Utopian Thinking – From Plato to Ibsen and O’Neill

This research attempts to present a reconstructive interpretation of the utopian thinking as portrayed in Ibsen’s and O’Neill’s dramas in order to present their era thinking. Utopia has its roots in classical and Christian beliefs. The ideal city based on reason comes from Greeks and the idea of deliverance through a messiah comes from Christians. Most histories of utopia in the west tend to start with Plato and his Republic. To Plato utopia is the form of the ideal city, a perfect one, it fulfils by its political, social, and spatial organization. In Republic, this state is described as a place where goodness and justice are required, some functions and some virtues are more important and higher than others, and some needs take priority. In this state, philosophers are at the top of the social order and it hierarchically comes into the base class sustained by the labor class. So this spatial order of the city is hierarchized. Then he created a state in his “idea” or mind: “Let us begin or create idea a state; and yet the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention” (Plato 61). Then he described it; in fact he gave a picture of primitive life, on the other hand, he asked them to have an eye to poverty and war (Ibid. 62). In this dialogue, Glaucon rejected the state frankly and called it a “city of pigs”. “But this is a picture of a city of pigs, yes Socrates and if you were providing for a city of pigs, how else would you feed the beasts?!”(Ibid. 369-72) He called that as the state of luxurious as well. “People who are to be comfortable are accustomed to lie on sofas, and dine off tables, and they should have sauces and sweets in the modern style” (Ibid. 373). Socrates is a representative of Plato and his ideals and ideas, and Glaucon seems to be a representative of the 19th and the 20th century man. He knew what would be going on in future. It looks as if Plato intended to make his ideality closer to the reality of life. He was conscious about both. He himself confessed that “true and healthy” state is just an ideal in the mind. In fact, Plato was portraying a real state. Coming to choose a guardian, he opted a man of nobility, “is not the noble youth very like a well-bred dog in respect of guarding and watching?”(Ibid. 375) the matter of education, then, was considered. As Glaucon shifted Plato’s idea of a pig city to luxurious one, Plato began to drift into the deeper issues of mankind. So he paid to educations obviously the most important need to protect the luxurious city and the unpredictable man. It is more likely that Plato is deeped in some thing high, noble and ideal.

He gave his famous parable in the 7th book where he portrayed a real state; Greece, Athens, his place of birth, desires, and pride. This parable has been given to the futures, to the man of modernity, to those being away from the ideals of life and much close to the real life. Reality never dies and it can never be ignored. Making a utopia does not mean making a city including the best of conveniences, and guardians of the aristocracy; however, it does mean to make man. All “isms” can not define Man and the reality of his existence. If and only if Man would live the reality of Man which is the biggest truth about man. This is the cry of modern Man.

As Renaissance was a return to ‘Greek Humanism’, Platonic conception had some influence on the thinkers and architects of this era. The classic or Platonic conception of ideal city or utopia was fixed and static, it supposed an immutable order, and the parameters were the same in all eras. The principles of reason were utilized in the rational and scientific arts. However, some writers gradually tended to express human protest to the soulless of the utopia based on reason.

In the sixteenth century, Thomas More inscribed his famous work entitled Utopia; the modern utopia dates from Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). It drew upon both Greek and Christian roots. To More, utopia means the good place that is nowhere (utopia as well as outopia).

It seems at all times and in all societies people tend to Paradise or the Golden Age, a place and a time that there is no pain, all live freely and blissfully. There are some folk images of the Land of Cockaygne and Schlaraffenland, places where man would live joyously and fulfills his wishes. There are El Dorados and Shangri Las where people live in peace and harmony. But these are not utopia. To More, utopia should walk with current realities. It looks as if it has sought to create a picture of a good and even a perfect society.

In the seventeenth century we encountered certain major utopian works, like Campanella’s City of the Sun (1623), Andreae’s Christianopolis (1619), Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) and they achieved great fame among European men of letters. However, in the eighteenth century Jonathan Swift satirized and rebutted them by writing Gulliver’s Travels (1726), he adds the anti-utopia or dystopia to the utopian tradition. We can trace the influence of the great early utopias. From Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Samuel Butler’s Erewhon and Evegeny Zamyatin’s We, as Kumar holds in his article it has been ” the hubris of human reason”(67).

As Kumar mentions in his article entitled “Aspects of the Western Utopian Tradition” in the Renaissance, utopian ideas revived and they had their roots in Greek. Down to the eighteenth century, elements like science and technology were added to the concept of utopia and the theme of the ideal city. In fact in the Age of Reason (1600-1800) Plato lost his popularity and rationalists neglected him and his metaphysics. But then the French and Industrial Revolutions inspired the imminent possibility of utopia. However, it was a kind of utopia based on the scientific analysis, a society created by modern science and modern industry. Utopia remained dormant for a while, because of the rush of the social sciences. They interpreted utopia by means of science and rationale (67).

