Duke University Alumni Magazine


Future past: a postcard from the 1964 New York World's Fair with the Unisphere

Over thousands of years, the "impossible prayers" of political philosophers have been answered through visions of utopia.

n a book about his Mediterranean wanderings, British travel writer Eric Newby writes about entering a once-forbidden zone. As his tourist bus lumbers into a "stern and wild" Albania, he offers this reflection: "It was an eerie place, as almost all places close to frontiers seem to be, perhaps by association of ideas."

With his own book, Four Island Utopias, Duke classical studies professor Diskin Clay has been traveling on the geographical and intellectual frontiers--and has landed on some eerie places indeed. The book, co-authored by Andrea Purvis Ph.D. '98, grew from Clay's course on "Utopias: Ancient and Modern." (It is due out early this year from FOCUS Publishers of Newburyport, Massachusetts.) Islands, from the Latin insula, are ambiguous places: They are both open and closed to the outside world. Utopian islands are even more ambiguous, being both exemplary worlds and worlds apart.

These days, the term "utopia" has become so commonplace as to lose some of its original edge and even its original meaning. A new collection of utopian writers includes Marx's Communist Manifesto; and in his new book, Reflections on a Ravaged Century, historian Robert Conquest argues that the plague of the twentieth century was the belief that the world could be remade according to some utopian design. Conquest considers Marx a utopian thinker, with his belief that the state would wither away in favor of a worker's paradise. This was among the twentieth-century movements that "claimed to transcend all problems, but were defective or delusive, devastated minds and movements and whole countries, and looked like plausible contenders for world supremacy," he writes. In fact, Marx was driven more by a sense of historic inevitability than by utopian visions of creating a "Heaven on Earth."

And it may be that our consumer culture has a working model of utopia in something that has stood the test of time a bit better than Marxist societies--Walt Disney World. In a 1993 essay for the South Atlantic Quarterly, Duke literature professor Susan Willis writes: "What most distinguishes Disney World from any other amusement park is the way its spatial organization, defined by autonomous 'worlds' and wholly themed environments, combines with the homogeneity of its visitors (predominantly white, middle-class families) to produce a sense of community." Walt Disney World responds to "an underlying utopian impulse" articulated in small-town values. With the perceived loss of community ties, and of the control over individual lives that comes from those ties, the past may seem better than the future.

Flight of fancy: a turn-of-the-century postcard of flying machines above a mega-metropolis
Rare book, manuscript, and special collections library, Duke University

Thomas More invented the word "utopia" for his 1516 work of the same name. In literal terms, Clay and Purvis point out, "utopia" is Greek. The elements of that invented place-name are ou,, the Greek negative, and topia, from topos, place. In combination, the terms mean "nowhere." But utopia has Greek origins in a larger sense. Thomas More may have provided the title that endures, but Plato provided the idea in his Republic and Laws. (Clay's course begins with More's Utopia, moves on to Homer and works from classical Greece, and ends with Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.) As Plato's pupil Aristotle would put it, those utopian schemes are answers to the political philosopher's impossible prayers.

By some definitions, utopian visions predate Plato by centuries. One of the renowned poets of antiquity, Hesiod, writing in the eighth century B.C., conceived what Clay and Purvis call a "retrospective" utopia. Hesiod's Works and Days sketches a cultural devolution. A long-ago race of men "lived like gods, with carefree heart, remote from toil and misery. Wretched old age did not affect them either, but with hands and feet ever unchanged they enjoyed themselves in feasting, beyond all ills, and they died as if overcome by sleep. All good things were theirs, and the grain-giving soil bore its fruits of its own accord in unstinted plenty, while they at their leisure harvested their fields in contentment amid abundance."

It was quite a time to be alive. That Golden Age--the first "Heaven on Earth" portrayed in Greek mythology--was supplanted by inferior races, and by war and suffering; Hesiod saw a present "Iron Age" of "toil and misery," "constant distress," and divine mischief-making. Such an indictment of the present day expresses a quality that, according to Clay and Purvis, is characteristic of utopian literature --a "critical gaze" on the writer's own society.

