Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Perfect City: part 1

I wrote the following notes after a seminar two years ago - but they still seem good today. They come in two posts. Here is the first one.


Plato believed in the immortality of the soul, and that every entity in the universe (even the stars in the heavens) had souls. 800 years later Augustine’s early fifth century theology shows clear influence of neo-platonic ideas in his foundational Christian text: The City of God. The sixth century rule of St Benedict was an attempt, in part, to put Augustinian theology into practice in the organisation of a community. Later communities such as the Franciscans and also those who wrote about the good government of secular communities (such as cities) continued to wrestle with the issue of how to build the perfect society within this broad and evolving intellectual framework.

This week’s reading therefore did two different kinds of work. It provided materials for thinking about the relationship between ‘utopianism’ and pragmatism; that is about the use ethical thinkers made of their historical experiences, before Thomas More and within intellectual traditions that we know influenced More’s Utopia. Second it introduced the idea that society can be understood as having a mystical existence and purpose, as well as a material existence and purpose. Whereas last week we emphasised the plausibility and verisimilitude of the utopian tradition, and talked about the transformation of societies in pragmatic (mainly economic and political) terms ‘within the limits of the possible’, this week’s reading added in the idea that some canonical utopian thinkers (such as Plato) understood their social thought as having a mystical dimension.

Why and how Plato thought the way he did is well covered in the secondary reading. He was able to draw on and combine ideas from a diverse philosophical tradition that was already several centuries old by the time he was at work, and during his lifetime he lived through a period of dramatic political events. Although he established an Academy in Athens he was also invited to put his philosophy into practice in more than one city state.

The story of the prisoners in the cave is at the heart of Plato’s philosophy: the idea that the particular things that we observe with our senses are only mere shadows of a greater truth encompassing the nature of our existence. The Socratic method of seeking knowledge through seemingly endless dialogue was a distinctive philosophical method for elucidating this greater truth. The fact that Plato writes the Republic in the form of a dialogue is a clear indication of his philosophical purpose and understanding. Thomas More uses a similar method in Utopia, and we might look out for ways in which other authors of works in the utopian canon choose to use this technique, or not, in their own writing.

It is interesting that Plato is included in the Reader but Augustine is not, when both were clearly important influences on More. This is possibly because Claeys and Sargent are privileging the modern utopian tradition that focused on 'bounded utopias' in the material world, rather than the spiritual utopianism of either ancient times or the present day. They do not, for example, include anything from Bloch's, The Spirit of Utopia which appears to be so influential among advocates of utopianism now.

Do they include Plato for his concrete ideas about society and its organisation, and perhaps exclude Augustine because he is first and foremost a theologian? Indeed this is a key difference between Plato and Augustine - for Plato the perfect city is a material place which is both the objective of his philosophy and provides the economic reality through which the good life can be sustained. Augustine uses the idea of the two cities (of the world and of heaven) as a metaphor - and the chief good is associated with the mystical or heavenly city which exists outside time and space.

A second key difference is that for Plato it is not clear that the perfect city will ever be achieved. Later work, such as the Laws, may suggest a disillusionment (or at least an adjustment) as Plato experiences the difficulties of putting his ideas into practice. For Augustine the eventual triumph of the city of heaven is a certainty. Perfection is unavoidable. This injection of the inevitability of perfection - sometimes associated with messianic millenarianism - is one of the distinctive contributions of the judeo/christian faiths to utopian thought.

A work in progress … to be continued …in another post.

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