By DAVID A. EISENBERG.
WITH MORE THAN a modicum of confidence, I would wager that the ninety-pound mongrel resting at my feet has never posed the question, “What is dog?” And the reason, I would posit with no less confidence, is not because the question had been settled sometime long ago, so that all dogs now rest content in the knowledge of what they are, but that the question had never been raised because the creature in question is incapable of raising it.
Man, it would seem, is something qualitatively different – a creature who is not only capable of raising such a question, but appears incapable of not raising it. Would not man, in some fundamental sense, be wanting had he never wondered what he was? To complicate matters, the question that cannot be avoided also cannot be resolved, at least definitively. Were man to settle the matter once and for all, would he become more than human – or perhaps, less? As a provisional definition then, one that may beg more questions than it answers: a man is that peculiar creature who desires to know who he is but cannot secure what he desires.
There is something Sisyphean about this perennial quest for self-enlightenment, though in contrast to that fallen king of Corinth, man’s fate need not be tragic. To be sure, the task at hand may be insuperable, but even if his best definitions necessarily are lacking, it does not follow that they are unilluminating. Benjamin Franklin’s characterization of man as a tool-making animal (Homo faber), aptly proffered during the incipient stages of the Industrial Revolution, undoubtedly highlights something elemental about the nature of man, something that distinguishes him from other animals, though such a denotation hardly could be counted as definitive. One who regards Chartres Cathedral or Beethoven’s Ninth as being intrinsically the work of tool-making animals would be incapable of fathoming the splendors that they embodied.
The answers that have obtained thus far appear reflective of the climates in which they were advanced. When one considers the primacy of politics in ancient Greece, where citizens enjoyed a liberty that “consisted in an active and constant participation in collective power” (Benjamin Constant) – a liberty, one might add, that is so alien to the modern temperament – one can better perceive the basis upon which Aristotle’s definition of man as a political animal rests. That the biblical understanding of man as the in-between animal, as a creature created in God’s image, a little lower than angels, but enjoying dominion over creation (Psalm 8:5-6); that such an understanding should be espoused by Christian thinkers from Aquinas to Zwingli is hardly a mystery. Nor is it any wonder that Hobbes, writing in the throes of the Thirty Years War, would reject the prevailing Aristotelian and Christian definitions and redefine man as an apolitical, amoral animal, distinguished from the brutes only by his capacity for reason.
This effort to historically contextualize man’s understanding of himself is not without its pitfalls. Man is not merely a passive participant in life. He may be but a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, but he has had a hand, however small, in setting that stage and in directing the events that unfold thereupon. That he is shaped by his age does nothing to refute the fact that he, in turn, shapes ages. Hobbes’s rejection of the Christian and Aristotelian understandings of man may seem eminently sensible at a time when Christendom was being riven by religious and political rivalries. But the fact that it was logical should do nothing to discount the revolutionary import of Hobbes’s thought. It is one thing to flout the notion that beings that mercilessly waged war against one another are but a short remove from angels; it is something else to suggest that those creatures constitutionally are apolitical, amoral, avaricious, and antagonistic. To appreciate that there was nothing prosaic about Hobbes’s insights into the nature of man, however prosaic they now may appear to be, one should keep in mind that within Hobbes’ own lifetime, his books were condemned by the Church and publicly burned – at Oxford, no less; he was blamed for the plague that ravaged London in 1665 and the Great Fire that consumed much of the city a year later; and he had bestowed upon him the memorable and contumelious moniker, the Monster of Malmsbury.
One also should guard against dismissing these attempts to define man as pointless intellectual exercises that illumine nothing further about the human condition. If man indeed is a tool-making animal, he certainly was so before he defined himself thus and remains no less so thereafter, which may prompt one to wonder, “Wherefore all this intellective effort to uncover what never had been concealed?” The Socratic quest, which is in essence an effort to fulfill the Delphic command, has been lampooned since its inception, ironically, not without reason.
