Thoughts on Utopia
Thoughts on Utopia
By Albert Jay Nock, February 1935, republished in Free Speech and Plain Language, 1938
THE first Utopian enterprise that I ever encountered was the one called the Kingdom of Heaven; such being, I suppose, the experience of many youngsters in my time, probably most of them. The project interested me mildly, although its specifications, as I remember, were rather vague. I never had them laid down to me in a dogmatic way, for the contemplation of heaven had no great part in the discipline of my bringing-up, and my information about it was got, for the most part, casually. My mother's family were chiefly responsible for this, as they had most to do with me in my early years. Originally they were French Protestants who had somehow managed to get out of Rochelle ahead of the sheriff in i688, and crossed to America. Three generations of them were on earth in my childhood; I am now, I think, the last survivor, or almost the last. I was acquainted with some eighteen or twenty out of the lot, and I remember them now as being, without a single exception, the most clear-minded, free-thinking people I ever knew; and at the same time, with all their force of intellect and force of character, they were also the most gentle-spirited. More than anything, I believe, it was their immense humour that kept them free from any taint of hardness, pettiness, intolerance; they all had the saving grace of humour in the utmost abundance, and apparently it enabled them to look objectively, disinterestedly, at every concern of human life, no matter how intimate. I remember well my grandfather's quizzical gaze at two of the younger girls who were breathlessly bustling over some festivity in the local church. "I declare, children," he said, "you seem to be serving God to-day as if the devil were in you." Deeply religious as my mother's people were, they were staunch individualists in religion as in everything' else; they were dead against authoritarianism, wherever found. They maintained the inalienable right of private judgment on all that goes on in the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth. They maintained it with the considerate tolerance becoming to a race of gentlefolk, but there was no doubt about their maintaining it. The old Creole gentleman in Cable's story brought their spirit before me very vividly when he said, "Remember, my boy, that none of your family line ever kept the laws of any government or creed."
Hence I can recall no pressure on me to take stock in the heavenly Utopia, or even any deliberate effort to make the prospect of going there especially attractive; so, naturally perhaps, I thought little about it. The essential feature of the heavenly society, as I understood it, was that everybody would be happy there; but as I thought myself quite happy where I was, this did not impress me particularly. As I remember, it was the geographical basis of heaven that most took my fancy. I had picked up the idea somewhere that this consisted mostly of gold and precious stones, which I thought would make a fine display, such as would be worth seeing. I also had a leaning towards the musical features of the celestial organization, for I had a great love of music and had been brought up amidst a most excellent practice of the art; with one exception, every member of my family on both sides was a good musician. I had no curiosity, however, concerning any other qualities or conditions of the heavenly life, and did not speculate about them.
Later, however, when I was sixteen or so, I began to be conscious of certain anomalies. I had always understood in a general way that to get into heaven one must be good. This seemed reasonable, and I was all for it; but now I began to see the need of a little more specific information about the nature of goodness. The entrance-requirements, as officially understood and accepted, seemed largely arbitrary, and for the most, part incompetent; and hence they were bound to result in discriminations that appeared to me unfair. My personal associations at the time sharpened my sense of this. The people in our little community who most interested me were those whom the religious element put down unqualifiedly as men of sin. They drank, and I am afraid they swore, and dark hints passed among the elect that, like the hero of Bret Harte's little tale, they "useter go round with permiscous wimin"; and it was accepted semper ubique et ab omnibus that if they did not repent
Circumstances put me close under the wing of these persons for some time; the point was that they saw in me a promising candidate for eminence in the realm of baseball, and were bent on developing my talents for the good of the local team, which, as bush-league teams went in those days, was a first-rate one. They were all much older than I; I suppose the difference averaged as much as ten years. They were bad men, so everybody said, yet the odd thing was that they were so unfailingly good to me; good, that is, even in the conventional sense. They watched over my manners, habits and morals with a much more lively and friendly concern than the elect displayed.
