Thomas More’s Utopia is, among other things, an extended meditation on the beguiling idea of political invulnerability.
The exploration begins with the myth of the ruler Utopus who, after conquering a large peninsula, sets about digging a fifteen-mile channel to cast the island adrift from its continent. This founding act of differentiation becomes the basis for internal unity. More cycles through each of the great sources of division in his time—war, religion, class—emphasizing the achievements of the Utopians to build a sharply different, deeply integrated political community.
More’s text entered the world in 1516, the year before his own continent would fall into a centuries-long period of conflict precipitated by the Reformation. The energy of More’s meditation—why and how are we one?—strangely resonates with greater power looking not back in history but forward: to times in which religious devotion would become the basis of bloodshed, in which wildly heterogenous populations would be thrown suddenly together, in which nations would spread across continents, and in which attempts to build societies on the basis of something new would themselves come to new heights of violence.
The name Utopia is often mistaken as a combination of the Greek words for good (eu) and place (topos). While More may be offering a pun, his primary sense is not eu but ou—“no”: the reference is to “Noplace,” somewhere that doesn’t (and perhaps shouldn’t?) exist.
“Noplace” does not exist, but the text itself manifests the epochal pulsations already moving through the European mind as reports of the American continents returned across the Atlantic. Many of the dynamics More describes—perhaps especially related to the “wild and uncultivated inhabitants”—were clearly contemporary references, and one can see the gestation in real time of the thought that a new civilization, unmoored from the old, might come to exist. Even as Utopia was being written, Noplace was already half imaginable as a place.
The Ideological Age
In one sense, the entirety of the post-Reformation age is an age of ideology. It is a period in which statecraft, diplomacy, and war have been organized less by units of kinship or history and more by political conception. We have grouped states and conflicts by their organizing principles—Protestant or Catholic; monarchical or republican; liberal or anti-liberal; fascist, communist, or capitalist; military campaigns based not on defence of territory but on spreading “American values.”
Modern experience has given ample reason to fear the singular idea, the wrong kind of unity. Thinkers in antiquity had profound respect for the madness that could sweep across a crowd in an instant, and the power of speech to incite it. The term “ideology” speaks to the way this familiar fear has been amplified to previously unimaginable heights. We have seen the power of ideas to raise a population to fury not merely for one hot afternoon but across years and decades. The religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth, and the ideologies of fascism and communism in the twentieth have slowly expanded into world-engulfing projects—with aspirations to sweep across continents, to reorder civilization from root to leaf, to slaughter inconvenient peoples.
The devastating political consequences of ideology also emphasize the haunting question—What does “ideology” have to do with “ideas”? The discomfort we have with ideology seems to stem in part from its tempestuous effects, but also from something more personal. There is a vaguely morning-after-like feeling to being drawn into dangerously powerful ideas; the affair has an immediate electricity to it: vigour, belonging, purpose. But at a certain point these attributes turn sour—what was vigour becomes fever, what was belonging becomes insularity, what was purpose becomes confinement.
In one sense, the entirety of the post-Reformation age is an age of ideology.
The term “ideology” itself is relatively recent. First in France, but spreading quickly, “ideology” began as a positive, aspirational word. Coined in the 1790s, it referred initially to the Enlightenment desire (especially in eighteenth-century thinkers like John Locke and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac) to be able to prune back the undisciplined traditions, metaphysical speculations, and mystical superstitions of earlier European habit. Ideas could be made rigorous and mechanical by grounding them in the senses and systematizing them carefully.
But by the 1840s, this optimism had inverted. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels now emphasized the dark side of “methodical thinking.” Systematized ideas, they argued, are very often (always?) tools in the hands of the beneficiaries of the current economic order. The powerful have an interest in telling compelling stories that serve to sustain their wealth from year to year, generation to generation. The more tidiness and coherence a set of ideas has, according to Marx and Engels, the greater your suspicion should be that these are stories being told simply for the convenience of those in charge.
If our word “idea” still has a certain gentleness to it—emphasizing spark and inspiration—our term “ideology” is almost entirely on the side of suspicion. We use it to suggest that certain ideas have become all-consuming, that they aspire to systematic totality. It implies that the claims on the table are not strictly “true” but are rather being proposed principally for the purpose of furthering someone’s interest. These are ideas that don’t point outward, but rather backward—they are meant to interpret the world into the speaker’s own hands. To use the word “ideology” is to invoke the way that ideas can be turned into tools capable of bewitching crowds and decimating civilizations.
Modernity is strewn with attempts to counteract this problem of ideology—republicanism was one strategy, but so too was seventeenth-century monarchism. Perhaps the matter could only be solved by authority as Thomas Hobbes argued, or perhaps it could only be solved by rejecting authority as in Immanuel Kant. Perhaps what is needed is to emphasize the neutrality of public space à la John Rawls, or to agree with Thomas Nagel that there is no neutrality at all.
Among these attempts, the United States has been among the most unique and enduring. America has come to approximate “Noplace” more clearly than anywhere on earth, set adrift from the Old World not by fifteen but by three thousand miles of sea.
