Utopianism appears to be inbred in the human brain—the desire for the perfect life, however a person might define that. Parents tell children to “follow their dreams.” Adults, too, often follow suit. Examples abound, from the ‘49ers of the California Gold Rush, to the “drop-out” hippie communes of the 1960s, to current athletes and entertainers. From print publications to electronic media, the protagonists of many stories—fictional or true—are those who “followed the beat of their own drum.”
This human trait is admirable and is something which marks us as more intellectually complex than brute animals. Aristotelian understanding of “happiness”—eudaimonia—is that quest for a fulfilled and flourishing life, to be “truly human.” One might never fully attain that state, or, Aristotle advises, one might not fully comprehend it until one is close to death. Even the failure of such a quest, though, can teach valuable lessons. A person might end the journey to become a singer, once she realizes that the agitation among the neighborhood’s cats stem from the sounds she emits. Instead, perhaps a new dream to become a talent agent forms to motivate her. Looked at another way, even if her utopian vision fails completely, it likely affects only her and perhaps a few around her.
By contrast, utopianism at the level of societies is much more dangerous to human flourishing. At that scale, failure, such as the collapse of a polity, affects multitudes in a profoundly existential manner. The ship of state requires a calm hand at the wheel. Phronesis, the classical virtue of practical wisdom, must control, not utopian passion. The statesman must have the clear ability to make the moral and practical choices which conduce best to the well-being of the community.
Still, there lurks the unsatisfied yearning to achieve, or to return to, the perfect society. It is the psychological desire to return to a Garden of Eden and a state of perfect innocence. From a Neo-Platonic perspective, which influenced the writings of St. Augustine and other early Christians, this yearning might reflect the human soul’s longing to attain union with the ultimate Good, or God.
Writers since ancient times have dabbled in philosophic creation projects of ideal societies. Plato’s 4th-century B.C. Politeia (The Republic), his prescription for a government run by a “guardian class” of philosopher-kings, is an early example. Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia about an ideal society dwelling on an idyllic island, is another. More recently, Karl Marx’s writings about the process of historical transition which ultimately would end class strife through the establishment of a classless, communist society, dazzled many acolytes. Common to these three particular works, it should be noted, was opposition, in some manner or another, to private property. Another commonality was a degree of hostility to the traditional nuclear family structure.
At least the first two of these works are not necessarily to be taken at face value. The revolutionary changes which would be necessary to establish Plato’s ideal republic conflict with fundamental philosophic views he expressed in other writings. Moreover, he was quite clear about the inevitability that the project would fail due to the passions which are part of human nature. His work is a warning at least as much as it is a blueprint.
More’s work is satirical through and through, from the book’s title (a play on two similar sounding Greek words meaning no place—Utopia—and perfect place—Eutopia), to the names of various places and persons within the work, to the customs of his island’s denizens. It was satire of English society, but also a warning about societies unmoored from Christian ethics.
Along with utopian philosophies have come utopian projects. The Plymouth Rock Colony of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620 was organized initially along communist principles of land cultivation. The disastrous economic consequences from that brief, two-year experiment threatened the very existence of the colony. Fortunately, the misstep was soon corrected. A similar fate awaited Robert Owen’s utopian “socialist” colony New Harmony, Indiana, which turned from a prosperous religious settlement when sold to Owen in 1825 to an economic shambles by 1828. The religious predecessor had also held property in common, but within a tightly-knit religious community. Owen’s associates lacked any strong bonds of community. As one contemporary commentator noted, “There are only two ways of governing such an institution as a Community; it must be done either by law or by grace. Owen got a company together and abolished law, but did not establish grace; and so, necessarily, failed.” He might have added one additional approach, the use of relentless force.
Often, these utopian communities are driven by a fervent vision of a new type of society founded on religious principles. They seek to create an earthly community close to God. Besides the Pilgrims, the Shakers and other charismatic groups come to mind. Others, like the Owenite socialists are motivated by more secular ideologies. Sometimes, an odd brew of messianic zeal and political ideology is blended, as in the “apostolic socialism” of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple in Guyana. These groups eventually adapt their dogma to the complexities of human nature and the real-world challenges of social living, as the Pilgrims and the Latter Day Saints did. Or, they disintegrate, as was the fate of the Owenites and the Shakers. Tragically, some come to a violent end under the thrall of a toxic “prophet,” as did the unfortunates of the People’s Temple.
