Meditation III, Utopia – The Limitations of Man’s Ambitions

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1563)

~ The Tower of Babel is the famous story of how man in pride attempts to reach the heavens. Utopia is man’s attempt to create heaven on earth. Yet as man tries again and again and fails again and again, should we not admit that Utopia is out of reach of our mortal hands?

After writing the first and second meditation, I have humbly requested the feedback of many friends and associates of whom I hold in high regard and respect. Of some of the important feedback that I received was that both the First and Second meditations contain no solid or absolute conclusion on the subject in discussion. I would like to stress as I have done so in the First meditation that all that I have written in the Meditations consists of an observation that attempts to use the Socratic Method (elenchus) to which a problem is solved by breaking it down into a series of questions to gradually find the answer (or a truth if one so exists).

In the first meditation, I have pointed out that the limited ability of reason and senses is inadequate for an absolute understanding of God. This results in a direct attack upon morality as defined by religion through divine revelation(s). The second meditation continues by arguing that to preserve order, ethics and morality are needed even though the ‘right’ and ‘legitimate’ ethics and morality are often in question. Furthermore, history has proven to us that power is essential to eliminate to a certain extent absolute moral relativism.

The logic of the argument is that without the elimination of absolute moral relativism (whereby everything goes), there would be anarchy and chaos at a level that mankind would be unable to coexist as a community and much less as a culture and a civilization. Yet, since pure reason alone has not been able to unite all forms of religions, ethics, and secular moral philosophy, we find that power is essential in order to forcefully enforce the will of one group of individuals upon the majority.

Yet, the origins of power come from a rather linear form of bestowment as it comes not as an intrinsic property like in nature with a lion being more ‘powerful’ than a lamb but as a ‘gift of acceptance’ in which the leader, or ruling party is generally accepted by the relevant community. This is to say that power to preserve order must come from the acceptance of at least a group of people within the community or risk being illegitimate.

Consequently, to maintain order, a ruler needs power, which comes from the people. A ruler would then continue to hold power as long as he is perceived to be an agent of justice (here justice is subjective and may be just a form of perceived justice) or through military and economic might. While it is common to find that the minority in the community often rules the majority, the loss of the ruler’s core supporters (power base) would spell the end of his power and thus his legitimate rule of the community.

Of Utopias and the Great Lie

The word utopia can be traced to a book written by Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), the chancellor of England. Coined from the Greek terms ou topos, utopia refers to a place of perfection in which people enjoy health, harmony, and happiness. Political philosophy is filled with utopian models of society to which different philosophers come out with different answers as to what would lead to a state of utopia.

Plato’s Republic


Philosophy according to Plato is the answer to which a utopian state can be created. In Plato’s Republic, a simple society with no government and scarcity would, in order to avoid monotony and tedium, seek luxury. But the want of luxury would force the need of expansion, to which soldiers are necessary for growth and to safeguard the state’s newly acquired territory. Soldiers would then form the second layer in society that is called the guardians.

The guardians are then educated in a wide range of physical and mental aspects and to live without any form of personal property. At age 20, the guardian class would be divided into two with the first group assigned as auxiliaries to defend the Republic as full time soldiers. The second group would retain the name guardian and continue their education. Selection at this particular point would be based solely on merit and as the guardian gained wisdom and knowledge after a prolonged period of study, he then may become a philosopher.

Due to the importance of wisdom above all other things, philosophers alone are allowed to rule the Republic as philosopher-kings. Thus Plato’s Republic is made up of three classes of which the first is the normal citizen (farmers and artisans), the warrior-soldier class, and the philosopher-guardians. Thus, behold the Republic, a utopia to which philosophy would be the answer to the perfect society.

Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis


The New Atlantis, written by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) , describes a voyage by sea to an island that is governed in such a way that its inhabitants are in happiness and bliss. The island which is called Bensalem is geographically isolated and, therefore, free from invaders while at the same time economically self-sufficient. In Bensalem, the family is the foundation of the society and perfect laws ensure that justice and the good of all are upheld.

