The Bard of Avon in Prison Reply


Los Angeles Times,November 25, 2012

Reading “Hamlet” Behind Bars

By David Schalkwyk

It doesn’t look like much — just a tattered, 1970 edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. But inside, the book bears testament to an era.

Currently on display at the British Museum as part of an exhibition called “Shakespeare: Staging the World,” the book belongs to Sonny Venkatrathnam, who was incarcerated during the 1970s in South Africa’s apartheid-era political prison, Robben Island. Having convinced a warden that the volume was a Hindu religious text, Venkatrathnam was allowed to keep it with him in prison, where it was passed from prisoner to prisoner. At Venkatrathnam’s request, his comrades signed their names beside their favorite passages.

On Dec. 16, 1977, Nelson Mandela signed next to these lines: ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once.’

Walter Sisulu, another African National Congress leader and close confidant of Mandela, put his name beside a passage in ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ in which Shylock talks about the abuse he has taken as a Jewish money-lender: ‘Still have I borne it with a patient shrug / For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.’

And Billy Nair, who went on to become a member of Parliament in the new South Africa, chose Caliban’s challenge to Prospero from ‘The Tempest:’ ‘This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother / Which thou tak’st from me.’

The Robben Island Shakespeare is the only book from the prison that records an act of personal literary appreciation by the major figures incarcerated at the time, many of whom went on to play major roles in post-apartheid South Africa. It is a kind of ‘guest book,’ bearing the signatures of 34 of the Robben Island prisoners. But is also more than that.

When they signed their names against Shakespeare’s text, each prisoner recognized something of himself and his relation to others in the words of a stranger. The Robben Island Shakespeare records that community of character and signature as an example of Shakespeare’s global reach and as a historically specific witness to a common human identity and shared experience.

It’s not at all clear how big a role the book played in the lives of prisoners other than Venkatrathnam. Not one of the memoirs written by inmates at Robben Island mentions the volume. And when the ANC was asked to comment on the significance of the book this year, its spokesman asked, ‘What is this “Robben Island Bible”?’ He denied that it had played any special role in the struggle against oppression.

Nevertheless, all the accounts of political imprisonment in South Africa during the apartheid era suggest that the humanities were central to the lives and needs of the prisoners. In an environment of extreme sensory deprivation, designed to deny people their affinity with others and to strip away humanity, the soul staked its claims with striking insistence. Music, some prisoners declared, was more important to them than food; many were prepared to suffer physical punishment for the sake of a book or a newspaper; and the cold of concrete and steel was turned into the warmth of community through common reading and shared education. Jacob Zuma, the current president of South Africa, has said he received his basic education at the ‘University of Robben Island.’ [….]

The rest of the article is here.

(David Schalkwyk is director of research at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington and editor of the Shakespeare Quarterly. He is the author of Hamlet’s Dreams: The Robben Island Shakespeare.)

Related Miscellany:

Here’s an inspirational story of an inmate “sentenced to 16 years for felony assault, a period extended by three years after an altercation with a guard in prison,” whose prison reading contributed to his becoming something of an expert on hieroglyphs: “Hieroglyphics Turn Prisoner Away from a Life of Crime.”

Duly inspired, here’s a link to the Prison Book Program.

And this may be a propitious occasion for those of us dispositionally inclined to read the likes of Aristotle, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Michael Sandel, Iris Marion Young, G.A. Cohen, Thomas Pogge, and Amartya Sen on justice (distributive and otherwise), to be reminded of the relevance of Shakespeare, who also speaks to us about such things: A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice (2011).

Literature and the Law of Torts Reply


Raghu Rai, “Bhopal Gas Tragedy” (In an interview Rai says he saw a Muslim family burying this little girl and asked them to remove the dirt from her face so he could take a photograph.)

At PrawfsBlawg, Jody Madeira writes:

“The last time I taught Torts, I came up with a (voluntary) ‘Torts and Tortes’ plan where interested students could sign up in groups of six to have dinner with me at a local restaurant.  That proved to be a lot of fun.  But this fall, I’m stuck.  I can’t easily implement Torts and Tortes again, because my 10-month-old has food allergies and so I have to modify my diet accordingly.  So I have thought up a new plan to implement a –“ book club” of sorts where interested students can read a book or two over the course of the semester and get together at a local watering hole to discuss them.  

For Law and Medicine, my selections are (I think) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and, for fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (though I am torn between that and My Sister’s Keeper).  But I can’t seem to think of a second book for Torts.  So far I’ve selected Ken Feinberg’s What is Life Worth, about the 9-11 compensation fund.  I can’t seem to decide on a second book.  I’m not thrilled about obvious picks like A Civil Action or The Buffalo Creek DisasterMost of the other titles that spring to mind are criminal law-oriented.  Any suggestions?”

One reader recommends The Unit (2008 in English) by Ninni Holmqvist. I seconded the use of Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter (1991) in light of the reasons found in Zahr Said’s paper, “Incorporating Literary Methods and Texts in the Teaching of Tort Law,” available here on SSRN. I also suggested taking a look at a book I’ve yet to read, Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (2007), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is a fictionalized account of the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster, on which Sinha is something of an expert:

“Sinha has been a passionate campaigner for justice for the victims of the Bhopal disaster since 1993,when he created the first advertisement for the Bhopal Medical Appeal (using the now-famous photograph by Raghu Rai of a dead child being buried) that raised money to build a clinic to provide free treatment for the survivors. He is an outspoken critic of Dow Chemical Company, the multinational owner of Union Carbide, whose neglected, dilapidated and undermanned chemical plant in the city of Bhopal leaked 27 tonnes of poisonous gas on the night of 3 December 1984, killing up to 8,000 people and injuring upwards of half a million. Around 22,000 people have died as a result of injuries sustained on ‘that night,’ and more than 100,000 remain chronically ill; the abandoned, derelict factory continues to leach toxic chemicals into the groundwater, poisoning wells.”

Readers are invited over to PrawfsBlawg to proffer your suggestions to Jody.

Ethics, Literature, and (internally) Deliberative Democracy Reply


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[Readers who have not already done so, may want to look at an earlier and related post here at the Table: Narrative Goodness.] 

Invoking both a philosopher: Aristotle, and a novelist: Henry James, in Love’s Knowledge (1990) Martha Nussbaum writes of the importance of “perception” for ethical attentiveness and judgment or practical wisdom (phronēsis). This perception is defined as “the ability to discern, acutely and responsively, the salient features of one’s practical situation.” Such perception works in conjunction with or supplements moral philosophy’s traditional emphasis on rules or principles and categories, for the latter are not sufficient alone to make sense of the novelty of, or interconnected “particulars” in, our experience. Put differently, they cannot, unaided, cultivate a capacity to sensitively respond to new circumstances and situations. Experiential learning with regard to ethical living, in other words, “requires the cultivation of perception and responsiveness: the ability to read a situation, singling out what is relevant for thought and action.”

This emphasis on perception reminded me of an aphorism from Nietzsche:

“Learning to see—accustoming the eye to calmness, to patience, to letting things come up to it; postponing judgment, learning to go around and grasp each individual case from all sides. This is the first preliminary schooling for spirituality.” (Beyond Good and Evil)

While we may cultivate such perception and responsiveness through the emulation of exemplars of ethical goodness should we have the good fortune to intimately know and interact with such individuals in the daily round, literature, and especially novels, at least novels of a certain sort, can likewise and more routinely if not reliably offer us guidance on this score as well for they, in Nussbaum’s words, “exemplify and offer such learning:” “Our experience is, without fiction, too confined and too parochial. Literature extends it, making us reflect and feel about what would otherwise be too distant for feeling. The importance of this for both morals and politics cannot be underestimated.”

Literature’s capacity to peer, second-hand or at one-remove* as it were, into the lives of others, to cultivate a certain kind of “seeing” characterized by “calmness,” “patience,” the postponement of judgment, the appreciation of different perspectives, and the engagement of our emotions (sympathy, compassion and empathy for example) in a way that complements and motivates our rational reflections and deliberations, these are among the features intrinsic to the act of reading literature of a certain sort that Nussbaum chooses to highlight for its contribution to ethical reflection, moral deliberation and our understanding of virtuous living generally. And fiction, especially the novel, is the focus of her analysis because modern philosophical rhetoric, the mode of writing philosophy, at least for one’s peers in the profession, is constitutionally ill-suited if not unable to cultivate the aforementioned qualities believed to enrich moral thinking and action. Literature’s capacity to widen our horizons in this manner, to help us appreciate various perspectives outside our own experience, called to mind yet another aphorism of Nietzsche:

“There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing;’ and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ be.” (Daybreak or The Dawn)

The best literature, for Nussbaum, in effect provides us with more and different eyes. Moreover, Nietzsche’s stress on “more affects” in this regard is repeated in Nussbaum’s discussion of our emotional involvement with the novel, which is shorn of the more intemperate or darker displays of feeling we find in personal encounters, and thus in some sense, with the act of reading we lack the degree of attachment to our emotions found in personal interactions: our emotional engagement with the text is characterized by a kind of detachment congenial to enhanced self-awareness and self-knowledge.

