Dangerous Utopias

by Anthony Egan

We do not live in a perfect world. Nor do we live in an absolute nightmare.

The word utopia is derived from a novel of the same name, written in 1516 by St Thomas More. A description of a perfect society, many commentators believe that this enthusiastic account of absolute equality, justice and surprisingly liberal cultural life – which includes religious freedom, legal euthanasia, easy divorce and even women priests – can only be read as satire. Thomas More, while he was still England’s Lord Chancellor before the Reformation, actively persecuted Protestants, and had no conception of social equality (let alone gender equality!). Even the name u-topia – from the Greek meaning ‘no place’ – suggests he is mocking the very idea.

As its polar opposition, dystopia means the very worst possible world: a place of absolute tyranny. It is most brilliantly expressed in George Orwell’s 1947 novel, 1984. The vision here is one of totalitarian government, surveillance of everybody, secret police operating at will and truth subverted by propaganda. Some folks may think that dystopia is all too real in our present world of surveillance cameras, state capture and alternative facts.

This is mistaken. Though all these manifestations of lack of freedom exist, the fact that we know about them – and to varying degrees resist them – suggests that such absolute tyranny does not exist. Insofar as we continue to resist, dystopia – though a possibility – is deferred.

Oddly enough, some might even say that utopia is the first step to dystopia. In trying to create a perfect society we may well accidentally create a disaster. Utopian dreams of absolute equality motivated the architects of dictatorships and failed states from China to Venezuela. Creating perfection means eliminating imperfection and nonconformity. Yet we cannot eliminate our capacity for sin: potential or real greed, power and revenge lies beneath even our noblest sentiments.

St Augustine of Hippo long ago warned that the Human City was by its nature flawed. However much we try to promote the best, we shall not achieve it this side of eternity. People are not equal, whether in intelligence, looks, abilities or moral character. Even economic equality is an impossibility: no society on earth has achieved this. In those that have tried we have seen situations where the vast majority are equally poor, while a ruling elite – the ‘guardians’ of equality – have lived in luxury. Normally the states that have emerged have also maintained ‘equality’ with ruthless efficiency, creating in the process totalitarian ‘dystopias’.

We must be on our guard against utopian visions, even as we should take the values of utopia seriously. The latter are the ideal. It is the moral benchmark against which we make social, political and economic decisions. In the best possible world (which, following Augustine, I argue cannot exist) this is what we’d like. In the real world where greed, personal ambition and the capacity for evil exists, we need to find better alternatives and workable compromises that advance the good as well as we can, while avoiding the terrible unintended consequences.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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