Human beings, by nature, are utopian. We dream and we hope, and since the dawn of civilization, we have conjured notions of an ideal and perfect existence. From the bucolic realms of the Garden of Eden to Plato’s republic of philosopher-kings, from the island paradise of Thomas More’s Utopia to the libertarian collectives of nineteenth-century America to the counterculture communes of the 1960s, the ways in which utopia has been envisioned have changed dramatically over time. But whatever forms they have taken, utopian ideals have helped drive forward an unfolding process of reinvention, a process whereby humankind has sought, through vision and experimentation, a new and better life. Indeed, utopian visions, and the social experiments they inspired, are a product of our most freely creative faculty, the human imagination. They are an expression of the universal impulse to create the new—to reshape culture and even consciousness itself.
In researching the phenomenon of utopia for this issue of What Is Enlightenment? we consulted surveys, compendia, essays, critiques, and commentaries, and in the process, we discovered the extent to which this perennial human impulse has captured the attention of historians, artists, philosophers, and cultural critics alike. But one particular example of utopian scholarship stood out. Arguably the definitive study of the subject to date, Utopian Thought in the Western World is the product of years of research by an erudite husband-and-wife team, Fritzie P. Manuel and the late Professor Frank E. Manuel. This massive volume traverses five millennia, from the earliest Sumerian myths of a paradise on earth to Teilhard de Chardin’s luminous vision of universal human consciousness. One Amazon.com reviewer deemed it a national treasure. Indeed, it’s rare to encounter a historical work of such breadth and depth, let alone one that illuminates, with such striking nuance and insight, one of the most quintessential and enduring of human proclivities.
When I called Fritzie Manuel to ask if I could interview her, she cautioned me that she had not kept up with the latest innovations in utopian thinking since the 1979 publication of her nine-hundred-page study. She was probably one of the few people, she confessed, who still did not own a computer. And yet a week later as we talked in person, she succeeded in powerfully evoking the utopian impulse as it has shifted and changed over time, and in the process, she brought human history to life. Sitting at her antique dining room table, where she and her husband had traded drafts, edited passages, and haggled over the punctuation of their book, Mrs. Manuel spoke about the historical and human significance of utopia, arcing back and forth across the centuries with remarkable ease and expressing an uncanny connection to the lives and historical realities she was describing.
As we overlooked the wintry Boston cityscape, I learned that a true historian is very much like a true utopian. Both are, as Fritzie Manuel has written, simultaneously “time-bound and free of time, place-bound and free of place.” Indeed, in her hands, five thousand years of history, seen through the lens of utopian thought, become the story of our unfolding humanity—our hopes, our dreams, and the evolution of our very consciousness. Ultimately, the interview with her left me pondering both the past and the future: What new and better existence can and really must emerge as a way to navigate the twenty-first century? Aware of the global-scale challenges we face, it became clear to me why, as the Manuels write, envisioning the next utopia may in fact be our greatest obligation and mission, and nothing less than the “moral need of the age.”