Linda Zagzebski provocatively argues for a “direct reference” exemplarist virtue ethics in her book Divine Motivation Theory (2004) that is of some relevance here. And we might benefit from her proposal even if we choose, as I do, to set aside (or ignore) the theological components of her theory. According to Zagzebski, the “concept of good person arises from exemplars:” “We do not have criteria for goodness in advance of identifying the exemplars of goodness.” Thus, the phronimos, that is, the person who exhibits practical wisdom, “can be defined, roughly, as a person like that, where we make a demonstrative reference to a paradigmatically good person.” The late Robert Nozick wrote about such practically wise and good persons in perhaps his best work, Philosophical Explanations (1981): 

“We all know people, I hope, who bring out the best in us, people in whose presence we would be embarrassed to speak or act from unworthy motives, people who glow. In their presence we feel elevated. We are pushed, or nudged further along a path of development and perfection; rather, we are inspired to move ourselves along, in the direction shown. [….] We want to find a way of living whereby our best energies and talents are poured out so as to speak to and improve the best energies and talents of others. We want to utilize our highest parts and energies in a way that helps others to flourish.”

It may very well be the case that we don’t intimately know such people as Nozick describes, or our encounters with them are few and far between. In such instances we can turn to literature as a substitute for live moral exemplars, for “if all the concepts in a formal ethical theory are rooted in a person, then narratives and descriptions of that person are morally significant [as in the narrative accounts, say, of the Buddha or Buddhist arahant or bodhisattva, the Daoist or Stoic sage, Jesus and Christian saints, Gandhi, Sufi saints…].” Narratives are given a priority in an exemplarist virtue ethics, for they’re capable of providing us with “detailed and temporally extended observations of persons.” Of course we need not simply have recourse to the narratives of perfectly good persons of the sort we often encounter in religious literature. Less-than-perfect narrative exemplars found in many novels can model the sort of virtue required “in the messy situations that ordinary, less-than-virtuous persons encounter in modern life….” As Zagzebski reminds us, cultures have traditionally “enshrine[d] the wisdom of exemplars in myths, legends, the lives of saints and heroes, and in sacred literature,” while today we more often turn to personal acquaintances and literature (or even films) for our moral exemplars, although we’re faced, alas, with the unfortunate fact that the post-modern novel represents a “notable decline in the depiction of individuals who are morally better than the ordinary, [as] art no longer has the function of representing moral exemplars.” The primary task of (ethical) literary criticism in the contemporary world might therefore be one of identifying those works of literature, in particular perhaps novels, distinctive for their narrative depictions in the broadest sense of moral exemplars (as well as their converse). In Love’s Knowledge Nussbaum invokes works by Henry James, Dickens, and Proust (among others), although we can well imagine other writers perfectly suited to this task: Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Dostoevsky, Pablo Neruda (a poet), Naguib Mahfouz, Elias Khoury, J.M. Coetzee, Ursula Le Guin, Nadine Gordimer, and Margaret Atwood, for example.

We close with mention of one of our foremost political theorists, Robert E. Goodin, who seems to have taken to heart Nussbaum’s thoughts on the role of literature’s capacity to extend and deepen our experience with regard to morals and politics (whether directly or not is hard to say, although he does cite several of her books in a note) in his book, Reflective Democracy (2001). Goodin explains how “deliberative democratic theory” attempts to identify methods and procedures whereby we can correct for uninformed, malformed or distorted, in short, irrational or unreflective preferences of the kind commonplace in modern (mass) democratic societies: “Properly crafted deliberative processes can produce preferences which are more reflective, in the sense of being

  • more empathetic with the plight of others;
  • more considered, and hence both better informed and more stable;
  • more far-reaching in both time and space [i.e., not myopic or marked by inconsistent and temporal time discounting], taking fuller account of distant periods, distant peoples, and different interests”

The original and creative component of Goodin’s proposal comes in his formulation of a “new way of conceptualizing democratic deliberation—as something which occurs internally, within each individual’s head, and not exclusively or even primarily in an interpersonal setting.” As Goodin says, “Seeing democratic deliberation as being inevitably a largely internal mental process—and potentially more so still—we are led to see as democratically more central than we might otherwise have done a wide range of political arrangements designed to inform the political imagination.” I won’t here cite the cultural, institutional, and interpersonal dimensions of these political arrangements listed by Goodin as I want, in keeping with the suggestions of Nussbaum and Zagzebski, to focus instead on the intrapersonal model of democratic deliberation “within,” that is, the “internal-reflective” aspect of deliberation that might or should supplement and complement the more well-known external-collective models of democratic deliberation. Goodin understands that the precise ways in which good literature stimulates our capacity for empathy, our imagination and sensibilities, our appreciation of concrete particulars, is somewhat elusive if not mysterious. But more importantly, what is commonly acknowledged and well appreciated by literary theorists

“is not just that fiction (and art more generally) might, and often does, contain allusions to social, economic, political, and historical facts, and in that way may serve certain didactic purposes. The larger point is that those lessons come packed with more emotional punch and engage our imagination in more effective ways than do historical narratives or reflective essays of a less stylized sort [e.g., much of Anglo-American analytic philosophy!]. ‘Artists,’ John Dewey says, ‘have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception, and appreciation…. Democracy will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.’ That is not just to say that novelists are more evocative writers than historians or essayists (true though that may be, too). Rather, they fix their focus on the particular—one person, or one action or one period—and they introduce generalities by way of anecdotes, episodes viewed from that particular perspective. That vivid evocation of the particular, in turn, has important consequences for the uptake of works of art. Inevitably, we find it relatively easy to project ourselves imaginatively into the place of some specific (fictitious but grounded) other. It is necessarily harder to project ourselves imaginatively into the inevitably underdescribed sorts of amorphous and abstract others which are the stock and trade of historians and social scientists [and, Nussbaum would add, the real and hypothetical agents of ethical theorizing in contemporary philosophy].”

* This can be understood in several different ways, at least one of which entails recognizing that, in H. Porter Abbot’s words, “as true as it is that narrative can be an art and that art thrives on narrative, narrative is also something we all engage in, artists and non-artists alike. We make narratives many times a day, every day of our lives. And we start doing so almost from the moment we begin putting words together.” For a “philosophy of mind” analysis of the fundamental role of folk-psychological narratives in the child’s acquiring the capacity of understanding intentional actions performed for reasons, please see Daniel D. Hutto’s Folk Psychological Narratives: The Sociocultural Basis of Understanding Reasons (2008).

Further Reading:

  • Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1983.
  • Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.
  • Bruner, Jerome. Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
  • Chari, V.K. Sanskrit Criticism. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. [I have included this book because I believe the treatment of the emotions one finds in rasa aesthetic theory can best account for the way in which Nussbaum understands the unique manner in which works of literature engage our emotions. As I’ve written elsewhere: In Indian aesthetics, and speaking in this instance with regard to the art of poetry, the great Kashmiri Śaiva philosopher Abhinavagupta (c. 950-1015) argued that, properly conceived and executed, a poem’s cognitive content allows our own mental states to be objectively perceived by awakening latent memories, impressions or dispositions. The resulting rasa experience is said to be self-validating (or –certifying) (svatah prāmana, the notion that the validity of a cognitive episode or knowledge is present in the material that creates the object and that the awareness of this validity arises spontaneously with that episode or knowledge itself; for example, in Advaita Vedānta, awareness is said to be self-validating—and self-illuminating—such that the doubt ‘Am I aware or not?’ cannot occur). The self-validating character of rasa experience appears to countenance the idea that, in the end, such experience is a species of self-knowledge, in Abhinavagupta’s words, “a form of self-contemplation.” Thus “rasa as ‘aesthetic flavour’ comprehends both the arousal and development of an aesthetic emotion in the mind of the aesthete, as well as the objective components of the art object, which arouse and sustain that emotion” (Harsha Dehejia). This is one way we might makes sense of the psychological and epistemic mechanisms behind Iris Murdoch’s claim that good art “affords us pure delight in what is excellent,” and why “Good art shows us how difficult it is to be objective by showing us how differently the world looks to an objective vision.”]
  • Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. Shadows of Ethics: Criticism and the Just Society. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.
  • Hutto, Daniel, ed. Narrative and Understanding Persons. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Landy, Joshua. Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Martinich, A.P. and Avrum Stroll. Much Ado About Nonexistence: Fiction and Reference. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.
  • McGinn, Colin. Ethics, Evil, and Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Murdoch, Iris (Peter Conradi, ed.). Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

A Model for Qur’ānic Interpretation & The Qur’ān: A Select Bibliography Reply


I have liberally adapted the bulk of what follows from Abdullah Saeed’s Interpreting the Qur’ān: Towards a Contemporary Approach (New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 150-154. The additional material is largely by way of clarification or explanation and although some of it is wholly new, I believe it is in the spirit of, if not faithful to, Saeed’s proposed model.

 A Model for Qur’ānic Interpretation

Stage 1—Encounter with the world of the text

Stage 1—A  broad and general familiarization with the text(s) and its (their) world(s).

Stage 2—Critical Analysis: (a) Linguistic considerations; (b) Literary context; (c) Literary form; (d) Parallel texts; (e) Precedents

Stage 2—Here we are interested in what the text says about itself (its ‘self-referential’ character). This involves various fundamental analyses:

  1. Linguistic considerations: this entails analysis of the language of the text (linguistic units), semantics (the meaning of words and phrases involving features of the context, conventions of language use, and goals of the speaker), syntax of verse(s), and in general all linguistic and grammatical issues intrinsic to the text. It also covers different ways in which particular words and phrases can be read (qirā’āt).
  2. Literary context: how the text in question functions within a particular sūra and/or the Qur’ān as a whole. For instance, examining what comes immediately before or after the verse(s); the composition and structure of the text as well as its rhetorical style and qualities.
  3. Literary form: identifying whether the text is (largely or principally historical), has liturgical function (e.g., a prayer), is a proverb, a parable or other kind of narrative, or has a legal function. Detailing the connection between literary form and meaning (including, possibly, pragmatics: extra-linguistic context of utterance, generally observed principles of communication, goals of the speaker, presuppositions vis-à-vis new information, speech acts, implicature, etc.).
  4. Parallel texts: exploring whether there are other texts that are similar to the text under consideration in the Qur’ān and, if so, the extent to which they are similar and different.
  5. Precedent(s): identification of texts that are similar in content or import and whether these were revealed or inspired before or after the text under consideration.

Stage 3—Meaning for the first recipients: (a) Socio-historical context; (b) Worldview; (c) Nature of the message: spiritual, theological, ethical, legal; (d) Message: contextual v. universal; (e) Relationship of message to overall revelatory message of the Qur’ān

Stage 3Relating the text to the recipients of the Qur’ān:

  1. Wider contextual analysis: historical and social information that would shed light on the text in question; analysis of the worldview, culture, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions of the first recipients of the Qur’ān in Hijāz (region in the northwest of present-day Saudi Arabia and includes the cities of Mecca and Medina). This analysis includes close examination of the time and place in which, for example, specific cultural, legal, political and economic issues arose.
  2. Determination of the nature of the message the text conveys: spiritual, theological, ethical, legal, etc.
  3. Exploration of possible layers of meaning: ‘outer’ and ‘inner,’ overt and implied, or specific and underlying messages of the text; investigation of whether or not the text has universal or simply contextual import and application in the context of the first recipient community. Are there different ways or means other than those specified that can accomplish the specific and clear reason, purpose, or goal of the text in question (e.g., punishment, deterrence, and mercy but without this prescribed form of punishment (which ‘made sense’ at the time and place of the first recipients of this revelation).
  4. Determination of where message the message is located in a hierarchy of values (metaphysical, devotional and ritual, legal, ethical, etc.).
  5. Consideration of how the message relates to the broader objectives and concerns clearly evidenced in the Qur’ān.
  6. Evaluation of how the text was received by the first community of Muslims and how they interpreted, understood and applied it.

Stage 4—Contemporary meaning: (a) Analysis of present context; (b) Contemporary context vis-à-vis socio-historical context; (c) Meaning through time: earliest recipients to the present; (d) Message: contextual v. universal; (e) Applicability to contemporary circumstances and conditions

Stage 4—Relating the text to the contemporary context:

  1. Determining the current concerns, problems, and needs that appear to be relevant to the message of the under consideration.
  2. Exploring the present social, political, economic and cultural context relevant to the text.
  3. Exploring the specific values, norms, and institutions that have a bearing on the message of the text.
  4. Comparing the present context with the socio-historical context of the text under consideration, taking into account similarities and differences.
  5. Relating how the meaning of the text as understood, interpreted and applied by the first recipients of the Qur’ān and subsequent historical recipients to the present context, taking into account similarities and differences.
  6. Evaluating the universality or specificity of the message the text conveys and the extent to which it is related or unrelated to the well-known (i.e., uncontroversial within the tradition) broader objectives and concerns of the Qur’ān.

Most of the last two stages (3 & 4) are not covered by classical tafsīr.

 The Qur’ān: A Select Bibliography (in English)

This list includes translations of the Qur’ān into English as well as works examining this sacred scripture from both within and outside Islamic (theological, philosophical, mystical, and legal) traditions.

  • Abdel Haleem, M.A.S., trans. The Qur’an. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Abdel Haleem, M.A.S. Understanding the Qur’an: Themes and Style. London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.
  • Abu-Hamdiyyah, Mohammad. The Qur’an: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2000.
  • Akhtar, Shabbir. The Quran and the Secular Mind: A Philosophy of Islam. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary. Washington, DC: Amanah, 1989.
  • Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Meaning of the Holy Qur’ān. Beltsville, MD: Amana Publ., 1989.
  • Ali, Ahmed. Al-Qur’an: A Contemporary Translation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.
  • Aresmouk, Mohamed Fouad and Michael Abdurrahman Fitzgerald, trans. The Immense Ocean—Al Bahr al-Madīd: A Thirteenth Century Quranic Commentary on the Chapters of The All-Merciful, The Event, and Iron, by Ahmad ibn ‘Ajība. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2009.
  • Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Qur’an. Gibraltar: Dar al-Andalus, 1980.
  • Ayoub, Mahmoud. The Qur’an and Its Interpreters, Vols. 1-2. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984.
  • Baljon, Jon M.S. Modern Muslim Koran Interpretation (1880-1960). Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1961.
  • Barlas, Asma. “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2002.
  • Bell, Richard. Introduction to the Qur’an. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1963.
  • Bell, Richard. The Qur’an Translated, 2 Vols. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1960.
  • Boullata, I.J. Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qur’an. London: Curzon Press, 2000.
  • Burton, John. The Collection of the Qur’ān. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
  • Cook, Michael. The Koran: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Cooper, John. The Commentary on the Qur’an by Abu Ja‘far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press and Hakim Investment Holdings, 1987.
  • Cragg, Kenneth. The Event of the Quran: Islam in its Scripture. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971.
  • Cragg, Kenneth. The Mind of the Quran: Chapters in Reflection. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1973.
  • Cragg, Kenneth. Readings in the Qur’ān. Brighton: Sussex University Press, 1988.
  • Dawood, N.J., trans. The Koran. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956.
  • Draz, M.A. Introduction to the Qur’an. London: I.B. Tauris, 2000.
  • English Translation of the Meaning of Al-Qur’an: The Guidance for Mankind (Muhammad Farooq-i- Azam Malik, trans.). Houston, TX: The Institute of Islamic Knowledge, 1997.
  • Esack, Farid. Qur’ān, Liberation and Pluralism. Oxford, England: Oneworld, 1997.
  • Esack, Farid. The Qur’ān: A Short Introduction. Oxford, England: Oneworld, 2002.
  • Fakhry, Majid, trans. An Interpretation of the Qur’an. New York: New York University Press, 2002.
  • Gätje, Helmut (Alford T. Welch, trans. and ed.). The Quran and Its Exegesis. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976.
  • Al-Ghazālī, Shaykh Muhammad. A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an. Herndon, VA: The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2005.
  • Gwynne, Rosalind Ward. Logic, Rhetoric, and Legal Reasoning in the Qur’ān: God’s Arguments. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004.
  • Hamza, Feras and Sajjad Rizvi, eds. An Anthology of Qur’anic Commentaries, Vol. 1: On the Nature of the Divine. New York: Oxford University Press in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2008.
  • Hawting, G.R. and Abdul-Kader A. Shareef, eds. Approaches to the Quran. London: Routledge, 1993.
  • The Holy Qur’an: Arabic Text with English Translation and Short Commentary (Maulavi Sher  Ali, trans. and Malik Ghulam Farid, ed.). Tilford, Surrey, England: Islam International Publ., 1994.
  • Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Quran. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2002.
  • Izutsu, Toshihiko. God and Man in the Koran. Salem, NH: Ayer Co. Publ., 1980.
  • Izutsu, Toshihiko. The Structure of Ethical Terms in the Qur’ān. Chicago, IL: ABC International Group, 2000.
  • Jansen, J.J.G. The Interpretation of the Koran in Modern Egypt. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974.
  • Kassis, Hanna E. A Concordance of the Qur’an. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998.
  • Khalifa, Rashad. Quran, Hadith, and Islam. Fremont, CA: Universal Unity, 2000.
  • al-Khu’i, ‛Abu’l Qasim al-Musawu. The Prolegomena to the Qur’an. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • The Koran. J.M. Rodwell, trans. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1909 (reprint ed., 1974).
  • The Koran Interpreted. Arthur J. Arberry, trans. New York: Macmillan, 1955.
  • Leaman, Oliver, ed. The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • Madigan, Daniel A. The Qur’an’s Self-Image: Writing and Authority in Islamic Scripture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Mattson, Ingrid. The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.
  • McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, ed. The Encyclopedia of the Qur’an, 5 Vols. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2001-2006.
  • McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’ān. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Mir, Mustansir. Dictionary of Qur’anic Terms and Concepts. New York: Garland, 1987.
  • Nelson, Kristina. The Art of Reciting the Qur’ān. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1985.
  • Pickthall, M.M. The Meaning of the Glorious Koran: An Explanatory Translation. New York: New American Library, 1930.
  • The Qur’an (Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, trans., with Arabic text). Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 1997.
  • The Qur’an Translated, With a Critical Rearrangement of the Surahs. Richard Bell, trans. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1939.
  • Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an. Minneapolis, MN: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980.
  • Rippin, Andrew. The Qur’an and Its Interpretive Tradition. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2002.
  • Rippin, Andrew, ed. Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur’an. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1988.
  • Rippin, Andrew, ed. The Qur’an: Formative Interpretation. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate/Variorum, 2000.
  • Rippin, Andrew, ed. The Qur’an: Style and Contents. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001.
  • Robinson, Neal. Discovering the Qur’an: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text. London: SCM Press, 1996.
  • Saeed, Abdullah. Approaches to the Qur’an in Contemporary Indonesia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Saeed, Abdullah. Interpreting the Qur’ān: Towards a Contemporary Approach. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • Sands, Kristen Zahra. Sūfī Commentaries on the Qur’ān in Classical Islam. New York: Routledge, 2006.
  • Sells, Michael. Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 1999.
  • Stowasser, Barbara Freyer. Women in the Qur’an: Traditions and Interpretations. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Tabarī, al (J. Cooper, trans.). The Commentary on the Qur’ān. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1987.
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[cross-posted at ReligiousLeftLaw]