Accordingly, we should consider the classical ideal city invented by Greeks as the “pre-history” or the “unconscious” of modern utopia. The modern utopias, rooted in More, are pagans. They have intended to create a society without the light of divinity, just by human reason and rationale. Republic, however, had a philosophical sketch (Ibid 70).

According to this article, Utopia emerged in the form of novel in the eighteenth century. During this era we confront two categories of theory; utopian social theory represented in Rousseau’s Social Contract and Owen’, Fourier’ and Marx’ writings and utopian political theory shown in Hobbes’s Leviathan and Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (Ibid. 73).

Some scientists like Charles Darwin and Emil Zola have offered revolutionary theories. Literary naturalism derives from a biological model; its origin owes to Darwin and his theory of evolution. He emphasizes upon theories of heredity and environment. According to Richard Lehan “Darwin created a context that made naturalism a convincing way to explain the nature of reality for the late nineteenth century”(46). However, before Darwin’s ideas were available in literary form, they had to be transformed by Emil Zola. Zola believes that a novelist is like a scientist; he observes nature and society and rejects supernatural and the absolute standards of morality. All reality could be explained biologically. Controlled by heredity and environment, man was the product of his temperament in a social context (Ibid. 47). Accordingly, while the naturalistic novel presumes the reality of evolution, it often works in terms of devolution; degeneration and personal decline are rooted in most naturalistic fiction (Ibid. 50). Zola believes that the same forces that determined the individual were at work in society. But the modern man had been displaced from the environment, had lost his contact and relation with his instincts and self. Lehan in his article argues that money and bureaucracy had replaced the workings of nature and natural feelings. As civilization became more and more pronounced, society became more and more corrupted. Realism/ naturalism as a literary movement depended upon showing how a new commercial/ industrial process had interrupted the old rhythms of the land and put in motion a social process (Ibid. 61). A question arises whether realism/naturalism had an American equivalent or not. There is a connection between Zola and Norris, Balzac and Dreiser. They shared historical moment and they were setting their novels in an industrial world. As a literary way of presenting reality, naturalism dominated in Europe from 1870 to 1890 and in America from 1890 to the end of World War II (62).

Technology has been a central feature in the history of Western modernization. As Pippin argues there has been “an increasing reliance on technology in the production of goods, in services, information processing, communication, education, health care, and public administration”(185). This reliance, Pippin further argues, was anticipated and embraced by the early founders of modernity (Bacon and Descartes), and finally became a reality in the latter half of the nineteenth century (185). Such an increasing dependence on technology has created a number of political problems.

As it is mentioned in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, when the two world wars broke out, they changed the world. World War I broke out in 1914 in which England and France were fighting against Germany. The United States in 1917 entered the war on the side of England and France. The majority of the population of The United States was of English and German ancestry and after the war they encouraged the nation to come back to the prewar modes of life. However, to the others this collapse of Europe demonstrated the inadequacy of old social life. In 1929 because of the crash of the stock market an economic depression emerged. It did not end till the World War II. In this war Japan and Germany fought against The United States. The war ended in 1945. it made The United States become both an industrial society and a major global power. The United States consequently became a modern nation. In these decades American literary men registered all struggles and debates over the wars and recorded the history. Some anticipated future utopias. They were hopeful to construct an ideal city; although others believed that “old forms would not work for new times”(1071). They were thinking of creating something new. In fact, in the twenty and thirty decades, the pace of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration speeded up. The pace of technology and science speeded up; morality, justice, virtue, and good were crushed under the wheels of them.

According to The Norton Anthology of American Literature, communism and the other forms or radical politics so common in the interwar decades took their ideology from the writing of the German Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marx identified the root of human behavior in economics. He claimed that societies which were industrializing divided into two classes: capitalists versus laborers. To him, the ideas and ideals of any society had a direct relationship with the interests of the dominant class. It seems that Marx intended to construct a society based on communist ideals. Americans like Europeans were affected by Marx’s view. Those who thought of themselves as Marxists in the 1920s and the 1930s were related to this issue. Like socialists, anarchists, union organizers, these communists opposed American free market place competition. The United States also wanted to have its stated ideals which were guaranteeing liberty and justice. In these decades The United States happened to construct an ideal state (Franklin 1073). However a question arises that whether living on ideals was possible or not.

