Wise and Unwise Utopias

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In this 1973 essay, Irving Kristol explains how modern progressive ideologies exhibit a “kind of madness, which we familiarly call ‘utopianism.’”

At the heart of any madness is a decisive disconnection from reality. In this case, the divorce occurs through a misunderstanding of the proper role of imagination.

In classical thought, utopias are the result of efforts to imagine what “the best of all possible societies” would look like.

I think Kristol errs in supposing that Plato would regard the regime depicted in his Republic as truly best if possible. As Thomas More makes quite clear in his Utopia, this sort of imaginary republic deliberately contains a mixture of wise and unwise features, which it is up to the reader to sort out for himself.

Kristol is entirely correct about the point of such exercises, however. By comparing and contrasting real and imaginary societies, the mind grows in wisdom and prudence. “Utopias existed to produce better political philosophers, not better politics.”

Indirectly, better political philosophers can also make for better politics. When the philosopher chooses to advise actual rulers, however, his goal is not (per impossible) to “realize” an “ideal” contained in the utopia he has imagined.

Rather, recognizing the practical impossibility of running a real society like an imaginary one, the philosophic statesman uses the intelligence he has honed in the imaginary realm to “prudently influence the politics of his time toward somewhat more humane ends.”

Modern philosophy, by recasting utopia as a plan to be actualized, suffuses modern society with “unreasonable expectations.”

When these expectations are disappointed, as they must always be, modern ideologues stand ready to persuade us that the solution is not to accept reality, but rather to surrender yet more of our liberties, even our very sanity, to their salvific schemes.

Kristol astutely observes that “20th century capitalism itself, in its heedless emphasis on economic growth and ever increasing prosperity, incites ever more unreasonable expectations,” and thereby fuels the fires of its ostensible opponent, socialism.

He finds greater wisdom in an older, “bourgeois” species of capitalism, which tempers the hope of material gain with the necessity of practicing “ordinary virtues,” understood not only as useful for securing worldly success, but as essential to “fulfill our potential as human beings.”

Could the “real antidote” to modern utopianism be a better understanding of its classical predecessor?

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