They cautioned me that liquor was a bad and dangerous thing, quite unnecessary; one got on much better without it; they themselves lifted in a little once in a while, but it was something I should leave strictly alone. Swearing was a low habit, nothing to be proud of, and while they themselves turned out some pretty artistic profanity on occasion, they did not want to hear any of it from me under any circumstances whatever. So it went, throughout all the categories of morals and manners; if I showed signs of going off the rails at any point of decent and gentlemanly behaviour, I heard about it on the spot. I will say for them that they were curiously careful, too, to give me as good an example as they could manage to improvise on short notice; when I was around they pretty well did their best to make a fair showing. I have always led a very temperate life, of ten bordering on the ascetic; and I mention this, not by way of putting on airs about it, for I have done it by pure choice and preference, but merely to show cause for my wondering, as I look back, how much of the credit for that preference
Among the elect, on the other hand, there were many who were thoroughly good, when measured by the criteria which my mother's family had set; these being the standards that I instinctively applied, and the only ones, really, that I knew and could use. The elect comprised others, however, for whose presence on the roster I could not account, except that they came up to a set of formal requirements which the scandalous and ungodly did not meet and seemed to make a point of not meeting.
There was, for example, Elder T., who earned his way by secular pursuits, some of which were said to be of a dubious nature, but carried on a collateral line of itinerant preaching in Baptist churches. He wore a gray goatee beard, shaped like a paintbrush; his eyes seemed faintly phosphorescent, like the eyes of a dead mackerel in the dark; and he had deep furrows down each side of his nose, which gave his face the fixed expression of one who smells a stench. Most people were against the Elder, freely saying that he was meaner than soapweed, and that they would not trust him alone in a room with a red-hot stove. Even apart from these little peculiarities, he was far from being what one would call a popular idol. I remember well the thick cloud of despondency that settled on the whole population when it was made known that what Mrs. Malaprop called "an unscrupulous Providence" had permitted the biggest maskalonge ever taken out of our favourite fishing-ground to be hooked by the Elder. Enraged eyewitnesses said that he was out only a few yards from shore in a very light canoe
A general view of the Elder, and of others whose case seemed as anomalous as his, made it dear to me that sheer goodness had less to do with getting one into the heavenly Utopia than one would think reasonable. It was not enough to be good; the main thing was to be good by prescription. The Elder, for instance, was sound in doctrine, he did not drink, swear or even smoke, never played cards, gambled, danced, never cast a desirous eye on any feminine charm. Hence he was certain of heaven; he could read his title clear. To me, however, the thought of prescription in any circumstances was utterly odious; and least of all could I reconcile it with the idea of any Utopia fit to live in. The men of sin did not employ prescription in their dealings with me, but always based their admonitions on grounds of reason; I could always see sense and wisdom in what they said. They did not tell me, for example, that swearing was by prescription sinful, and that it put one in jeopardy of hell; if they had, my instinct would have been to ask them how they knew that. On the contrary, they told me that it was a low, offensive sort of practice that one had best get on without; and my instinct was to agree at once.
Thus, as between the Elder and the men of sin, I perversely decided that if sense and reason played any part in the management of Utopia, I would cheerfully trade off his chances for theirs, at a ratio of sixteen to one. Stark prescription impressed me as likely to open the way for great numbers of people who were, in any other view, wholly ineligible. I did not wish to be like them, even for the sake of all the benefits that prescription could confer, and I plucked up courage finally to make up my mind that a society so heavily adulterated would be far from Utopian. Many years afterward I ran across something by the old Rhode Island Quaker, Thomas Robinson Hazard, in his delightful Jonnycake Papers, that reflected my youthful sentiments exactly. A robber named Mount had been hanged near Kingston, and as was more or less the fashion in those days when executions were public, the occasion gave rise to a sermon. Mr. Hazard says:
So far as I have learned, it may have been Elder Northup, or some other minister of one of the numerous out-branching sects of the Baptist persuasion, who performed the last sacred duties for Mount. The reverend gentleman's remarks on the occasion were generally held to be singularly appropriate and highly consolatory to the criminal, who, he declared, having repented and made a good confession before God's appointed minister, would doubtless be ushered into immediate glory as soon as the soul left the body; closing with a strong appeal to all present to go and do likewise with the sainted man about to suffer for Christ's sake and the good of his fellow-creatures, that they too might reap his reward, and like him, enter at once into the kingdom of heaven.
