Personal Dystopias

21 June 2010


In some earlier posts I have mentioned Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius’ lectures on Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century from The Teaching Company (specifically in The Threshold of Atrocity). One of Liulevicius’ themes is that the attempt to realize ideologically-inspired utopias has more often than not issued in actual dystopias. This is not a theme unique to Liulevicius, but has been a matter of some comment once the trends of the twentieth century became clear. Ideologically motivated terrorist organizations as ruthless and bloodthirsty as the Khmer Rouge, Sendero Luminoso, and Al Qaeda, in their pursuit of utopian political communities, have been the source of death, destruction, and immiserization.

Plato begins the utopian tradition in Western political thought, and therefore also unintentially initiates the dystopian tradition as well.

Such “efforts” — if such we may call them — constitute utopian thinking on a grand scale — visionary utopianism — and therefore issue in dystopian circumstances on a grand scale — if you will, visionary dystopia. While this is the most familiar species of the genus (i.e., the genus of dystopias), it is not the only species of the genus. In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates begins with the inquiry as to what constitutes a just man, and then asserts that, since it is easier to see justice in the large than justice in the small, that he will first inquire into what constitutes a just state. This inquiry constitutes the bulk of the Republic — another utopia which, if realized, would have been a genuinely philosophical dystopia — and so we think of the Republic as a work of political philosophy. But Plato’s Socrates does eventually come around and apply his theory of a just state, mutatis mutandis, to the question of what constitutes a just man. So too it is with dystopia: it is seen more easily in the large than in the small.

Today it occurred to me that small scale dystopias — dystopias decidedly less gruesome than the “visionary” dystopias of the likes of the Khmer Rouge — are not at all uncommon in life, and that they follow from similar motives; namely, the desire to have things be perfect. I am sure that almost anyone reading this who has some life experience has known someone (if not several persons) who are so obsessed with getting things right and making things perfect that these efforts ultimately make the other people around them miserable and unhappy because of their demands for perfection. This is especially the case in regard to the planning of events that are especially valued and which the planners and at least many if not most of the participants would like to have come off as a wonderful event that leaves everyone concerned with wonderful memories. I am thinking about events like weddings and graduations and maybe even birthday parties.

This obsession with perfection and getting everything right, quite explicitly undertaken with the idea that it is in the selfless service of the happiness of others, often takes on a dark and sinister edge. This is one reason I have always instinctively hated and avoided events and parties and social occasions of all kinds. And I have no doubt that many who plan and participate in such events are so deluded that they truly believe that a good time was had by all and that everyone took home wonderful memories. Probably many people did. But by now we all know that utopias come at a cost, and they always come at the greatest cost for those who are least valued. One of the slogans of the Khmer Rouge was, “To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss.” In other words, if you weren’t with the Khmer Rouge, you were against them, and if you were against them they would rather you were dead. And this was a slogan upon which they acted vigorously and decisively.

It might seem a little bit overly-dramatic for me to compare a wedding or a party gone sour to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, but I believe that both follow from the same source, and as long as we are not aware of how utopian thinking goes horribly wrong, we are vulnerable to its depredations on the ordinary — and imperfect — business of life. The overly-eager party planner who wants to regiment the lives of others for an evening is a terrorist in miniature who creates a personal dystopia, and we should be as proportionately intolerant with this kind of for-your-own-good meddling as we are (or should be) proportionately intolerant of terrorism. It is imperfection that makes us human and teaches us humility, and in this spirit we ought to celebrate our imperfections, if not as what is best in us, at least as part of what is best in us.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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hope utopia perfection progress

Part I

Theoretical Reflection

1.0 An unstable future is more likely to inspire fear than hope, but an exhaustive tradition in which everything is determined in totality is perhaps even worse than fear of the unknown.

2.0 Mature institutions converge on totality, foreclosing upon instability (hence also opportunity) in the name of order, and perhaps also in the name of perfection, as in the pursuit of a more perfect union.

