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.

The Unconscious Factor The Various Forms Of Inspiration facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail