Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The family in the utopian tradition.

Plato’s views on the communism of wives and property can be set in the context of a desire to bring an end to internecine warfare between warring dynasties or tribes in a vigorously patriarchal society. His communism, in the Republic, applies only to the guardian class and was designed to promote love of state above self love. It was soon criticised by the so-called ‘antiutopian’ Aristotle, whose politics sought a different approach to taming and civilising the family by bringing householders into the polis within an arena of mutuality, debate and moderated criticism (the senate). Much of the politics of the late Roman empire might also be characterised as a desire to find a balance between including the wealthiest and most powerful dynasties in government but preventing their monopolistic and allegedly corrupt dominance of the state for the benefit of their dynasty alone. Within a strongly dynastic society one of the most effective ways of dominating a people was to breed: for a powerful man to have many sexual partners and many offspring. (Three million modern men are thought to be descended from the fifth-century warlord ‘Niall of the nine hostages’, and similar DNA tests are increasingly showing that the supposed great migrations of the early middle ages were normally in fact movements of relatively small numbers of men who killed off the men and sowed their seed among indigenous female populations).

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The historian Kate Cooper has argued that it was in this kind of context that (prior to the official adoption of Christianity) elite Roman society eventually came to prefer monogamous marriage and to prise the virginity of brides and the chastity of marriage partners. Such family practices stabilised society, limiting tribal connections and dynastic warfare. Another solution was some form of controlled monarchy in which tribal familial affections were symbolically transferred to a royal family. By enhancing the status of women as ‘unique’ mothers and partners (but also regulating their conduct and limiting their liaisons) the bellicose and profligate tendencies of male patriarchs might be tamed. This is all rhetoric – a rhetoric through which a dualism of male and female behaviours and a relationship to each other as ‘property’ and to the state is developed. How far was a later writer like Perkins Gilman, author of the pacifist Herland, aware of the historical context of this rhetoric, how far was she using it anachronistically but in response to a comparable (or incomparable) historical context?

Even within early Christianity similar concerns are apparent. Christ famously played down his dynastic associations to his forbears (back to King David). He advocated that true followers would put their love of God before love of family, his apostle Paul diverted familial affections to fraternal affection for the church (the Church was the ‘bride’ of Christ), he advocated strict monogamy and chastity, even celibacy for converts, while the mother of Christ was a virgin whose husband was not the father of Christ. Augustine rowed back a bit from such extreme asceticism by recognising the necessity of marriage for the procreation of the church, but viewed it as strictly monogamous and chaste and gave it a spiritual meaning.

If these are the early historical contexts within which classical and Christian ideas on the relationship between sex and property were developed, how much does this context matter in their adaptation in later utopias? How aware are later writers of the historical contexts in which such ideas were forged? Does it matter if they are not aware – possibly not – but then we might ask what it is about such ideas (whether sexual or economic communism) that they found applicable in their own times, and why. Thomas More perhaps had a limited awareness. He understood the theology of Augustine, its refraction through later theologians, and its applicability to his own times (Kenyon). He probably did not understand the historical context of Plato that well – but he got his neo-platonic ideas from an historical context (Florence) in which writers were acutely concerned about the relationship between great families and the republic, plus he had experience of dynastic politics within the royal court, and (in different ways and at a different social level) within the city of London.

In thinking about the utopian genre we don’t all have to ‘specialise’ in classical or medieval humanisms – but I think this approach – of asking how anachronistic is an author’s use of certain utopian ideas, of why certain elements (such as communism) come to the fore in different ways in different utopias is useful and possible.* One reason why this is useful is because antiutopian writers have often accused utopians of anachronism. Popper accuses utopians of being enslaved to a diachronic yet fundamentally anachronistic and thus bad tradition of classical thought originating with Plato, and he dismisses this diachronic approach as a mythical, unscientific and potentially dangerous (totalitarian) misunderstanding of society and its future. Orwell has a perhaps similar point about uncritical adherence to ideology for its own sake. Goode, in his article on the family, also takes a similarly pessimistic view of what he sees as a diachronic historical determinism in developing ideas about the family and merit.

Recently anachronism has come up for debate again - are there ways of seeing anachronism as a positive, as a non-totalising source of inspiration to future goods, or perhaps (as in your offline discussion of digital utopias) a totalising vision, based on an understanding of the past (where we have come from, where we are going) is not such a bad thing after all?

When we are looking at something so often called a ‘tradition’ (“a tradition of utopian thought”) then an awareness of different kinds of anachronism and its uses and possible misuses is a useful way (a possible strategy) of thinking comparatively?

I am up for other strategies - if you want to share them.

* This is important – not everybody can or should be trying to master everything. I am a medievalist, I am always going to fall back on talking about pre-Morean times (though I am quite keen on the modern too!). I think that you should all be thinking of perhaps four utopias that you really want to specialise in, and perhaps two or three themes that are likely to come up as questions. I think we have done enough of a wide range of utopias that you will all have a lot to draw on, even from those utopias in which you do not ‘specialise’. Comparative History goes against our professional instincts: it is about knowing a little about a lot (rather than a lot about a little) and having a strategy for making some historical sense of it all.

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