As the Elder closed his eloquent discourse, most, or all, present shed tears, excepting old Sim Hazard, who was heard to mutter to himself that if his "getting into heaven turned upon his becoming a damned thief, then they might set him down as one bound for hell."
The Utopian projects that came under my observation in later life were of a secular character; some of them had a religious flavouring or sugar-coating, but they were mostly mere naïve attempts at realizing an imaginary state of society on earth. About the time I have referred to, however, while I was still a lad, I ran across a curious group or sect of human-perfectibility people who, I suppose, might be said to have contemplated a sort of quietist Utopia. Their leader was an illiterate enthusiast, apparently quite innocent-minded and sincere. When in later life I read Turgeniev's little masterpiece called A Strange Story, it brought him back to mind. He did not exploit his followers or lay any kind of exactions on them, even though a few of them were pretty well-to-do. He pretended to be able to work miracles; people said, though I do not know how truly, that he had pretended to be able to walk on water, as Jesus did on the Sea of Galilee. Some of the boys heard of this and tossed him in the lake one day, which I remember thinking was rather a poor thing to do, since the man seemed never to have done anybody any actual harm. As I remember, he did not even proselytize; his disciples found their own way to him, and passed the word around among others.
His followers appeared to find their peculiar belief rather comforting. They were uneducated persons, weak-minded, and their simple creed suited them. They went a long step ahead of Rousseau, Condorcet, Price, Priestley
What chiefly struck me about these people was the sense of finality which their belief induced. They were perfect, so what more was there to do? Why read? Why think? Why do anything but the daily task whereby they lived? I never saw people more completely divested of any sense of responsibility to anybody, or for anything. This must have made more impression on me than I was aware of at the time, for always afterward my recollections of it came back promptly when I was considering the peculiarities of other persons engaged in the projection or promotion of Utopian ideas.
Presently I went to college, where I read Greek and Roman literature under the supervision of able and arbitrary persons who seemed to think that proficiency in this pursuit was the chief end of man. Here I encountered Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus, with its fine picture of the Utopia which that dignitary introduced into Sparta. This was no imaginary commonwealth like the one projected by Plato, which I had already put in good hard labour on examining, and which, if the truth must be told, I found a little dull, despite the fascinations of the pure Attic style. Plutarch's Utopia, on the contrary, purported to be historical; it was the real thing as it had actually existed, and I was prepared to respect it accordingly. I became convinced, however, that Plutarch was press-agenting Lycurgus a little too handsomely, and I presently discovered that authorities like Aristotle and Suidas bore out this notion. Nevertheless Plutarch's account was interesting, even if one took it subject to the regular discount, or a little better, and I therefore read it attentively.
Lycurgus established the New Deal in Sparta on the right idea; he believed in keeping his people poor, and his success seems to have been without precedent. He was the greatest leveler on record., Other rulers have managed to keep most of their people broke most of the time, but in Sparta everybody was broke all the time. Lycurgus did not need any Brain Trust to help him further this excellent enterprise; he was all the Brain Trust there was, and he was enough. He did not fiddle around at nicking partial values off the basic currency-unit; he devalued the whole currency right down to zero at one stroke, and substituted iron money so heavy that if by some miracle a Spartan accumulated a bank-roll of $165, he had to have a two-ox team to carry it around. Hence, obviously, Lycurgus had no trouble with predatory bankers; also he had no trouble about foreign exchange, for foreigners would not handle his money on any terms whatever, regarding it with what Homer finely calls "asbestos laughter," which perhaps might be construed to mean the horse-laugh.
As an exponent of collectivism, Lycurgus must have made Marx, Engels, Lenin, et al., look like bush-leaguers. With him the State was collectivist to a degree that made the individual's status determinable only by algebra. He had prescription down to what one might really call a fine point; and as for "social legislation," it seems to have been his specialty. Nobody could have any ornaments or even any clothes to speak of. Lycurgus believed in nudism on moral and social grounds as well at on hygienic grounds; Plutarch's observations on this point are worth the attention of those who are interested in such matters nowadays, as are also his observations on the arrangements instituted by Lycurgus for a sort of quasi-companionate or tandem marriage. Sumptuary laws extended even to haircutting; everyone had to have the same style of haircut. One could not wiggle out of compliance with Lycurgus's regulations by the aid of resourceful shysters; nor, on the other hand, did Lycurgus need a pliant contortionist judiciary to validate his incursions upon the liberties of the subject. The subject had no liberties, and there were neither lawyers nor lawsuits in Sparta
So this was Utopia! This was the sort of collective existence that Spartans were supposed to like and be proud of! Perhaps they did like it; they may have done so, though Plutarch does not say specifically that they did. Knowing, however, that in such cases there is no great chance for dissenting opinion to find its way into history, I suspected that there might have been some few who in the long run became a trifle bored by the conditions of life in Lycurgus's Utopia. At any rate, I was sure that if I had been offered a chance at the smooth-running perfections of his Utopian regime, I should have civilly desired to be excused.
