Yearning for Utopia

Looking at the triptych painting where Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) depicts the Garden of Eden, we see “Utopia” as he imagined and painted it. In the Bosch painting he wants us to see perfection. There is no Other—no threatening people, the animals are all co-existing peacefully and nature is beautiful and benign—paradise. There has been no shattering of Oneness, no “splits” between nature and the human species, no hostilities among tribes or clans and we can presume no splits in the levels of human awareness, i.e. no personal consciousness, no personal unconscious, no collective unconscious, no shadow or, in short, no Paradigm-B and no false self and no suffering. How nice! No wonder we are all yearning for utopia.

But problems immediately arise when we look inside the human mind that yearns for and has been searching for utopia ever since The Fall. First of all, do we even know what it is? Secondly, is it even attainable and if so, how do we find it or create it? We should be grateful that all of these questions and more have been answered by the most insightful people throughout our history on this planet. You are probably surprised to hear this but it’s true so let’s start at the beginning.

Eden, of course, is a mythical metaphor and The Fall has nothing to do with religion. Profoundly understood, The Fall symbolizes humanity’s “fall” into unconsciousness, our containment in a narrative wherein we are unable to distinguish reality from illusion. So we began our search for utopia as sleepwalkers—decidedly not a good omen.

Even today we have made basically no progress in our search. For starters we don’t even know how to define utopia. As we shall see historically our attempts at creating utopia have focused on its being an ideally perfect place—socially and politically—a fatal limitation. Even the dictionary says that it is an impractical, idealistic concept for social and political reform. And finally, most of us have even given up the search altogether concluding that although utopias theoretically are excellent and ideal, they exist only in visionary and impractical thought and theory. Most of us would agree with that and we would be wrong because we are too timid and unimaginative and, of course, too non compos mentis.

And yet, we yearn for the experience depicted by another painting familiar to most of us, the Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks (1826), in which “the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid … and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” The timid await death and divine intervention for the Messianic Kingdom but some of us continue to believe in utopia as a possibility, a real-time, present moment Shangri-La just over the horizon—we believe in our own divinity.

“Yet in their own way the utopians were prophets in the sense of predicting the future, and also prophets in the sense of castigating the present; their very vision of things as they should be was a reproach to things as they are.”[i]  Simple Reality also “predicts” and “castigates” but also reveals the truth of the actual existence of utopia. The history of our search for utopia, which is an expression of our yearning for truth and beauty, reveals the futility of doing so before we first wake up.

Beginning with Plato’s Republic as the prototype utopia, he saw the journey for humanity as one from chaos to order. As we shall see with all of our theoretical and experimental utopias there is no awareness of the existence of the false self which doomed any attempt of improving the lot of humanity. With the emergence in the U.S. of the 10%, the economic and social elite, we are somewhat more aware than was Plato of fundamental human nature. The guardians were the rulers in his Republic where the family, property, privacy and art were abolished. Placing his trust in the benevolence of the guardians Plato missed a key question no one would fail to ask today. Who guards the guardians?

The classic, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), directly addressed the pernicious security energy center of the false self. He did away with the special privileges because everyone, prince or pauper, had to work six hours a day. To him this meant that there was plenty for everyone, therefore no need for money or greed. Similar to Plato, More’s ideal was stability or in his naïve mind getting as far away from chaos on the chaos-to-order continuum as was humanly possible.

Unlike Plato, More acknowledged and accepted the pleasure energy center of the false self, seeing the need for pleasure in general. He ranked them from more acceptable pleasures of art and music to the less desirable like gluttony. He was of course, clueless about all pleasures causing suffering which any true “utopian” would be conscious of.

In Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) New Atlantis, it was not the philosopher who was king but the scientist. With Solomon as the symbol of wisdom, the heart of New Atlantis was the vast research institution called Solomon’s house, with the goal of discovering “the knowledge of causes and secret motion of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”[ii]  With science-based utopias, we come to an expression of the power energy center of the false-self survival strategy with knowledge as the source of power and the guarantor of order.

All utopias are reactions against the perceived reality, the illusion, of whatever the theorists or founders think is happening to them. It is, in fact then, an attempted escape from or distraction from the experience that they themselves are creating. The details of any particular utopia reveal the condition of the society from which it emerges. By the end of the 18th century, the utopias begin to reflect an anxiety about the dehumanizing Industrial Revolution.

At the beginning of the Age of Reason, utopias began to express the desire to return to a simpler more primitive age. Chateaubriand described the “noble savage” romanticized in such tales as Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. Chateaubriand was influenced by Rousseau and the “American experiment” which seemed to offer to some a perfect setting for a utopia. Rousseau believed in nature and man’s natural goodness which led to utopian experiments that demonstrated instead man’s alienation from nature and his innate natural propensity for self-destruction.

Belief in nature and man’s natural goodness helped support radical changes in the structure of societies including the American, French and Russian revolutions. Only one of these would-be utopias was conventionally successful in the long term, but by the standards of Simple Reality was also a failure from the very beginning. If utopias do not succeed in creating sustainable communities they can hardly be called utopias.

Not all utopias were aiming for “heaven on earth.” Jules Verne’s “Stahlstadt” described in his The Begum’s Fortune (1879), was a giant munitions factory organized and run like a concentration camp. It was to be a much more accurate foreshadowing of humankinds’ approaching future than the more optimistic utopias.

