Why Utopias Are Impossible — And Why You’re Already Living in One

What do all of these would-be utopias have in common?

  • The workers’ paradise of the Soviet Union.
  • Ancient Hebrew society as ruled directly by God, before they insisted on having a king.
  • The Puritan community in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
  • Plato’s Republic.

I can think of two correct answers:

  1. They were founded by people who thought they had the important issues of life figured out, and who brooked little or no dissent.
  2. They did not last. (Even when Plato tried to put some of his theories into practice, it did not go well.)

Sometimes, a utopia endures for a long time even if the society is rigid (the Amish come to mind), but in general an unbending dogmatism eventually breaks.

I love this passage from Plato at the Googleplex (page 217):

Humanity should never be frozen into a vision of the best. A creative society must be willing to tolerate some degree of instability because creativity is inherently unstable. …[W]e must be willing to tolerate instability in the political sphere, too. No look at reality can ever give it to us whole — the beautiful, the true, and the good. Maybe it’s there whole. … But at no moment in time are we ever going to get it whole, or enough of it so as to be in a position to shape our society and freeze it in time.

That is why the ultimate utopia is impossible: we never know enough. The same passage continues by pointing out that even Plato, “the best of all Greeks,” did not anticipate the moral advances we have made, such as abolishing slavery.

The best we can hope for is the freedom to continually try to make society better. If your country has freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of association, you’re already on the right track.

Political freedom is merely academic if nobody exercises it. We should welcome peaceful protests, even and especially those that make us uncomfortable. They have a long track record of forcing improvements in society. Did you know that at the height of Puritan persecution of the Quakers, Quaker women protested naked, with Margaret Brewster even interrupting a Puritan church service dressed only in a sackcloth shawl, her head covered in ashes?

Without dissent, nothing changes. Thanks only to dissenters such as Margaret Brewster, we enjoy freedoms too numerous to list, which were not dreamed of for most of human history.

I say Utopia is that society which embraces the messy and chaotic process of letting all voices be heard. From this everything else follows.

Welcome to Utopia.

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