My kind of history: the anthropology of utopia – part II

‘The School of Athens’, fresco by Raphael (1483-1520). Taken from WikiArt.

In my last post, I explained briefly what kinds of questions I find appealing in the fields of history and utopian theory. In this post, I would like to elaborate on where I believe these questions come to the fore most vividly, and how the historical location of such questions influences my choice regarding subject-matter and period. The alert reader can see that I am writing in a strangely ‘passive’ voice: I do not simply pick the subject-matter – the subject-matter suggests itself to me, given my commitments. To some extent, this is the product of the fact that academia is a calling, and perhaps history (or the humanities in general) has an even higher ‘calling-potential’ than most other academic fields.* But I have to admit it’s also partly a personal defect and occupational hazard: to historicise even oneself beyond the recognition of agency. This is something I’m still working on, I promise.

But for now, let’s follow the narrative and see where it leads. In my previous post, I wrote that my aim to bring out the real remains of utopian projects can be seen as a type of homage to utopia: if utopia is truly as powerful as I think it is, it simply has to have left traces in subsequent generations. It does not take a tremendous leap of the imagination to see that this argument works especially well for the classics – that is, (primarily) Greek and Roman literature. No intellectual culture has received similar attention and praise for its supposed impact on the entire canon of Western philosophy (leaving aside for the moment questions about the ethics or truth of this common conviction). It’s the perception that matters most to me here: since we Europeans often emphasize our historical proximity to Greek and Roman political projects, then this must be an area where past utopias has made a particularly deep mark on the imagination and practice of subsequent generations.

The very fact that we’re talking about utopias specifically here suggests an additional line of argument. It has often been claimed that Greek political thought brings with it the birth of utopia. A supposedly more even-handed version of the same kind of claim is that Greek utopianism was so eloquent that it became its own genre. In other words, Greek utopia may not be the first utopia, but it was powerful enough to become the first of our kind. Both are wrong, I think, and both rest on unrefined and possibly chauvinistic ideas about the significance of Greek philosophy, textual transmission and historical teleology. Still, there does seem to be something very special and – indeed – primordial about Greek utopianism. So how do we define this special quality, if not through the above lines of argument?

At this point I would like to refer back to my statement in the previous post about the interaction between highly normative political discourse and actual practice. Ancient Greece seems to be the first context in which the historical record is rich enough to allow us to study in some detail the conversation or negotiation between utopian thought and political practice. It is the first society in which we do not have to approach a tract of creative political fiction (which we might reliably label ‘utopian’) in a relative intellectual vacuum; the first society in which we can fruitfully compare a particular utopian text with a range of other products, of various genres and with various political messages. Of course, this argument can only carry us so far: the textual record of Ancient Greece is certainly not endless, and often it does actually feel like we have to read certain texts in a vacuum. But compared to the record we possess of most other ancient societies, Greece (and Rome) simply allows for a more generous method.

There is another ‘first’-argument, or point about origins, that I find appealing, and this time it leads to a second time-period that has my special interest: early-modern Europe. In the introduction to the Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought (2000), Christopher Rowe suggests that there may be a distinction between political thought – meaning political reflection broadly conceived – and political theory as a particular method of thinking through political questions, which only really came to prominence under the influence of the Socratics (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle). A case might be made that utopianism is somehow inbuilt in this second, narrower subfield of political thought. Why this should be the case I haven’t quite figured out yet, but a connection between the systematicity of political theory as a method and the systematicity of utopian reconstructions seems plausible.

If it is the case that there is at least a very special connection between the origins of political theory and utopian thought, then a new dilemma presents itself: what happens to utopianism when political theory is suddenly reinvented? This is exactly what happened in early-modern Europe, when thinkers like Hobbes, Machiavelli and Montesquieu start to codify the rules of political science (or, in the case of Bacon, simply ‘science’). It is not surprising, then, that the utopias that are now most famous after the works of Plato and Aristotle were written in sixteenth-to-eighteenth century Europe: by More, Erasmus, Harrington, Rousseau, to name a few. This was the period in which the practice of political theory went through vast changes. Some have even gone as far to conclude that Machiavelli should be considered the founding father of political science; others that political science starts with Hobbes. Whether or not such statements are right, something  fundamentally changed about political theory in this period.

As a consequence, the study of utopia becomes something far more fundamental for me, at least in the context of comparison between Ancient Greece and early-modern Europe. A study of utopia simultaneously becomes an investigation of the origins and very nature of political theory. This has after all become a project of first beginnings, in the sense that it investigates the two phases of history that are perceived to have the strongest claim to being the cradle of political theory. And perhaps, this also ultimately becomes a project of demystification. Perhaps my conclusion will be that neither has a special claim to utopia, and that the family tree of utopianism looks completely different.

But, as in construction work, in order to demolish existing structures you had best start at the foundations.

*I can recommend A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance (1990) as a brilliant statement of the pathology that is a passion for history. It is also – regrettably – one of the few novels I have read in my life.

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