BUT WHATEVER THE merits of this charge may be, it should not belie the fact that man’s Delphic excursions, regardless of their success, are not without effect; that man will comport himself differently based on how he understands himself; that a people, for example, that sees itself essentially as tool-making animals will behave differently than a people that sees itself essentially as beings who partake of the divine; and that even sometimes the promulgation of ideas that have been conceived but not widely accepted will have far-reaching ramifications.
The question of whether Machiavelli said anything new or whether he unabashedly proclaimed what people purposefully kept concealed remains open to debate. Did Machiavelli discover the dark side of politics or did he simply tear away the veil that so circumspectly had been placed over it? There are ample grounds to suggest the latter. But in divorcing morality from politics, Machiavelli effected a revolution all the same. The continent he happened upon had not exactly been discovered. As was the case with the explorer with whom he analogized himself, it already had been encountered, even inhabited. But after Machiavelli set foot on it, that continent and the world to which it belonged would never be the same. The inhabitants that formerly had been conceived as having been fashioned a little lower than angels would be reconceived as being little more than brutes and man, who ever had been the hapless plaything of fortune, would become the willful master of fate.
A later example, one more germane to the matter at hand (or that soon will be at hand), concerns the malleability and historicity that Rousseau ascribed to man. When Rousseau trod the reputedly well-worn path back to the state of nature, he discovered that not only had the path not been well-worn, but that it had never even been trodden. The being he discovered in that Arcadian state was radically different from the being portrayed by his forerunners. Man — if one could call this primitive creature by such a name — enjoyed neither speech nor reason. (Reason presupposes speech and beings that were isolated from one another would have no need, nor any occasion for that matter, to develop language.) Nor did he possess those affects that proved so troubling for the earlier state of nature theorists, affects that rendered the state of nature so precarious that man was impelled to leave it behind: pride, greed, vanity, pugnaciousness, and the like. Nor was this primitive being able to comprehend the laws of nature — laws that would permit him to quit his infelicitous natural state — seeing that he lacked the one thing needed to grasp them, namely reason. When all was said and done, this being, stripped of all societal attributes, had but two qualities that defined him essentially, that differentiated him from the creatures with which he shared that idyllic state: free will and perfectibility. Perhaps no reconception of man has had a more fateful impact.
This claim would be warranted had Rousseau’s influence ended with the French Revolution which he has been credited — or discredited — with siring. But the French Revolution itself was so seismic an event that it could not help but produce wave upon wave of aftershocks, so that Rousseau’s influence, at least indirectly, has reverberated through the ages. Those reverberations undoubtedly impacted history in ways that Rousseau never intended and, in all likelihood, never would have approved, but as any student of history will avow, revolutions invariably have unintended consequences. And this is as true of revolutions in thought as it is of those in deed.
The revolutionaries that Rousseau spawned, legitimately or otherwise, were animated by a belief in man’s seemingly endless plasticity. A being whose constitutive elements consist of free will and perfectibility is a being that in effect has no nature; a being that can be fashioned and refashioned without limit, according to its own design and entirely by its own efforts. But as history would reveal, this proved far simpler in theory than in practice. Attempts to reengineer man — from the French to the Cultural Revolution — invariably failed, often with tragic consequences. In spite of man’s imputed pliability, something stubborn in him refused to bend.
In view of this, it is difficult for one to exhibit the sanguine exuberance that the erstwhile champions of man’s perfectibility once displayed. But the hope of man’s perfection has not been destroyed; it merely has been diluted. Rousseau’s solution to the political problem, particularly in light of the revolutions it incited, is no solution at all. The total alienation of the individual will; its complete subordination to the general will; the immense responsibility that comes with being sovereign; the civil religion and the austerity embodied therein – all of this runs sharply against the spirit of the age. (Is it not better and simpler to live and let live than to force others to be free?) But the notion of perfectibility is eminently in keeping with it. It is as though the very beings that Rousseau disdained and sought to transcend had appropriated his teachings, shorn it of its rigorous demands, and adopted those aspects that most appealed to them. Just as – I am told – there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is more than one way to perfect man, and in the hands of those individuals concerned more about money and commerce than morals and virtue, it is no wonder that the preferred path to perfectibility would be the one of least resistance.
