Literature Versus Utopia: An Ancient Quarrel

By John FarrellJune 30, 2019

Literature Versus Utopia: An Ancient Quarrel
IT WAS THE LAST DAY of fifth grade at St. Matthew’s School in Providence, Rhode Island, and my 11-year-old self was staring at the walls of the classroom feeling puzzled. For months, I had been confined by those walls five days a week, looking forward to my liberation from an angry, unhappy teacher. But that afternoon, gazing around for the last time, I was suddenly struck with sadness at the thought that I would never see these too familiar walls again. The unaccountable mixture of feelings left me with an indelible impression.

It happened a second time when I was a teenager reading the novels of Dickens. I felt exquisite, sympathetic pleasure in following the long-drawn-out sufferings of his good, simple characters as they were persecuted by supremely hateful villains, but as the fortunes of the victims inevitably rose, my sympathies waned. Apparently it was not the goodness of the victims that made me care for them but their sufferings, and to see those sufferings relieved, even as I longed for it to happen, produced more than a tinge of guilty regret, leading me to question my own hopes for the improvement of the world. Once again, getting my wish for an end to misery left me with a paradoxical melancholy.

Misery, evidently, has its pleasures and its claims, both in life and in art. This can hardly come as a surprise since the literature of the world, catering as it must to our dreams, dwells heavily upon doom, disaster, disorder, and pain. However the story ends, if it wants to keep our attention, its vital substance must be trouble. Aristotle tells us that tragedy engages us most fully and pleasurably when we see the worst possible things happening to people we admire; the mere outline of a tragic plot should give a thrill of horror, and that horror is the key to its appeal. In the optimally gratifying instances, he adds, horror comes from within the family because that is most dreadful. When Aristotle says that among tragedians Euripides understood this best, he was undoubtedly thinking of plays like The Bacchae, in which we watch the mother of the main character, having triumphantly torn him apart in a Dionysian frenzy, gradually recover her senses and try to piece him back together.

The deep connection between literature and suffering suggests that imaginary societies designed for secular happiness will have rather little appeal as a literary subject. Utopia, in other words, will never become a central literary genre because the very premise of a world in which happiness is the norm threatens to remove the very thing that makes literature engaging. Even comedy, to be effective, dwells upon difficulty and confusion — until the happy ending hustles the lucky characters offstage before their blessings have a chance to cloy. As agents, we may aim at happiness, and utopia charms as an idea, but as spectators we prefer struggle and pain. This raises the suspicion that our affinity for happiness is strictly limited, and that many of us are dystopians at heart, most deeply at home in what Conrad called “the destructive element.”

Revolutionary schemes for universal happiness have, of course, played a role in modern history far beyond their literary presence, and Marxist critics like Ernst Bloch and Fredric Jameson can find utopian elements almost anywhere in culture. Utopian thinking can hold up a target for progressive reform; in the words of Oscar Wilde, “A map of the world that does not contain utopia is not worth even glancing at.” Humankind is always setting off for a new territory of hope. “Progress,” Wilde says, “is the realisation of Utopias.” But it is far more striking that modern experiments in utopia — communist experiments above all — have grandly indulged the literary preference for suffering. Indeed, in the long term Thomas More’s game of inventing imaginary societies as a way of commenting on one’s own has produced an endless supply of dystopian fantasies. In the soil of the imagination, it seems, when a thousand flowers bloom, most will be flowers of evil.

Since the interests of literature and the interests of utopia are so strikingly at odds, it is telling that utopian speculation, from its beginnings in Greek philosophy down to the time of More, emerged from a culture in which literature provided either the dominant outlook or one of its major components, to which utopian thinking was a reaction. Dystopia, in other words, has its own philosophy, its own classic worldview, so pervasive and potent, and so effective in its literary form, that until the arrival of modernity it rarely needed a defense. I am thinking of the outlook of heroic-aristocratic culture, a worldwide historical phenomenon that has its canonical European form in the epic poetry of Homer.

