The Myth of Utopianism

by Alberto M. Piedra  |  September 8, 2017  |  ARTICLES

"Virtue, without which terror is destructive, terror without which virtue is impotent.  Terror is only justice prompt, secure and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue."

-  Maximilien Robespierre, "Report on the Principle of Political Morality"

The 18th century was a period of history in which the self-entitled prophets of the Enlightenment (Aufclarung) had a blind faith in the idea of continuous progress and the establishment of a perfect society: utopia.1  They firmly believed in the essential goodness and benevolence of man free from all contradictions and antinomies.  According to the French philosopher and writer Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), man's state of nature is nothing less than an ideal life style.  In his intellectually created utopian society, the government and the people are all working for the common interest of dong what is "best" for the common good as embodied by the general will (la volonté generale).  De facto, what the prophets are doing is substituting the so-called "general will," a human-made creation, for the concept of Natural Law, which is permanent and universal, and which the Judeo-Christian worldview captures.2 

In the early 20th century, Europe was on the verge of one of the worst self-generated catastrophes that the world had ever known: The Great War, as it came to be known.  Was it inevitable? This is a question that many historians have tried to answer without giving a definitive answer. The most probable conclusion is that it was the result of both internal and external factors prevailing in the frivolous Europe of the early 1900s.  

The internal and gradual decomposition of French and European society in general was partially reflected in the lack of support by the press to President Emile Loubet of France when he talked approvingly of justice and human kindness at the Paris Universal Exposition of April, 1900.  The Exposition was almost exclusively limited to "....the most recent achievements of Western civilization in industry, commerce, technology and the arts."3  Not a word was mentioned about natural law and/or the spiritual values of the European Judeo-Christian heritage.

The incredible scientific advancements of European technology and improvements in the standards of living contributed to a gradual and increasing gap between the material and spiritual values of Europe's heritage.  Sooner or later, a great socio-political explosion had to occur to wake people up from the lethargy they were experiencing. As the famous French writer Albert Camus wrote in The Plague:  "There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always wars and plagues take people equally by surprise."

The match that ignited the explosion came on June 28, 1914, the day that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his morganatic wife Sophia were assassinated in Sarajevo in Bosnia.  Ironically, that same day, "Holiday makers thronged Europe's amusements, its parks and its beaches. Poincare, the French President, was with his wife at the Longchamp races just outside Paris.  The crowd, he later wrote in his diary, was happy and carefree. The course with its expanse of green lawns looked beautiful and there were many elegant women to admire.  For many Europeans the summer vacation had already started."4

Sir Edward Gray (1862-1933), the British Foreign Secretary at the time, commented to a friend on the eve of England's declaration of war on Germany: "The Lamps are going out all over Europe.  We shall not see the lite again in our lifetime."  His speech to Parliament on the eve of World War I, August 3, 1914, is worth reading.  On the other hand, sociologists like Max Weber did not hesitate to support youth movements like the Wandervogel clubs in Germany that favored an insurrection of the sons against the fathers, a substitution of the old by the young.  It was not surprising, claims the British historian Paul Johnson, that "The first pampered youth generation went enthusiastically to a war which their elders almost without exception accepted with horror or fatalistic despair."5

With the arrival of the post-war years of the 1920's, the senses (empiricism), rather than right reason in line with the natural law, shaped our ideas of right and wrong; law and justice, and the nature of man's behavior were no longer in vogue.6  Without an objective moral compass to guide man's actions in society, man easily falls into an abject relativism which tends to justify evil under the cover of goodness and the expanding destructive power of the state.  European society seemed to have forgotten that, in comparison to the limited destructive power of the individual, the power of the state is almost limitless, a phenomenon which was clearly being experienced in the post-World War I Europe under the guise of a mythical utopia.  The two best examples, among others, are Stalin's Communist Party and Hitler's Nazi Party.  The roots of both of these movements can be traced back to the French Revolution.

The French Revolution broke out in a period of reforms.  It started, as most revolutions, with the undermining of traditional values demanding moderate reforms.  It was only with Voltaire that the more radical ideas took shape, made their appearance, and began subverting religion and the basic traditional convictions of French society: an example that should not be taken lightly by countries experiencing similar social and political problems today.7  The totalitarian streak that runs through the majority -- if not all -- of the so called French "philosophers" is best exemplified by Jean Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot and his fellow Encyclopedistes when he wrote "Whoever refuses to pay obedience to the general will shall be liable to it by the force of the whole body.''8  Such thinking represents the tyranny of Rousseau's Social Contract.   

