1997| Utopian Visions

In this series we explored the history and nature of utopian (and dystopian) thought. What are the values and dangers of conceiving and trying to construct a better world? What can such an effort tell us about the world we live in.

Events included:

Utopian Writing: Its Nature and Historical Contex  - Brooks Spencer
Religion and Utopia: Heaven (On Earth?) - Marcus Borg and Jill McAllister
Brave New World: Soma, Shakespeare, and Suicide: The Terrors of Techno Utopia - Courtney Campbell
1984 Revisited:  Orwell's Vision of 2000 - Manuel Pacheco
A Luddite Looks at the Next Millenium - Kirkpatrick Sale
Plato's Republic: A Totalitarian Utopia? - Michael Scanlan, William Uzgalis, Gregory Johnson, Glen Dealy
Transcendentalism and the Utopian Mentality - David Robinson
Utopian Visions - David Anderson, Lisa Blasch, Kim Daley, Suzanne Gaulocher

Introduction and Background

Illustration for the 1516 first edition of Utopia.

The Utopian Visions lecture series was an attempt to think about the nature of an ideal society and the history of the efforts to do this, beginning with Thomas More's famous book of 1515 -- Utopia. Brooks Spencer began the series by tracing the history of utopian writing over some three centuries. Jill MacAllister and Marcus Borg treated us to an exploration of utopia from a religious perspective, providing a tour of heavens from around the world and an account of a anthropocentric and theocentric view of heaven in the Judaeo-Christian respectively. Courtney Campbell and Manuel Pacheco explored twentieth century distopian thinking in Huxley's Brave New World, and Orwell's 1984 respectively. Our distinguished visitor, Kirkpatrick Sale spent a day with us, giving several informal talks as well as his lecture: "ECOCENTRISM: A 'Good-Place' Nature-based Spirituality " in which he suggested that while utopian thinking often seems absurd, to fail to change our world from its unsustainable economic course is even more absurd.

A panel on Plato's Republic chaired by Michael Scanlan explored the utopian implications of Plato's masterwork. David Robinson helped us understand utopian thought in 19th century American by talking about Emerson and Brook Farm, and contrasting this with Thoreau's experiment at Waldon pond. Finally the IDEAS MATTER students gave the final event in which they gave lectures about the nature of utopian thinking, a prominent 20th century thinker -- Herbert Marcuse, and gave readings from literature which summarized many utopian themes.

Utopian Visions was the first lecture series to have an accompanying web site. The Utopian Visions web site was designed to provide information about the lectures, and resources for exploring the topic of Utopia. It is also designed to serve as a base for a discussion of the issues raised by Utopian thinking.

While it may be difficult to provide a precise definition of a utopia, we will work with the assumption that a utopian vision represents an ideal state of affairs for human flourishing. The generation of such an ideal is often the result of dissatisfaction with the state of some actual society. Still, while this assumption fits Plato's account of the best state in the Republic, it does not really fit More's Utopia as well. More seems to be creating a society which is significantly better, more ideal, than his own, yet not the absolute best. It may be good for us to remember this, since it may be significantly easier to produce a proposal about what would be better than the present state of society, than to be burdened with the necessity of showing that a proposal is the best possible.


The very idea that there might be a better society than the one we live in was a surprise to some. How would wealth be distributed in an ideal society? This is a question which is fundamental to utopian thinking, and brings us back to the issues of distributive justice of the 1996 series. What relationship would we have to the environment in an ideal society? This is a question which picks up the rise of environmental philosophy which Peter List discussed in 1993 and which is the main subject of the 1998 series -- "The Ethical Legacy of Aldo Leopold." In what situation will artists find themselves in a better world? What would government be like?


Utopian Writing: Its Nature and Historical Context

Brooks Spencer, emeritus, General Science Department
October 9, Thursday, 4:00 P.M. - Memorial Union 208

Read a transcript of Brooks' talk

Religion and Utopia: Heaven (On Earth?)

Marcus Borg and Jill McAllister
October 16, Thursday, 4:00 PM, Memorial Union 208

The major Western religious traditions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam --all include ideas of 'the perfect life' in their concepts of heaven. Heaven has been variously understood as a 'place' elsewhere, a different level of reality, and a condition of human life -- a goal to strive for on Earth. We'll consider..."Who's heaven is it?" as we explore descriptions, and we'll ponder the question..."this worldly or other worldly utopia?"