The Playwright & Intellectual Responsibility (Updated: 1/14/2012) Reply


Mark Edwards has two important posts in a series on the late playwright, essayist and dissident intellectual Václav Havel (1936-2011) up at Concurring Opinions: here and here. Yours truly with a lengthy comment in the second post.

Update: Mark’s latest posts (Parts III & IV): here and here.

The Long & Winding Sentence in the Age of Twitter 1


 

Pico Iyer has an essay on “the long sentence” in today’s Los Angeles Times. A taste:

“‘Your sentences are so long,’ said a friend who teaches English at a local college, and I could tell she didn’t quite mean it as a compliment. The copy editor who painstakingly went through my most recent book often put yellow dashes on-screen around my multiplying clauses, to ask if I didn’t want to break up my sentences or put less material in every one. Both responses couldn’t have been kinder or more considered, but what my friend and my colleague may not have sensed was this: I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment.

When I began writing for a living, my feeling was that my job was to give the reader something vivid, quick and concrete that she couldn’t get in any other form; a writer was an information-gathering machine, I thought, and especially as a journalist, my job was to go out into the world and gather details, moments, impressions as visual and immediate as TV. Facts were what we needed most. And if you watched the world closely enough, I believed (and still do), you could begin to see what it would do next, just as you can with a sibling or a friend; Don DeLillo or Salman Rushdie aren’t mystics, but they can tell us what the world is going to do tomorrow because they follow it so attentively.

Yet nowadays the planet is moving too fast for even a Rushdie or DeLillo to keep up, and many of us in the privileged world have access to more information than we know what to do with. What we crave is something that will free us from the overcrowded moment and allow us to see it in a larger light. No writer can compete, for speed and urgency, with texts or CNN news flashes or RSS feeds, but any writer can try to give us the depth, the nuances — the ‘gaps,’ as Annie Dillard calls them — that don’t show up on many screens. Not everyone wants to be reduced to a sound bite or a bumper sticker.

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions — or that at least is the hope — and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying ‘Open wider’ so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).

‘There was a little stoop of humility,’ Alan Hollinghurst writes in a sentence I’ve chosen almost at random from his recent novel ‘The Stranger’s Child,’  ‘as she passed through the door, into the larger but darker library beyond, a hint of frailty, an affectation of bearing more than her fifty-nine years, a slight bewildered totter among the grandeur that her daughter now had to pretend to take for granted.’ You may notice — though you don’t have to — that ‘humility’ has rather quickly elided into ‘affectation,’ and the point of view has shifted by the end of the sentence, and the physical movement through the rooms accompanies a gradual inner movement that progresses through four parallel clauses, each of which, though legato, suggests a slightly different take on things.

Many a reader will have no time for this; William Gass or Sir Thomas Browne may seem long-winded, the equivalent of driving from L.A. to San Francisco by way of Death Valley, Tijuana and the Sierras. And a highly skilled writer, a Hemingway or James Salter, can get plenty of shading and suggestion into even the shortest and straightest of sentences. But too often nowadays our writing is telegraphic as a way of keeping our thinking simplistic, our feeling slogan-crude. The short sentence is the domain of uninflected talk-radio rants and shouting heads on TV who feel that qualification or subtlety is an assault on their integrity (and not, as it truly is, integrity’s greatest adornment).

If we continue along this road, whole areas of feeling and cognition and experience will be lost to us. We will not be able to read one another very well if we can’t read Proust’s labyrinthine sentences, admitting us to those half-lighted realms where memory blurs into imagination, and we hide from the person we care for or punish the thing that we love. And how can we feel the layers, the sprawl, the many-sidedness of Istanbul in all its crowding amplitude without the 700-word sentence, transcribing its features, that Orhan Pamuk offered in tribute to his lifelong love?” [….]

And…in case you missed it, Pico wrote on “The Joy of Quiet” in “the other Times” at the close of last year.

Pico Iyer on Graham Greene Reply


 

There’s a notice of a new book on Graham Greene by my friend Pico Iyer, in the New York Times. As I note in the former link, I would unhesitatingly recommend anything written by Pico, but I especially look forward with relish to this book, having had several conversations with him about his (and now ‘our’) fondness for Greene. Buy from your local, independent bookseller if possible (so as to help them avoid the fate of my beloved Bodhi Tree Bookstore) but if not, see here.

Video Games & Literature 2


At The Faculty Lounge, Professor John Kang is, rightly I think, disturbed by “Justice Scalia’s suggestion [in Brown, et al v. Entertainment Merchants Association] for the Court that these vile video games are like. . . literature.”  Kang responds to this analogy as follows:

“What?  Maybe I’m missing something here but that can’t be an analogous description for the violent games prohibited to minors by California.  In these games, you—the player—are besieged by people trying to kill you and thus you have to kill them before they do you.  You thus don’t have time to ‘identify with the characters’ and ‘judge them and quarrel with them’ or ‘experience their joys and sufferings as the reader’s own.’  The enterprise of the game, made unequivocally clear before you even have thought about purchasing it, is that you either kill or are killed. 

And the action is relentless and heart-pounding.  For you are not reading about someone else killing enemies, raping women, and shooting up a mall.  In the video game, you are killing your enemies, raping women, and shooting up a mall, or risk the danger that you will be targeted.  And there is no time to reflect on why you’re doing these things other than to stay alive and indulge your most atavistic impulses.   

There is no time to think, reflect, deliberate, and, most certainly, there is no time to ‘judge the characters and quarrel with them.’  In short, when you are busy killing people who are trying kill you, you don’t do those conventional things you do for literature.    

Scalia points to violent scenes in Homer, Dante, the Lord of the Flies; violence has been part of our best literature, he insists.  But these works do invite the reader to do those things that Posner recognizes about great literature:  identify with the characters, invite him to judge them and quarrel with them, to experience their joys and sufferings as the reader’s own. 

The violent video games don’t [do] any of these things.”

As Kang notes, others things might be said about these games (or the analogy for that matter), as well as the constitutionality of the California law, but the analogy is indeed troubling for at least the reasons he identifies.

Image found here.

Musings on Utopia: Historical & Philosophical Reply


We conclude our introduction to utopian thought and imagination with a small sample of historical and philosophical musings on utopia. In sum, I think they well capture the essence—the necessity and value—of the utopian enterprise. I’ve appended a list for references and further reading should you be inspired by these snippets and the general argument outlined in the previous post. This should further help us appreciate the series of posts on the notion of “general emancipation” in the work of Rudolf Bahro (at ReligiousLeftLaw here, here, and here), which I hope to continue anon. In particular, we’ll examine Bahro’s transition, so to speak, “from red to green” (the title of a book of interviews by New Left Review with Bahro), including his Gandhian-like ideas on the virtue of introducing the monastic (aśramic) ideal into civil society by way of “purifiying” conventional power politics.

