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Merlin Coverley

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Merlin Coverley

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For more than 2,000 years utopian visionaries have sought to create a blueprint of the ideal society: from Plato to HG Wells, from Cloud cuckoo land to Shangri-La, the utopian impulse has generated a vast body of work, encompassing philosophy and political theory, classical literature and science fiction. And yet these utopian dreams have often turned to nightmare, as utopia gives way to its dark reflection, dystopia.

Utopia takes the reader on a journey through these imaginary worlds, charting the progress of utopian ideas from their origins within the classical world, to the rebirth of utopian ideals in the Middle Ages. Later we see the emergence of socialist and feminist ideas; while the twentieth century was to be dominated by expressions of totalitarian oppression. From the novel to the political manifesto, from satire to science fiction, utopias have always reflected the age that gave rise to them, and this guide will explore this historical context, offering both an analysis of the key texts and an account of their political and cultural background.

Today, it is claimed that we are witnessing the death of utopia, as increasingly the ideals that give rise to them are undermined or dismissed. These arguments are explored and evaluated here, and contemporary examples of utopian thought used to demonstrate the enduring relevance of the utopian tradition.

'Crams a lot of information into a slim guide...Cleverly written' - Fortean Times

'Although a slim paperback, this book turns out to be quite exhaustive on the chosen topic and, in its brevity, to be quite original in its perspective as well' - Modern Language Review

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The Birth of Utopia: The Golden Age

The first eutopias we know of are myths that look to the past of the human race or beyond death for a time when human life was or will be easier and more gratifying. They have various labels – golden ages, Arcadias, earthly paradises, fortunate isles, isles of the blest. They are peopled with our earliest ancestors; heroes and, very rarely, heroines; the virtuous dead; or in some cases, contemporaneous but little-known noble savages…These utopias of sensual gratification are social dreaming at its simplest. Every culture has some such stories. Gregory Claeys & Lyman Tower Sargent.1
The term Utopia was coined by Thomas More in his work of 1516 and has spawned a vast literary tradition that continues to this day. And yet the desires and the fears which this term has come to encapsulate are to be found within the earliest forms of human expression, present in both the oldest examples of the written word, and no doubt originating in the oral traditions which preceded them. In the Western world, this utopian tradition anticipates More’s celebrated text by more than 2,000 years, and it is rooted in the earliest myths of a golden age. Many of these myths are also to be found in the utopias of the Middle Ages, brought together through the intervening centuries by the crucial role of Christianity in shaping these early utopian longings into a coherent system of belief. The Christian millennium provides a utopian future towards which the believer may strive, while heaven awaits for the chosen few after death. But, in the pre-Christian era, utopias tended to describe a time long since passed, a lost age of earthly abundance to be contrasted with the hardships of the present. It is here that utopia was born, within tales of lost civilisations whose history continues to resonate today.

