Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Perfect Cities: part 2

This week we also began, importantly, to dicuss the content of particular Utopias, especially Plato's.

Briefly our reading led us to consider various elements in his perfect city:

  • the inclusion of women as participating citizens (an unusual feature of his work)
  • communism - rooted in older ideas about communism in the possession of wives and daughters - a guard against nepotism and tribalism - both associated with corruption and civil strife. Secondarily extended to communism in property. Only pertains to the guardians.
  • a clear social structure - 3 classes of citizens and slaves (the latter are barely discussed). The tripartite class system is a feature of older ideas (may have come from his contact with Pythagoreans, a philosophical community whose ideas were influenced by Greek 'adventures' into Persia/Asia. The class system is strikingly similar to the Brahmin tradition in hinduism, for example). But several aspects of Plato's social thinking also seem to reflect the city, Athens, in which he lived.
  • social system provides for military security and economic prosperity (idea: economics is the basis of politics) allowing a guardian class of philosophers to be supported (not possible in more simple, less urban, societies).
  • Philosophy (as in part 1 of this post) is the chief purpose of the perfect city. Therefore it is in the interests of individuals to live in this society.
So how does Plato provide for the best philosophers to be the guardians of this state? These is perhaps the most crucial question for him. He answers it mainly by discussing eugenics (selecting the best mate - but also making sex functionally about good procreation and suggesting sexual continence to that end), and education at some length. This discussion is particularly focussed on the guardians although he does allow for social mobility (based on philosophical ability) between classes (a radical element in his thought). For the guardians (and them alone) he emphasises education from birth away from family in order to focus their loyalty on the city.
It is interesting that philosophical perfection is linked to physical perfection (the influence of Sparta?) - and that this perfection is both societal and individual. Later utopians are going to develop this idea in thinking about the physical perfection of the city in great detail - leading some scholars to suggest that all proper utopias are architopias.
Augustine is not really interested in social planning and is indeed insistant that the heavenly city will not only triumph but can include 'citizens' from any earthly community (his emphatically also includes the outsider, the traveller, the pilgrim, the person not bound by material states and cities - together with citizens). All is dependent on the will of God, on love. And I am not going to try to summarise his doctrines of predestination, free will and grace (they are easily looked up). He does say that there are 'goods' on earth which are gifts of God: peace is one (and war is justifiable to restore or bring peace). Marriage can be another - the perfect state is virginal - but a monogamous marriage (reflecting Christ's loving 'marriage' to the church) can allow sex to be used for procreation. Both of these Augustinian doctrines become very influential in the development of canon law (the church's rules for society). Unlike Augustine the church has to grapple with society, much like Plato having written the Republic later has to grapple with the idea that law may be the only method of turning his principles into practical realities. Law is the educator of the citizen?
So what happens in later Christian communities seeking perfection? Are Benedictine monks in some sense platonic 'guardians'? If so why do Franciscans seek to reform that tradition and evangelise 'non-guardians'. Where to locate More's experience of Christianity in this tradition?
To date utopian scholars have perhaps focussed more on these regular (monastic) Christian precursors to More's Utopia than secular experimentation in the perfection of cities between Rome and the Renaissance. This last area is my particular interest - hence the inclusion of Bruni as a more obvious and famous example of pre-Morean city 'utopianism' (if I am correct to use that term). I have published an article on More and medieval London (which is buried somewhere in your bibliographies). But for now I think it is possibly best to stick to the more canonical utopias included in the Reader - suffice to say that the idea of civic architopias did not die in the middle ages only to be revived in the renaissance - far from it!!

So that is the end of the second post from 2008. The next challenge is to incorporate Morris into this - Nowhere has moved beyond dialectic (beyond conflict, beyond History) - and in common with other socialist writers of the mid-nineteenth century - Morris is thus criticising and rejecting aspects of the Platonic tradition by emphatically reducing the role of Philosophy as a source of enlightenment (the discussion of books, education, argument etc).

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