Utopias are inaccessible, whether chronologically or geographically. Islands, of course, represent strong barriers; and even the Greek islands of the current day tend to be conservative places and not places subject to flux, Clay observes. "One function of barriers to utopias is to mark off their inhabitants as distinct from ordinary humans," he and Purvis write. "Barriers symbolize the essential distance and differences of utopians from others: They are frequently blessed or rewarded with fertile soil, abundance of food, longevity, and painless death."

Such idyllic circumstances illustrate an ancient Greek balancing between man-made law or custom and nature. "Utopian cultures, through their self-restraint in practicing justice and piety (nomos), implicitly or explicitly receive the reward of control over nature (physis), equivalent to divine favor manifesting itself in a pleasant climate, fertility, long life, and freedom from pain." In these places of splendid isolation, good behavior and a fruitful bounty go hand in hand.

Plato's Republic is a "utopia of foundation," as Clay and Purvis describe it; it's a perfectly ordered city that mirrors the perfectly ordered soul, with every part performing its appropriate function. This perfect city, of course, hinges on the perfection of the ruling philosophers possessed of the virtue of wisdom, along with a class of guardians possessed of the virtue of courage. A class of workers shows the virtue of temperance, or control over physical desires. So the state, like the soul, accommodates and directs mind, will, and animal impulse. That would have been, for Plato, a prescription for justice.

Yet all around him, Plato would have seen corruption, decay, and injustice--all ripe subjects for a utopian vision and a critical gaze. He was born in 428 or 427 B.C. As he was growing up, Athens was losing its empire. It was also losing a war against a Spartan alliance: The Peloponnesian War lasted twenty-seven years, from 431 to 404. In 416, Athens began a campaign in Sicily; the campaign ended in 413, with the massacre of most of the retreating Athenians, after the siege of Syracuse had failed. Thucydides, the ancient chronicler of the Peloponnesian War, said the Athenians "were beaten at all points and altogether; all that they suffered was great; they were destroyed, as the saying is, with a total destruction, they fell, their army--everything was destroyed, and few out of many returned home." Plato's just world, then, wasn't evident in Plato's real world.

With an island orientation, Clay and Purvis have a different Platonic interest in their book--Plato's Atlantis. Our sole source for the history of the island of Atlantis is Plato, in his Timaeus and unfinished Critias dialogues.

Both Atlantis and prehistoric Athens, as Plato's story has it in what he calls his "extraordinary tale," vanished into the historical void following "cataclysmic destruction by deluge." The Athens of Atlantis' time--quite in contrast to the Athens of Plato's time--is "pre-eminent in warfare and in all respects it was governed better than all other cities." It is, in fact, "the fairest of all cities under the sun." Its guardians exist in idyllic circumstances: They live in communal dwellings, have "a supply of all that was needed," frown upon accumulating gold or silver, and grow old gracefully. Their society exists in heroic isolation: "She was a leader of all Greek states, but of necessity she was left to stand alone when other nations had abandoned her cause." Prehistoric Athens, then, resembles the historic Athens that defeated the Persians on the plain of Marathon in 490 B.C. Athens was then abandoned by the states of northern Greece, and the Spartans--allies at the time in rebuffing the Persian encroachment--arrived too late, on the day after the decisive land battle.

Plato's prehistoric Athens found a competitor in Atlantis, an island compared in size to two of the three massive divisions of the known world--"Asia" and "Libya"--and located near the "Pillars of Heracles," or the Straits of Gibraltar. The island is self-supporting; it is well-endowed with mines for recovering metals, trees for creating building materials, abundant animal life, and domesticated grains. "All of these did that sacred island once bear in that age under a fostering sun--products lovely, marvelous, and of abundant bounty."

Athens and Atlantis "seem situated at antipodes to east and west," write Clay and Purvis. At first, only the oppositions between the two states are apparent. Atlantis is a power intent on enslaving the peoples of the Mediterranean; Athens is the leader of the free world and the liberator of the Mediterranean. Atlantis is a sea power and its god is Poseidon; Athens is a land power whose goddess, Athena, planted the olive in the soil of Attica.

