renaissance thinkers were involved in the utopianism of the renovatio mundi:
Calvin's regulations for Geneva, Erasmian reforms in England and elsewhere, the
educational programs of the Humanists, the elegant courtesy of Castiliogne's Urbino, the
pastoral comedies of Tasso and Shakespeare, the virtuous "cannibals" of
Montaigne, and so on. These Renaissance thinkers were concerned with the best way of life,
with the future, or with social improvement and harmony, or with all three. That these
efforts did not always take the "form" of utopias should not diminish their
contributions to the underlying debate about human nature and should once again suggest
the necessity of defining "utopian thought."
The importance of these larger historical contexts lies in the utopia's tackling the
issues, the debate, head-on. In turn, the direct encounter of the nature of human nature
defines utopian thought and the utopian motive, for though a "romance of the
future," that future is one immanent in the present, a future available to man, given
his willingness to embrace the "best way of life." We must not be confused by
the various means provided--equality through law, the ideal constitution, the elimination
of poverty, the advancement of science, the free play of sexual desire, the restriction of
technology, or whatever--nor by the social systems imagined to create those means or
promote and accelerate the existing machinery of those means. The utopia-makers themselves
are often guilty of confusing ends and means, prompting one popular definition of
"utopia" as an unrealizable fantasy and diluting the utopian motive with
personal and ideological ones. To analyze such confusions seems an important task for the
historian of utopian thought.
4. Unfortunately, most utopias fail to stir the imaginations of 20th-century readers
and failed even to stir those of their contemporaries. Of the 17th-century pamphleteers,
the Manuels write: "Most of the verbal energies were spent in disputing present
horrors and foretelling the vengeance of the Lord. By the time the utopia proper was
reached, the vital spirits were exhausted, invention was drained, and the prospect was
flat and dry. Of course, the same charge may be made against virtually all
utopias...." (pp. 3442). When the prospect is less commonplace and more scenic,
utopias achieve their ends: the education of the readers' imagination of alternate
futures, of hope, of change for the better if not the best. Even the flat and dry has its
rewards, if only to remind us of the seriousness and urgency of the utopian endeavor.
Undertaking its history must, in my opinion, involve some sort of structural or
theoretical attempt to define "utopian thinking" and to distinguish it from
other forms of thought. Perhaps only then may we discover its vitality for our own time.
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