C. The first step on the road to utopiaOne may think it strange to be talking about social change and utopia in a book about spiritual traditions, but a universal and primary aim in religion has been to reorder society for the benefit of a people, by refining its culture and bringing them into harmony and balance with the natural order of creation. From the very beginning of recorded story and literature - whether mythological or ethical - this has been the aim of religion. We can find this theme in every tradition in existence in one form or another. The more emphasis a particular tradition puts on life in this world, one finds a clearer expression of utopianism in its precepts, prescriptions for behavior and ultimate goals. Even if there is a hope for an afterlife, the desire for social community united in worship gives rise to a form of utopianism to be found in the next world, i.e., the heavenly city. The fewest utopian refrains are to be found in those traditions which despair of this world, and whose people desire only to be dissolved into the incomprehensible mystery of Being-and-Non-being. But these too often have an ethical tone in their asceticism, as they try to lessen the suffering experienced here. So utopianism is an integral part of any discussion of the unity of religious faiths.
As I may have mentioned before, society is an instance of a cybernetic system. It is a whole only by the union of its many parts interacting together. It is self-regulating, self-fixing and spontaneously brings forth order. Like any other cybernetic system, it needs an energy source. It includes multiple levels of order. And pressure on its parts disturbs their functioning, while non-interference brings them together. What is unique about this system is that its parts are people. Any cybernetic system can be described by listing its eight relationships:
- Society is a collection of people who live together as an extended community in order to pursue shared goals and ideals.
- Its people interact with each other and conduct business on the basis of individual differences, and their treatment of each other shapes their regard for society.
- Society depends on the availability of material resources and sources of energy for the sustaining of its people and its commerce, and creates waste products which must be recycled or disposed.
- Society interacts mutually with both its urban conditions and its ecological environment, and must maintain harmony and order in both spheres of influence, and a balance between the two.
- Each new generation takes its culture, lifestyle, expectations and ideals from its parents, through socialization and education, and breathes new meaning and life into them.
- People develop functional institutions and organize neighborhood communities to meet social needs and for recreational purposes.
- Excessive demands for conformity and/or economic hardship create social unrest and crime.
- Society is governed, through various forms and methods, by the intentional design and, ultimately, by the consent of its people.
d. Our attitude toward changeFor various reasons, no utopian dream has ever been fully realised on a wide scale in human history. This failure has not been due to any inherent unrealism in the dream of an improved society. The utopian visionary necessarily builds upon the ideas and possibilities which are available in his or her time, and there have been real and significant improvements in society. Nor has it been for any lack of supporters, for there have been many attempts to bring such ideas into fulfillment, on small scales as well as large. Though it is true that small scale efforts are occasionally more apparently successful than those that take on the task of transforming society as a whole. Still, it is a common response to think that any serious utopian proposals are inevitably unfeasible. This is not necessarily so. Utopian ideals have created the world in which we live today, despite the unforeseen problems and complications that plague us. And they have shaped much of our current political thought, as well as our various ideologies. What we have lacked is sufficient foresight, and the desire to forge a workable consensus.
Yet there are important reasons for why we have always failed to create a utopian society. First, although the idealist creates the vision with the contemporary society and its capabilities in mind, many of the changes suggested would require the better part of a century to accomplish. During all this time, society is constantly changing, thus the conditions which originated the ideas and made them possible have passed away. So, whatever modifications have been made find themselves side-tracked from their intended goal. Moreover, when the vision was conceived, the society likely had no means of putting it into practice as a whole, nor would most people have understood and agreed if it had been possible. Ordinary people do not have the degree of foresight, altruism or faith in human nature that is characteristic of the utopians. Few idealists can even approximately guess the difficulty that will face the full realization of their dream.
Another reason that utopian visions are often disregarded is that the initial product of genius is frequently rough-hewn, and thus at first sight appears unworkable. It will require time and the sustained efforts of others to complete its creation, and this will come forth only if the aim of the proposal seems to be necessary to the health of society. No one person is capable of such thorough imagination as it would require to completely envision, step by step, the wholesale transformation of society. Therefore, it is usually only the philosophical ideals and ultimate aims of the dream which are ever taken to heart. But these do continue to surface in the thoughts of other writers and innovators.
Also, even if there is a significant possibility for transformation to take place, the society's leaders, politicians and vested interests may feel that their authority and positions are threatened, and for reasons of self-interest make every effort to maintain the status quo. The general public, also, comfortable in their daily routines, may feel uneasy about trying alternative lifestyles, especially if it will cost them money or effort to make the changes involved. Unless a subtle sense of unease or dissatisfaction is widespread, the normal inertia of society will subdue any revolutionary impulses and postpone the development of utopia.
The last and perhaps most important reason is the general habit of despair that denies any chance of such visions taking root. The mere historical fact that none have so far succeeded is regarded as proof of the inevitability of failure, as if it is the divine will to forego the efforts of earthly human beings. This is obviously absurd, but nonetheless accepted. This observation was shared by the scientist and philosopher, Francis Bacon, who wrote in his book "Novum Organum" that "by far the greatest obstacle to the progress of science and the undertaking of new tasks ... is found in this, that men despair and think things impossible. ... If therefore anyone believes or promises more, they think this comes of an ungoverned mind." In any age, the necessary prerequisite for any kind of progress is initiative and the determination to get things done. If anything is definitely and forever impossible, it is because no one will try.
It is for the first and second of these reasons that , when I give my suggestions on how I would modify the eight key components of society, I will try to be brief and concentrate on the purposes and aims of each suggestion, rather than on their concrete development. I feel that if the reasons for each suggestion are clear and worthy of implementation it will be much more likely that some effort will be made than if I were to describe a fully developed system. As for the last two reasons for difficulty restraining the development of utopia, perhaps only persistent efforts of persuasion and a creative approach to education offer any hope of overcoming such attitudes. Unfortunately, such self-centered manipulation and popular apathy and ignorance are in perennial evidence.
(Sources and influences will be acknowledged in a later blog entry. Your patience is appreciated.)