Unthinkable: Should we give up on utopian politics?

Utopian visions work because they are fictional, says sociologist Deirdre Ní Chuanacháin

Every generation flirts with utopian ideals. A hundred years ago, we had Patrick Pearse’s nationalistic vision of a self-sustaining Ireland born of blood sacrifice. Almost 40 years later we had Eamon de Valera’s famous evocation of a land of “happy maidens” and of firesides acting as “forums for the wisdom of serene old age”.

More recently, the image of “the best small country in the world in which to do business, raise a family and grow old” has been put before us as a credible goal.

Such utopianism could be seen as quite harmless, but history teaches us otherwise. It's not just that idealism can lead to political extremism, but that focusing our attention on a far-distant, imagined state of perfection can blind us to societal improvements that are within our reach. As the philosopher Philip Kitcher says: "Better to think in terms of 'progress from' rather than 'progress to'."

A common feature of utopian projects is to "start again", envisaging a better future from purer beginnings, a classic example being George Berkeley's attempt to set up a college in Bermuda in the 18th century that would that develop into a perfect Christian city and civilisation. The project collapsed due to lack of funds and difficulty in convincing the locals of its merits, an episode recalled by UCC sociology lecturer Deirdre Ní Chuanacháin in a new book, Utopianism in Eighteenth Century Ireland.


The book highlights early romantic visions emerging from Ireland, including a vibrant scientific tradition that gave birth to the Dublin Society (formerly the Dublin Philosophical Society) in 1731 – an organisation that later became the RDS and would inspire the setting-up of the Royal Irish Academy.

Placing Ireland’s brand of utopianism within its native literary tradition, Ní Chuanacháin says part of the power of utopian ideals is that they tell a story; they wouldn’t work unless they were fictional. Or, as she puts it: “Distanced from reality, the utopian visions thus imagined are potent because they are estranged.”

What were the most dominant utopian visions of 18th-century Ireland?

“A utopian vision is a totalising vision for an entire system reaching toward a horizon of a better life for all. In the context of 18th-century Ireland there were diverse utopian visions, both political and cultural.

“They existed, especially at the interface between the languages both English and Irish, between the Catholic and Protestant communities and their respective cultures, and between colonial and anti-colonial writings.

"For example, in the political sphere in the later stages of the 18th century there was the radical utopianism of the Society of United Irishmen's Northern Star newspaper, with its recurring references to James Harrington's work of utopian thought, The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656). In the cultural sphere, utopian visions can take many forms.

“In the Irish context, mostly, although not exclusively, they are presented through the literary realm of the utopian novel and poetry. In the political realm through songs, proclamations, manifestos, speeches and specifically in 18th-century Ireland through the improving societies such as the Dublin Society.”

In what way was the Dublin Society utopian?

"I believe that there was an overall utopian idealist strain in 18th-century Irish philosophy. It is represented in the ideas and writings of George Berkeley, Thomas Prior, Thomas Molyneux and others working and writing during what David Berman calls Ireland's 'one golden age of philosophy'.

“Molyneux and Prior were among the founders of the Dublin Society. I think that the society was a utopian project because it had an inherent spirit of invention and improvement. Utopia not only refers to a literary genre but to a way of thinking, to a philosophical attitude.

“The Dublin Society, through its members and their activities, contained core features of a utopian project, that is, a way of thinking, a mentality, a philosophical attitude that centred around practical and visionary patriotism, liberalism and nationalism. It aimed for the transformation of everyday life.”

It is interesting that Berkeley sought to create a new, ideal state in Bermuda rather than in Ireland. Did he and other idealists feel reform was too difficult at home?

"Like Thomas More's island of Utopia, Berkeley's vision was the embodiment of a Christian and aesthetic ideal. It could be argued that his effort to create a utopian community in the New World emerged from a discontent with the Old World.

“What was imagined may not have been possible at home but could have been potentially realisable in a future Irish utopia.”

Does the 18th century mark a high point in utopian thinking? 

Arguably, more recent decades have been characterised by the lack of an overarching political vision in Ireland “I don’t think that the 18th century marked a high-point in utopian thinking in Ireland but a significant point in utopian thinking. I believe that utopianism is always present and manifests itself in different ways at different times. It could be argued that there is a current political vision that is not overarching but is maybe fractured.

“It could be because of people’s unwillingness to take positions or their inability to see that there can be competing utopian visions. The vision embodied in the 1916 Rising as expressed in the Proclamation counts as a utopian vision that is not yet fulfilled.”


Question: Is inequality the greatest evil today?
Harry G Frankfurt replies: "The egalitarian condemnation of inequality as inherently bad loses much of its force, I believe, when we recognise that those who are doing considerably worse than others may nonetheless be doing rather well."