The heroic worldview centers on a value with so many aspects that no one word can capture it. Honor, respect, dignity, status, glory, esteem, legend, fame — these are a few of its names. War is its proving ground. As the Athenian leader Pericles proclaims in the funeral oration reported by Thucydides, death in battle provides for the fallen, “in a small moment of time, the climax of their lives, a culmination of glory […] that remains eternal in men’s minds.” The respect gained in conflict is passed down from father to son. The Trojan hero Hector expresses the ideal in Book 6 of the Iliad when he holds up his baby boy Astyanax and prays that, “like me, he will be preeminent among the Trojans […] and some day let them say of him, ‘He is better by far than his father’” when he brings home the “blooded spoils.” Money and property have their place in the heroic world but chiefly as means for displaying power or exchanging favors among warriors. Women, with few exceptions, play the role of booty, prizes for masculine conquest. Both giving and taking are heroic, self-glorifying actions, and every valuable action has a heroic character. In the Iliad, even the mosquito symbolizes valor because it never tires of pursuing human blood.

A dark pessimism lies at the heart of the epic worldview. There is no hope for mortals to persist beyond the grave. “Like leaves,” says the god Apollo, mortals “now flourish and grow warm with life […] but then again fade away.” Mortality is the feature that distinguishes human beings from gods, and the only way to transcend mortal existence is by surviving in the minds of others through family and fame. The resulting outlook is deeply conservative. Greatness resides in the past inherited from one’s ancestors, and however grim the warrior’s life, however meager the existence of mortals compared with that of the gods, an eternal glamour attaches to the human past and to its memory. Everything older is better, grander, more glorious. Even the doings of the immortals, denizens of an ageless perfection, and so not subject to the enhancements of time and epic distance, pale in interest next to the legends of mortal heroes. For immortal beings, no permanent change is possible, no pain or trouble can truly touch them, unless it is an attachment to mortal fates, and for that reason they cannot transcend utopian banality. Their power compels worship but not praise. Poets, on the other hand, claim a grand share of glory as the bearers of memory, engaging in heroic performances of their own as they celebrate the deeds of the past. The link between memory, poetic making, and the heroic past is unbreakable.

It would be wrong, of course, to say that Homer does not recognize the value of domestic felicity. The stories of Achilles, Odysseus, and their literary descendant Aeneas are all designed to illustrate the sacrifice of everyday happiness demanded by the heroic ethos, and the charms of home and peace have never been more achingly attractive than in light of their ruin in the Trojan War. Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, even questions the choice of fame over long life and happiness, though in the end he too makes the heroic choice. In the underworld of the Odyssey we see him lamenting the emptiness of existence in the afterlife but still transported by the glory of his son’s accomplishments.

Inequality, clearly, is no by-product of the heroic-aristocratic mode but its motivating feature. Conflict separates the victors from the vanquished, showing that some people — and some families — are simply better than others, and therefore justifying a scale of human worth that stretches from king to slave. With few exceptions, it is precisely this view of life, stressing the accumulation of honor and wealth, that has been the target of humanity’s great reformers. Buddha and Jesus are among the most explicit about the need to shatter blood ties, inverting the order of merit so that the last shall be first. “If any man come to me,” Jesus says, “and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” It is easy to see why late advocates of the heroic worldview such as Friedrich Nietzsche were so antagonized by reformers of this sort, and by the strain in Greek philosophy that rejected the aristocratic code.

The philosophical critique of the heroic worldview, in the thinking of Plato and the various Hellenistic schools (Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics), depended essentially upon a rational reassessment of human needs and values which rejected the notion that fame and the violent struggle against other human beings can be the chief source of happiness or the purpose of life. Living according to nature, not to be better than others or to survive as a fantasy in the minds of others, is the keynote of Greek philosophical ethics. Wisdom is seeking tranquility instead of glory, leisure instead of wealth, personal well-being instead of familial status. Social and political ambition are to be replaced by the contemplation of truth, the pleasure of discussion with friends, or the peaceful detachment that comes from accepting the limits of our knowledge. Philosophy’s goal is to overcome the turbulence of the body, with its carnal and competitive urges, and to preserve the health and balance of the psyche. Wisdom looks to the joy of the present, not the glory of past and future. In all of these ways, philosophy offered a pointed alternative to the heroic mode.

