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The Utopian Imagination

When the human mind creates, it can use only two classes of ideas as
materials to embody its idea, viz.:

(1) Natural phenomena, the forces of the organic and inorganic worlds.
In its scientific form, seeking to explain, to know, it ends in the
hypothesis, a disinterested creation. In its industrial aspect, aiming
towards application and utilization, it ends in practical, interested

(2) Human, i.e., psychic elements--instincts, passions, feelings,
ideas, and actions. Esthetic creation is the disinterested form, social
invention is the utilitarian form.

Consequently, we may say that invention in science resembles invention
in the fine arts, both being speculative; and that mechanical and
industrial invention approaches social invention through a common
tendency toward the practical. I shall not insist on this distinction,
which, to be definite, rests only on partial characters; I merely wish
to mention that invention, whose role in social, political and moral
evolution is large, must, in order to be a success, adopt certain
processes while neglecting others. This the Utopians do not do.

The development of human societies depends on a multitude of factors,
such as race, geographic and economic conditions, war, etc., which we
need neither enumerate nor study. One only belongs to our topic--the
successive appearance of idealistic conceptions that, like all other
creations of mind, tend to realize themselves, the moral ideal
consisting of new combinations arising from the predominance of one
feeling, or from an unconscious elaboration (inspiration), or from

At the beginning of civilizations we meet semi-historic, semi-legendary
persons--Manu, Zoroaster, Moses, Confucius, etc., who were inventors or
reformers in the social and moral spheres. That a part of the inventions
attributed to them must be credited to predecessors or successors is
probable; but the invention, no matter who is its author, remains none
the less invention. We have said elsewhere, and may repeat, that the
expression inventor in morals may seem strange to some, because we are
imbued with the notion of a knowledge of good and evil that is innate,
universal, bestowed on all men and in all times. If we admit, on the
other hand, as observation compels us to do, not a ready-made morality,
but a morality in the making, it must be, indeed, the creation of an
individual or of a group. Everybody recognizes inventors in geometry,
in music, in the plastic and mechanic arts; but there have also been men
who, in their moral dispositions, were very superior to their
contemporaries, and were promoters, initiators. For reasons of
which we are ignorant, analogous to those that produce a great poet or a
great painter, there arise moral geniuses who feel strongly what others
do not feel at all, just as does a great poet, in comparison with the
crowd. But it is not enough that they feel: they must create, they must
realize their ideal in a belief and in rules of conduct accepted by
other men. All the founders of great religions were inventors of this
kind. Whether the invention comes from themselves alone, or from a
collectivity of which they are the sum and incarnation, matters little.
In them moral invention has found its complete form; like all invention,
it is organic. The legend relates that Buddha, possessed with the desire
of finding the perfect road of salvation for himself and all other men,
gives himself up, at first, to an extravagant asceticism. He perceives
the uselessness of this and renounces it. For seven years he meditates,
then he beholds the light. He comes into possession of knowledge of the
means that give freedom from Karma (the chain of causes and effects),
and from the necessity of being born again. Soon he renounces the life
of contemplation, and during fifty years of ceaseless wanderings
preaches, makes converts, organizes his followers. Whether true or
false historically, this tale is psychologically exact. A fixed and
besetting idea, trial followed by failure, the decisive moment of
Eureka! then the inner revelation manifests itself outwardly, and
through the labors of the master and his disciples becomes complete,
imposes itself on millions of men. In what respect does this mode of
creation differ from others, at least in the practical order?

Thus, from the viewpoint of our present study, we may divide ethics into
living and dead. Living ethics arise from needs and desires, stimulate
an imaginative construction that becomes fixed in actions, habits and
laws; they offer to men a concrete, positive ideal which, under various
and often contrary aspects, is always happiness. The lifeless ethics,
from which invention has withdrawn, arise from reflection upon, and the
rational codification of, living ethics. Stored away in the writings of
philosophers, they remain theoretical, speculative, without appreciable
influence on the masses, mere material for dissertation and commentary.