Another factor which contributes to the instability of utopian projects is the scale of the venture. The communities previously mentioned were comparatively small. The Aristotelian ranking of associations from the family to the clan to the polis encompasses ever greater numbers. As those numbers increase and the members’ relationships to each other become more distant, the bonds become looser. Human nature is, essentially, selfish. Self-interest is not necessarily bad. Killing an attacker to save one’s own life has long been recognized as the most fundamental of natural rights. However, another human characteristic, more developed than in lesser species, is altruism.
Altruism, and one’s willingness to incur burdens for the benefit of another, is most pronounced in regards to those whom we “know.” The bonds of love are strongest towards immediate family members. They are also present, but less intensely, towards the extended family. Beyond that lie the still significant bonds of friendship about which Plato and Aristotle mused at length. Aristotle considered the highest form of friendship that which is maintained not for what one might get out of it, but, instead, what is done for the benefit of the other. He also considered friendship as the key measure of proper self-government in the polis. At some point, however, the number of residents within the community might grow too big for the mutual interactions required to maintain friendship. As that number grows, the psychological tension between self-interest and true altruism inevitably favors the former.
For example, a “communist” approach to work and reward can succeed within a family, perhaps even an extended one of longstanding relationships. Trouble arises when the relationships are not familial. To eliminate this inequality of sentiment, utopian societies seek to undermine or abolish the family and other voluntary affinity groups, which itself is doomed to fail and simply accelerates the group’s collapse. A large utopian society, whose members are not bound together by religion or by rules derived from long-established customs which reflect the traditional ordering within stable communities, requires increasingly brutal force to maintain commitment to the utopian project. Pol Pot’s devilish regime in Cambodia nearly half a century ago is a notorious example of this, as memorialized in the chilling movie The Killing Fields.
No matter how intellectually promising and rationally organized the effort is, human nature and passions will derail the utopian project. Plato laid the problem at the feet of eros—passionate love and desire—which upends the controlled marriage and mating program his ultra-rational utopia required. Among the rulers, nepotism and greed manifest themselves. It is hardly shocking that Fidel Castro acquired a wealth of nearly $1 billion at the time, all the while exhorting the unfortunate subjects in his impoverished nation to sacrifice for la Revolución. The inevitable failings of the system set off a hunt for scapegoats, those wreckers who do not show the requisite zeal and who harbor counterrevolutionary or other heretical views.
Within societies which are not openly pursuing some political or religious utopia, there may nevertheless be strong currents of utopianism. In our time and place, the extreme emphasis on risk avoidance is a utopian quest. It has resulted in a bloated legal and administrative apparatus as smaller and more remote and dubious risks are targeted. Economic and social costs are ignored as a health and safety security state takes shape. Those who dissent from the secular millenarian orthodoxy are liable to be marginalized or cast aside like religious heretics. Individual rights of association, religion, providing for oneself and one’s family, and bodily autonomy are subject to the guesses and whims of unelected credentialed “experts.” Yet these measures, when pursued robotically for some ideal beyond what practical wisdom would advise, fail or produce only marginal benefits, often at great cost. Even if they are abandoned, the damage has occurred.
In a related manner, there has been a decades-long quixotic quest to create emotional placidity. While not socially harmful if done on an individual, voluntary basis, compelled “treatments” have been a favorite of ideologues to deal with dissenters. The Soviet Union was infamous for its psychological analyses steeped in Marxist utopianism and its use of political dissent as “red flags” of psychological “deviance.” But the problem festers closer to home, as well. From state-applied electric shock therapy and lobotomies in the past, to the modern approach of psychotropic drugs, a therapeutic totalitarianism has been spreading. Those who dissent, especially parents who balk at such drug use or at school “safe zone” counseling done behind their backs, are liable to find themselves ridiculed or worse.