The philosophic worldview is also far friendlier to women than the heroic one, seeing them as rational creatures rather than as prizes for male competition, and it strives to undermine the terrifying Homeric view of the gods as idle children dabbling for the sake of diversion in the fates of human beings. For all of these reasons philosophy is critical of literature, and particularly of Homer, where all of the heroic attitudes are most vividly displayed. This is the “ancient quarrel between literature and philosophy” referred to by Plato in The Republic, his account of how to build the “beautiful and good city.” Plato does not banish the arts entirely, not even the martial ones, but they will have to serve his vision of the city as a rational order mirroring the proper order of the individual psyche. Later schools of philosophy would only widen the gap between the natural life of the philosopher and the common delusions of custom, religion, and the heroic. Aristotle, the tutor of Alexander the Great, is a partial exception. He considers honor for its own sake as worthy of choice and the benefits of family and social life as necessary supplements to philosophic wisdom in achieving the good life. His “great-souled man” retains a good measure of heroic grandeur.

For all its intellectual glamour, philosophy cannot be declared the victor in this ancient quarrel. The literary and social dominance of the heroic mode began to weaken only in the European 18th century; until that time, few ever doubted that Homer was the greatest of poets or that the aristocratic implications of epic literature were still valid for society. Philosophy, even wedded with medieval Christianity and its cult of poverty, did little to undermine the legitimate inequality of blood. But the opening of the Old World to the New, which brought reports of unknown peoples living without European luxury, “according to nature,” set the philosophical imagination newly dreaming. In the record of Amerigo Vespucci’s voyages, the peoples of the New World are described as Epicureans, engaging in no trade or barter, “content with what nature gave them,” and holding European riches to be “of no value at all.” It was just the first of many utopian fantasies inspired by the crossing of the Atlantic, and it provided the stimulus for Thomas More’s invention of an imaginary society free of inequality.

True to its anti-aristocratic purpose, Utopia (1516) begins with a critique of More’s England as put forward by Master Raphael Hythloday, an imaginary mariner who claims to have sailed beyond Vespucci to the island of the Utopians. By exposing the complete irrationality of contemporary English society, More’s narrator prepares his readers for the appeal of Utopia’s unconventional but rational arrangements. Hythloday describes English life in terms quite similar to those one hears today from American political figures like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Society is a “conspiracy” of the greedy and idle rich, who live only to waste and squander at the expense of the poor, who do all the useful work. Among the most useless are the lawyers like More himself. The English display a “proud newfangleness in their apparel” and “prodigal riot and sumptuous fare at their table,” while those who resort to stealing out of poverty and desperation are subject to an excessive zeal for capital punishment. On top of this, Hythloday adds, the whole country is being eaten up by ravenous sheep, the labor-saving robots of the 16th century; he is referring to the enclosure of public lands to produce wool for the European market, which was for centuries a major source of disruption in the English countryside.

England in the 16th century was indeed undergoing social and economic upheavals that remind us of our own day, but the Utopians, we subsequently learn, have solved these problems by abolishing money and private property and making labor universal. Because everyone in Utopia works, no one has to work more than six hours a day, scholars alone being exempt. Utopians do enjoy some opulence, in public palaces and gardens, but without waste. The entire country is furnished with standard housing and other facilities, including public dining halls. Everyone dresses in the same modest fashion; there is no outlet for personal display, but “though no man has anything, every man is rich.” And although, contrary to Plato’s advice, Utopians do marry, Utopia is like a single happy family. The goal of society is for everyone, men and women alike, to have the maximum opportunity for study, making Utopia not only a philosopher’s paradise but a paradise of philosophers.