But other details project onto Atlantis the image of Plato's imperial Athens. Like the Athenians, the Atlanteans were autochthones, or people who had sprung from the land itself. Both states are organized into ten groups--Atlantis into the domains ruled by the descendants of its ten original kings, Athens into ten tribes established by a reformer-ruler. Nine of the kings of Atlantis are called archontes, the term for the nine chief magistrates of Athens, and the description of Atlantis' bustling harbor could substitute for the port of imperial Athens, the Peiraeus.

Plato's character Critias (an Athenian tyrant in real life) begins his history of the war between prehistoric Athens and Atlantis by assuring his audience that his account is "strange but absolutely true." Clay and Purvis, though, call it a "philosophical fiction"--"the reflection in a distant mirror of imperial Athens at the end of the fifth century." That notion hasn't stood in the way of the true believers. Just a year ago, Jim Allen, identified as a "British excartographic draftsman and aerial intelligence interpreter," wrote a book called Atlantis: The Andes Solution. According to his argument, a section of the Andean plateau in Bolivia is the location of the original Atlantis. And during the recent holiday season, full-page newspaper advertisements promoted Clive Cussler's Atlantis Found: "Of all the legends that have flourished throughout the centuries, the one that has provoked the most mystery and intrigue is that of the lost continent and civilization of Atlantis." Clay has in a file drawer an "Atlantis Found" tabloid story; the accompanying photo was identified by his Duke colleague Lawrence Richardson as showing a classical temple in Paestum, which was a Greek outcropping in southern Italy.

Clay and Purvis consider other Greek utopian variations. The society of Amazons, or female fighters, occurs as early as Homer's Iliad. A society in which men are subordinate to women or non-existent was an "impossible society" analogous to More's Utopia. It was the kind of society that Charlotte Perkins Gilman would invent for her 1915 work Herland. Gilman describes an all-female country established after men's destructiveness has wiped out civilization. The story begins two thousand years after the cataclysm. According to an interpretation by Women's Studies reference archivist Elizabeth Dunn, the three male explorers who discover Herland "are treated to an edifying tour of this beautiful, unpolluted country where women, dressed in comfortable unisex clothing, pursue every needed occupation, each according to her skills and desires. Decision-making is collective, reproduction is through parthenogenesis, and child welfare is paramount." Herself a social reformer, Gilman trained her own critical gaze ona present society that wouldn't pass the Nineteenth Amendment, which permitted women's suffrage, until 1920.

Utopian writers aren't just critical of their home societies; they're also responding to an age of exploration, of encounters with the exotic, as they envision what Clay and Purvis call "utopias of the inaccessible present." Back in the fourth century B.C., philosopher Euhemeros of Messene traveled as far as the Indian Ocean, where he situated his imagined civilization.

His New Atlantis, 1627: Sir Francis Bacon's paean to scientific progress
Rare book, manuscript, and special collections library, Duke University

Herland, 1915: an all-female country, described in a feminist fantasy

A later writer, Iamboulos, conceives of Islands of the Sun, an archipelago of seven perfectly round islands of exactly the same size. The inhabitants, "creatures of great beauty," enjoy a perfectly temperate climate, abundant resources, and communal relationships rather than marriage. There are other unconventional relationships. Infants are put on the backs of a particular species of big birds; as the birds take flight, "those of the babes who can endure this flight through the air they raise, but those who become nauseous and terrified they dispose of, reckoning that they will not live long and are not worth raising because of the weakness of their character." At the end of a life span fixed by law, an islander seeks out "a unique species of plant." As a person lies down upon the plant, "he imperceptibly falls in a peaceful slumber and dies in his sleep."