One thing remained with me permanently from my perusal of Plutarch. I observed with particular interest his saying that the Spartan system was philosophically perfect; that is, the way Lycurgus ran things was precisely the way that philosophers would say they should be run. He remarks that while the laws of Lycurgus remained in force, "Sparta was not so much under the political regulations of a commonwealth, as under the strict rules of a philosophic life." This observation could not be read without certain misgivings of a very serious nature; but Plutarch goes even further. He says that Lycurgus "produced a most inimitable form of government; and by showing a whole cityful of philosophers he confounded those who imagine that the much-vaunted strictness of a philosophic life is impracticable." I perceived then that if Plutarch was right about this, I had laid up another valuable criterion for future use, in addition to those I had garnered from previous observation. I had already made up my mind that my first test of any proposed Utopia would be a measure of its attitude towards prescription, and my second would be a very close measure of the sort of people whom it qualified for membership. Now that Plutarch had given me a line of direction on the kind of thing one might expect from philosophers if they were given a free hand, my third care would be to see how many of these gentry were on the board of managers.
For many years after my dealings with Plutarch I did nothing with Utopias except by desultory reading. At one time or another I dipped into More, Bacon, Cabet, Campanella, and so on down to Edward Bellamy and Mr. H. G. Wells, but I was not much interested in any of their proposals. The application of my three tests immediately raised a thick mist of fictitiousness and improbability about them which hid their merits. Even the demi-semi-Utopian projects of social reform and improvement that were rife among us in my earlier years went hard aground on one or another of my three criteria, or pretty regularly on all three at once. How many, many, of these enterprises there were in those days, and how fearfully in earnest they all were!
I saw the Uplift in all its protean forms, I think, from the endowed foundation down to the college settlement. I witnessed the impassioned advocacy of the Square Deal, the initiative, referendum and recall, the direct primary, the Wisconsin Idea, proportional representation, arbitration treaties, the World Court, the League of Nations and the devil and all of other devices directed towards some kind of millennial outcome. I saw the crusades of Bryan, Coin Harvey, Coxey, and I have a vague recollection of the searchings of heart caused by Senator Peffer and the Populists; I even remember a couple of stanzas of newspaper-verse that dates from this last period
I am Peffer, Peffer, Peffer,
I am Peffer, Peffer, Peffer,
All these enterprises showed me plainly that the social and political reformer's main dependence is on prescription; it is the sinful Tammany ward-boss, whose knowledge of fundamental humanity is as "extensive and peculiar" as Sam Weller's knowledge of London, who does not employ it. Back in the days of Roosevelt the First and the Square Deal, I remember, when the forces of righteousness were on their way to Armageddon to fight the battle of the Lord in the hifalutinest, hymn-singingest political convention ever held in America, I worked out a bit of rough mathematics which showed that the ordinary citizen had something like seven times more margin of existence to dispose of as he pleased than he would have if the various proposals of the liberal and progressive reformers were carried into effect.