Technology played a vital role in these events. Without new production, transportation, and communication, the modern America could not have existed. We can not dissociate technology from Science. Because of scientific inventions, the world changed; we encountered the development of technology in whole America and Europe. On the other hand, scientists did not believe the literary men. They knew them some “careless thinkers”. The literary men also belittled the capacity of scientists to entail some important human factors like moral issues and subjective experience (Ibid.1073). Accordingly, in the late nineteenth century, O’Neill was against capitalism; the exploitation of the individual worker and the unequal distribution of wealth were its products. From the early 1910s into the 1920s, he saw the utopian goals of anarchism as a possible answer to capitalism (Ibid.1152).

If we want to consider Marx’s view of utopia, it is a good idea to mention his concept of self because utopian thinking has something to do with self, and the way it relates to itself, to others, to human nature, to technology and to the natural world. Marx’s intention is supposed to overcome alienation. To him, this is an important issue in political theory and reconstructing Marxian utopia. Johan Tralau in his article “The Effected Self in the Utopia of the Young Karl Marx” mentions that “the human being will no longer dominate nature, but will live in harmony with it” (394). He states that the utopian world is completely industrialized. To Marx man should be active; he believes that human is human just by its production. He continues that “through technological activity the self turns nature into its own, and thus into itself; this why utopia means the end of conflict between man and nature”(397). Thus there is no difference between man and nature. Then Marx discusses that “natural science has invaded and transformed human life through the medium of industry” (398) he considers industry as natural science in relation to man. So subjectivity is destroyed in human society. As Tralau holds in his article “in utopia there are no differences between different people”(399). In chapter IV, I will illustrate the symbolic characters of Larry and the anarchists portraying the caricatures of this utopian thinking in The Iceman Cometh.

Joshua Nichols in his article entitled “Lacan, the City, and the Utopian Symptom: An Analysis of Abject Urban Spaces” states that “utopia is a fictive representation of an ideal social structure”(460). It seems that utopia is somewhere which is not anywhere except in myths and fictions. He considers utopia as a mirror held up in the society; it actually reflects “the current city’s lack of rationality”(461). As he believes, in the recent century, “utopian city lies outside of the divinity’ it is significant just in relation to the profane city”(460).

Idealism is any doctrine having something to do with philosophy and it holds that “reality is fundamentally mental in nature”; this is a kind of definition Simon Blackburn gives in the Dictionary of Philosophy, the second edition (177). Modernity refers both to a historical category and to a philosophical and civilizational ideal. If you consider first the historical category, classic Enlightenment positions are stood out. According to Robert B. Pippin’s Idealism as Modernism, these positions are:

the new conception of nature required by modern science; the post-Cartesian notion of mind as subjective consciousness; a political world of passion-driven but rationally calculating individuals, or a post-protestant world of individually self-reliant, responsible agents; a new political language of rights and equality; and, most of all, a common hope: that a secular, rational basis for moral and political order could be found and safely relied on, could inspire the allegiance and commitment necessary for the vitality and reproduction of a society (Pippin 2)

Now we can consider philosophical modernism which has something to do with the German Idealist modernism, especially Kantian and Hegelian ones, and especially their discussions of “agency, self-determination, and rationality”. Pippin claims that it is very controversial to assert that some early-nineteenth-century German philosophers had realized the real intellectual sources of a modernist break with the prior religious and intellectual tradition. They believe that reality, modern social reality has become rational. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant refers often to the mind. Later German idealists were convinced that Kant had not destroyed the classical metaphysical tradition, but had begun a new kind of philosophy of subjectivity. He claims that, in philosophical knowledge, “reason is occupied with nothing but itself”(qtd. in Pippin, 39). His controversial issue is the concept of “apperception”; Kant states the claim that ” It must be possible for the ‘I think’ to accompany all my representations”(Ibid.), “The principle of apperception is the highest principle in the whole sphere of human knowledge”(Ibid.). Pippin argues that according to Kant,” whenever I am conscious of anything, I also apperceive that it is I who am thus conscious” (Ibid.).

At that time, Hegel also gave his own theme in his account of modernity; he stated that the modern age is the realization of human freedom, of absolute freedom. He stresses that this freedom is possible if you just experience a great loss; the experience that God himself is dead, as it is noted in his article “Belief and Knowledge”.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the new seemed suddenly old, outdated. According to Jurgen Habermas, Nietzsche’s thought represents the entry into post modernity. Nietzsche renounces a renewed revision of the concept of reason and bids farewell to the dialectic of enlightenment (Habermas, 85-6). As Pippin holds this farewell to the hopes of the Enlightenment is seen as the decisive European turning point , the European dissatisfaction with the Enlightenment comes down to the failed attempt of Hegel and the post-Hegelian at a dialectical reformulation and completion of such hopes, and a Nietzschean inauguration of irrationalism (Pippin 330)