The Reign of Terror that the French nation suffered after 1879 is well described by the French historian Pierre Gaxotte.  The revolutionaries themselves called the regime they had created the despotism of freedom, the dogmatism of Reason.  Even the most impartial contemporary historians call the French Revolution the "sans coulottes" by force, a tyrannical system, a hell on earth.  The General Will is not the will of the majority but the will of those who consider themselves pure and in charge of enlightening the nation of the people's real wishes and true happiness.9                                                                                                       

Robespierre's cynical Report on the Principle of Political Morality was given at the French Convention on February 5, 1794 to justify all sorts of barbarous measures carried out during the Reign of Terror. The French revolutionary members of the Jacobin Club argued that terror is necessary and can be justified when it is prompt, secure and inflexible.10  It is then an emanation of virtue.11  As a result, the perfect society will be attained with "liberté, egalité and fraternité" for all:  the state of affairs of their much desired Utopian dream. The 1917 October revolution in Tsarist Russia under the cover of universal peace and the creation of the workers' paradise only brought with it the Gulag and years of penury.  This represents one more example of another utopian dream ending up in total failure and millions of deaths.

Utopianism was rampant during the 20th century. The utopian ideal of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party and the horrors of Germany's National Socialism are well known and need no further elaboration.12 The fact that many factors, including the trauma of World War I, the collapse of the Hohenzollern dynasty and the abuses and humiliations imposed on the German people by the treaty of Versailles, contributed to the rise in power of the native Austrian can hardly be denied.13  However, none of these factors can justify the horrors of the holocaust and the abuses and crimes of Nazi institutions such as, to mention only one, the Gestapo.  It is unfortunate that the victorious powers of WWI humiliated a proud nation like Germany. This humiliation did not fare well for the economic recovery of the war torn continent and much less for the future peace of Europe.

History has demonstrated that attempts to create a perfect society here on earth have proved to be entirely illusory and de-humanizing.  All human beings should strive towards personal perfection but fully realize that it will never be reached for a very simple reason: man on this earth can never be perfect, nor can society.  Social and political structures, to be perfect, would need to have perfect -angelic - men and women, something which, given the nature of man, is unrealistic, especially in this contemporary world of ours which denies sin (man's evil tendencies) and believes in re-education in accordance with the teachings of the well intentioned Jean Jacques Rousseau and his fellow Encyclopedistes.14  In summary, today's utopians totally deny the traditional Judeo-Christian belief in original sin.

The famous Roman historian Livy once wrote that the story of his land's history was the story of the rise and fall of moral strength.15 What is needed today is not only moral strength, as Livy said, but moral clarity. We must rid ourselves of the terror of relativism and the enticements of utopianism. Can a similar pattern be seen in 21st century America?

The religious foundations of the early American colonists, who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, speak to us.  John Winthrop's sermon, City upon A Hill on board the Abella on Christian charity, stresses the need to love God and neighbor first and foremost. "But if our hearts shall turn away so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship other Gods, our pleasures, and profits, and serve them, we shall surely perish..." 16

If Winthrop were not enough, Alexis de Tocqueville points out another consequence of forsaking our principled Judeo-Christian heritage. He warns us in his masterpiece Democracy in America that this newly created nation of America is endangered when and if the majority of the electorate places its own interests above and at the expense of those in the minority.  The treatment of black people and other minorities shocked him. This is what he calls the tyranny of the majority bereft of foundational principles anchored in Natural Law.  He, therefore, stresses that what makes America great is its genuine religious fervor.  Liberty cannot be established without a moral basis enlightened by faith in the eternal truths of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  If only our present-day statesmen and academics would see that America's greatest danger lies not only in the arrogance of the few but in the laxity in morals of the general population.17

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us: "Truth is not determined by majority rule" or the general will.  Truth is based on the reality of an objective moral law as decreed by God Himself.18  America must return to the belief in an objective moral order (natural law) as defined by God and understood most fully by the West's Judeo-Christian worldview and heritage. We should not be carried away by false and utopian (nonexistent) interpretations of democracy and other "isms" and ideologies which can only lead to abject totalitarian systems such as those of Stalin's Soviet Union or Hitler's Nazi Third Reich. Quoting from St. Paul's letter to the Romans Benedict XVI writes: "Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another with brotherly affection, outdo one another in showing honor" (Rom.12:9-10).19 To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear it witness is the best form of charity. Might we not consider these recommendations as the first steps on the path to national and individual peace of mind and happiness?