Utopian literature always combines a revulsion toward present reality and a desire for a better world; it commonly appears, then, in periods of abrupt transition. As the scholar Frederic R. White observed in his classic Famous Utopias of the Renaissance, the Renaissance was fertile ground for utopian writing because it was, above all, an age of great change. It was also a time of social crisis: Thomas More, in his Utopia, confronted his readers with questions about a regimen of severe punishment for criminals, British imperial ambitions, and landowner privileges. "I am persuaded that till property is taken away," he writes, "there can be no equitable or just distribution of things, nor can the world be happily governed; for as long as that is maintained, the greatest and the far best part of mankind will be still oppressed with a load of cares and anxieties."

The name of Utopia's European discoverer is Hythlodaeus, which in Greek means Knower of Nonsense. More isn't so much mocking his islanders as he's mocking the unsympathetic attitudes that he ascribes to his British readers, Clay says. He compares More's literary intention to Shakespeare's Tempest, when the shipwrecked Gonzalo imagines himself as king of the seemingly deserted island on which they find themselves. King Alonso's reaction to Gonzalo--"Prithee, no more: Thou dost talk nothing to me"--is the reaction More expected to his Utopia. In anticipating a hostile reaction to Hythlodaeus' account of Utopian society, More is attacking the insularity of English society. England doesn't come out well in this war of ideas between islands. As best as Utopia can be mapped, it seems it would be on the same latitude as England. Communal in spirit and dismissive of any privileged class, if also regimented and seemingly devoid of creative expression, Utopia is the counterimage of England. "As Hythlodaeus says explicitly," Clay points out,"the discovery of a new world is greeted with contempt by the old."

Though separated by about a century, More and another utopian writer of the period, Francis Bacon, led somewhat parallel lives. Both came from distinguished families. Both studied and practiced law. Both entered public life at a comparatively early age and became Lord Chancellor. Both ran into problems with their sovereign and were condemned and imprisoned in the Tower of London. More, who refused to sanction Henry VIII's marriage outside the Catholic faith, died as a religious devotee. Bacon, so the story goes, met his death through devotion to experimental science: While testing the preservative powers of snow, he contracted a chill and died.

For Bacon, Plato's tale of the destruction of the island empire of Atlantis was to be taken seriously as natural history. His New Atlantis was published the year after his death in 1627. Clay and Purvis call this a "utopia of discovery." Bacon moved the project of Plato's Atlantis 180 degrees around the globe, all the way to the South Sea (or Pacific) and the island of Ben Salem. The remote island civilization discovered there by English sailors bases its activities in Solomon's House, a sort of scientific study center "dedicated to the study of the Works and Creatures of God."

Duke history professor Seymour Mauskopf, a historian of science, says New Atlantis was "apparently something of a model for the organization of the Royal Society of London." Bacon may have written the work as a "white paper," he says, to get King James I to invest funds for the kind of research projects Bacon envisioned. "New Atlantis is taken as an early model of scientific research, although one has to very careful not to be too 'presentist' about this--that is, to make Bacon out to know what kind of scientific research was going to develop over the next three or four centuries."

On Bacon's Ben Salem, the scientific guild plunges into deep caves to produce "new artificial metals" and for "curing of some diseases"; builds high towers for "the view of divers meteors" and special glasses "to see small and minute bodies perfectly and distinctly"; sets up devices for wind- and waterpower; cross-breeds plants and animals; crafts musical instruments that produce sweet sounds; produces deadly gunpowder; has "some degrees of flying in the air" along with "ships and boats for going under water"; and even boasts an early version of a Disney theme park, "houses of deceits of the senses" that represent "all manner of feats of juggling, false apparitions, impostures, and illusions." The chief scientist, as it were, tells his visitors that "The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible."

New Atlantis is an optimist's view of utopia; it looks to a prospective age of enlightenment. Linking as it did scientific progress and human progress, it gave rise to works like the behaviorist fantasy of B.F. Skinner's Walden Two. Perkins Library's fall exhibit on "New Worlds Imagined" celebrated the science-driven utopian dreams captured in world's fairs. The New York World's Fair of 1939--on the eve of a wrenching breakdown of the international order--showcased a promising "world of tomorrow." That tomorrow would be a comfort zone of television, radio, plastics, highways, nuclear energy, videophones, robots, and dishwashers.