The delegates to the Philadelphia Convention were educated in classic writings and western history. They were not naïfs about human nature or politics. They understood lessons from the failures of regimes and the dangers of utopian projects, as did their opponents in the debate over ratification. Moreover, their own experience from the Revolutionary War, the Articles of Confederation, and service in their state governments had inured them to utopian speculations. Illustrative of the skepticism is a letter Alexander Hamilton wrote even as the struggle for independence still hung in the balance in 1781, “there have been many false steps, many chimerical projects and utopian speculations.” He noted that the most experienced politicians were Loyalists. He was registering his complaint about the lack of political sophistication among his co-revolutionaries in the conduct of the war, the adoption of the Articles, and the drafting of state constitutions.
That is not to say that the supporters and opponents of the United States Constitution lacked political and philosophic bearings. Most had a sense of what they wished to achieve, set within a coherent broader philosophic framework. The historian Forrest McDonald, in his far-reaching and detailed analysis of the framing of the Constitution, classifies the delegates into two groups, “court-party nationalists” and “country-party republicans,” analogous to the British Tory and Whig parties, respectively. Among the best-known such nationalists were Washington, Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, and Robert Morris. Among the notable republicans were Elbridge Gerry, George Mason, Luther Martin, and Edmund Randolph. Others were more difficult to label. McDonald places James Madison in between the two groups and somewhat harshly judges the latter “an ideologue in search of an ideology.” He claims that by temperament Madison thought matters through to the detail and preferred “the untried but theoretically appealing, as opposed to the imperfections of reality.” Yet, he also concedes Madison’s willingness to abandon politically untenable positions as needed.
A third group, whom McDonald considers arch-republican ideologues, did not attend for varied reasons. They included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Sam Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry. Some of these outsiders and other opponents of the Constitution presented more consistently “principled” arguments, but it is always easier to attack someone’s work than to provide a comprehensive and workable alternative.
None of the groups at the convention had a majority. Moreover, they were not ideological in the modern sense of positing a single abstract moving cause for all human action in the private and public realms. The closest might be the idea that humans act from self-interest. But there was nothing like Marxist economic determinism or Freudian psychoanalysis or current Marxism-derived Critical Race Theory. The various broader theories of government delegates favored still resulted in differences which must have seemed intractable, at times. Some delegates left out of frustration that their ideas about the proper constitutional order were not sufficiently realized.
But most held on and difficult compromises were eventually reached. Even the matter which deadlocked the convention for weeks and threatened more than once to tear it apart, namely the structure of Congress and the mode of representation, ultimately was resolved mostly in favor of the small states through Roger Sherman’s Connecticut Compromise. So was the controversy over Congress’s powers. The small-state proposal of an enumeration of specific powers supplemented by an enabling clause was adopted over a more national position favored by Madison that Congress would have power to address all issues which affected the nation where individual states would be “incompetent to act.” The slavery question was generally avoided. The concept was simply euphemized, rather than expressed. Specific issues, such as the fugitive slave clause and the three/fifths clause to apportion representatives and direct taxes were borrowed from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and a failed amendment to the Articles of Confederation. Whatever might have been the hearts’ desires of various philosophically committed members, compromise prevailed. The result was a system which was partly federal and partly national, as Madison laid out the particulars in Number 39 of The Federalist.
As remarked in previous essays, the authors of The Federalist emphasized the influence of experience, not idealism, on the convention’s deliberations, and the process of compromise, not purity, which resulted in a plan suited to the practical demands of governing. Aside from Hamilton’s noted aphorism in Number 6 of The Federalist, “Let experience, the least fallible guide of human opinions, be appealed to for an answer to these inquiries,” the authors repeatedly drew on experience under the Articles of Confederation, the state constitutions, and earlier European and ancient systems. That was, of course, also what the convention had done. In Number 38, Madison mocked the variety and inconsistency of objections and their often vague and general nature. While his sarcasm disparages the constructive and systematic efforts of opponents such as the “Brutus” essays by New York’s Robert Yates, Madison’s specific examples illustrate the spirit of pragmatism at the convention. He declared “It is not necessary that the [Constitution] should be perfect: it is sufficient that the [Articles are] more imperfect.” In Number 41, he acknowledged, “…that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least the GREATER, not the PERFECT good; ….” [Emphasis in the original.]
Perhaps the best summation of the pragmatism which steered the delegates as they proceeded with their work was voiced by Benjamin Franklin. He rose on the day of the final vote and implored his colleagues, “Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution. Because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good….I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.