Indeed, the notion of perfectibility itself may be too exacting. And perhaps what really has endured is the notion of correctibility, a notion that is inextricably linked with modern thought in general and, if Nietzsche is to be trusted — and that it is a mighty if — is as old Socrates himself; which is to say that it is a notion that inheres not just in modern thought, but in western thought simply.
Nietzsche’s charge is that with Socrates the spirit of science — that “faith in the explicability of nature and in knowledge as a panacea” — first comes to light. Yet it is difficult to overlook the fact, as Nietzsche purposefully seems to do, that Socratic wisdom is, in effect, Socratic ignorance and that Socrates’s deepest knowledge consists in his appreciation for the limitations of his knowledge. Socrates’s perpetual pursuit of wisdom through the dialectical investigations he carried out with his fellow citizens routinely resulted not in certitude, but in aporia, a state of doubt and puzzlement.
Thus, if the notion of correctibility pervades the western tradition, it must be borne in mind that for much of that tradition, it was explicitly qualified. At bottom, some things were not correctible, namely nature within and without man. The inherited and indelible stain of original sin with which every human being was marred crippled all utopian ambition, as did the presumption that nature essentially was immutable and intractable. That all began to change with the Florentine Columbus who “discovered” that nature was but the arbiter of half of man’s life leaving the other half for man to control and that in the end, fortune, which succumbed to the youthful and impetuous, could be made to bow before man rather than man before fortune. Machiavelli’s further discoveries about human nature – that all those presumptive vices were, in a wicked and fickle word, in fact virtues – revolutionized man’s understanding of himself. The ancients, counting the Christians among them, had been wrong about the nature of virtue and vice or rather- they had been wrong about the nature of man simply.
Subsequent discoveries unsettled man’s knowledge of the world and his place in it. Upheavals in the sciences, in exploration, in religion, unsettled the fixity that heretofore characterized the nature of man and the universe that housed him. Neither man nor nature was immutable. Even more portentously, both could be transformed, consciously, purposefully, by man himself. The stain of sin, if ever there was such a thing, could be effaced and nature could be possessed and mastered. Man was not irremediably fallen, the subject of a divine and seemingly implacable will. Yes, he thirsted for salvation, but he did not need God to save him. Man would save himself!
THE SEEMINGLY BRIMLESS optimism that these discoveries initially fostered has been dashed by horrors that earlier thinkers never prevised and those who lived after them never could forget. But if those who have survived the twentieth century are not, in good conscience, permitted the Panglossian faith of those who came before, the general tenor of that faith remains very much alive today. Who doubts that, as Saint-Simon, one of the more celebrated utopians of the nineteenth century proclaimed, the golden age belongs not to the past, but to the future?
This faith is so deep-rooted and pervasive that it hardly goes noticed and in some profound, constitutional sense, defines the inhabitants of the age. Political animals occupied the ancient Greek and Roman stage, religious animals roamed Christendom throughout the Middle Ages, only to be superseded by the rational animal when those earlier creatures devoured one another during the interminable wars of religion. Owing to the failures of the Enlightenment, which were evinced by the barbarities that persistently accompanied reason’s advance, the rational animal was forced to exit the stage. In his place stands the inhabitant of the present age: the utopian animal.
This explanation carries with it no claim of exclusivity; rather it underscores a determinative aspect of contemporary man. One need only be mildly conversant in Greek history to appreciate how profoundly religious the Greeks were. But in the end, it was politics that enjoyed primacy; it was as a member of the political community that man reached his full potential, hence Aristotle’s definition of man as a political animal, not a religious one. (In the world of ancient Greek city-states, monasticism would have been incongruous.) By characterizing contemporary man as the utopian animal, it is not being suggested that man no longer is political or rational or — heaven forefend — religious, but that what distinguishes him above all else is his innate and unconscious utopianism.