No respect, then, is accorded by the Utopians to aristocratic identity — the “opinion of nobility” — and every measure is taken to discourage the glamour of wealth and precious metals, which are accumulated by the commonwealth solely for foreign trade. In Utopia, gold and silver are put only to “vile uses” or trivial ones — children’s toys, for example, and chamber pots. Criminals, to their shame, are shackled in precious metals, generating mirth when foreign ambassadors arrive decked out in silver and gold like a Utopian chain gang. Utopian solutions can be whimsical — the imprinting of chicks, for instance, on their human owners — and Utopians enjoy a freedom of opinion about religion and even a provision for divorce that would have produced a quizzical reaction in More’s contemporaries. What is most striking, though, is Utopia’s anti-martial character. The Utopians have a rational horror of war and, when obliged to fight, they use mercenaries rather than risk the lives of citizens. Instead of open conflict they prefer “craft and deceit” and other distinctly unheroic measures — bribery, for instance, or assassination. Even hunting, the year-round pastime of European aristocrats, is considered by Utopians “a thing unworthy to be used by free men.” Indeed, the slaughter of animals just for food is forbidden to Utopian citizens. Utopia is, in every sense, a bloodless world.

At the end of Hythloday’s account, Thomas More, in his guise as the narrator of the story, decides not to tire the traveler with objections, but he notes that, in the communist system of the Utopians, “all nobility, magnificence, worship, honour, and majesty, the true ornaments and honours, as the common opinion is, of a commonwealth,” have been “utterly overthrown.” He is right, of course, but that is the mariner’s very point, that a rational commonwealth would require an overthrow of common opinion. Hythloday, however, is not so naïve as to think that a revolution of this sort could be accomplished in Europe. Against the urgings of his newly acquired friends, he insists that philosophy has “no place among kings,” who are interested only in making war and enlarging their dominions. Hythloday has enough experience of court to know that courtiers will not hear of notions they have not invented themselves. Human pride is the key obstacle. Rational self-interest and the example of Christ would have long ago instituted Utopia’s laws in Europe, he observes, “if it were not for one single monster, the prime plague and begetter of all others — I mean Pride.”

"Pride measures her advantages not by what she has but by what others lack. Pride would not condescend even to be made a goddess if there were no wretches for her to sneer at and domineer over. Her good fortune is dazzling only in comparison with the miseries of others."

The pride-driven hunger for inequality, in other words, the very basis of heroic-aristocratic culture, is so deeply embedded in human nature, so securely “entwined around the hearts of men,” that it “holds them back from choosing a better way of life.”

Thomas More puts forward his Utopia in an appropriately unheroic — indeed, mirthful — spirit. “Utopia,” famously, means “No Place”; “Hythloday” means “peddler of nonsense”; all the Utopian names are absurd and comical. The author and his humanist friends carried the joke beyond More’s text, which was accompanied by various correspondence (augmented in subsequent editions) in which they earnestly discuss the “No Place” as if it were a real place. For those who have grasped the anti-heroic message of Utopia, its obligatory opening tribute to “The most victorious and triumphant King of England, Henry the eighth of that name, in all royal virtues a prince most peerless” acquires a distinctly ironic ring. History added further ironies when More, failing to take Hythloday’s advice about the futility of teaching wisdom to kings, eventually lost his life giving Christian advice to a monarch. But the greatest irony is that More’s jeu d’esprit had an influence not only far beyond but very different from what he would have hoped when it made him a patron saint of modern, atheistic communism and one of the few people to be honored both in the Vatican and in Red Square.

The 20th century has amply demonstrated the specifically political problem of utopias — their fatal dependence upon the virtues of a ruling elite — but even setting that problem aside, More’s vision leaves a deeper question: would creatures so devoted to pride and the joys of distinction be content in a bloodless utopia? Deprived of the “poem of death,” as Wallace Stevens calls the heroic mode, would human beings become what Stevens predicted, “Castratos of moon-mash”? That is the question taken up in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World (1932), where the quarrel between philosophy and literature reaches a fascinating late impasse.

In the World State imagined by Huxley, people are mass-produced like cars, swearing not by “Our Lord” but by “Our Ford” — or even, occasionally, “Our Freud.” Grown in test tubes, “decanted” rather than born, citizens of the World State are designed for the level of intelligence, or stupidity, that makes their work enjoyable. They experience no deep emotions, none of the torments of Oedipal conflict. Indeed, the family has been completely eliminated. Instead of sexual repression there is compulsory promiscuity — “Everybody belongs to everybody.” Any remaining psychological wrinkles are smoothed out with Neo-Pavlovian conditioning, therapy, and a steady diet of narcotics. Ordinary citizens have no access to science or history or great literature, or to the solitude that could produce these things, all of which might disturb their tranquility and undermine political stability. Instead they have saccharine entertainments to divert them, and games like Electro-Magnetic Golf and Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy. This relentless regime of vapid pleasure makes Homer’s gods look industrious by comparison. In one scene, we witness a chorus of dancers beating loudly on each others’ buttocks: 

Orgy-porgy Ford and fun,
Kiss the girls and make them One,
Boys at one with girls at peace,
Orgy-porgy gives release.

