Interesting Concepts Of Utopia Through Time: Jean Servier’s History Of Utopia

Utopia: a promised land, a happy country where all possible relationships - between its citizens, within its economy, between the state's constitution and everyday life, exist in harmony and serve everyone's well-being.

That is how the social philosopher and Renaissance thinker Thomas More defined it in his work Utopia (read here). Four and a half centuries later, the French ethnologist and sociologist Jean Servier wrote History of Utopia. His book offers a historical overview of the notion of utopia, from Plato to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, taking into consideration a wide range of fields: philosophy, literature and art, politics and the spectrum of state regulations through time. Unfortunately, History of Utopia hasn’t been translated into English, but it is available for purchase in French, Italian and Spanish.

In the introduction to this incredibly engaging work, Servier discusses More’s legacy and the modern uses and interpretations of the notion of utopia. There are two main ways we could understand this concept, Servier says. First, we can understand it as a noun: utopia – a project or an idea that is impossible because it simply cannot function or sustain itself in reality. Second, we can turn it into an adjective – utopian, as a perfect way to mark a nice wish that is destined to remain a dream, since it is infeasible by default. As Thomas More wrote to his fellow philosopher Erasmo de Rotterdam, Utopia (Nusquama, in Latin) is not a notion to be understood geographically; it is not a place – since that kind of place can never exist. It is a dreamer’s concept. But Servier briefly explains why these concepts are needed, despite the fact that they are not applicable in any actual society:

Utopia is the reaction of one social class, a vision of a planned future that comforts us by expressing deep desires to find the strict structures of a traditional city through classical symbols of one dream; it seeks the tranquility of mother’s lap […] Utopia is always a dream that heals the dreamers’ Weltschmerz, their world-pain and the pain of living, always in the same way, with slight varriations in themes and means of expression, from one point in history to another.

Servier then discusses the concepts of utopia that first emerged in the cities of the ancient world (especially Athens), Plato’s concept of the Republic and his contemplations about Atlantida. The ideal of the Greek city (polis) has been known through history as a model of a city with righteous laws, maintaining reason and common sense as the highest principles of government. But, Servier argues:

The Greek city, like the cities of other Mediterranean civilizations, was a city of unequal but righteous laws, since everybody accepted them as such […] As Plato said – people need some sort of a fairytale, why not make it this one?

In the next chapter, Servier discusses Messiah and the Promised Land. Traditional societies are guided by the story of genesis, since it somewhat justifies inequalities in social and professional categories. People accept it, since it makes the system bearable and it gives them a sense of being connected to a higher entitiy and a part of cosmic balance. The system becomes uncomfortable or disgusting, if it begins to be questioned by people, since questioning shows a lack of will to believe in one utopia.

When it comes to St. Augustin and his concept of God’s city, Christianity isn’t something that is forced upon people. A new form of life, a city of one God, a city that belongs to people and angels, strives towards perfection because its elements are perfect. Its perfection emerges from the sacrifice of Holy Christ. Servier says that is how utopia became reality, according to St. Augustin:

God’s city has been inhabited by two complementary clans: angels and people […] Angels are trying their best to use their strength to draw people near them. That is how they help people in their fight, which is tearing them appart. Two cities, one on Earth and one on Heaven, exist simultaneously in time and in man’s heart, concurrently apart and intertwined.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the topos of the Apocalypse starts spreading, and that is when the old belief in the Kingdom of Heaven starts to fade. Common man needs utopia more than ever, since he is being stepped over by the four horsemen: plague, famine, war, and death. The core of the city crumbles further, and different social groups are formed: peasants with no land, beggars and strays, and people on the margin of society are united within some form of proletariat. On the other side, Western thought creates new shapes of utopia. The Crusades are reshaping the meaning of the Promised Land, since it is not a matter of an alliance between God and his people anymore. No, it is all about the earthly treasures which cannot be reached through prayers, but through conquering and killing. Over the course of time, religious goals are set aside, as a new thirst for justice arises. All that leads to rebellion.

An interesting observation of Servier is his reflection on the utopian work by Tommaso Campanella – The City of the Sun. As Servier notes, Campanella is not a humanist (like Erasmo or More), but his work expresses the author’s complex social affiliation. Campanella was highly respectful of the church and the Roman hierarchy, but he was also a man of the people, highly aware of his own miserable position and poverty. He knew that the Holy Gospels are not enough for peaceful and comfortable living. Campanella wrote The City of the Sun in a Neapolitan prison, and Servier says:

Once again, we are expecting a great coming of a perfect city: Campanella had no choice but to live his dream passionately, in his prison cell, hoping that some day, some people may make it come true.

This is just a brief survey of the history that is offered to us in the History of Utopia. In Servier’s overview, we can see how the idea of utopia developed, and not just through art and literature, but also through philosophy, politics, and religion. It is really a precious book, since you can find out about many important historical figures that you may not have heard of earlier. That can help you to choose your future readings, since it discusses writers and ideas in the sphere of utopia from ancient times to the 20th century. The book offers a detailed contextual review of every epoch in which different utopias occured. As the author says:

Different utopias may seem like different fairytales of one collective or one people, like variants of the same mythical weft […] so they stand united. We are thinking about poetry or fairytales maybe because the thread that is connecting them all is the thread of a dream.

The book is written in a clear style, so it is easy to read. It is suitable both for those who are planing to study the cocept of utopia in a serious, academic manner, and for those who are just curious about it. A small shortcoming, though, is the fact that the book is highly Eurocentric, since it doesn’t include concepts of utopia from other globally important geographic areas (i.e. Africa or Asia). Still, it is completely engaging and interesting!

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