3.0 In so far as perfection is understood to be a finished state, an end attained, perfection cannot incorporate progress—there can only be progress toward perfection, never progress in perfection.

3.1 Even if perfection must be innocent of progress, we can still define progress as a utopian process as contrasted to a finished utopian state of being.

3.2 While progress and utopia are mutually exclusive, they are also intimately related—there must be progress in order to achieve utopia, but in the same motion that utopia is realized, progress ceases.

3.21 The ladder of progress is to be cast away once of the summit of utopia has been surmounted; the end of history has arrived.

4.0 Hope is a disposition, not an emotion.We can distinguish between the disposition of hope and the emotion associated with hope.

4.1 While it would be inaccurate to call hope an emotion, there is a hopeful state of mind that qualifies as an emotion.

4.11 This hopeful state of mind could be called hopefulness, in order to distinguish it from hope proper.

4.12 In same way, while it would be inaccurate to call love an emotion, there is a loving state of mind that qualifies as an emotion.

4.2 Hope and love are dispositions that admit of parallelism.

4.21 The hopeful state of mind (4.1), i.e., hopefulness, and the loving state of mind (4.11) are emotions that admit of parallelism.

5.0 Hope and expectation can be distinguished.

5.1 Although hope and expectation are distinct, and can be distinguished by those who care to distinguish them, hope and expectation cannot however be disentangled in the life of any individual.

5.2 Hopes and expectations naturally escalate when things are going well, each one contributing to the other, so that expectations of a certain standard of living encourage one to hope for better, while this on-going hope for the better, if it receives any encouragement at all, often leads to an expectation of an improved standard of living, inspiring, in turn, further hopes to live better yet.

5.3 When an individual’s circumstances are declining the expectation of a declining standard of living is checked by hopes that these expectations will not be fulfilled, so that the unrealistic spiral of hopes and expectations during good times are rarely brought down to realistic levels even in poor times.

6.0 Human beings, being driven primarily by emotion, are more readily reached through hopefulness than through hope sensu stricto.

6.1 Even where hope has fled, hopefulness often remains, which explains why (5.3) when an individual’s circumstances are declining… etc.

6.2 Wittgenstein wrote in the Foreword to his Philosophical Remarks that he would like to say that he had written the book to the glory of God, but, he says, that would be chicanery today. Similarly, to mention hope today sounds like chicanery, and even those who have not read T. S. Eliot’s line that “hope would be hope for the wrong thing,” would instinctively understand the lines and believe them to be an accurate summary of our present condition.

6.21 Hope for the wrong thing is possible because hopefulness subsists even in the absence of hope.

7.0 If politics cultivated hope in the way it now cultivates anger, the world would be a different place than it is today.

Part II

Practical Application

1.0 To counteract stagnancy and despair an explicit policy of encouraging change, promoting progress, and inspiring enthusiasm for the future should be pursued without apologies to any who find the measures unrealistic, sentimental, insufficiently sophisticated for our time, or just plain wrong. Progress has had its share of critics—perhaps more than its share of critics. Perhaps it is time for the advocates of progress to make their case again. It would be difficult to identify an idea that came in for more abuse in the twentieth century than the idea of progress.

2.0 The events of the twentieth century constitute an inductive argument against progress as an operative principle of world history.

3.0 Being an operative principle of world history is a matter distinct from being worthy and admirable, or even from being the source of whatever was worthy and admirable in a century of crimes and atrocities.

4.0 We are not obliged to take facts for our ideals, and we are not in error if we are unable to transform our ideals into facts.

5.0 We are bound to history and its unsavory facts, but we are not absolutely bound, and we also have the capacity to transcend history.

5.1 The events of history, while not inevitable, occur within the parameters of the possible.

5.2 The parameters of the possible are established by past events without being determined by them.

5.21 Past events establish a point of departure for events of the future without determining events of the future.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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