From the mid-18th century to the middle of the 19th century we see the flowering of the Socialist utopias. Ironically, in America, the land of the free and bastion of individualism, the ideas of Charles Fourier (1772-1837) flourished. He believed in suppression of individualism in favor of highly controlled collectivism. “The experiments were carried out particularly in the United States during the 1840’s when hundreds of utopian ‘associations’ sprang up, many of them directly inspired or influenced by Fourier.”[iii]

Brook Farm was set up near Boston and Charles Dana stated its purpose: “Our ulterior aim is nothing less than Heaven on Earth.”[iv]  Ambitious indeed, but as we have indicated, plans for any given utopia always fail to take into consideration the false self. One interesting quirk at Brook Farm was the intellectuals would perform physical labor to free laborers for intellectual pursuits. Ralph Waldo Emerson refused to join Brook Farm because he had tried manual labor and decided that it was “not ordained ‘that a writer should dig.’”[v]

Nathaniel Hawthorne was director of agriculture at Brook Farm and later wrote about it in The Blithedale Romance. He didn’t get along with one particular mean cow “a transcendental heifer belonging to Miss Margaret Fuller. She is very fractious, I believe, and apt to kick over the milk pail.”[vi]  Brook Farm failed due to financial misfortunes and fires. Utopian visionaries, as we are learning, tend not to be very pragmatic along with being unconscious.

A sister socialist utopia was started by John Humphrey Noyes in Vermont; he moved it to New York in 1848. Noyes’ philosophy of free-love among other impractical precepts brought this community to an end. As we have indicated, utopias are ostensibly founded to improve society, but the underlying and unconscious motivation is often to enable participants to avoid taking responsibility for their own behavior in “real life.”

“All the ‘association’ utopias were inevitably doomed, not only because of their eccentric [and naïve] doctrines, their amateurish administrations, and their sometimes-questionable devotees, but because essentially they were trying to flee, or hide, from the reality of the machine age.”[vii]

Speaking of the machine age, Samuel Butler in his utopia Erewhon, feared that machines would learn to think. The computer Hal in the science fiction film 2001 embodies this fear long after Butler wrote his book. In this our age of burgeoning “devices” the negative utopia some of us fear is that as machines become more human, humans will become more machine like. Writers and filmmakers who use zombies as metaphors today are revealing a similar dread about the future of our technology-dependent culture.

George Orwell’s dark and frightening anti-utopia portrayed in 1984 seem eerily similar to what the Soviets created out of Marx’s ideas. Big Brother and Doublethink show up too often in today’s science fiction to think that they do not somehow exist in an America too unconscious to notice.

Even if we begin to suspect that something is amiss, the false self has its ostrich strategies such as those portrayed in Aldous Huxley’s anti-utopian Brave New World published in 1932. Thirty years later, in 1963, the world was still amiss. “Brave New World’s mass pleasures that degrade and enslave the mind have their equivalent in our relentlessly distracting mass entertainment, and the soma pills of chemically induced happiness correspond to the millions of tranquilizers that our doctors prescribe every year.”[viii]  The menu of pills provided by Big Pharma to help us medicate our anxiety keeps growing exponentially, not to mention the mass entertainment and distractions available on our “screens.”

Science fiction utopian fantasies are overwhelmingly negative. These utopias are usually totalitarian, supported by stunningly sophisticated technology and controlled by politicians and businessmen. This anti-utopian genre uses “shock and awe” horror to drive home its message. “Advertising, for instance is the starting point for The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, a kind of Madison Avenue anti-utopia where commercials can be projected directly on the retina, where Congressmen represent not states or districts but business firms.”[ix]

In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 the anti-hero of the anti-utopia is a fireman whose duties are to burn proscribed books—and most books are proscribed—on a fixed schedule. “Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner.”[x]

What is revealing about the content of the minds of the creators of our utopian films and literature—we can assume—reflects the content of the average American mind or they would not be commercially successful. Most anti-utopias have a hero who is never defeated and whose goal is to restore whatever society was current when the story was produced or written—the status quo—P-B is the ideal. Or as Kingsley Amis said to restore “a society just like our own, but with more decency and less television.”[xi]  In other words, our yearning for utopia grows out of a search for something better but we have no idea what that would be, nor have we thought much about it. Today about the best we could do to define utopia would be “more decency and fewer screens.”

Where do drones belong? Do they make us safer on the road to utopia or do they empower the false self’s pursuit of power? Maureen Dowd thinks that such high-tech toys feed our addiction to instant gratification. “The instant gratification they offer makes us shortsighted in an unprecedented way. It’s insane how vulnerable we’ve made ourselves, like drunks failing to look around as they walk into traffic. Hackers could shut down the way we live, and if they hacked into drones or nuclear codes, determine the way we die. If you think it through, which most of us avoid, the prospect of Techmageddon is terrifying.”[xii]

Why did we write this essay? Because like Adam and Eve, humankind remains asleep in Paradise. It would be much easier to simply wake up than it would be to create utopia while we are sleeping. In fact, as we have seen, it is not possible to create a sustainable human community while unconscious. It’s time to stop yearning for utopia, stop resisting it and simply open our eyes, stretch, yawn and say, “Hey Eve, wake up, it’s another beautiful day.”

Yearning for Utopia

[i]     Grunwald, Henry Anatole. “From Eden to the Nightmare.” Horizon. March 1963, page 73.

[ii]     Ibid., page 75.

[iii]    Ibid., page 77.

[iv]    Ibid.

[v]     Ibid.

[vi]    Ibid.

[vii]   Ibid.

[viii]   Ibid., page 79.

[ix]    Ibid.

[x]     Ibid.

[xi]    Ibid.

[xii]   Dowd, Maureen. “I’m Begging, Don’t Hack the Hacks.” The New York Times. February 10, 2013, page 11.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.

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