Our Recurring Dreams of Utopia

It was in the 18th century that the idea emerged that we humans can create something like a heaven on earth – an ideal society, a utopia. The great St. Thomas More wrote a Utopia, but that book demonstrates the unintended consequences – not to say human disasters – such schemes inevitably produce

The development of this utopian dream was greatly assisted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, probably the most influential thinker in the Western world since Saint Augustine.  Rousseau was an anti-Augustine, a fact he may have had in mind when he gave his autobiography the same title that Augustine had given his: Confessions.  If Augustine can be taken as a classic spokesman for the teachings of Jesus Christ, we might say that Rousseau was – if not the anti-Christ – at least an anti-Christ.

Briefly put, Rousseau taught that human nature is good, not sinful; that all humans are free and equal by nature; and that inequality and its consequence, un-freedom, were byproducts of the creation of private property.

From there, it is but a short step to the dream of utopia: a society in which everyone will be equal, everyone will be free, and everyone will be good; and this goodness will be a spontaneous thing, not something imposed by police, law courts, and prisons; and all things will be held in common, with a sufficiency of the necessities of life for everybody; and nobody will be avaricious or unkind, and nobody will wish to exploit anybody else; and such limited government as society may need will be purely democratic.

Two further features of this ideal society will be the absence of anything but a very vague Deist-tending religion (no real Christianity), and something whose quaint name used to be “free love.”

The desire for such a society was, doubtless, stimulated by the decline, due to the Enlightenment, of belief in Christianity and its essential accompaniment, belief in life after death.  If we can no longer look forward to heaven in the next world, perhaps we – or our descendants in later generations – can at least look forward to something like a heaven on earth.

Parallel to this earthly paradise was the idea of a great Revolution that would usher in the utopian age.  Utopia would not arrive gradually, after hundreds or thousands of years.  We of the present generation would get no benefit from that. But a Revolution, beginning tomorrow, will give us two tremendous satisfactions: the privilege of participating in this world-transforming event, and the pleasure of knowing that our very own children and grandchildren will live in this new and infinitely better world.

When the French Revolution erupted in 1789 and in the years immediately following, those who had dreamt the utopian-revolutionary dream said to themselves, “Ah!  This is it!  The moment we have been waiting for!  The Revolution has begun!  Let us pour our hearts and minds and souls into it!”

*

Well, the French Revolution, while a good thing in many ways, and while it changed the world forever, did not turn either France or the many other places it affected into a heaven on earth.  When Napoleon finally fell in 1815 (Waterloo may be taken as the closing event of the Revolution that began in 1789), France was still an imperfect society.  It had eliminated some of its old imperfections, but it had discovered or invented some new ones.  The terrestrial paradise had not arrived.

Every time a new revolutionary uprising took place in France – in 1830, in 1848, or in 1870 – many people with the utopian-revolutionary moral virus once again said, “Look, it’s the Revolution!  Utopia is just around the corner!  To arms!”

It was disappointment after disappointment.  But the dream of Revolution and utopia didn’t die – not in France and not in the many other places that had been inspired by France.  Just the opposite.  It spread all over the world.

And then, in 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by utopian dreamers such as Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, seized power in Russia.  “Oh wonderful!  Here at long last is the real thing!  The Revolution we’ve been waiting for since we decapitated Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette!  There will be some necessary murders (you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs), but tomorrow we will enter paradise.”

Well, things didn’t quite work out in Russia either.  Despite many broken eggs, the omelet turned out to be less than delicious.

But the dream didn’t die.  Far from it.  It still lives in the hearts and minds and guts of tens of millions of people all over the world, maybe even hundreds of millions, especially young persons.  It’s a kind of moral virus that will perhaps never go away, an infection that will trouble the human race for centuries to come.  At times it will lie dormant, but every so often it will explode into epidemic proportions that make the death from diseases like Covid pale by comparison.

I may not know what I’m talking about – after all, I’m an old man, of the same generation as my fellow Catholics Joe Biden and Pope Francis, and it’s a well-known fact that elderly Catholic men get cranky and have lapses of judgment. But I have the strong impression that many Americans are infected with this virus now, which our country resisted for much of its life.  Millions on the political and cultural left, I believe, dream of initiating a Revolution that will turn America into a kind of utopia.

You can recognize these people by five marks: (1) their wish to get rid of Christianity; (2) their belief that America is a hopelessly racist country, therefore hardly worth preserving; (3) their assumption that there should be no limits to sexual freedom, provided it’s consensual; (4) their conviction that choice, not nature, determines your “gender identity”; and (5) their commitment to equality of outcome, not mere equality of opportunity.

As I said, I may be wrong.  But I don’t think so.

 

*Image: Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Allan Ramsay, 1766 [Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland]

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s Theology and Human Conflicts

Michael Pakaluk’s Faith in Humanity

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America and, most recently, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist.

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