Similarly, utopianism is not unique to our age. It has been argued that utopianism is “rooted in the nature of man” (Paul Tillich); that “the dream of a just society… haunt[s] the human imagination ineradicably and in all ages” (George Orwell). Even those who dispute this would concede that utopianism is at least as old as western civilization itself. And utopianism has enjoyed a much more prominent place in prior ages. One need only cite the names of Saint-Simon, Comte, Fourier, Owen, Marx, and Engels to appreciate that perhaps in no other century has the utopian spirit burned so ardently as in the nineteenth. But if the age of the great utopian system builders has waned, the spirit that animated them lives on and not simply in eccentric reformers and violent revolutionaries, but in the people themselves, en masse. That spirit enjoys none of the intensity that animated those erstwhile visionaries, but if the fire burns less intensely in the present age, it smolders more broadly, so that perhaps in no other age has the utopian spirit been more ubiquitous than in our own.
All this begs the definition of utopia, a word that today is applied to so many things that it delimits next to nothing. The utopian longing stems from a peculiar perception of the world and it is by understanding it that one can appreciate just how profoundly and comprehensively the utopian spirit permeates the modern age.
The utopian views existence as something that not only needs to be corrected, but that can be corrected and done so immanently, not in some imaginary beyond, but here and now, albeit, not precisely now and here. Moreover, this correction can be effected, and only can be effected, through human effort. Life is unfair, unkind, unjust and the ills that inhere in life need to be redressed. No divine intervention, no second coming, no natural evolutionary process will bring about the perfectly just age. It is solely by human intervention, ingenuity and will power that the iniquities and inequities of existence will be stamped out.
On this understanding, it should be evident that this longing is not a constituent component of human nature. For one, the backward-looking direction of pre-modern conceptions of the golden age, exemplified by Hesiod’s Works and Days, suggests that for earlier thinkers the golden age once was and can be never again. But even excepting this, and even if one takes exception with the exclusion of any divine or otherworldly place in utopia, the fact remains that not all peoples view life as something in need of nor, for that matter, capable of correction. The ancient Greeks, though this holds true for spirited peoples in general, delighted in life; they relished it, thirsted for it, not some watered-down version of it, but life with all its splendid and horrifying trials and tribulations. The ameliorated life would be no more worth living than the unexamined life. But in addition to the question of desirability, there was that of feasibility and in the end the amelioration of life simply was impracticable. Sure, “you can throw nature out with a pitchfork, but she will always come back” (Horace). Growth and decay are integral components of life, as is injustice itself, all of which was made plain in that paradigmatic utopian work, Plato’s Republic.
This shows that the utopian impulse does not permanently repose in the breast of man, but it also should suggest how thoroughly lodged that impulse is in the breast of modern man. For who among us does not think that we are better off now than we were two centuries, to say nothing of two millennia, ago and that we will be better off still two centuries hence? Reasons for doubt and causes for alarm no doubt abound. One can supplement what is perhaps the most predominant cause of the day — the prospect of some climatological calamity — with any number of veritable dangers from widespread fiscal collapse to a global pandemic to nuclear annihilation. It has been a mere quarter of a century since Fukuyama cogently proclaimed the end of history. With the spread of terrorism, a resurgent Russia, and tensions in Asia, a book published today that postulated history’s end would possess far less cogency. Who can say what the next quarter century will bring? But despite these uncertainties, the prevailing faith remains that life ought to be corrected; that life can be corrected; and that life will be corrected. What is this faith, if not utopian?
