The adjective “utopian,” whether applied to persons or projects, always conveys disapprobation. And with good reason. As F.A. Hayek rightly pointed out, “It is indeed probable that more harm and misery have been caused by men determined to use coercion to stamp out a moral evil than by men intent on doing evil.” The proof of this claim rests in the communist-socialist killing fields, concentration camps, gulags, purges, famines, and wars of the past century.
Not surprisingly, therefore, utopian thinking is held to be the very antithesis of conservatism. What could be more unconservative than utopia, which places its hopes in the future rather than the past? As one conservative book puts it, “Utopia, the Perennial Heresy.”
But utopia is not a heresy, and the blunt conservative reaction against it runs the risk of unintentionally furthering the very thing conservatives fear, which is not utopia but utopianism. The utopian imagination (as opposed to utopianism) is a constituent part of human nature, rooted in the basic orientation of human desire towards happiness, understood not as a transient satisfaction, but as a complete life of flourishing. This desire for happiness is necessarily informed, often inchoately, by some imagined but not yet present state of affairs, a connection highlighted in Thomas More’s play on the word he coined. Utopia, which means “no place” (ou-topos) is but one letter away from Eutopia (eu-topos), which might be translated as “happy place.” More’s clever word play captures the dynamic and uneasy relationship between the ideal and the real, and between reason and imagination, in the human desire for happiness.
In other words, if utopia is a heresy, then so is the desire for happiness, and one can only eliminate the one by eliminating the other. (Not to say this isn’t a plausible strategy. The elimination of the desire for human happiness is the organizing principle of the regime in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, but Huxley brilliantly shows the human costs of this strategy.) Thus, Frank Manuel writes that “to attack utopias is about as meaningful as to denounce dreaming.” Utopia is, in the poetically precise words of Allan Bloom, “the fire with which we must play because it is the only way we can find out what we are.”
Utopia versus Utopianism
The utopian imagination differs from utopianism. Whereas the utopian imagination is an ineradicable human faculty, utopianism is one particular and troubling expression of the utopian imagination. It is characterized by the ambition to realize perfect temporal happiness through technological and social reconstruction. While the utopian imagination is constitutive of human nature itself, utopianism is a particularly modern phenomenon. Utopia exists in the ancient world, most notably in Plato’s Republic; utopianism, such as that found in the French Revolution and twentieth-century totalitarianism, is only found in the modern world. Utopia, we might say, is a perennial human concern, whereas utopianism is indeed a very time-specific, and very dangerous, heresy.
It is often thought that the remedy to utopianism is a hardboiled realism. But it is one of the ironies of utopianism that it has its roots in a “realist” agenda. This is evident in the writings of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who in his unfinished Great Instauration (which, incidentally, provides the opening quote to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason) attacked the “idols” of Aristotelian science and promoted a new empirical and experimental science that would help human beings command, rather than understand, nature. It is notable that Bacon also wrote the first work of “scientific” utopian fiction, New Atlantis, as a companion to his scientific project.
But Bacon was taking his cue from Machiavelli, whose Prince (written just three years before More’s Utopia) explicitly repudiated the entire classical tradition of political science. The critical passage of this little work occurs in the opening paragraph of Book XV:
But since it is my intention to write a useful thing for him who understands, it seemed to me more profitable to go behind to the effectual truth of the thing, than to the imagination thereof. And many have imagined republics and principates that have never been seen or known to be in truth; because there is such a distance between how one lives and how one should live that he who lets go that which is done for that which ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation – for a man who wishes to profess the good in everything needs must fall among so many who are not good.
Here we find a succinct statement of the elements that will dominate modern philosophy, science, and culture. First, we have the separation of the “is” from the “ought,” the elevation of action over contemplation, and the reduction of truth to “the effectual truth.” Second, there is an attack on the previous philosophical and spiritual tradition, especially Plato (“imagined republics”) and Augustine (“imagined principates”).
Rarely if ever noticed is that Machiavelli levels his attack not on reason, as we might expect, but on the imagination. The result has been a great divorce between a reason without imagination (scientism) on the one hand and imagination without reason (romanticism) on the other, with no cultural forms to bridge the gap between them.
However, Machiavelli was also committing a brilliant sleight of hand. He knew all too well the “effectiveness” of the “imagination thereof,” which he used to his advantage both in The Prince and elsewhere. By associating “imagination” with “ineffectuality,” Machiavelli hoped through his own poetic discourse to create a new “imagined republic” based on the complete domination of an indifferent if not hostile nature, thus laying a new (but no less imaginative) foundation for justice and politics. The genius of Machiavelli rests in the fact that his “realism” is itself a work of imagination, an abstraction from, or reduction of, reality.
