Utterances on utopianism

December 24, 1999

The form of debate used by the Enlightenment that seems most remote from us, namely utopianism, in fact, has a great deal to offer in the post-millennium era. How were scientific and technological advances to be brought into the context of government? As an industrial revolution led to increased wealth, people feared they would lose their real selves in a sea of inauthentic desires for the goods that industrialisation made newly abundant. They worried about how to produce a political society that was commensurate with, yet not part of, the new industrial society.

This was a period of great change. Was this inexorable or could it be controlled? Utopian writing presented ideas, in fictional form, too radical for normal political discourse. In Gulliver's Travels (1719), Jonathan Swift satirised scientists, inventors and rational moralists. In 1752, David Hume wrote The Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth. As the century drew on, utopian readings of Robinson Crusoe became more common and resulted in a whole genre of Crusoe-style works appearing in many European literatures.

After 1769, discoveries in the Pacific of islands such as Tahiti led to the diffusion in Europe of utopian ideas of island life. Travel writers such as John Hawksworth portrayed the islands as earthly paradises, while Tahitians visited Paris and London. Thought to be simple, noble and innocent, they were greatly admired. All this was based on a complete misreading of their society by the Europeans, but for a short time it fostered the idea that a real utopia on this earth had been discovered.

America too acted as a utopian idea. With the frontier wide open, it seemed possible to found a utopian colony there. The founding fathers gave America a constitution unlike any other, the Declaration of Independence opening with a utopian hope for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, when these ideas were taken up by the French Revolution, the desire to create of a republic of virtue held by Robespierre and his Jacobins led to a regime of terror.

The concern for moral values reflected in utopian thought remains current today.

Dorinda Outram is Clark professor of history, University of Rochester.

Interview by Kathryn Jackson.

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