In proportion as we recede from distant origins the light grows, and
invention in the social and moral order becomes manifest as the work of
two principal categories of minds--the fantastic, the positive. The
former, purely imaginative beings, visionaries, utopians, are closely
related to poets and artists. The latter, practical creators or
reformers, capable of organizing, belong to the family of inventors in
the industrial-commercial-mechanical order.


The chimerical form of imagination, applied to the social sciences, is
the one that, taking account neither of the external determinism nor of
practical requirements, spreads out freely. Such are the creators of
ideal republics, seeking for a lost or to-be-discovered-in-the-future
golden age, constructing, as their fancy pleases, human societies in
their large outlines and in their details. They are social novelists,
who bear the same relation to sociologists that poets do to critics.
Their dreams, subjected merely to the conditions of an inner logic, have
lived only within themselves, an ideal life, without ever passing
through the test of application. It is the creative imagination in its
unconscious form, restrained to its first phase.

Nothing is better known than their names and their works: The Republic
of Plato, Thomas More's Utopia, Campanella's City of the Sun,
Harrington's Oceana, Fenelon's Salente, etc. However idealistic
they may be, one could easily show that all the materials of their ideal
are taken from the surrounding reality, they bear the stamp of the
milieu, be it Greek, English, Christian, etc., in which they lived,
and it should not be forgotten that in the Utopians everything is not
chimerical--some have been revealers, others have acted as stimuli or
ferments. True to its mission, which is to make innovations, the
constructive imagination is a spur that arouses; it hinders social
routine and prevents stagnation.

Among the creators of ideal societies there is one, almost contemporary,
who would deserve a study of individual psychology--Ch. Fourier. If it
is a question merely of fertility in pure construction, I doubt whether
we could find one superior to him--he is equal to the highest, with the
special characteristic of being at the same time exuberant to delirium
and exact in details to the least minutiae. He is such a fine type of the
imaginative intellect that he deserves that we stop a moment.

His cosmogony seems the work of an omnipotent demiurge fashioning the
universe at will. His conception of the future world with its
"counter-cast" creations, where the present ugliness and troubles of
animal reign become changed into their opposites, where there will be
"anti-lions," "anti-crocodiles," "anti-whales," etc., is one example of
hundreds showing his inexhaustible richness in fantastic visions: the
work of an imagination that is hot and overflowing, with no rational

On the other hand, his psychogony, based on the idea of metempsychosis
borrowed from the Orient, gives itself up to numerical vagaries.
Assuming for every soul a periodical rebirth, he assigns it first a
period of "ascending subversion," the first phase of which lasts five
thousand years, the second thirty-six thousand; then comes a period of
completion, 9,000 years; and then a period of "descending subversion,"
whose first stage is 27,000 years, and the second 4,000 years--a total
of 81,000 years. This form of imagination is already known to us.

The principal part of his psychology, the theory of the emotions,
questionable in many respects, is relatively rational. But in the
construction of human society, the duality of his imagination--powerful
and minute--reappears. We know his methodical organization: the group,
composed of seven to nine persons; the series, comprising twenty-four
to thirty-two groups; a phalanx that includes eighteen groups,
constituting the phalanstery; the small city, a general center of
phalanges; the provincial city, the imperial capital, the universal
metropolis. He has a passion for classification and ordering; "his
phalanstery works like a clock."

This rare imaginative type well deserved a few remarks, because of its
mixture of apparent exactness and a natural, unconscious utopianism and
extravagance. For, beneath all these pulsating inventions of precise,
petty details, the foundation is none the less a purely speculative
construction of the mind. Let us add an incredible abuse of analogy,
that chief intellectual instrument of invention, of which only the
reading of his books can give an idea. Heinrich Heine said of
Michelet, "He has a Hindoo imagination." The term would apply still
better to Fourier, in whom coexist unchecked profusion of images and the
taste for numerical accumulations. People have tried to explain this
abundance of figures and calculation as a professional habit--he was for
a long time a bookkeeper or cashier, always an excellent accountant. But
this is taking the effect for cause. This dualism existed in the very
nature of his mind, and he took advantage of it in his calling. The
study of the numerical imagination has shown how it is frequently
met with among orientals, whose imaginative development is unquestioned,
and we have seen why the idealistic imagination agrees so well with the
indefinite series of numbers and makes use of it as a vehicle.