Distinctively different than Plato’s Republic is the importance of science as the cornerstone of which scarcity of resources and the needs of the people would be fulfilled. Also through science, natural disasters can be predicted and thus precautionary measures implemented to protect Bensalem from tragedy. To achieve technological and scientific superiority, the best minds are brought together at a great college whereby experimentation and observation would bear fruit for the greater good of all.

Karl Marx’s Classless Society


For Karl Marx, economic inequality associated with capitalism is the cause of mankind’s suffering and hardship. In Marx’s Capital, economics in which the production and distribution of necessities is the crucial element of human life. According to Marx, capitalism that encourages income inequality, widespread economic imbalance, and the monopoly of the means of production by owners would inevitably crumble under its own weight through revolution of the working class (proletariat).

The destruction of capitalism would then lead to the first stage of communism whereby a dictator of the proletariat will remain as a bulwark against counter-revolution. Also in this stage, revolutionary policies that would include the abolishment of private property and the right to inheritance would be carried out. After all means of production are owned by the state, the government would slowly fade away, as a classless society would emerge to which all individuals would be equal and live in a utopian state.

A Critique on Utopias

Never in history has a utopian state has ever existed on the face of the earth. Whether it is the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, and Romans, a utopian state with all parties and individuals content and happy has never been within mortal grasp. Indeed, Plato’s Republic and Bacon’s New Atlantis have never been carried out in reality due to the obvious reasons of impracticality.

Although Plato’s work was right in stating that rulers should be well versed in philosophy, and that philosophy is the supreme wisdom, who is to determine which school of philosophy is greatest and most complete? Similarly Bacon’s New Atlantis assumes that scientific and technological superiority could be sustained throughout the ages which, of course, in relation to reality, is an impossibility.

While it should be noted that history has never seen a utopian state, the real question is whether a utopian state is sustainable. Due to the fact that economic, demographic and environmental changes occur constantly over time, would it be possible to have a form of government that could suit all challenges at all times? Evidently, a utopian state seems not to be a practical possibility.

This then brings us to the last utopian model which unlike the earlier two has been given a chance in history. Communism did indeed achieve widespread popularity most notably in the former Soviet Union and also in the People’s Republic of China. But instead of ushering an age of happiness and prosperity, the abolishment of private property took away the individual’s incentive for labor and achievement.

As the situation as described above intensified, Communism’s policies that attempt to create economic equality made everyone equally poor (though the social elite maintain a certain level of luxury). This brought a systemic collapse in the economic structure of the Soviet Union while China under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping pursued more ‘open door’ policies and market oriented economic activity in order to avoid an economic disaster in China. Changes in China showed the departure from some of the principles of Marxism and Communism at least on the economic front.

We can now see that Marx’s prediction of the collapse of Capitalism did not materialize and that Communism’s economic policies brought not prosperity but poverty to the countries that adopted them. Surely a country with no food on the table is unable to achieve a state of utopia. Not only did Communism fail to be better than Capitalism, it performed far below that of market oriented economies.

After taking a brief look at the models of utopia, we can conclude that none of the three models above are viable and indeed practical as a form of government. Even if the failure of the utopian state rests upon human nature, it would be impossible to eradicate all traces of human nature unless it comes to pass that one would be able to eradicate free will and conflicts of interest (life at this point becomes meaningless). If utopia is unattainable, we should then take a look at the various forms of political systems that exist today in reality. As such, the next meditation will attempt to compare and contrast the various types of political systems in the world today.

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Please Proceed to the Next Meditation: Meditation IV, Politicus The Limitations of Political Power

Or Go Back to the Meditation Page

Comments
13 Responses to “Meditation III, Utopia – The Limitations of Man’s Ambitions”
  1. Jia_Zhing says:

    I have go through your three meditation. I lazy to post the comments one by one, so I do one shot here. Commenting ur 3 articles.(hope u dont mind)

    Your first Meditation was about Is God make man or Man created God. Well, I should say that there are still a myth that can prove the Almighty is around. In a scientific way to say, we are not suppose to believe things that we cant prove. But as we say, there are still lotsa myth that cant be proven, should we say they dun really exist? As for myself, I do believe the existing of God. In a Hierarchy of status, God would be on the top of the hierarchy. In that case, we shall not query of any of his order, also we usually know that, when one’s status is higher than others, others will not see him as clear as we see others.