Such happiness is both revolting and terrifying. These people have no idea what they’re not missing.

In Brave New World, the resistance to this puerile happiness originates, significantly, from the literary-heroic point of view. John Savage, the one character who has grown up outside the system, with a complicated relation to his own mother and an education serendipitously based on the works of Shakespeare, finds the World State’s stupefied contentment intolerable. His desires for love, sex, and intimacy are at once piqued and frustrated by the sexual carnival around him, and life in the World State offers no meaningful goals to struggle for. “Nothing costs enough here,” he complains, in a telling critique of utopian abundance. Savage wants love, God, freedom, struggle, grandeur, all the things he has read about in Shakespeare. He makes the complaint, held back by More in Utopia, that such paradise lacks all magnificence.

When Savage finally meets Mustapha Mond, the World State’s chief administrator — a scene recalling Ivan Karamazov’s fable of the Grand Inquisitor — he is told that all the things he is missing, things like nobility and heroism, are signs of “political inefficiency.” “What you want,” Mustafa tells him, “is the right to be unhappy.” Savage is in the odd position of preferring the means to happiness — freedom, dignity, love — to happiness itself. Without them, happiness loses its charm. “Actual happiness,” Mustafa explains, with suave psychoanalytic patience, “always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. […] And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune. […] Happiness is never grand.” The incompatibility of literary and utopian values could not be more vividly put.

Huxley is an ironist (an “amused, Pyrrhonic aesthete,” as he puts it himself) who does not take sides between the World State’s vacuous sensuality and Savage’s heroic neuroticism. In later years, when Brave New World made him a political sage, he wished he had provided a third, anarchist option. But here he pushes the ancient quarrel to its logical conclusion, an impasse suggesting that happiness does not play the strong motivational role we normally take it to play and that the allure of difficulty and inequality are more fundamental than happiness. For Savage, the heroic goals — respect, honor, distinction — are as basic as any other human needs. He might have quoted his favorite author to state the case. When King Lear is asked by his daughters why he needs a train of knights to follow after him, he replies:

O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest things superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.

It is a paradox — that necessity always goes beyond what is necessary; enough is never quite enough.

From the point of view of post-Enlightenment culture, it may look as if the ancient quarrel between literature and philosophy has been left behind, the modern democratic/technocratic order having been constructed in deliberate opposition both to the heroic cult of violence and to the philosophical regime of rational self-control. The decisive program of modern secular happiness took a very different direction, beginning to emerge only a century after More’s Utopia in the works of Francis Bacon, including his unfinished utopian fiction, New Atlantis (1626), where the ideal society is arranged for the maximum benefit of science and technology. Bacon believed that, if philosophy could only be supplanted by practical inquiry, all the inconveniences of human life, including the pains of aging and disease, would be remedied within a generation or two. The true protagonist of the Baconian revolution is the Spirit of the Age, especially as represented by three world-changing inventions — the printing press, gunpowder, and the compass. What Bacon offers is a vision of radical social transformation for the enhancement of human power: “Enlarging the bounds of Human Empire,” as he puts it.

Like his philosophical opponents, Bacon believes in submission to nature, but it is the command of nature that is his motive — “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” This theme was taken up in a different way by the 18th-century advocates of capitalism. Social abundance comes not by suppressing nature and its desires but by obeying them. In Adam Smith’s famous analogy, the “invisible hand” of the market converts the self-interested pursuit of individuals’ desires into an ideal system of distribution.

After three centuries of technocracy and free markets, the value of this strategy should be open to assessment. Has the satisfaction of desire on a broad social scale led to utopia? Can enough ever be enough?