“By perfectible, it is not meant that he [i.e., man] is capable of being brought to perfection. But the word seems sufficiently adapted to express the faculty of being continually made better and receiving perpetual improvement; and in this sense it is here to be understood. The term perfectible, thus explained, not only does not imply the capacity of being brought to perfection, but stands in expression to it. If we could arrive at perfection, there would be an end to our improvement. There is however one thing of great importance that it does imply: every perfection or excellence that human beings are competent to conceive, human beings, unless in cases that are palpably and unequivocally excluded by the structure of their frame, are competent to attain.”—Wlliam Godwin

“There are recognizable barriers from which men have always sought to emancipate themselves, in order to obtain access to something, and appropriate something, that is conceived time and again in the ideas of freedom, joy, happiness, etc., which no cynical irony can expunge. The inexhaustible possibilities of human nature, which themselves increase with cultural progress, are the innermost material of all utopias, and moreover a very real, and in no way immaterial material at that. They inevitably lead to the desire to transform human life.”—Rudolf Bahro

“Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Taylor, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Merton, Yogi Berra, Allen Ginsburg, Harry Wolfson, Thoreau, Casey Stengel…Baba Ram Dass, Gandhi, Sir Edmund Hillary…Freud, Norman Mailer…Thomas Edison, H.L. Mencken, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Ellison…Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, [Frank Lloyd Wright, Muhammad Ali, Kenneth Rexroth, Dorothy Day, Malcolm X, Oprah Winfrey, Vaclav Havel, Dorothy Healey, Leonardo Boff, Seyyid Hossein Nasr, James deAnda, Nelson Mandela, Helen Mirren, Pico Iyer, Mose Allison, Jewel, Dame Judi Dench, Aretha Franklin, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso), Leonard Cohen], you and your parents. Is there really one kind of life which is best for each of these people?”—Robert Nozick

“Utopia will consist of utopias, of many different and divergent communities in which people lead different kinds of lives under different institutions. Some kinds of communities will be more attractive to most than others; communities will wax and wane. People will leave some for others or spend their whole lives in one. Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others. The utopian society is the society of utopianism. [….] Half of the truth I wish to put forth is that utopia is meta-utopia: the environment in which utopian experiments may be tried out; the environment in which people are free to do their own thing; the environment which must, to a great extent, be realized first if more particular utopian visions are to be realized stably.”—Robert Nozick

“We may distinguish three utopian positions: imperialistic utopianism, which countenances the forcing of everyone into one pattern of community; missionary utopianism, which hopes to persuade or convince everyone to live in one particular kind of community, but will not force them to do so; and existential utopianism, which hopes that a particular pattern of community will exist (be viable), though not necessarily universally, so that those who wish to do so may live in accordance with it.”—Robert Nozick

“It is, Martin Buber wrote, ‘the goal of Utopian socialism…to substitute society for the State to the greatest degree possible, moreover a society that is ‘genuine’ and not a State in disguise.’ That is as good a definition as you will find—even though it is more complex than it might at first seem.”—Michael Harrington

“The classic utopia anticipates and criticizes. Its alternative fundamentally interrogates the present, piercing through existing societies’ defensive mechanisms—common sense, realism, positivism and scientism. Its unabashed and flagrant otherness gives it a power which is lacking in other analytical devices. By playing fast and loose with time and space, logic and morality, and by thinking the unthinkable, a utopia asks the most awkward, the most embarrassing questions. As an imaginative construction of a whole society, the utopia can bring into play the rich critical apparatus of the literary form and a sensitivity to the holistic nature of society, enabling it to mock, satirize, reduce the prominent parts, to illuminate and emphasize the neglected, shadowy, hidden parts—and to show the interrelatedness—of the existing system. Utopia can be seen as the good alternative, the outline of a better future, an ‘ought’ to the current ‘is.’ The possibility of such a future helps undermine the complacency and overcome the inertia of existing society by showing that it is neither eternal nor archetypal but merely one form amongst many. This need not lead to teleology (i.e. ‘this is your future’), for the alternative has many shapes.”—Vincent Geoghegan

“For [Ernst] Bloch, the enemies of hope are confusion, anxiety, fear, renunciation, passivity, failure and nothingness. Fascism was their apotheosis. But since all individuals daydream, they also hope. It is necessary to strip this dreaming of self-delusion and escapism, to enrich and expand it and to base it in the actual movement of society. Hope, in other words, must be both educated and objectively grounded; an insight drawn from Marx’s great discovery: ‘the subjective and objective hope-contents of the world.’ The Principle of Hope is an encyclopaedic account of dreams of a better existence; from the most simple to the most complex; from idle daydreams to sophisticated images of perfection. It develops a positive sense of the category ‘utopian,’ denuded of unworldliness and abstraction, as forward dreaming and anticipation. [….] This then is Bloch’s great masterpiece. His achievement was to see that utopianism is not confined to intellectuals and their various blueprints of a better life. He saw that, in countless ways, individuals are expressing unfulfilled dreams and aspirations—that in song, dance, plants and plaster, church and theater, utopia waits.”—Vincent Geoghegan

“Marxists have a defensive attitude towards utopias. It was so laborious to escape from them in the past. But today utopian thought has a new necessity. For that historical spontaneity that Marx conceived as a process of natural history and which our Marxist-Leninists celebrate in the name of objective economic law, must be overcome. [….] The problem is to drive forward the ‘overproduction’ of consciousness, so as to put the whole historical past ‘on its head,’ and make the idea into the decisive material force, to guide things to a radical transformation that goes still deeper than the customary transition from one formation to another within one and the same civilization. We are now facing, and what has in fact already begun, is a cultural revolution in the truest sense of the term: a transformation of the entire subjective form of life of the masses….”—Rudolf Bahro

The early utopian socialists: Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen, while not democrats, inspired democratic movements concerned with morality, community and feminism. “It was a movement that gave the first serious definition of socialism as communitarian, moral, feminist, committed to the transformation of work. This tradition came to be regarded as an immature first step, a prelude, rather than as something of enduring value. If there is to be a twenty-first-century socialism worthy of the name, it will, among other things, have to go two hundred years into the past to recover the practical and theoretical ideals of the utopians.”—Michael Harrington

“Certainly, the concept of utopia is only one of the many possible demonstrations of the anxieties, hopes, and pursuits of an era and of a social milieu. The questioning of the legitimacy and rationality of the existing order, the diagnosis and criticism of moral and social defects, the search for remedies, the dreams of a new order, etc.—all these favorite themes of utopias are found in political systems and popular myths, in religious doctrines and in poetry. If the critique of social reality and the expectation of a new City turn toward utopia, that means that a choice has been made among available forms of discourse. What is said in utopia and as utopia cannot be said otherwise. There are ‘hot’ eras when utopias flourish, when the utopian imagination penetrates the most diverse forms of intellectual, political, and literary activity; eras when opposing points of view and divergent main themes seem to rediscover their point of convergence in the very invention of the descriptions of utopias. But there are other ‘cold’ eras, when utopian creativity is weakened and cut off from social, intellectual, and ideological activities.”—Bronislaw Baczko

1. “There is no utopia without an overall representation, the idea-image of an alternative society, opposed to the existing social reality, and its institutions, rites, dominant symbols, systems of values, norms of interdictions, hierarchies, relations of dominance and property, its domain reserved to the sacred, and so forth. In other words, there is no utopia without a synthetic and disruptive representation of social otherness. [….]
2. The representations of a different and happy City are the products of a particular way of imagining the social; utopias are one of the places, occasionally the privileged place, where the social imagination is put into practice, where individual and collective social dreams are welcomed, gathered, worked on, and produced. Moreover if utopian imagining activity is focused on overall and synthetic idea-images, it nevertheless is developed through day-to-day reality. The dreams of the happy City are, then, articulated with images of a renewed daily life, and utopias often offer a great luxury of detail in their descriptions of individual and collective daily life. The structural relationships between the representation of the overall society and the detailed images of the ordinary aspects of life are as complex as they are revealing. [….]
3. The alternative society is not only imagined, it is also thought to be consonant with reason, and prides itself on the rationality it brings into play. Utopias want to install reason in the realm of the imagination; in utopias, constant exchanges among social dreams and critical, theoretical, and normative reflection are carefully worked out. The term idea-image to which we often have recourse has the sole aim of bringing these distinctive characteristics of utopian representation to the fore. [….]
4. Utopia is not only imagined and thought, it is made intelligible and communicable in a discourse by which the merging of the idea-images and their integration into a language is accomplished. [T]wo classic paradigms were imposed in utopian discourse from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. The first is the utopia of the imaginary voyage. [….] The other paradigm is that of the utopia-proposal for ideal legislation. [….]
5. Every utopia is not necessarily proposed as a program of action or even as a model that would demand intellectual or emotional support. The novelistic utopias are offered most frequently as intellectual games. They only seek to stimulate both the imagination and the critical and moralizing reflection of the readers…. However, sometimes even the utopias presented in the form of an imaginary voyage inspire a will to act and to give some of their ideas a practical application. [….] But there are utopias that proclaim themselves as both a prophetic and a founding word, and that find their extensions in the establishment of exemplary communities professing to put them into practice.”—Bronislaw Baczko

“Plato in fact comes in rather late, if we focus first on the world of classical antiquity. Utopian themes reach back to the earliest Greek writings. From Hesiod’s Works and Days, of the early seventh century BC, came the canonical depiction of the Golden Age, the bitterly-lamented vanished age of Kronos’ reign: when men ‘lived as if they were gods, their hearts free from all sorrow, and without hard work or pain;’ when ‘the fruitful earth yielded its abundant harvest to them of its own accord, and they lived in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things.’ Reworked by Virgil and Ovid as the lost age of Saturn (the Roman Kronos), the pastoral perfection in the Golden Age reappeared as the classic Arcadia, a time and place of rustic simplicity and felicity.”—Krishan Kumar