    Your second Meditation is saying bout Ethics, and moral philosophies. Without ethics, our world surely will sank into chaos. But, the point is how do we define ethics? Every people has their own perception bout this. Even divine cannot make a standard definition of the ethics and
    moral values. I cant comment much on this, as me myself also looking for a flawless answer.

    Ok, come to the third Meditation, which is The Utopia, an illusion or Reality. Personally I do hope that there i a place called Utopia, which every living lives can live happily there. But the reality told us that there will never be Utopia, as long as, we, as a Human being still having all desires. I would say that human being is a selfish lives in the world. We think all the ways, to fulfilled what we desire. We don’t even think of other, whether is this statement true, ask your very deep of heart. A day we, as human being have desires, the paradise, Utopia will never approach.

  2. Arwyn says:

    Is it truly necessary to understand everything?

  3. Arwyn says:

    Ethics…A book I once read talks about ethics, and also about Utopia…

    Is Heaven on Earth sustainable, or even possible?
    It isn’t. The Earth is utterly imperfect, and has been ever since the fall of mankind.. However…

    In a chapter called “Revelations” it states that, after the Apocalypse, a new Earth will be born- perhaps the utopia that we so desire…

    As for ethics… Are not the 10 commandments guidelines enough? Since true morality cannot be decided upon and accepted worldwide by humans, it would be so convenient to let God decide…

    Of course, these answers can only be true if you actually accept the bible as truth…

    Perhaps that is why people are so willing to believe in the little black book- they all want answers, and the bible, with all these answers, is readily accepted.

    It is like a trade.. because when one accepts it, it BECOMES truth..
    All these answers, in exchange for your faith…

  4. Ern Li says:

    A quote from your first meditation:
    “…Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In his critique, Kant pointed out the limitations and possibilities of ‘pure reason’ and that not all knowledge comes from the senses… continues by stressing that some objects are outside the very capacity of our minds and therefore the principle of causality (cause and effect) would be irrelevant.”

    This alone sums up (or negates; however you wanna put it) everything you have just written: Being human and living a human life, that’s our contraint. Surely knowledge beyond our capacity exists (hence, placing God in the picture).

    Put it this way, just as an ant cant understand flight;
    or in case of dimensions, we have the capacity to solve a paper maze puzzle, because of the perspective we have (we can see the entire maze on paper), as opposed to being two dimensional viewing from within the maze itself (at the very least it would take many trial and error attempts to solve).

    We live our lives and understand our lives as much as we can, but we will never get even close to God’s perspective and understanding on our lives.

    Imagine that two dimensional ‘being’ on the maze who can’t even understand it’s own surroundings trying to understand a three dimensional ‘reader/player’ of the maze. We’re doing the EXACT same thing by trying to understand and demystify God, knowing full well that we’re constrained within space and time (in which we all agree, being the Creator, God lies beyond this realm).

    God has the better perspective, He can see a solution even when I can’t, thats why I trust in Him. Faith.

    In addition, the ‘reader/player’ has a pen/pencil which gives him the power to manipulate/re-draw the maze. This action is IMPOSSIBLE for the two dimensional being to do, therefore impossible for him/her/it to understand. This is what Miracles are made of.

    Bottom line: Our neverending inconclusiveness can only be concluded by Faith, to belief and accept that there is an understanding thats beyond our understanding.

  5. alex says:

    the concept of utopia even though is likeable, it is however unrealistic. everybody’s definition of happiness is however different. it is hence impossible for one government or one certain practice to fullfil everyone’s needs and wants. and also, one should take note that happiness does not come in vain. it comes with certain sacrifices and sufferings, and thus people would eventually appreciate the happiness when it actually arrives at the doorstep.

    another thing is that, as people evolve overtime, the level of happiness reached or to be reached, evolves overtime too. this results from the devil created by god – greed. initially you might be happy with an apple, but people get bored, you will want orange after some time. your definition of happiness changes overtime. in a nutshell, it is impossible to have one practice to keep everyone happy.

  6. Sab says:

    In my honest humble opinion, Utopia is possible.