People in the middle class of the developed world now enjoy a level of physical security, life expectancy, quality of health care, ease and speed of travel, variety and safety of diet, access to and quality of information and entertainment all unimaginable even by the monarchs and captains of industry of the 19th century, and perhaps well into the 20th. In many cases, these privileges are enjoyed in a political environment that imposes few restraints. Even those members of the American middle class who are not as well off as their parents are still better off in material terms than Napoleon or Queen Victoria, for all their lands, possessions, and servants.

Yet the results still cannot be described as ideal. Part of the reason is that those who enjoy these gifts suffer from the various hazards of their advantages, a long and all-too-familiar list that includes obesity and drug addiction, ever-mounting debt, and the destruction of the biosphere. Nuclear weapons are still being stockpiled; global capitalism remains an unpredictable, turbulent system, generating massive inequality; and some of those who resent the power of the developed world would destroy it if they could. The authoritarian Bacon never imagined that his technological abundance could emerge in such chaotic fashion. The political problem of how to divide and use these magnificent spoils generates conflicts no less bitter than the ones that divided less opulent worlds.

The titanic costs of our material well-being cast its benefits in an even more ironic light when we consider that they often lead not to the assuagement of hunger but to its increase. Our modern advantages lack glamour in proportion to their Napoleonic grandeur simply because so many other people have them, and we compare ourselves not with Napoleon but with our peers. A wealth of research shows that people’s assessments of their own life satisfaction by no means rise in proportion with material wealth. Rather, well-being is framed and experienced in local, not historical terms, and the wealth of those around us creates a need for more wealth. Competition for the signs of happiness proceeds whether it brings happiness or not. Status competition comes to look like obesity — an insatiable craving which has outlived the conditions that made it biologically useful. In all respects, More’s picture of the goddess Pride remains apt — she “measures her advantages not by what she has but by what others lack.”

The upshot of this line of thinking is that the transition to modernity, with its focus on economic rationality, has only changed the terms upon which status is distributed without assuaging the basic competitive drive that animated the literary culture of the heroic. The humanitarian program of the Enlightenment moderated but could not extinguish that drive, and tellingly, in the mid-20th century, the breakdown of capitalism brought back the protagonists of the ancient quarrel in nightmarishly magnified forms: Soviet communism and its imitators — the disastrous implementation of the classic utopian scheme — and fascism — the delusional resurgence of its heroic enemy.

If a bright side can be found in this picture, it comes entirely from the literary point of view, for the adventure scenarios of fiction and film never had more ready ingredients than when the world was crawling with Soviet spies and Nazis. The abundance of our current world has by no means deprived literature of its dystopian ingredients, only given them more scope. Ideal world-making, the original utopian flourish, has now been absorbed almost entirely by its dystopian rival. In the terrain of the imagination, dystopia has swallowed utopia whole, and Americans seek refuge from their comfortable lives in spectacles of primitive violence like The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones. The heroic mode has even shed some of its masculine bias, producing female action heroes like Brie Larson and Jennifer Lawrence. Nothing in the direction of our current politics casts the outlook for dystopia as anything less than promising.

The heroic-aristocratic literary mode, along with its economically driven successor, indulges the need for distinction to excess and distributes distinction unfairly, while the rational utopian mode seeks to eliminate this need altogether. One is chronically inhumane while the other verges on the inhuman. Both are still with us. We can see the former in the rise of heroic populism and the latter in the rational naïveté of humanitarian intellectuals who are disappointed with their fellow Americans for not voting their self-interest. Is there a form of society that can give space to the need for distinction without unleashing the irrational hunger for inequality? Or did Baron Montesquieu, writing in the 18th century, have the last word when he envisioned happiness itself as just another zero-sum field of competition. “If we only wanted to be happy,” he wrote, “it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult because we believe them to be happier than they are.”


John Farrell is Waldo W. Neikirk Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College and the author, most recently, of The Varieties of Authorial Intention: Literary Theory Beyond the Intentional Fallacy. His website is

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John Farrell is professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College and the author, most recently, of The Varieties of Authorial Intention: Literary Theory Beyond the Intentional Fallacy.


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