Neither pictoral nor discursive philosophico-religious utopias are exclusive to the Western world. Taoism, Theravada Buddhism, and medieval Muslim philosophy are impregnated with Utopian elements. There are treatises on ideal states and stories about imaginary havens of delight among the Chinese, the Japanese, the Hindus and the Arabs, but the profusion of Western utopias had not been equaled in any other culture.
    --Utopian Thought in the Western World

"...if we must let alone everything as absurd or extravagant which by reason of the wicked lives of many may seem uncouth, we must, even among Christians, give over pressing the greatest part of those things that Christ hath taught us, though He has commanded us not to conceal them, but to proclaim on the house-tops that which he taught in secret."  

"The greatest parts of his precepts are more opposite to the lives of the men of this age than any part of my discourse has been..."
    --Thomas More, Utopia

Part 1:  Heaven's Many Guises: The Idea of Heaven in World Religions - Jill McAllister

Part 2:  Religion and Utopia: Heaven (On Earth?) - Marcus Borg

Brave New World

Brave New World: Soma, Shakespeare, and Suicide: The Terrors of Techno Utopia

Courtney Campbell
October 23, Thursday, 4:00 PM, Memorial Union 208


Some 65 years after its publication, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World continues to exert a powerful influence in our culture. Huxley's "success" however is not literary but philosophical; Brave New World presents a set of ideas about technology and its humanizing and dehumanizing effects that we inevitably encounter in an era both fascinated by and fearful of the implications of "test tube" reproduction, mapping the human genome, and cloning animals and potentially persons. In a very real and profound sense, Huxley's "ideas matter."

Huxley is not technophobic, but his novel suggests two important questions about the relation of technology and culture: (1) For what purposes ought technology to be used?, and (2) Who should control technology? I will address these questions through an analysis of Huxley's symbols of "soma" (an anxiety-relieving drug), "Shakespeare" (an author whose texts are invoked as a form of social aspiration and social criticism), and "suicide" (which seems to be the only option by which one can retain their humanity).

Read a transcript of Courtney's talk.

Read Brave New World

1984 - Big Brother Is Watching You Mouse Over This Image1984 Revisited:  Orwell's Vision of 2000

Manuel Pacheco
October 30, Thursday, 4:00 PM, Memorial Union 208

Chomsky has written that propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism. In 1984 Big Brother does not make this distinction, but instead utilizes both propaganda and violence as tools of the state. Though prepared to use whatever horrific violence is necessary to control people's minds, Big Brother understands that willing obedience from true believers makes for a more efficient and effective means of mind control. Hence every means available to the state is used in the indoctrination of minds, and the reduction of people to something less than human.

Orwell imagined a state at the end of the twentieth century wherein political power is in the hands of the very few, the inner party, where history and all memory of the past has been obliterated. Thinking is being eliminated as the official language of Oceania, newspeak, slowly replaces traditional English. As vocabulary shrinks into the new compressed language, concepts such as freedom no longer exist and hence freedom itself becomes unthinkable. So too with logic: contradictions become the norm and "double think" becomes the weapon of state ideology. Hence, freedom is slavery; war is peace; ignorance is strength. In short, 1984 is a vision of absolute and terrifying state power where war is continuous and "thought crime" makes one an enemy of the state. It is a vision of the future wherein the complete destruction of the human mind and spirit has been achieved. We are left to ponder to what extent Orwell's vision has been realized, as the century comes to a close.

Read a transcript of Manuel's talk.

Read 1984

Rebel's Against the FutureA Luddite Looks at the Next Millenium

Kirkpatrick Sale
Monday, Nov. 3, 7:30 PM, Milam Auditorium

Kirkpatrick Sale is an American nonfiction writer, journalist, editor, and environmental activist. In his non-fiction works, Sale frequently focuses on political, economic and ecological problems of contemporary society, proposing novel -- and often controversial -- solutions. He also explores environmental and sociological issues from both historical and modern perspectives. Born in Ithaca, New York, Sale has published seven books including Human Scale, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, and The Green Revolution. His most recent book, Rebels Against the Future, the Luddites and their war on the Industrial Revolution, lessons for the computer age, will very likely be the basis for his lecture at Oregon State University.