With practical inventors and reformers the ideal falls--not that they
sacrifice it for their personal interests, but because they have a
comprehension of possibilities. The imaginative construction must be
corrected, narrowed, mutilated, if it is to enter into the narrow frame
of the conditions of existence, until it becomes adapted and determined.
This process has been described several times, and it is needless to
repeat it here in other terms. Nevertheless, the ideal--understanding by
this term the unifying principle that excites creative work and supports
it in its development--undergoes metamorphosis and must be not only
individual but collective; the creation does not realize itself save
through a "communion of minds," by a co-operation of feelings and of
wills; the work of one conscious individual must become the work of a
social consciousness.

That form of imagination, creating and organizing social groups,
manifests itself in various degrees according to the tendency and power
of creators.

There are the founders of small societies, religious in form--the
Essenes, the earliest Christian communities, the monastic orders of the
Orient and Occident, the great Catholic or Mohammedan congregations, the
semi-lay, semi-religious sects like the Moravian Brotherhood, the
Shakers, Mormons, etc. Less complete because it does not cover the
individual altogether in all the acts of life is the creation of secret
associations, professional unions, learned societies, etc. The founder
conceives an ideal of complete living or one limited to a given end, and
puts it into practice, having for material men grouped of their free
choice, or by cooptation.

There is invention operating on great masses--social or political
invention strictly so called--ordinarily not proposed but imposed,
which, however, despite its coercive power, is subject to requirements
even more numerous than mechanical, industrial, or commercial invention.
It has to struggle against natural forces, but most of all against human
forces--inherited habits, customs, traditions. It must make terms with
dominant passions and ideas, finding its justification, like all other
creation, only in success.

Without entering into the details of this inevitable determination,
which would require useless repetition, we may sum up the role of the
constructive imagination in social matters by saying that it has
undergone a regression--i.e., that its area of development has been
little by little narrowed; not that inventive genius, reduced to pure
construction in images, has suffered an eclipse, but on its part it has
had to make increasingly greater room for experiment, rational elements,
calculation, inductions and deductions that permit foresight--for
practical necessities.

If we omit the spontaneous, instinctive, semi-conscious invention of the
earliest ages, that was sufficient for primitive societies, and keep to
creations that were the result of reflection and of great pretension, we
can roughly distinguish three successive periods:

(1) A very long idealistic phase (Antiquity, Renaissance) when triumphed
the pure imagination, and the play of the free fancy that spends itself
in social novels. Between the creation of the mind and the life of
contemporary society there was no relation; they were worlds apart,
strangers to one another. The true Utopians scarcely troubled themselves
to make applications. Plato and More--would they have wished to realize
their dreams?

(2) An intermediate phase, when an attempt is made to pass from the
ideal to the practical, from pure speculation to social facts. Already,
in the eighteenth century, some philosophers (Locke, Rousseau) drew up
constitutions, at the request of interested persons. During this period,
when the work of the imagination, instead of merely becoming fixed in
books, tends to become objectified in acts, we find many failures and
some successes. Let us recall the fruitless attempts of the
"phalansteries" in France, in Algeria, Brazil, and in the United States.
Robert Owen was more fortunate; in four years he reformed New
Larnak, after his ideal, and with varying fortune founded short-lived
colonies. Saint-Simonism has not entirely died out; the primitive
civilization after his ideal rapidly disappeared, but some of his
theories have filtered into or have become incorporated with other

(3) A phase in which imaginative creation becomes subordinated to
practical life: The conception of society ceases to be purely idealistic
or constructed a priori by deduction from a single principle; it
recognizes the conditions of its environment, adapts itself to the
necessities of its development. It is the passage from the absolutely
autonomous state of the imagination to a period when it submits to the
laws of a rational imperative. In other words, the transition from the
esthetic to the scientific, and especially the practical, form.
Socialism is a well-known and excellent example of this. Compare its
former utopias, down to about the middle of the last century, with its
contemporary forms, and without difficulty we can appreciate the amount
of imaginative elements lost in favor of an at least equivalent quantity
of rational elements and positive calculations.

Next: The Foundations Of The Creative Imagination

Previous: The Commercial Imagination

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