The United States has never, of course, fully met the ideal of inviolability. During the Revolutionary War, the aptly named Continental Congress repeatedly had to relocate under pressure from British troops—from Philadelphia to Baltimore, then back to Philadelphia, then across Pennsylvania to Lancaster and then to York. In 1814 the British occupied Washington, DC, then torched the president’s mansion, the US Capitol (including the Library of Congress), and most of the city’s other public buildings. An observer emphasizes the shock: “The metropolis of our country was abandoned to its horrid fate.” And again, in July 1864, a significant Confederate contingent under Lieutenant General Jubal Early managed to press directly into key defences and could well have entered the capital itself.
The dream of invulnerability, in other words, has never been fully true; but it has been true enough. This is the impulse in James Monroe’s statement that “we owe it . . . to declare that we should consider any attempt . . . [on the part of European powers] to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” When events are perceived to touch not only America’s “interest” but also its home territory, they are more often than not met with shock, and then, usually, overwhelming force—as they were in in Pearl Harbor, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in 9/11.
America has thus achieved what very few others have hardly imagined. It is the dream that perhaps everything of importance could be within, that there could no longer be an outside, at least not one of either threat or relevance. It is a dream of stoic seclusion, of Thoreau but also Ozymandias, of having a (new) world unto oneself.
One reason to be worried about all of this is that it has often enabled the country to fail to see just how brutal it can be in pursuit of the dreams of inviolability. Many Native Americans already sensed this lust in the colonists prior to the Revolution, forming what Gregory Evans Dowd has called “the largest and most unified native American effort the continent would ever see” to support the British side of the war.
It is also very difficult to see what to do when the utopian trick stops working. America seems increasingly alarmed, for example, about both the pluribus and the unum in its founding motto: both at signs of excessive disunity (fragmentation, isolation, toxic autonomy) and at signs of excessive unity (partisan heterogeneity, in-group discipline, tribal conformity).
The vexing thing about January 6 in light of the fixation on inviolability is that it was a moment of national violation that came not from outside but inside, and was itself the product of the same story of American utopia. The act of breaching the Capitol was propelled by people who were themselves attempting to respond to the sense that “their America” had been violated.
Order and Chaos
A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with an assertion of order.
Egeus, an Athenian aristocrat, claims the right of Athenian law over his daughter Hermia, who has fallen in love, not with the partner Egeus has chosen for her (Demetrius), but with another man, Lysander. By law, he says,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death.
The Duke of Athens (who is himself in love—with the Amazon Hippolyta) ratifies the assertion of law. He states to Hermia that “to you your father should be as a god.” On the basis of this principle he rules that if she does not wed Demetrius her punishment will be
Either to die the death or to abjure
For ever the society of men.
. . . if you yield not to your father’s choice,
You can endure the livery of a nun
For aye to be in shady cloister mew’d
To live a barren sister all your life.
After hearing this unflinching affirmation of the right order of Athens, Hermia (understandably) flees immediately into the forest.
For defenders of order, what follows is predictable: the next two hours devolve into complete chaos. Multiple characters are enchanted into love for the wrong person; one is enchanted to love the right person, but she believes he is mocking her; a tradesman has his head turned into a donkey; a visiting fairy queen is then induced to fall in love with this donkey-man. The cost of lust, revenge, violence, and disloyalty are all on grand display. And the lesson regarding this primacy of law, and the harsh punishment deserved by those who thwart it, seems inevitable—except that it isn’t.
The central action of the play turns on the issue of order and its relation to chaos. At the start of the play, and unknown to the humans, the Fairy Court of Oberon and Titania is camped in the wood outside of Athens. Fairies are images precisely of that which is not and cannot be circumscribed within human order. They are able neither to be disciplined into human propriety nor subjugated under human law. True to type, Oberon, Titania, and Puck bring upheaval, mischief, pain, and disorder at every turn.
Yet, for all of this, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not a tragedy but a comedy. Order is defied, and though the world descends into predictable chaos, events move somehow, through it all, not to cataclysm but to peace.
The chaos leads Demetrius to fall out of love with Hermia, and into love with Helena (who loves him); his impassioned defence of Hermia in turn convinces the duke to allow both couples—Helena and Demetrius and Hermia and Lysander—to wed (overruling Hermia’s father in the process).
Through its convulsions, the plot ends in delight. Furthermore, we find the principal agent of that chaos, the fairy sovereign Oberon, at the end of the play delivering the blessing:
Now, until the break of day,
Through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride-bed will we,
Which by us shall blessed be;
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate.
So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be. . . .
With this field-dew consecrate,
Every fairy take his gait;
And each several chamber bless,
Through this palace, with sweet peace;
And the owner of it blest
Ever shall in safety rest.
The order of law breaks, and the play ends not in tragedy but in higher beauty. The procedural order of Egeus and the duke has been defied, but this defiance is precisely the condition for another, deeper, more intrinsic harmony to reveal itself.
Looking Inward and Outward
We often underestimate how long civilizational trauma can endure. Amid the swirling march forward of events, significant lesions often go untreated—unremembered but real.