The only reformer abroad in the world in my time who interested me in the least was Henry George, because his project did not contemplate prescription, but, on the contrary, would reduce it almost to zero. He was the only one of the lot who believed in freedom, or (as far as I could see) had any approximation to an intelligent idea of what freedom is, and of the economic prerequisites to attaining it. At the end of his book called Progress and Poverty, a work on fundamental economics, he sketches out a prospectus that I suppose is detailed enough to give him a place in the goodly fellowship of Utopia-builders, and I dare say that in the course of a few thousand years, say thirty or forty, it might be realizable. Although my lifetime overlapped the latter part of his career, I was too young to take much note of what went on in public affairs, so I really knew nothing of him at first hand, and never even saw him. It now seems clear, however, that he regarded himself as primarily an evangelist or crusader for a cause, and by taking his doctrine into politics, and making alignments with disaffected groups representing other causes which were really alien to his, he brought his own cause into a disrepute from which it has never recovered. One is immensely tickled to see how things are coming out nowadays with reference to his doctrine, for George was in fact the best friend the capitalist ever had. He built up the most complete and absolutely impregnable defense of the rights of capital that was ever constructed, and if the capitalists of his day had had sense enough to dig in behind it, their successors would not now be squirming under the merciless exactions which collectivism is laying on them, and which George would have no scruples whatever about describing as sheer highwaymanry.
Now, finally, when I had thought I was quite done with Utopias and Utopians, I find myself once more taking up my old post of observer, and surveying the impressive programme of the New Deal, which leads, so we are told, straight onward to the proletarian goal of the More Abundant Life. I had already looked over some specifications of the proletarian Utopia; Shakespeare puts them into the mouth of Jack Cade as a bid for the suffrage of the many-headed. They are so well worth a thoughtful perusal at the present time that I venture to cite them.
Cade. Be brave then, for your captain is brave, and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny; the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops,1 and I will make it felony to drink small beer; all the realm shall be in common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass; and when I am king... there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.
-- II King Henry VI, Act iv, Scene ii
Applying my three tests to the New Deal's prospectus, one must see, I think, that it contemplates prescription carried to a degree that would win the admiring respect of Lycurgus himself. In the second place, if we are to be thus dragooned into the More Abundant Life, it strikes one as reasonable that one should ask for a much more prepossessing and much less disingenuous set of drill-sergeants, and also for a prospect of better company when we get there. When one thinks of even the most distant and formal association with Mr. Farley, Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. Tugwell, Mr. Ickes, Mr. Hopkins and their chief collaborators, the More Abundant Life seems hardly worth having at the price. In the third place, the scheme of the New Deal is said to have been worked out by philosophers; and after my vicarious experience with the architectonics of a philosopher's Utopia in Sparta and elsewhere, I for one would regard it a priori with the most profound distrust, and with no expectation whatever but that it would turn out much as it appears to be doing.
If, in fact, the More Abundant Life, or any other Utopian project, were realizable only under such guidance, by force of such associations, and on such philosophic principles, one is bound to question whether it would be worth the wholesale sacrifice of fundamental integrities that assent to these involves. One of the Church of England's really great prelates in the last century was Richard Whately, the redoubtable and uncompromising archbishop of Dublin. As things turned out, it seems strange that in his earlier days he collaborated with Newman on a textbook of logic; stranger still, perhaps, that he lent a hand with Heber at composing one of the very few English hymns that have any actual poetic quality. Whately had a Scots Calvinist servant-maid, with whom he used to amuse himself now and then by dragging her into argument about the probable number of the elect. He wound up one of these discussions, the last one they ever had, by telling her playfully that since she believed he was going to be damned anyway, the matter was hardly worth talking about. "Oh, no," she said, "indeed I believe nothing like that about your Grace. I firmly believe your Grace is going to be saved on account of your Grace's invincible ignorance." 2 It is said that the words were hardly out of her mouth before old Whately was jumping three feet high. He behaved in a most tremendous fashion for fully five minutes, staving around amidst the debris of his furniture, and declaring that he would rather his soul should be damned for ever and ever to thirty thousand wagonloads of black devils, than be saved on any such terms as those.
Even eternal salvation may conceivably come too high. It is conceivable also that national security and prosperity, even the continuance of a whole civilization, even a full realization of the More Abundant Life, might come too high. This thought occurred to me the other day when someone gave me to read a perfervid plea for the New Deal, by one of its principal fuglemen. A more disreputably disingenuous document I never saw; and I thought then that if the country had to be saved by such despicable misrepresentations of fact, it had far better be let go to the dogs in an honourable and self-respecting way. I handed the article back to my acquaintance, and said nothing; there was really nothing to say. The best I could do was to remind myself of the unhappy Frenchman who had to listen to some such outpouring of peculiarly odious nonsense. He must say something; he must also be polite; he was in an impasse. "Monsieur," he said, austerely, "je me permets d'invoquer l'auguste ombre du Général Cambronne."