    The focus that you have in your post are all about the government, and the kinds of practice they impose, are merely like policies.

    In order to, as you say,share health, harmony, and happiness together. I believe unity is the answer. Not peace. For unity is true, while peace can be false.
    However, not in one so called policy in which a government wants to impose…instead, make it a practice by the people.

    In my perspective as a organizational communicator, we believe that policies are merely one part of the entire picture…that’s why, if a policy is to be implemented, focus must be put on those that are the recipients of these policies and executes them,not just the policy itself. Efforts will have to be put into educating and training them in a way they would stand united when the organization is put to a test, or in this context of a nation.

    Based on an individual level, people in general are different, this can be visibly obvious. But I am sure you all realize that the things that you are exposed to throughout your lifetime, be it your parents, friends, culture, education and experience forms the belief and philosophies you have in life are what makes each us different. And in my opinion, the kinds of things that we are exposed to these days are dominated by those are negative in nature, valueing money more than life, self interest more than making the interest of others as our own interest. We are selfish and materialistic only because that is the way people have acted throughtout history, and because we continously see these values. But the opposite is very possible,and I have met many people like that.

    So say for example, we were to start now, to value virtues, to value the interest of others, to value God’s teachings, perhaps in a thousand years, when it has finally becomes a norm, would that not make Utopia more possible. The way society is today is due to prolonged practice, skewed, but have done these things for a long time. So, I ask…if back then, the practice are skewed to the other side, would Utopia not be the logical outcome?

    I stated that efforts must be placed in educating the people,I do not mean just schools, we obviously know that most religions are already teaching these values, but if this education were to start since the day a baby was born, dare you say, that this baby would not grow up to be a well rounded virtuous individual? Place it in a larger context, if all were taught in this way to share,tolerate differences and unite in diversity,you will see why I say that Utopia is possible…it just takes time.

    Communism or any of the other practices brought up for that matter, failed, because they tried to change the country and how it runs. But the people still had their own existing values and beliefs that either differs or outright opposes their own government’s, no one was truly united in that sense. I belief it is not the policy but the practice by the people that is going to make Utopia possible. It will take everyone of us.

  7. vajrakrishna says:

    Hi, I would like to share an intensive essay I wrote on Utopia and a possible way to get there. Perhaps you will find it of interest. Feel free to link to it or post it up. Really would like to commend you on your website!

    Link: http://vajrakrishna.wordpress.com/2009/05/04/universal-history-and-the-possibility-of-a-utopia/

  8. vajrakrishna says:

    I completely agree with you that generalizations “in and off themselves” can be like creating empty fantasies. My point though was that it is as important to co-relate the broad-strokes, or “bigger picture” with the minor details; that both need fair consideration. Because when you focus on the macro as well the micro what you’re doing is giving yourself some clear frames of reference by which to judge the truth.

    For instance, I noticed in your website your loyalty to the quote, “Know Thyself.” – I understand because I love it too, I see how important it’s role is in life, and it is often overlooked. Very few people in the world truly know themselves, let alone try. Yet in order to see how important it is to “be true to yourself” requires seeing the bigger picture.

    It requires a person to consider their death; consider everything they would achieve, what they would take with them, what they would leave behind… in the face of their death their entire life falls into perspective. Then each detail of every single moment begins to take value in a truer sense.

    What Hitler and Stalin did was ruled by far more bias and personal conflict – and ultimately, the lack of their own self-awareness.

    Which is why the conclusion of the Utopia piece is that self-awareness is the starting point of any Utopian society.

    I think you may be interested in my article on the Warrior Code:
    http://vajrakrishna.wordpress.com/2009/04/27/introspection-on-the-warrior-code/

  9. vajrakrishna says:

    Hmm… further to the point of “Know Thyself”… are you familiar with Ramana Maharishi’s philosophy and advaita (Non-duality)? If not, it may be of some interest.

    Here is an excellent explanation of Non-Duality by Dennis Waite:
    http://vajrakrishna.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/what-is-advaita-or-nonduality/

    And perhaps as a starting point to Ramana Maharishi, you’d be interested in the description of his moment of ‘awakening’:
    http://vajrakrishna.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/ramana-maharishis-wisdom/

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