It is no accident that the dreams of early modernity were for invulnerability—it was a time of profound and unpredictable harm. As prior political orders shattered, they gave way both to fragmentation and to greedy unifying powers, both of which spread violence across the European continent. In this context, the desire to arrest the cycle, to come to some measure of invulnerability, is not merely understandable but even laudable.
In straining against what was perceived as powerful and unjust religious authority, the Protestants themselves developed their own powerful—and also often unjust—religious authorities. The pattern then repeated time and time again as various factions came to defy what they perceived as unjust Protestant authority in turn. This climate created what Charles Taylor has called the “nova” and “supernova” effects—endlessly proliferating identities and counter-identities, groups and counter-groups, ideologies, counter-ideologies, and counter-counter-ideologies. If an exterior authority is unjust in an important way, the way to defend oneself is to ensure that one has unified against it in as powerful a way as possible.
Some strategies did (and do) work, to a degree. Certain parts of Europe did, at times, find a measure of peace. Mercantile (and usually colonial) empires secured some unity through wealth. Liberal orders found some ways to cool ideological tempers. Large immigrant projects like the United States managed to sidestep conviction-based violence, at times, simply by the size of their territory.
Yet, amid all of this, we do not often remember how much has been lost. If ideology can only be countered by another ideology (or perhaps by some uneasy procedure for enforcing détente between ideologies) one remains, for better or worse, “within.” The idea that safety can only come if one is able to establish one’s own world, if one’s own side is able to win, is in principle to rule out the resolution proposed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It is not that the play rejects order—at the end, the duke remains in power, and Athens remains a stable polity. But neither the duke, nor Athens, nor even the Fairy Court are the most important reality at the end of the play. The suspension of control in A Midsummer Night’s Dream instantly brings chaos, but in the end it brings goodness. The fairies, the humans, the cosmos as a whole conspire in their own ways such that the world turns out better than one expects—more beneficent, more gentle, more just.
The strange irony of ideology is that, as the barbarities of human order have become more and more apparent, we have ended up turning not further outward—looking for resources that can inspire less warped ways of life—but further inward, toward systematization and bureaucracy, toward more elaborate myths of inviolability, toward ideas that fold only ever more in on themselves.
An evening spent watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream emphasizes the jarring contrast with our age—we seem to live in an age that has to a very significant degree occluded trust. Trust, per definition, means that something outside of you, something that is not in your control, is also good, can be communicated with, opened to. To live in an age of ideology is to live in a time in which this possibility, that the world is better than one’s fears, is ruled out ex hypothesi. One’s cause must win, because all there is to the world is causes winning, and so the winning cause might as well be one’s own.
The original sense of the word “idea” is firmly on the side of A Midsummer Night’s Dream over and against Locke or Condillac or Utopia. Its initial reference is sensory: indicating the actual physical shape a thing has. In Greek idein means “to see.” It became natural for Greek authors to pick up the term as they sorted different things in the world: What kind of shape does it have?
Plato’s sense of “ideas” is often misunderstood precisely because we are so deep into an age that cannot imagine ideas in anything but an interior manner. Plato writes so emphatically about the “forms” not because he wants to reduce reality to human cognition (“idealism”) but rather because he wants to insist on the opposite—reality has gravity to it and we are on its terms. Ideas are always already intruding on us from outside, and our job is to learn how to live well in relation to them.
Trauma, as the experience of violence, prompts the opposite impulse—to protect, to isolate, to close inward. The age of ideology has been an age of duelling inward—each group worried about every other, each group insisting that safety is to be found “inside” alone. Like the scrupulous discipline of Locke and Condillac, ideology requires meticulous vetting. One must at each turn insist that foreign agents are blocked at the border, that one’s territory is secure.
One temptation in the last centuries has been to assume that we know the results to the experiment of trust—we have run the test, and reality comes back brutal. But this is not quite right. It would be better to say that certain instances of brutality have caused us to step away from the experiment itself, to look away from the question.
Ideas are always already intruding on us from outside, and our job is to learn how to live well in relation to them.
We should treat the symptoms of civilizational trauma gently. To open outward is to leave oneself susceptible to further harm. But the costs of failing to open outward are also very high. We have attempted in recent centuries to counter ideology with ideology, utopia with utopia, with escalating devastation each time.
The reason to flee from this experiment is that one cannot do it from Noplace. To run the experiment means necessarily to be exposed, vulnerable oneself. And it may also be that the test will fail, that it will come back with the result that there is nothing there to find.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that we know this already, and perhaps there is now equal reason to flee into the experiment. To run the experiment of trust is, essentially, to undertake Socrates’s work—to know both what we do and do not know, and to go searching for a world that is heavier, more dignified than ourselves. It involves slackening the self-protectiveness of ideology—placing oneself in vulnerability prior to the completion of a full accounting. It involves a willingness to be present to ideas in the hefty old sense—visions of reality or society that are strictly uncontrollable, but that can be relied on nevertheless.
We have significant experience now of the destruction that can be wrought by ideology. Perhaps it is worth trying to work out, once again, how to live outside the machine.