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Wednesday, July 27, 2005
from toynbee's "study of history
", iv. the growths of civilizations, ix. the arrested civilizations. (4) general characteristics
to arrest the downward movement is the utmost to which most utopias aspire, since utopias seldom begin to be written in any society until after its members have lost the expectation of further progress. hence in almost all utopias -- with the noteworthy exception of that work of english genius which has given this whole genre of literature its name -- an invincibly stable equilibrium is the aim to which all other social ends are subordinated and, if need be, sacrificed.
this is true of the hellenic utopias which were conceived at athens in the schools of philosophy that arose in the age immediately following the catastrophe of the peloponnesian war. the negative inspiration of these works is a profound hostility to athenian democracy. for, after the death of pericles, the democracy has developed a crazy militarism that had brought devastation upon the world in which athenian culture had flourished; and it had capped its failure to win the war with the judicial murder of socrates.
the first concern of the athenian post-war philosophers was to repudiate everything that for two centuries past had made athens politically great. hellas, they held, could only be saved by an alliance between athenian philosophy and the spartan social system. in adapting the spartan system to their own ideas they sought to improve upon it in two ways: first by working it out to its logical extremes and secondly by the imposition of a sovereign intellectual caste (plato's guardians), in the likeness of the athenian philosophers themselves, upon the spartiate military caste, which is to be taught to play second fiddle in the utopian orchestra.
in their condonation of caste, in their penchant toward specialization and in their passion for establishing an equilibrium at any price, the athenian philosophers of the fourth century bc show themselves docile pupils of the spartan statesmen of the sixth. in the matter of caste the thought of plato and aristotle is tainted with that racialism which has been one of the besetting sins of our own western society in recent times. plato's conceit of 'the noble lie' is a delicate device for suggesting that between one human being and another there may be such profound differences as to constitute a distinction like that between one animal species and another. aristotle's defense of slavery is along the same lines. he holds that some men are meant 'by nature' to be slaves, though he admits that in actual fact many are enslaved who ought to be free and many free who ought to be slaves.
in plato's utopias and aristotle's alike (plato's republic and laws and the last two books of aristotle's politics) the aim is not the happiness of the individual but the stability of the community. plato proclaims a ban on poets which might have issued from the mouth of a spartan overseer; and he advocates a general censorship over 'dangerous thought' which has its latter-day parallels in the regulations of communist russia, national-socialist germany, fascist italy and shintoist japan.
the utopian programme proved a forlorn hope for the salvation of hellas, and its barrennes was demonstrated experimentally, before hellenic history had run its course, by the mass-production of artificially manufactured commonwealths in which the main utopian precepts were duly translated into practice. the single commonwealth laid out on a patch of waste land in crete, which is postulated in plato's laws, was actually multiplied a thousandfold in the city states founded by alexander and the seleucidae in partibus orientalium and by the romans in partibus barbarorum during the next four centuries.