“If Arcadia showed man living within, and according to, nature, the Hellenic ideal city represented human mastery over nature, the triumph of reason and artifice over the amoral and chaotic realm of nature. Hence the importance, in the ideal city tradition, of those who gave the law and made the rational order of human society: the founders and framers of cities and constitutions, the philosopher-kings, the architect-planners. An early Greek tradition already venerated the semi-mythical figures of Solon of Athens and Lycurgus of Sparta as the founders and law-givers of their respective city-states. Their idealization, common throughout the classical period, was boosted by Plutarch’s Lives (first century AD), which made of Solon and Lycurgus virtually the creators of utopian societies. As received in Europe through various translations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Lives, eked out with such celebrated set-pieces as Pericles’ funeral oration from Thucydides’ History, set before European thinkers two sharply contrasting utopian models. There was Athens: democratic, tolerant, boisterous, given over to a cultivated hedonism; and there was Sparta: authoritarian, ascetic, communistic. European utopian writers, along with most other kinds, were clearly fascinated by the alternative possibilities suggested by these two great exemplars of the ancient world. Right up to the French Revolution and beyond, one way of classifying utopias was as ‘Athenian’ or ‘Spartan,’ with Sparta predictably the favourite not simply for matching more closely the utopian preference for a tightly regulated communal order, but as much for its status as the putative model of the most admired ancient utopia, Plato’s Republic.”—Krishan Kumar

“[Thomas] More shows himself, and his Utopia, to the product of a new age. His Utopia has a rationalism and a realism that we associate typically with the classical revival of the Renaissance, and that are to be found equally in the architectural utopias of the fifteenth and sixteenth-century Italy. We should remember that Utopia was published less than three years after Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513). More’s urbane and witty style, his profound sense of political realities, constantly evoke the relentlessly de-mystified world of Machiavelli’s notorious treatise (and, incidentally, remind us that utopia and anti-utopia [‘dystopia’] shadow each other very closely).”—Krishan Kumar

“The realm of utopia is wide but it is not boundless. Utopia is not some unchanging human archetype or universal human propensity. Distinctions have to be made and these must be largely historical. If utopia is not in one very obvious sense concerned with the here-and-now, for the most part it draws both its form and content from the contemporary reality. Whether or not we choose to call Plato’s Republic a utopia, or to accept the idea of a Christian utopia, we must recognize the fundamental difference of intention and concern between them, a reflection of the very different conditions that gave rise to them. Both classical and Christian utopianism persisted well into the modern age. They had—and have—a continuing influence on conceptions of utopia. This can make it difficult to see the even more important differences between these utopian “prefigurations” and the utopia proper, the modern utopia that was invented in Europe in the sixteenth century. The utopia of the ancient world is hierarchical, economically undeveloped and static. The modern utopia is egalitarian, affluent and dynamic. Such a conception emerged under unique historical conditions. As these changed so the content and even, to an extent, the form of utopia changed. So we should not be surprised to find ourselves dealing with utopias of many different kinds, and with many different purposes, in the more than four centuries since More’s Utopia. A strict definition of utopia would serve no useful purpose; as Nietzsche says, ‘only that which has not history can be defined.’”—Krishan Kumar

There was a “direct and dynamic connection between the idea of the American nation as utopia, and the foundations of scores of utopian communities that, dismissing this idea, still sought and found refuge on the American continent. We might borrow a term from the American philosopher Robert Nozick and consider America, in this aspect, as meta-utopia. In this conception, utopia is not one community, one vision of the good life, but a “framework for utopias,” a place which freely allows people to form and re-form themselves into utopian communities of diverse kinds. [….] Nineteenth-century America was this meta-utopia on a grander and more generous scale than ever before or since. The vast size of its still relatively unsettled territory, coupled with the utopian notions that accompanied its entire development as a nation, drew utopian groups to it as to a magnet. On both physical and ideological grounds, nineteenth-century America was the ideal framework for utopias in Nozick’s sense. It set up a dynamic counterpoint between the larger national experiment—America as utopia—and the host of small experimental communities, each pursuing its individual utopian vision. Meta-utopia, like utopia, produced a characteristic literature, the literature of the experimental community. There were the reports and survey of founders, sympathizers and observers, such as John Humphrey Noyes’s History of American Socialisms (1870), Charles Nordhoff’s The Communistic Societies of the United States (1875) and William Alfred Hinds’ American Communities (1878). Noyes founded Oneida; Hinds was a founding-member of it. There was also the autobiographies and memoirs of those who had actually been born or lived for much of their time in utopian communities, such Frederick Williams Evans’s Autobiography of a Shaker (1869), Robert Dale Owen’s Twenty-Seven Years of Autobiography (1874) and Pierrepont Noyes’s My Father’s House: An Oneida Boyhood (1937). All these combine, to a remarkable degree, personal involvement and sympathy with a wide-ranging outlook and refreshingly clear-sighted analysis.”—Krishan Kumar

“[T]here was probably more genuine communism practiced in nineteenth-century America than in any society, at any time, beyond the hunting and gathering stage. This certainly seemed self-evident to many Europeans. The young Friedrich Engels was among the many European socialists who were stirred by the reports of the American communities, and who first looked to them to provide the example and model for European communism. ‘The first people in America,’ wrote Engels, ‘and indeed in the world who brought into realization a society founded on the community of property were the so-called Shakers.’ The American communities, he confidently declared, had demonstrated that ‘communism, the social life and work based on the common possession of goods, is…not only possible but has actually been realized…and with the best result.’ The communities were themselves to a good extent the product of a wider movement of reform that enthusiastically embraced socialism. Socialism in mid-nineteenth-century America was far from being the ‘un-American’ thing it has now become.”—Krishan Kumar

“Gandhi’s fascination as a thinker lies in his inward battle between two opposing attitudes—the Tolstoyan socialist belief that the Kingdom of Heaven is attainable on earth and the Dostoevskian mystical conviction that it can never be materialized. The modern Hindu standpoint has generally been anti-utopian: Rama Rajya lies in the bygone Satya Yuga, and Kali Yuga is the age of unavoidable coercion. Gandhi began by challenging this view under the influence of Tolstoy, but he ended his life with more of a Dostoevskian pessimism. This does not mean that he abandoned either his imaginative, utopian, political vision or what he called his practical idealism embodied in concrete programs of immediate action. He did not feel that he was wrong to urge men to set themselves, as he did in his own life, seemingly impossible standards, but he came closer to seeing that it is wrong to expect them to do so. [….] ‘Euclidean’ models—of the satyagrahi, of a society based on satya and ahimsa, of Rama Rajya—are not without their value in political theory, but they must not be mistaken for definitely realizable concretions. [….] Gandhi’s concepts of satya, ahimsa and satyagraha, of tapas, and, above all, of the satyagrahi, are such ideal constructions—‘Euclidean’ models as he himself called them. They do involve a ‘momentous truth,’ but they are also deceptive representations, in a sense. In constructing these, Gandhi was in the oldest political tradition that goes back to classical Chinese and Indian thinkers, and to Plato in the West. They could serve in the serious task of civic education (paideia) provided they are not taken to represent precisely the political realities of the future.”—Raghavan Iyer

“Utopia has, for four centuries, accompanied that hope of progress and that striving for betterment. It has been itself a principle of expression of that belief and a potent agent of that impulse. It now struggles against a confused but widespread sense that this has been an illusion, or an impossible dream. A strong utopian current has persisted…. It may be that, once invented, the utopian idea can never entirely disappear—not, that is, so long as Western society itself continues. But utopia as a form of the social imagination has clearly weakened—whether fatally we cannot say. It has not in recent times found the power to instill its vision in the public consciousness. If it cannot do so again some time in the future, we should be aware of the seriousness of the failure. Karl Mannheim, who was as thoughtful a student of utopias as anyone, considered that the elimination of the ‘reality-transcending’ power of utopia would mean ‘the decay of the human will:’ The complete disappearance of the utopian element from human thought would mean that human nature and human development would take on a totally new character. The disappearance of utopia brings about a static state of affairs in which man himself becomes nor more than a thing. We would then be faced with the greatest paradox imaginable, namely, that man, who has achieved the highest degree of mastery of existence, left without any ideals, becomes a mere creature of impulses. Thus, after a long tortuous, but heroic development, just at the highest stage of awareness, when history is ceasing to be blind fate, and is becoming more and more man’s own creation, with the relinquishment of utopias, man would lose his will to shape history and therewith his ability to understand it.”—Mannheim qtd. in Krishan Kumar

References and Further Reading:

  • Baczko, Bronislaw. Utopian Lights: The Evolution of the Idea of Social Progress. New York: Paragon House, 1989.
  • Bahro, Rudolf (David Fernbach, trans.). The Alternative in Eastern Europe. London: NLB (New Left Books), 1978.
  • Bahro, Rudolf. Building the Green Movement. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publ., 1986.
  • Bartkowski, Frances. Feminist Utopias. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
  • Berryman, Phillip. Liberation Theology. New York: Pantheon Books, 1987.
  • Bloch, Ernst (Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight, trans.). The Principle of Hope, 3 Vols. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
  • Bloch, Ernst (Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg, trans.). The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988.
  • Breines, Wini. Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968: The Great Refusal. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989 ed.
  • Buber, Martin. Paths in Utopia. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1958.
  • Dolgoff, Sam, ed. The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution, 1936–1939. New York: Free Life Editions, 1974.
  • Elster, Jon and Karl Ove Moene, eds. Alternatives to Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Erasmus, Charles J. In Search of the Common Good: Utopian Experiments Past and Future. New York: Free Press, 1985.
  • Galston, William A. Justice and the Human Good. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
  • Geoghegan, Vincent. Utopianism and Marxism. London: Methuen, 1987.
  • Godwin, William. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Middlesex, England: Penguin Classics, 1985 (1793).
  • Harrington, Michael. Socialism: Past and Future. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1989.
  • Hine, Robert V. California’s Utopian Colonies. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983 (1953).
  • Iyer, Raghavan. Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Iyer, Raghavan. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 2nd ed., 1983 (1st ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).
  • Jacoby, Russell. The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy. New York: Basic Books, 2005.
  • Jacoby, Russell. Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007 ed.
  • Joll, James. The Anarchists. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2nd ed., 1979.
  • Katsiaficas, George. The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1987.
  • Kohn, Livia. Cosmos and Community: The Ethical Dimension of Daoism. Cambridge, MA: Three Pines Press, 2004.
  • Kumar, Krishan. Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1987.
  • Kumar, Krishan and Stephen Bann, eds. Utopias and the Millennium. London: Reaktion Books, 1993.
  • Levitas, Ruth. The Concept of Utopia. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990.
  • Luntley, Michael. The Meaning of Socialism. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1990.
  • Mannheim, Karl. Ideology and Utopia. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960 (1936).
  • Manuel, Frank E. and Fritzie P. Manuel. Utopian Thought in the Western World. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.
  • Marsden, John Joseph. Marxian and Christian Utopianism: Toward a Socialist Political Theology. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1991.
  • Martineau, Alain. Herbert Marcuse’s Utopia. Montreal: Harvest House, 1986.
  • Melville, Keith. Communes in the Counter Culture: Origins, Theories, Styles of Life. New York: Morrow Quill, 1972.
  • Morrison, Roy. We Build the Road as We Travel. Philadelphis, PA: New Society Publishers, 1991.
  • Nordhoff, Charles. The Communistic Societies of the United States. New York: Schocken Books, 1965 [1875].
  • Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.]
  • Pitzer, Donald E., ed. America’s Communal Utopias. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
  • Rexroth, Kenneth. Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century. New York: Seabury Press, 1974.
  • Schaer, Roland, Gregory Claeys and Lyman Tower Sargent, eds. Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Smith, Christian. The Emergence of Liberation Theology: Radical Religion and Social Movement Theory. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
  • Sonn, Richard D. Anarchism. New York: Twayne Publ., 1992.
  • Stites, Richard. Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Taylor, Michael. Anarchy and Cooperation. London: Wiley, 1976.
  • Taylor, Michael. Community, Anarchy and Liberty. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Weisbrud, Carol. The Boundaries of Utopia. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980. 

Utopian Thought & Imagination Reply


A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.—Oscar Wilde

[The following draws upon and revises material from several posts in 2008 and 2009 from the Ratio Juris blog.]

Russell Jacoby writes in the preface to his book, Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (2005),  “Today most observers judge utopias or their sympathizers as foolhardy dreamers at best and murderous totalitarians at worst.” No doubt this was the consensual judgment crystallized in the “Liberal anti-utopianism” of such widely influential thinkers as Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, and Isaiah Berlin. Ours is an age drawn to the chaotic darkness of (often technocratic) dystopian nightmares, for we are too chastened or cynical, perhaps as a result of living through the catalogue of collective and genocidal violence conspicuous throughout the twentieth-century, to be enchanted and inspired by the visions and ideals provided by utopian portraits of “the good” or “the best” society. We might, with Raghavan Iyer in an essay on that quintessential nineteenth-century utopian writer, Edward Bellamy, ask ourselves: “Do we despair of our capacity to exercise constructive imagination? Are we doubters of dreams and believers in nightmares?” There are, to be sure, exceptions to the rule, be it Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), or “feminist utopias” (see here, here, and here). But even these utopian vistas seem several times removed from their forebears: comparatively tepid and thus timid in construction, they are but a simulacram of the classical utopian genre. And utopian political thought is rarer still (for a distinguished exception to the rule, see the Real Utopias Project).  

Picture Imperfect identifies “two currents of utopian thought: the blueprint tradition and the iconoclastic tradition.” It is the former that Jacoby would have us jettison, understood as responsible, in part, for the epithet “utopian” being “tossed around as a term of abuse, [as] it suggests that someone is not simply unrealistic but prone to violence:”

“The blueprint utopians have attracted the lion’s share of attention—both scholarly and popular. They describe in vivid colors; their proposals can be studied and embraced or rejected. From Thomas More to Edward Bellamy, their utopias took the form of stories in which travelers report of their adventures from an unknown future or land. They offered characters, events, and particulars. Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a classic of blueprint utopianism, commences with a straightforward narrative. ‘I first saw the light in the city of Boston in the year 1857.”

The use of the adjective “blueprint” here suggests Bellamy’s novel (by 1900, only Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold more copies) was meant to be taken as providing detailed plans to be implemented by social reformers and activists in a manner analogous to the architect’s blueprints used by the general contractor to construct a building. This strikes me as a rather uncharitable if not simplistic reading of what is, after all, a work of fiction, a novel. While it is true that “Nationalist Clubs” inspired by Bellamy’s vision soon sprang up with the intention of practically realizing this particular utopia, such works assume the form of narrative fiction precisely so as locate their visions and reflections at least one remove from the realm of political plans and proposals to be realized in toto in the here and now (or not so distant future). They are provocative and suggestive, stimulating the social imaginary as it were, helping us re-think fundamental socio-economic and political ideas or even construct new concepts and categories for critique and praxis. They are not literal blueprints. 

According to Jaboby, in taking to heart the biblical prohibition of graven images of the deity (Exodus 20:4-5), the “iconoclastic” tradition is said to have drawn from the wellsprings of Jewish mysticism and apophatic (or ‘negative’) theology, as well as German romanticism in particular and music and poetry in general. Perhaps its finest and foremost representative is, for Jacoby, the “philosopher of Marxist humanism and revolutionary utopianism,” as well as, it should be said, a one-time apologist for Stalinism,* Ernst Bloch:

“[T]he iconoclastic utopians offer little concrete to grab onto; they provide neither tales nor pictures of the morrow. Next to the blueprinters they appear almost as ineffable as they actually are. They vanish into the margins of utopianism. Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia opens mysteriously. ‘I am. We are. That is enough. Now we have to begin.’ In regard to the future the iconoclasts were ascetic; but they were not ascetics. This point must be underlined inasmuch as iconoclasm sometimes suggests a severe and puritanical temper. If anything, it is a longing for luxe and sensuousness that define the iconoclastic utopian, not a cold purity.

In an image-obsessed society such as our own, I suggest that the traditional blueprint utopianism may be exhausted and the iconoclastic utopianism indispensable. The iconoclastic utopians resist the modern seduction of images. Pictures and graphics are not new of course, but their ubiquity is. A curtain of images surrounds us from morning till night and from childhood to old age. The word—both written and oral—seems to retreat in the wake of these images.”

While there’s something to be said for this “iconoclastic” tradition, I find Jacoby’s dichotomous utopian typology to be rather crude. The two category types are both descriptive and normative: as Jacoby aims to demonstrate the “iconoclastic” tradition has been relatively neglected and the “blueprint” tradition rightly castigated for giving rise to all sorts of ethical and political problems if not horrors. The principal problem with the blueprint tradition is that individuals and groups are said to use these blueprints as concrete models for constructing their particular dream of a better world here and now, without delay. Those attracted to this utopian genre apparently lack all ability to discern a logical or political gap between theory and praxis and are not at all reluctant to resort to coercion and violence as means and methods for impatiently instantiating their visions and values in the world. I do not think this is either an accurate summary or plausible picture of the function of utopian thought and imagination in history (see my list of references and further reading in the next post on the subject that allow one to draw contrary conclusions).

The utopian literature Jacoby is referencing does not deserve wholesale categorization as “blueprint utopianism,” and the “images” it contains are of a different order than the literal or concrete images and visual orientation that suffuse the contemporary culture of affluent and hyper-technological societies under the spell of “virtual reality.” Utopian literature, by definition, is not intended to be construed as a blueprint, architectural or otherwise. Of course one might argue that some forms of utopian literature are structurally prone to abuse by readers enamored of their visions, moving them to utilize these works on the model of blueprints, irrespective of the needs and wishes of others. But I suspect even the most ardent admirers of the products of utopian imagination have not mistaken these as detailed instructions readymade for wholesale and immediate implementation (were that even possible or feasible). There is a history of utopian communal experimentation, for example, but it has typically been a far more modest undertaking than one would infer from Jacoby’s discussion.