Such fantasy futures have shaped the vision of thinkers like the Dutch architect Constant Nieuwenhuys (who streamlined his name to Constant). Constant's models of the 1960s for a futurist city, New Babylon--which seem to cast a critical gaze back to the bland building types of commercial culture--are being shown in New York this winter. New Babylon would be a place given over to the pleasure principle. But Constant realized that the pleasure-principle city could be as constricting as Bacon's rationalist city. So, as a New York Times assessment of the current show puts it, "in a final series of drawings, he sketches an apocalypse in black and red: madness, slavery, dehumanization, the dystopian consequences of unquenchable desire."

One lesson of utopian literature is that these perfect places--often meant to reflect on the imperfections of other human creations--aren't necessarily livable places. Even as Disney World devotes itself to the pleasure principle, Duke's Susan Willis refers to its "absolute domination of program over spontaneity." Every ride in this utopian theme park "runs to computerized schedules," she writes. "There is no possibility of an awful thrill, like being stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel." Even queues for the rides "zigzag dutifully on a prescribed path."

Can a place free of striving and setback be a place of pure contentment? Diskin Clay says there isn't much of a role for the arts in the well-ordered society; they're simply not needed. Paradoxically, utopias are expressions of political philosophy, but they can't accommodate political philosophy, because "society has to be disordered for philosophy to be necessary." And they don't place much of a premium on individual accomplishment. Observing that even their founding members don't command much adulation, he says that in these imagined utopias, "Perfection is anonymous."


Tall order: the fair's 270-foot ferris wheel, --higher than Duke Chapel

The nineteenth-century English poet Matthew Arnold once criticized the American people for having "no ancient monuments of man's industry and devotion; no historical past to inspire reverence and kindle imagination." As if in response to Arnold, nineteenth century American elites decided to commemorate Columbus' discovery of America with a year-long celebration. They took $25 million and transformed 700 acres of Chicago marshlands into a New Jerusalem. In viewing the glistening fairgrounds, a contemporary observer mused, "Who is the greater, a man like More who dreams of a Utopia, or one who brings his imagination within the bounds of reason and creates one?"

For many Americans--the twelve million who visited the fairgrounds and the millions more who read about the event in their newspapers--the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 demonstrated man's industry and offered a utopian vision of the future. Though it was a temporary city--designed and built only for this event and destined for salvage and destruction after the close of the fair--it left its mark on the planners, exhibitors, visitors, and workers. The exposition, particularly its ethnographic exhibits, introduced Americans to a hierarchical arrangement of African, Asian, and European cultures.

During the dedication, T.W. Palmer, president of the fair, told the Chicago press: "I think it will astound every one who visits it, both on account of its magnitude and what they will consider its artistic merits. It would be fairylike if it were not so colossal. It is a vision snatched from dreams whose lines have been brought out and well defined by the iodine of art. As an educational force and inspiration, I believe, the buildings, their grouping, and laying out of the grounds will in themselves do more good in a general way than the exhibits themselves, by the exaltation that it will inspire in every man, woman, and child...who may come to view it."

The words "big," "colossal," and "stupendous" constantly recur in the writings of fairgoers. As they approached the site on the South Shore of Lake Michigan, visitors entered the Court of Honor--a collection of buildings exhibiting achievements in agriculture, electricity, manufacturing, mining, and machinery.

The Court of Honor lay at the heart of the White City--a city devoid of residents, a city where each building evoked the Italian Renaissance. This magisterial landscape featured clean streets and buildings manufactured of a brilliant white faux marble; it starkly contrasted with the filthy streets and blackened buildings of America's urban centers.

The planners of the Columbian Exposition viewed the American nation as a successor to the ancient republics and empires. Chicago's New Jerusalem was a New Greece or a New Rome. For scholars today, the exposition represents the cultural tensions of fin de siecle America. The White City celebrated High Culture, while the Midway Plaisance, with its prominent Ferris Wheel, promoted pleasure through technology and the emerging ethos of consumerism.

--Trudi Abel

Abel, a visiting assistant professor of history, spoke in Perkins Library's "New Worlds Imagined" series.

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