IN SPITE OF the ubiquity of the utopian spirit, or perhaps, precisely because of it, the utopian animal appears largely unconscious of its utopianism. The upstanding citizen who believes that disease can be eradicated, life prolonged appreciably if not indefinitely, scarcity overcome and conflict relegated to the past is not likely to consider himself a utopian, and not without reason. Because they often are grounded in human fancy, utopias tend to be fanciful, but the modern longings find their basis in something less fallible, namely reason and science. It is precisely for this reason that Marx and Engels, who betrayed no doubt about the scientific validity of their prognostications, spurned the epithet utopian and used it to disparage those visionaries whose visions did not accord with their own. But their manifest contempt for the term did not make their ideas any less utopian, just as modern man’s unawareness of the true nature of his longings does not render those longings any less utopian.
As it did for Marx and Engels, the word utopian retains a generally opprobrious connotation. Nobody really wishes to be called utopian; no serious thinker aspires to have his ruminations characterized as utopian. There are obvious reasons for this. As the word connotes, utopias have no place in this world. To suggest that one’s vision for the future or one’s remedy to some societal ill is utopian is to suggest that it is quixotic, if not downright delusional. What is more, efforts to realize utopias not only are fated to fail, but given the track record – and in this regard we enjoy greater perspective than Marx and Engels did – to do so spectacularly.
But subtler problems infect the nature of utopias and it would behoove the unconscious utopians of the age to consider them. After all, on the understanding that utopias are doomed to fail and to bring about more misery than they were intended to alleviate, today’s unconscious utopians have grounds for dismissing the notion that they are, in fact, utopian. Why? Because reason attests that their collective longings will be realized, that the march of progress will not be impeded. The seemingly ineluctable advance of science and technology substantiate as much. As a speaker at a conference on transhumanism and religion memorably put it, “Science and technology move us toward Utopia. One of the most exciting things about transhumanism is that all will be fixed.”1
Supposing this to be true, the question then is not so much what if something goes horribly wrong, but what if everything goes terribly right? If Utopia can be realized; if a perpetual peace can be secured and an Arcadian bliss bought, one should realize that there will be a price, that the price likely will be very steep, and that the possibility of a return effectively will be nil.
Implicit in that provisional definition of man given at the outset — a being that desires to know what it is but cannot secure what it desires — is that a perpetual striving is a constitutional element of human nature. As Aristotle observed, “all men by nature desire to know.” But knowledge, that is absolute knowledge or wisdom, is unattainable, hence the enduring pursuit of it and the unceasing restlessness that reposes in man. Utopias preclude this pursuit; they promise an end to this restlessness. They do not presage the attainment of wisdom, so much as an end to the perpetual striving for it. It is rest, endless rest, stagnation really, that utopias offer and thus they portend the end of man qua man. Whether or not this end would signify man’s elevation or degradation is open to question. But it is precisely this sort of question that is pondered less and less as man’s appetites are sated more and more.
By highlighting modern man’s utopian longings, by defining him thus, as a utopian animal, one invites an opportunity to weigh the significance and consequences of those longings. Upon doing so, man may decide that he should stay the course, that he would like nothing more than for there to be an end to this interminable quest that has constituted his existence heretofore. But for beings that have defined themselves in terms of their perennial efforts to understand themselves, by their quest for self-enlightenment, it seems only fitting that they should proceed to this denouement deliberatively, and not heedlessly as the case at present appears to be.
David A. Eisenberg is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Eureka College. His recent publications include “What Hath Man Wrought: Utopian Dreams and Delusions” in Crisis and Renewal of Civilization: The 21st Century Crisis of Ideas and Character, ed. Marek Celinski (2015) and “‘One Jew More or Less – What Does It Matter?’ Nietzsche on the Jewish Question” in Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol. 34 No. 2 (Winter 2016). He is currently completing an article on Thomas More’s Utopia.
- Quoted in Smith, Wesley J. “Transhumanism and the ‘Will to Evolve.’” National Review. May 10, 2014. (http://www.nationalreview.com/human-exceptionalism/377708/transumanism-and-will-evolve-wesley-j-smith). ↩