The Myth of Atlantis

The source of the Atlantis myth is commonly ascribed to Plato.2 As the story goes, Egyptian priests told Solon, the semi-mythical Athenian poet and lawgiver who lived some three generations before Plato, about a city which had been destroyed by a cataclysmic flood some 9,000 years earlier – in around 9600BC.3 First in the Timaeus, and later in the Critias, in which the island is described in some detail, Plato relates how Atlantis was founded by the god Poseidon, who fathered the island’s first inhabitants in conjunction with the beautiful Cleito. This Atlantean civilisation was based upon a main island which also ruled over several lesser kingdoms on smaller islands and was, initially at least, an earthly paradise of abundance and harmony. The historian of the occult, Jonathan Black, has provided the following summary of the Platonic account:
The largest island was dominated by a beautiful and fertile plain and a large hill. Here Cleito lived, and the people enjoyed food which grew abundantly on the island. Two streams of water came up through the earth, one of hot water and one of cold.
To keep Cleito for himself, Poseidon had a series of circular canals dug around the hill. In time a sophisticated civilisation grew up, taming wild animals, mining metals and building – temples, palaces, race-courses, gymnasiums, public baths, government buildings, harbours and bridges. Many walls were coated with metals – with brass, tin and a red metal, unknown to us, called orichalcum. The temples had roofs of ivory and pinnacles of silver and gold. The islands of Atlantis were ruled over by ten kings each with his own kingdom, the nine others being subservient to the ruler of the largest island. The central temple, dedicated to Poseidon, had statues of gold, including one of the god standing in a chariot pulled by six-winged horses and flanked by hundreds of Nereids riding dolphins. Live bulls roamed freely around the forest of columns in this temple, and every five or six years the kings who ruled the islands were left alone in the temple to hunt these bulls without weapons. They would capture one, lead it up to the great column of orichalcum, inscribed with the laws of Atlantis, and there behead it.
Life on the islands of Atlantis was generally idyllic. In fact life was so good that eventually people could not bear it any longer and began to become restless, decadent and corrupt, searching after novelty and power. So Zeus decided to punish them. The islands were flooded until only small islets remained, like a skeleton sticking out of the sea. Then finally a great earthquake engulfed all that was left in the course of one day and one night.4
For Plato, the history of Atlantis is a cautionary tale, in which a society that could once boast perfection is gradually weakened by luxury and corruption, a process of degeneration through which this first utopia is gradually transformed into its opposite, a dystopia. Indeed, Plato contrasts the negative example of Atlantis with the ideal attributes of Athens, the society which was to attain greatness through its heroic struggle with Atlantis. In this light, Plato’s Atlantis can be viewed as little more than a fairy tale, a device with which to bolster the foundation myth of Athens, and it has since been dismissed as a product of Plato’s imagination. Aristotle implies precisely this when he claims, ‘Plato alone made Atlantis rise out of the sea, and then he submerged it again.’5 But Plato’s account is corroborated by numerous other references to Atlantis throughout classical literature, from Proclus to Pliny, and Plutarch to Posidonius. Indeed, Plato’s description finds further confirmation in other ancient cultures: ‘The Aztecs recorded that they came from “Aztlan… the land in the middle of the water”. Sometimes this land was called “Aztlan of the Seven Caves”. It was depicted as a central, large step pyramid surrounded by six smaller pyramids. According to traditions collected by the invading Spaniards, humanity had nearly been wiped out by a vast flood…’6 Certainly, Plato’s date of 9600BC corresponds with that of the Aztecs, in placing this flood at around the end of the Ice Age. This lends the Atlantis legend both the support of modern geological science, as well as placing it within the wider context of biblical accounts of the Flood, which have been recounted across numerous other cultures.
The legend of Atlantis is a powerfully symbolic one, for there is no clear agreement as to its true location. Today, its existence acts as a shorthand for all those civilisations that time has erased but whose identity lives on in a kind of half-life, somewhere between the reassuring permanence of historical fact and the ethereal otherworldliness of myth. Furthermore, the destruction of Atlantis was an act of punishment, and here its utopian perfection can be identified as the very cause of its downfall, acting both as a rebuke against hubris and a reminder of the inherent dangers of the quest for human perfectibility: ‘The Atlantis belief helps to perpetuate the idea of a multiplicity of worlds, all striving to attain perfection, seeking absolution for the sin that drowned their world and gradually growing nearer forgiveness through the ages.’7

The Golden Age

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating from the third millennium BC, Utnapishtim, Noah’s Sumerian counterpart, describes a place called Dilmun, where ‘the croak of the raven was not heard, the bird of death did not utter the cry of death, the lion did not devour, the wolf did not tear the lamb, the dove did not mourn, there was no widow, no sickness, no old age, no lamentation.’8
Of course, the literary myth of a primeval world of limitless abundance is a universal one, its Christian equivalent to be found in the Book of Genesis as the Garden of Eden. An anthropological explanation for the ubiquity of such imagery, in which fantasies about food predominate, appears to be that, contrary to common belief, early hunter-gatherer societies enjoyed both better nutrition and greater leisure than the primitive agriculturists which were to succeed them.9 Because men and women were forced to abandon a way of life that was, relatively speaking, one of ease and plenty, in order to accommodate a higher density of population, these ancient dreams of the good life invariably display a retrogressive longing for a time now passed, a Golden Age never to be revisited.
This outlook was to find its most fervent expression in the poem Works and Days, by the Greek poet of the eighth century BC, Hesiod. A farmer’s son living on the slopes of Mount Helicon in central Greece, and disenchanted with the unrelenting toil of his own age, Hesiod imagines a long-lost era of prosperity in which men lived as gods, contrasting this Golden Age with the paucity of his own existence. In this way, Hesiod describes a process of gradual deterioration, as the Golden Age was to give way to a Silver Age and later a Bronze, as man’s innate foolishness and warlike nature destroy the idyllic existence that he once enjoyed. Following the brief respite afforded by the Age of Heroes, Hesiod describes man’s fall into the fifth and final age, his own Age of Iron, a time characterised by strife and hunger:
Fifth is the race that I call my own and abhor.
O to die, or be later born, or born before!
This is the Race of Iron. Dark is their plight.
Toil and sorrow is theirs, and by night
The anguish of death and the gods afflict them and kill,
Though there’s yet a trifle of good amid manifold ill.
An unhappy age made all the more difficult to bear through comparison with its golden forbear:
The gods who own Olympus as dwelling-place
deathless, made first of mortals a Golden Race
(this was the time when Kronos in heaven dwelt)
and they lived like gods and no sorrow of heart they felt.
Nothing for toil or pitiful age they cared,
but in strength of hand and foot still unimpaired
they feasted gaily, undarkened by sufferings
They died as if falling asleep; and all good things
were theirs, for the fruitful earth unstintingly bore
unforced her plenty, and they, amid their store
enjoyed their landed ease which...