Pippin further argues that for Nietzsche there is something different about the post-enlightenment period in western history; something which is not just the repetition of Platonism and Christianity (Ibid. 335). However, Modernity just represents his repetitive descriptions; as Pippin argues, it wants to complete the ancient will to truth. He believes that Modernity’s dream of Enlightenment is so extreme and that makes its failure. His analysis of the institutions of modernity is directed to the Christian-moral interpretation; he asks his major question and replies it: “What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devalue themselves” (Ibid.335). In his book Pippin argues that Heidegger attacks on the ancient philosophy and Germen Idealism. He asserts that man is free and his being is determined only in his liberation, commerce and economy turn into their powers, art becomes the manner of self-development of human creativity. The idea of sovereignty brings a new formation of the state and a new kind of political thought (Ibid. 395).

When the utopian society comes to be portrayed in literature, we see a fully developed picture of a happy world in which we experience a good life in a new society; we see people at work, at home, in society, we experience their personal and social lives, however, we see a good life, a good day in utopia. But a question arises if it is a real life, whether it is persuasive to portray just a far-fetched life and society. A modern man can not stand it, because he has experienced and seen the real life and the bitter truth is that what he sees is completely different from what he reads in literature. Among the nineteenth century men some come to react against utopian thinking; in their works we can trace anti-utopian thinking. Some like Henrik Ibsen and Eugene O’Neill have portrayed real life in their writings and questioned Plato and his principles of state. It seems the early utopians as Kumar holds in his article, tended to “blend utopian and anti-utopian elements”(70), like Plato and More. But from the late nineteenth century, utopia and anti-utopia tended to pull apart. The anti-utopia expresses some fears; it offers the threat of Technology, Science, and material progress and considers it as the greatest threat to human values. We see that in this century the portrayal of the society becomes more detailed and realistic as you see in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.

Ibsen is looking forward to something new, the creation of a transformed world. This is an age of becoming. There is not any definite line, as Plato implied in his parable of the cave in order to divide truth and reality. It looks as if Ibsen is playing with the concepts. There is no line between the old and the new, the illusion and the fact, the reality and the truth, the physics and the metaphysics. He wants to define them again. The man of Plato’s era is completely different from the 19th century man. However, both intend to construct an ideal world with an ideal concept.

But Ibsen is not only a great thinker, he is a great artist. His works show us the true meaning of the word realism. According to Arthur Symons, “a word which has unhappily come to be associated with pictures of life which are necessarily sordid, frequently unclean (97). Realism is a picture of life as really it is. In his article” Ibsen’s Modernity” he argues that Ibsen’s realism stifles nothing;” it is daring to discuss matters over which society draws a veil”(97), but it is never gross, never unhealthy, it “sees life steadily, and sees it whole”(97). Ibsen paints ordinary life; his people are the people we meet on the streets, painters, lawyers, and teachers.

In 1890, the American popular theater began slowly to change, along with the Norwegian Ibsen, whose work was first produced in America in 1889. According to Brenda Murphy’s American Realism and American Drama, before 1890 the realistic ideas were coming from novelists who had not fully learned the language of the theater (85). The years between 1890 and 1915 were crucial for the establishment of realistic principles in American drama. “The turn-of-the-century playwrights who had ambitions toward writing drama that was good literature as well as good theater were the generation who grew up with the sense of realism as avant-garde”(Ibid. 86). When he started writing plays in 1913, O’Neill was aware of what had been happening in the American theater. As the son of a prominent actor, he had grown up with some knowledge about the theater. From the realist’s perspective, his whole career was a development of these two early impulses:” the search for a dramatic structure that would give an appropriate shape to the illusion of reality in his dramatic action, and the search for theatrical ways to depict the deepest reality of his characters within the dramatic structures he discovered”. He wanted to fulfill the two impulses of realism in his masterpiece, The Iceman cometh(1939) and A long Day’s Journey into Night(1940).In many of his experiments he intends to pursue realistic structure and deeply psychological characterization in order to represent his notion of truth (Murphy,114).

They both seem to develop a great understanding of humanity in all its shades. Ibsen gets his doubts about utopian thinking and that ideal state imagined by Plato and so does O’Neill. He is also against the American dream. Through the history we can diagnose the trace of old in new. Humankind from his birth has been looking for an ideal place based on his ideas. However, in track of history man’s ideas have been fulfilled by innovation of technology, science, philosophy, human morality, and so many other factors. Utopia to Ibsen and O’Neill and many other thinkers is not the one which was to Plato. It tends to change into Dystopia, a place where instead of all being well, all is not well. The nineteenth and twentieth-century thinkers like Henrik Ibsen and Eugene O’Neill made an attempt to construct a utopia based on the realities of the life.

Source by Fatemeh Esfandiari

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