The Canon. Utopian Thought in the Western World. By Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel

September 24, 2009

Frank Manuel was already a distinguished historian with several excellent books on Utopianism to his credit when, in 1979, he and his wife, Fritzie, published this magnum opus. More comprehensive, detailed and penetrating than any previous study of Utopianism, this engagingly written book quickly became - and remains - the starting point for all Utopian scholarship.

Utopian Thought lays out five principal themes. First, that Utopianism has flourished mainly in the West. For comparative purposes, the exclusion of non-Western Utopias is regrettable - and in the context of contemporary post-colonial studies would be unacceptable today. Second, that Utopianism has flourished only since Thomas More's Utopia of 1516. True, Utopian works even antedate Plato's The Republic, but that work, unlike Utopia, never established a tradition of Utopian thought and writing. Third, that Western Utopianism combines a Judaeo-Christian belief in a paradise in heaven or on Earth, to be brought about by God, with a secular Hellenic belief in an ideal city on Earth alone, to be effected by humans, often through technological advances. Fourth, that the greatest Utopias deserve serious attention as reflections not simply of the individuals and societies producing them but also of the "content of the dreams, manifest or hidden" of Western culture overall. Finally, that the ability to ponder serious alternatives to existing society is crucial for the West's survival.

The positive reception accorded Utopian Thought helped to legitimate the fledgeling field of Utopian studies, whose principal scholarly organisation had begun three years earlier. Like everyone else in Utopian studies, I could not write and teach without consulting this book. Although I lack any Utopian propensity, Utopian Thought helped me to appreciate a more positive image of a rich tradition that had been commonly associated with the nightmarish dystopias of Eugene Zamyatin's We (1920), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Equally importantly, the book demonstrated the intellectual poverty of contemporary pseudoscientific forecasters such as Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt. Their bestselling works were either simplistic extrapolations from the present to the future or ahistorical declarations of the alleged uniqueness of the present-day pace of change vis-a-vis the past. No less significant, Utopian Thought's brilliant analysis of Utopias of love and work by Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen deepened our understanding of the prospects for a fulfilling post-industrial society that was being proposed by thinkers as varied as Daniel Bell and Herbert Marcuse.

Utopian Thought, then, is a cultural touchstone, but not without flaws. Although it is wide-ranging, the book may be too inclusive. Thomas Hobbes and the Marquis de Sade, for instance, stretch the boundaries. Conversely, the book either ignores or dismisses such late 19th- and 20th-century avowed Utopians as William Dean Howells, Jack London, William Morris, H.G. Wells and Ernst Bloch. Finally, the Manuels' often penetrating psychological interpretation of Utopianism is inconsistent, treating it as variously infantile and mature, regressive and progressive. Some cynical readers have associated the book's periodic shoe fetish with Frank Manuel's own loss of a leg, but I decline to speculate.

Kierkegaard: An Introduction

By C. Stephen Evans. Cambridge University Press. 222pp, £45.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780521877039 and 700412. Published 9 April 2009

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