In Justice and the Human Good (1980), William A. Galston outlines a succinct description of the nature and function of utopian thought and imagination that makes plain the myriad problems with Jaboby’s “blueprint” model:

“Utopias are images of ideal communities; utopian thought tries to make explicit and to justify the principles on the basis of which communities are said to be ideal. [….] [T]he philosophical importance of utopias rests on utopian thought, although the practical effect of a utopia may be quite independent of its philosophic merits [….] Utopian thought performs three related political functions. First, it guides our deliberation, whether in devising courses of action or in choosing among exogenously defined alternatives with which we are confronted. Second, it justifies our actions; the grounds of action are reasons that others ought to accept and—given openness and the freedom to reflect—can be led to accept. Third, it serves as the basis for the evaluation of existing institutions and practices. The locus classicus is the Republic, in which the completed ideal is deployed in Plato’s memorable critique of imperfect regimes.

Utopian thought attempts to specify and justify the principles of a comprehensively good political order. Typically, the goodness of that order rests on the desirability of the way of life enjoyed by the individuals within it; less frequently, its merits rely on organic features that cannot be reduced to individuals. Whatever their basis, the principles of the political good share certain general features:

  • First, utopian principles are in their intention universally valid, temporally and geographically.
  • Second, the idea of the good order arises out of our experience but does not mirror it in any simple way and is not circumscribed by it. Imagination may combine elements of experience into a new totality that has never existed; reason, seeking to reconcile the contradictions of experience, may transmute its elements.
  • Third, utopias exist in speech; they are ‘cities of words.’ This does not mean that they cannot exist but only that they need not ever. This ‘counterfactuality’ of utopia in no way impedes its evaluative function.
  • Fourth, utopian principles may come to be realized in history, and it may be possible to point to real forces pushing in that direction. But our approval of a utopia is not logically linked to the claim that history is bringing us closer to it or that we can identify an existing basis for the transformative actions that would bring it into being. Conversely, history cannot by itself validate principles. The movement of history (if it is a meaningful totality in any sense at all) may be from the most desirable to the less; the proverbial dustbin may contain much of enduring worth.
  • Fifth, although not confined to actual existence, the practical intention of utopia requires that it be constrained by possibility. Utopia is realistic in that it assumes human and material preconditions that are neither logically nor empirically impossible, even though their simultaneous co-presence may be both unlikely and largely beyond human control to effect.
  • Sixth, although utopia is a guide for action, it is not in any simple sense a program of action. In nearly all cases, important human or material preconditions for good politics will be lacking. Political practice consists in striving for the best results achievable in particular circumstances. The relation between the ideal and the best achievable is not deductive. [….]

Thus, the incompleteness of utopia, far from constituting a criticism of it, is inherent in precisely the features that give it evaluative force. As has been recognized at least since Aristotle, the gap between utopian principles and specific strategic/tactical programs can be bridged only through an inquiry different in kind and content from that leading to the principles themselves. If so, the demand that utopian thought contain within itself the conditions of its actualization leads to a sterile hybrid that is neither an adequate basis for rational evaluation nor an accurate analysis of existing conditions.”

We might nevertheless concede that some forms or species of utopian literature are more liable to misuse than others, owing to their mode of presentation, specific contents, what have you. Making such an argument would be similar to what Leszek Kołakowski attempted to accomplish with regard to the writings of Marx in his three volume magnum opus, Main Currents of Marxism (1978):

“It is not enough to say that Nazi ideology was a ‘caricature’ of Nietzsche, since the essence of a caricature is that it helps us to recognize the original. The Nazis told their supermen to read the Will to Power, and it is no good saying that this was a mere chance and that they might equally well have chosen the Critique of Practical Reason. It is not a matter of establishing the ‘guilt’ of Nietzsche, who as an individual was not responsible for the use made of his writings; nevertheless, the fact that they were so used is bound to cause alarm and cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the understanding of what was in his mind. St. Paul was not personally responsible for the Inquisition and for the Roman Church at the end of the fifteenth century, but the inquirer, whether Christian or not, cannot be content to observe that Christianity was depraved or distorted by the conduct of unworthy popes and bishops; he must rather seek to discover what it was in the Pauline epistles that gave rise, in the fullness of time, to unworthy and criminal actions.”

Compare too Raghavan Iyer’s keen observation in Utilitarianism and All That (1983):

“The search for scapegoats whose crucifixion can atone for monstrous systems of error and evil is itself based, however, on an unduly rationalistic faith in the influence of theory and on an absurdly simple view of both individual and national character. Herder may have had good reason to assert that a history of opinions would really be the key to the history of deeds. It is, however, one thing to stress the impact of ideas and opinions on policies and actions. It is quite another matter to single out certain thinkers or theories or concepts as responsible for what they could neither have visualized nor intended in all its implications. The history of ideas is, as Meinecke so clearly saw, ‘no mere shadow-play or sequence of grey theories; on the contrary, it is the life-blood of those men who are called upon to express the essential element of their epoch.’ In pleading against the tyrannical and tragic consequences of isms and systems, we may foist too easily the entire burden of blame upon those very thinkers whose theories were most vulnerable to distortion as well as exploitation.”

Jacoby provides a salutary analysis of the Liberal anti-utopianism of intellectual luminaries like Popper, Arendt and Berlin. Popper, the most vociferous of the three, castigated the “blueprint” tradition of utopianism, indeed, for him, “”utopian” has purely pejorative denotation and derogatory connotations. Herbert Marcuse was on the mark when, in a review essay of Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (1957, second ed., 1961), he notes the rather idiosyncratic definition of historicism that animates the work: “Certainly, it would be entirely unjustified to insist on conformity with lexicographical usage. However, I think such a strange deviation from usage should have firmer grounds than a construction built from disparate elements of theories.” These words apply with equal force to Popper’s more-than-stipulative definition of utopianism, in fact, he proffers a textbook example of a “persuasive” definition, one contrary to a philosophical temperament and useless for dispassionate philosophical analysis. Popper contends that the “blueprints” or “ends” of utopians are necessarily resistant to proof (or, conversely, falsification), and this structural feature, including its abstract qualities and orientation to the distant future, is what motivates the utopian to a single-minded and exclusive resort to violence so as to realize these ends, so as to instantiate the utopian blueprint. If we truly care about the relief of suffering or the amelioration of evil, Popper argues this is best achieved by means and methods of an incrementalist sort or in piecemeal fashion, utterly divorced from the entertainment of any lofty ideals, a Platonic-like focus on the Good, or dreams of a better world. Jacoby is sympathetic to what he terms Popper’s “reasonable argument,” one suspects if only because it provides no small measure of support to his own thesis about “blueprint” utopianism. The  quality of Popper’s 1947 lecture, “Utopia and Violence” is an appallingly poor attempt at characterizing the utopian genre, especially in as much as it issues from a philosopher. Thankfully, Jacoby’s sympathy for Popper’s argument does not extend too far nor cloud his assessment of its reductionist consequences:

“Popper’s reasonable argument has echoed down the intellectual corridors of history, each decade it gains more recruits. In the immediate future it would be supplemented by ‘end of ideology’ thinkers such as Raymond Aron in Europe and Daniel Bell in the United States. Other refugee thinkers would confirm and collaborate Popper’s positions. They would expand the category of utopians to include all those with a plan, and they would charge utopians with violence. Implicitly or explicitly, utopians meant ‘Marxists.’ That much, perhaps most of twentieth century mass violence had little to do with utopians barely intruded upon the argument.” [emphasis added]

Liberal anti-utopianism has been enormously influential in cultivating an ideological animus that lumps together, in Jacoby’s words, “utopianism, totalitarianism, and Nazism.” Any systematic appraisal of the evidence would find that are no necessary ties whatsoever between utopian musings and Marxist-Leninist or Maoist ideologies, or between the fertile products of utopian thought and imagination and anti-Semitism, fascism, xenophobic and ethno-nationalism, racism, authoritarianism, or any genocidal ideology.

For now, we close with the following from Judith Shklar’s illuminating study of the “last of the classical utopists,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau (blamed by some conservative ideologues for the Jacobin terror of the French Revolution):

“Utopia is an attack on both the doctrine of original sin, which imposes rigid limits on men’s social potentialities, and on all actual societies, which always fall so short of men’s real capacities. The object of these models, however, was never to set up a perfect community, but simply to bring moral judgement to bear on the social misery to which men have so unnecessarily reduced themselves. For the fault is not in God, fate, or nature, but in ourselves–where it will remain. To recognize this, to accept it, to contemplate and to judge: that was the function of the classical utopia.” (Judith N. Shklar, Men & Citizens: A Study of Rousseau’s Social Theory, 1969: 2)

* See Jack Zipes, ‘Introduction: Toward a Realization of Anticipatory Illumination’ in Ernst Bloch, Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg, trans., The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, 1983: xi-xliii.

[Cross-posted at ReligiousLeftLaw.com]