When all comes to all, I am led to consider seriously, not whether this-or-that Utopia is practicable, but whether any Utopia is really desirable. Suppose a true Utopia could be worked out as a going concern, complete and perfect in every structural detail
Canis reversus et sus lota, says the Apostle, citing a proverb that was old when Jesus walked the earth; so old is this tendency in the disposition of mankind. I myself have known the Perfect Husband (yea, even, tell it not in Gath, have I known the Perfect Wife to do likewise)
It is this noble endowment which makes things look a little dark for the prospects of any Utopia that human ingenuity can devise. One gets a pretty good idea of how dark they do look by reading Mr. H. G. Wells's description of the Utopian hotel, where everything one may wish for comes to pass at the mere touch of a button, and where all is done by machinery. The reader may be his own judge. Let him peruse that description slowly, thoughtfully and with imagination
Climates of opinion, climates of thought, taste, even of habit, seem to produce an effect of intolerable monotony if one be exposed to them for any great length of time, without the occasional relief of what someone, I think it was William James, so well called a "moral holiday." Speaking of the weather in a certain region, Mark Twain says that after two or three months of supreme contentment with the unfailing brilliant sunshine and exquisite mild air, one longs to watch dense black clouds sweep overhead, to hear the rain and hail drive down, with the thunder rattling and the wind roaring, and see the lightning strike somebody. Perhaps the spirit of man is a four-seasonal affair, sometimes even thriving on a goodish stretch of "in-between"; and a four-seasonal Utopia is something that no one has as yet been able to contrive.
It may be thought
Perhaps this disposition has come about by the purely accidental interplay of blind and purposeless "natural causes," whatever those are; perhaps it may be satisfactorily interpreted in terms of more or less plausibly sublimated Kraft and Stoff, whatever those are. Any other line of interpretation is so much out of fashion just now that going back to Paley and the argument from design seems almost an impertinence; or going back to Goethe, who put it simply that "if God had wished me otherwise, He would have made me otherwise." Still, under the license so happily accorded to literature nowadays, no tabu is sacred, and no sensibilities are shielded from shock. I therefore take advantage of this license to suggest boldly that the reason why no Utopia can be permanently satisfying is that our adorable Creator, in His wisdom, and in His loving-kindness, and for purposes of His own devising, does not wish it to be so.
What those purposes are I do not know, and do not care to know. All that interests me, inasmuch as the Divine veto seems to be clamped down tight on all attempts to organize human society around the Utopian principle, is to discern, if I can, some other principle around which it might be organized to better purpose than its present organization manifests; and here, since I have already made the plunge into the unpopular terms of a decayed superstition, I shall continue to use those terms in discussing the only principle I have been able to hit on as possibly workable.
Whenever I survey a crowd of people, I am overpowered by a sense of the most prodigious, the most stupendous miracle that can conceivably be performed, even by omnipotence. What miracle can one imagine, comparable with the annual and regular turning-out of millions of human beings, guaranteed positively no two alike? I can think of none. By comparison with this, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, multiplying loaves and fishes, seem most insignificant. Well, but, here that miracle is, here those beings are, and their infinite variety suggests to me that their Creator is not working this continuous miracle merely to show what He can do when He tries, but that He has some pretty distinct idea in mind when He does it. The thing is, therefore, to hit on some principle of social organization that comes nearest to corresponding with the conditions which this miracle appears to impose.
The only principle I can think of as coming anywhere near filling this bill is one that we have never tried
Whether in small matters or in great, the thoroughgoing application of this principle is, in short, an affair of the spirit; and while this principle is no foundation for a Utopia or anything remotely resembling one, it would seem to offer better terms for the organization of human society
New York, February, 1935.
1 The ordinary drinking-mug or pot was of wood, with metal hoops which served as a sort of gauge of the contents. The reference to Cheapside seems to run parallel to the more modern notion of "making grass grow in Wall Street."
2 "A man is said to be in a state of invincible ignorance if... after reasonable effort he is unable to arrive at certain knowledge." Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. Hastings, vol. VII, p. 403.
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