By

Alberto M. Piedra Ph.D.
Professor of Political Economy
The Institute of World Politics

 



1. Utopia is the aim of all those who through history believe in creating a type of society free from all contradictions and antinomies.  It is an imaginary place in which the government, laws and social conditions are perfect.  The word "UTOPIA" is derived from the Greek prefix "OU" meaning "NOT" or nonexistent and "TOPOS" meaning  good place.  The tem was used by St. Thomas More as the title of his book Utopia (1551).

2. Jean Jacques Rousseau. Le Contrat Sociale.  See; J.J. Rousseau, The Social Contract and the Discourses,  New York: Everyman's Library, Alfred A. Knopf, 1973.   See also:  Denis Diderot, co-founder and chief editor of the Encyclopedie who, for many years, was greatly influenced by the ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

3. Margaret MacMillan, "The War that Ended Peace," New York: Random House, 1913. p.3.   See also: Sir Edward Grey,  Speech on the Eve of War, August 3, 1914.

4. Ibid, p. 545.

5. Paul Johnson "Modern Times", New York: Harpers & Row, 1983.   pp.18-19

6. "Marxist and Freudian  analysis combined to undermine , in their different ways , the highly developed sense of personal responsibility, and of duty toward a settled and objectively true moral code which was at the centre of  nineteenth century European civilization.  The impression people derived from Einstein, of a universe in which all measurements of value were relative, served to confirm this vision - which both dismayed and exhilarated - of moral anarchy".  Paul Johnson. Ibid, p. 11

7. Erik von Kuehnelt - Leddihn, "Leftism Revisited, From de  Sad and Marx to Hitler and Pol Pot," Washington, D.C., 1993. p.72

8. See; Jean Jacques Rousseau, "Discourse on Political Economy"  in  The Social Contract and the Discourses,  New York:  Everyman's Library,  Alfred A.  Knopf, 1973.  pp.128-168.

9. "Despotisme  de la Liberte, dogmatism de la Raison, c'est ainsi que les revolutionnaires appelaient le regime qu'ils avaient fonde.  Camisole de force , tyrannie, enfer, oppression: c'est ainsi que les historiens les plus impartiaux le qualifient aujourd'hui".  See; Pierre Gaxotte,  La Revolution Francaise, Paris, Librarie Artheme Fayard, 1970. p.367

10. See: Abbe Augustin,Barruel, (1741-1820)  Memoires pour servir a l'histoire du Jacobinisme, Volume 1, Difussion de la Pensee Francaise, Chire - en -Montreuil, Vouille.  Nouvelle edition, 1973.  See also: l'abbe  Charles Molette  Albert de Mun, Paris: Editions Beauchesne, 1970.

11. In the name of freedom priests and nuns were dragged by the thousands from their prison cells and subjected to summary justice.  How is it possible, asks the French socialist historian Francois Furet, that so many people were fooled by a Bolshevik revolution that after 1792 turned into the  bloodlust and cruelty of the Reign of Terror.  See: Francois Furet, "Le passee d'une Illusion," Paris: Editions Robert Laffont S.A, 1995.  See also: Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution , New York: Anchor Books, Double day, 1983.

12. See: Willim Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1990.  See also: Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich" (Erinnerungen).  He wrote his memoires in prison after being sentenced at the Nuremberg trials to 20 years in prison for the crimes he committed during the Nazi period: the use of prisoners in the armaments factories while Minister of Armaments.  He was Adolf Hitler's main architect before he became Nazi War Minster of Arms from 1942-1945.

13. See:  Margaret Macmillanm, Paris 1919, Part Four, The German Issue.  pp.157-206.  See also John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace

14. See: Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile ou de l'education, Paris: Garnier- Flammariron, 1966.

15 See: Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes, Rebuilding American Culture, Washington, D.C. 2001, p. 1

16. See:  John Winthrop, A Model of Christian Charity, 1630. https://history.hanover.edu/texts/winthmod.html (accessed August 31, 2017).

17. History seems to confirm that the natural death of nations and classes is not the result of murder but of suicide. Quem Deus vult perdidi  prius  dementat.  A quote wrongly attributed to Euripides, a tragedian of classical Athens.

18. Human love and international solidarity in this era of globalization must be based on truth (Caritas in Veritate) ; not only on the opinions  of well-intentioned scholars,  misguided international experts, and/or biased majorities. See: Bnedict XVI, Charity in Truth, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2009.  Quoting from Paul's Letter to the Romans, he writes: "Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another with brotherly affection, outdo one another in showing honor"( Rom.12;9-10).

19. Benedict XVI,  Charity in Truth, ibid., p.7