A contributing editor of The Nation, he writes for periodicals here and in Britain and is a board member of The PEN American Center, the E.F. Schumacher Society,and The Learning Alliance of New York City. He now lives in Cold Springs and Manhattan.

"I write my books to help save society and the planet; I'm actually trying to influence the public psychology and policy of this and other industrialized societies, before it is too late...It's very important to me that my books be read, not for reputation or money, but because of what I am trying to do -- influence people in a profound way." ---Kirkpatrick Sale, 1990

Read a transcript of Kirkpatrick's talk.

Plato's Republic 1713 editionPlato's Republic: A Totalitarian Utopia?

Michael Scanlan, William Uzgalis,
Gregory Johnson, Glen Dealy
November 6, Thursday, 4:00 PM, Memorial Union 208


Plato's Republic was clearly one of the sources of inspiration for Thomas More's Utopia. It had been reintroduced to readers in Western Europe in the course of the Renaissance. More and his friends were enormously impressed. Whether it formally qualifies as an instance of that genre, it certainly shares some elements in common with those works which clearly count as Utopias. It seeks to find the best state for human flourishing. It discusses human nature, government, education, the role of wealth in society and many other fascinating topics. Plato's analysis of the best state for human flourishing is grounded in a theory about human nature which makes it clear why that state and not some other is ideal.
Nor was Plato unfamiliar with the problems of politics. He sees problem with his own society clearly, having lived through the Peloponesian War in which his city -- Athens was catastrophically defeated. His uncle Critias, the chief of the thirty tyrants, was killed in the brief civil which drove that terrible government from power.

Our panel will discuss various features of the work which link it with utopian thought and consider how the book might or might not inspire a present day utopian thinker.

Part 1:  Plato and the Republic by Glen Dealy
Part 2:  The Dangers of Utopian thinking and the Republic by Gregory Johnson
Part 3:  Utopia and the Republic by William Uzgalis

Transcendentalism and the Utopian MentalityEmerson

David Robinson
Thursday, November 13, 4:00 PM, Memorial Union 208

"Build therefore your own world," Emerson wrote in his first book Nature (1836), an influential work that opened the New England Transcendentalist movement. His sense that new beginnings were both possible and necessary typified the restless and experimental outlook of the Transcendentalists, who began as religious reformers, but soon engaged themselves in various forms of political activism. The 1830s and 1840s were a period of much utopian theorizing and experimentation in the United States, and two such utopian experiments of the Transcendentalists are particularly notable. In 1841, George and Sophia Ripley established Brook Farm, an agrarian commune dedicated to the blending of intellectual and physical labor, and the construction of a cooperative economic structure for its members. Ripley later led the commune to declare itself a Fourierist Phalanx, adopting the utopian philosophy of Charles Fourier, as expounded by his American disciple, Albert Brisbane. In 1845, Henry David Thoreau established a very different kind of utopian experiment when he moved to a solitary cabin at Walden Pond and began experimenting with a life dedicated to strict economy, solitude, and disciplined study and thinking. His account of his life in the woods, Walden, formulated during the wave of utopian theorizing of this period has become an American literary classic, and continues to be influential in the American environmental movement. But can there be a utopia of one? Is Thoreau's experiment a fulfillment or a repudiation of the hopes for a harmonious community that were expressed but finally not fulfilled at Brook Farm?

Read a transcript of Robinson's talk.

Utopian Visions

David Anderson, Lisa Blasch, Kim Daley, Suzanne Gaulocher
Thursday, November 20 4:00 PM, Memorial Union 208

The OSU Philosophy Department believes that it is vitally important for education that students be involved as active participants in events such as this lecture series.  Thus it is, that the student of Phl 450 IDEAS MATTER are responsible for producing the last event of this series. In this case it is surely appropriate that those to whom the future belongs should have the last word. We look foreward to hearing what their utopian visions will be.

Exclusion and Utopian Thinking by David Anderson
Marcuse's Modern Marxism: Utopia for the Twentieth Century by Lisa Blasch
Elements Of Utopia by Kim Daley & Suzanne Gaulocher