Utopianism, which seeks a complete reconstruction of nature, is not therefore a reaction to Machiavellian realism. Rather, it is the logical conclusion of his realist premises. If Plato invented utopian fiction, Machiavelli invented utopianism. How a political science that sought to make political life more humane by lowering its ends resulted in the most novel and brutal forms of ideological and totalitarian tyranny is a question that demands an answer.
The Education of the Utopian Imagination
The remedy for utopianism is not the suppression of the utopian imagination but its education. Hayek himself understood this point, writing that “our very survival may depend on our ability to rally a sufficiently strong part of the world behind a common ideal” to which he gave the unfortunate name “the Great Society.” So too did the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick, who in his classic book Anarchy, State, Utopia builds his best libertarian defense in the sadly neglected third section of the book, entitled “Utopia.”
The education of the utopian imagination must be substantially an imaginative endeavor. It is indicative of the Machiavellian influence on our culture that our primary educational institutions have utterly neglected the education of the imagination, focusing instead on instrumental “skills” (reading, writing, arithmetic) or technique. But Edmund Burke understood something of the challenge when he appealed to “the moral imagination” in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. So did C.S. Lewis, who wrote in the Abolition of Man that it is by imagination that “man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.” Not surprisingly, the longest quoted passage in The Abolition of Man is from the musical education of the guardians in Plato’s Republic. The quote is worth repeating:
In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one “who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.” (italics mine).
What Plato, Burke, Lewis, and Hayek see is that poetry is, in some sense, prior to politics. This claim, which appears to undermine or depreciate reason in a gesture toward postmodern “narratives,” is likely to make some conservatives nervous. But that is only because they have already bought into the modern romantic conception of poetry and the imagination as private fantasy and individual self-expression or creativity, whereas the greatest thinkers understood them in representational terms, as an imitation of reality. Indeed, it is precisely because poetry and the imagination so deeply penetrate human reason and action that they took it so seriously.
One contemporary thinker who understands this point well is Alasdair MacIntye. In After Virtue, MacIntyre observes the way in which human desire is always mediated by the imagination:
We live out our lives, both individually and in our relationships with each other, in the light of certain conceptions of a possible shared future, a future in which certain possibilities beckon us forward and others repel us, some seem already foreclosed and others perhaps inevitable. There is no present which is not informed by some image of some future and an image of the future which always presents itself in the form of a telos—or a variety of ends or goals—towards which we are either moving or failing to move in the present.
Moreover, MacIntyre observes, this imagined telos is always embedded in a narrative. “Man is essentially a story-telling animal,” MacIntyre writes, “but a teller of stories that aspire to truth” (italics mine). Thus MacIntyre, with the whole premodern tradition, holds that reason and imagination are never independent, autonomous faculties but always complementary, each serving to assist and discipline the other. And while reason certainly plays some role in moral education, MacIntyre presciently writes, “Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.” Not a bad description of our current situation.
None of what I have written here should be taken to be an attack on the importance of right reason, especially in public and political deliberation. But it is time—I hope not past time—for conservatives to recognize that the use of right reason depends on poetic preconditions, without which it is apt to go astray. The poetic education I am speaking of is not propaganda. Plato’s principle above marks the difference. Poetry assists the development of reason, whereas propaganda suppresses it. Genuine poetic education, as Lewis points out, is in fact the only effective remedy to the cheap sentimental allures of propaganda. This is a remedy Lewis himself seeks to provide in his fiction.
This education must include the study of great works of fiction, including especially the classic works of utopian and dysoptian fiction. Modern liberals have understood this point better than conservatives, as was made evident in the way they were allowed to co-opt George Orwell’s 1984 in their campaign against Donald Trump.
Communism is perhaps not the threat it once was, but other forms of utopianism continue to threaten limited government. Strategies to deflate this utopianism by encouraging skepticism are not likely to compete effectively against the moral visions that animate the utopians of our time. The only way around utopianism is through the utopian imagination. It is the fire with which we must play, not only to discover who we are, but also to prevent the current conflagration that, left unchecked, may eventually consume all that we hold dear.
Nathan Schlueter is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Hillsdale College. He is currently working on his next book, Playing with Fire: The Peril and Promise of the Utopian Imagination, from which this essay is adapted.