“What can we expect from man since he is a being endowed with strange qualities? Fyodor Dostoyevsky asks in his 1864 short story Notes from the basement. “Rain down upon him all earthly blessings, drown him in a sea of bliss, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he has nothing to do but sleep, eat cakes, and attend to the continuation of his species.
“Even then,” Dostoyevsky continues, “out of sheer ingratitude, sheer wickedness, the man would play a bad trick on you. He would even risk his cakes and deliberately desire the most baleful waste, the least economical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his baleful fantasy. It is precisely his fantastic dreams, his vulgar madness that he will want to retain, simply to prove to himself, as if it were so necessary, that men are still men and not piano keys.
When Dostoyevsky wrote these lines, Russian writers were obsessed with the idea of utopias. They wrote histories and treatises in which they envisioned how the increasingly dysfunctional Tsarist empire could be replaced by a society without suffering or conflict. Their vision of the future has captured the imagination of many individuals, from parlor philosophers to armed socialist revolutionaries eager to turn such speculative fiction into political reality.
Dostoyevsky, however, was unimpressed. As the quote above explains, the author of Crime and Punishment and The Karamazov brothers believed that utopias were, by definition, incompatible with human nature, which revolves around freedom. People, he argued, would rather be free in an imperfect world than unfree in a perfect world. As the line between utopias and dictatorships was unclear, the writer also believed that the planning of one would inevitably lead to the creation of the other.
Notes from the basement was not the first text to address this dilemma. The relationship between utopias and human nature has puzzled thinkers for centuries, with different time periods producing conflicting answers. Plato saw no contradiction between the two. These days, thanks in part to the bloody legacy of the Soviet Union and other communist countries, most readers living in the Western world tend to side with Dostoyevsky. But is the author’s conclusion really convincing?
Life Under Plato’s Philosopher Kings
While Plato’s dialogues shaped the development of democracy in Europe and beyond, his ideal society as described in the Republic is hardly democratic. This society is not governed by the popular vote, but by philosopher-kings: leaders who govern by philosophy. Not all members of society are eligible to become philosopher-kings; rather, they are chosen from a ruling elite. Eligibility is not based on strength, wealth or lineage, but on the love of truth and the ability to reason.
“Until the philosophers are kings,” says the character of Socrates to his interlocutors, “or until the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and the power of philosophy… the cities will not rest never of their ills, no, nor the human race, as I believe, and only then will our state have a possibility of life and see the light of day.To modern readers, Plato’s trust in the philosophers may seem myopic and haughty However, the Greek thinker had his reasons.
Subscribe to get counterintuitive, surprising and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday
Plato divided the soul into spirit, body and spirit. Founding a tradition that stretches from Saint Augustine to the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, he considered bodily and spiritual urges like jealousy or lust to be the roots of all evil; these impulses – not to mention the pains they cause – could be corrected by the faculty of the mind: reason. Just as Socrates used philosophy to reveal the benefits of self-control, the philosopher-king is also said to have used philosophy to keep society in perfect balance.
“In Plato’s non-democratic [Republic]“, one article reads, “to ensure justice means that certain elements of the State (as in the soul) obey others. The fiery element both in the soul and in the state (in the soul, anger and pride; in the state, the guardian class of warriors) as well as the appetitive element (in the soul, desires; in the state, merchants and craftsmen) must be subject to the wisdom of the “best” class of people, the philosopher-kings, in whose soul rationality triumphs.
Reason governs all aspects of life in Plato’s Republic, even the production of art. When the Republic goes to war, Socrates says, its poets would not be allowed to write about cowardice because it might soften the resolve of the soldiers. Plato’s distrust of civil liberties may be linked to his experiences with Athenian democracy, a system in which voters were easily won over by demagogues who persuaded them to enter the Peloponnesian War and allow the death of Socrates.
The Republic had a lasting influence on utopian writing in the West. Saint Augustine, author of book 426 city of god, also envisioned a universe in which existence proceeded under the direction of a higher (this time religious) power. Thomas More, who wrote the 1516 text Utopia, inherited Plato’s anti-democratic sentiment; his perfect world abolishes private property, a right that America’s founding fathers would engrave into their country’s constitution centuries later.
Russian utopia before the Soviet Union
Plus and (to some extent) Plato never wanted their utopias to come true; these were thought experiments, not workable models for real diets. This was in stark contrast to 19th-century Russia, a country where books were typically written with real-world aspirations in mind. For this reason, utopian thought has often stood at the forefront of political movements. The Decembrists, who emerged after the sudden death of Tsar Alexander I, are one of the earliest examples.
Like the socialist parties that followed in their footsteps, the Decembrists split into several branches. The more moderate of these branches drafted a constitution that would have transformed Imperial Russia into a federal republic similar to the United States. The underlying idea of this document, according to historians Alexander Riasanovsky and Alvin Rubinstein, was that self-determination – not dictatorship – would lead to peace and prosperity.
Another, more radical branch of the Decembrists formed around the revolutionary figure of Pavel Pestel. In a treatise entitled Russkaya Pravda, Pestel said he believed federalism was “alien to Russia’s historical experience” and would lead to “political disintegration”. His vision for the future of the country was a centralized republic. In this republic, the citizens united under a single banner, language and culture, while the minorities would be forced to choose between Russification or deportation.
Pestel’s utopia, inseparable from national identity, resonated with Slavophiles and Orthodox Christians: determinists who, as Riasanovsky and Rubinstein put it, believed that “Russia’s historical development was unique” and that, ” by virtue of their true faith, [the Russian people] had a superior sense of community responsibility, of the justice of civic duty. Although the Decembrists were crushed in 1825, Pestel and his chauvinistic ideas survive through the current regime of Vladimir Putin.
Vladimir Lenin found solace in socialist writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky, whose 1963 book What is there to do? shows how revolutionary heroes, having freed themselves from tradition and superstition, create a society free from economic exploitation. As for the Soviet Union, communism comes at the cost of individual freedoms; the socialist way of life is the only way of life, and citizens must rotate jobs to ensure everyone gets the same work experience.
Lack of agency is not only a common theme in socialist literature, but also in theory. According to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, history unfolds according to the class struggle: a clash of social forces beyond the control of the individual. The inevitable conclusion to this struggle, the duo declare in their communist manifesto, is an international uprising that will put an end to global capitalism. The average person has as little say in this process as in the governance of Plato’s Republic.
The indifference of freedom
Utopian thinkers throughout history have rarely concerned themselves with free will. It is because they have spent their lives searching for the answer to life’s greatest questions: the secret to lasting happiness, the administration of perfect justice, or, more broadly, the underlying laws of human nature and the universe. They disliked the independence of humanity, which led to chaos and unnecessary bloodshed. Instead, they searched for something – a concept or a principle – that could point them in the right direction.
Plato’s guide was philosophy – a tool that offered insight into the world of Forms. For Saint Augustine, it was the belief in a benevolent and omniscient god. Chernyshevsky, meanwhile, put his faith in the inevitable demise of capitalism. These thinkers were unconditionally devoted to their ideals. Despite this, they did not consider themselves slaves. Quite the contrary, in fact. By serving what they saw as the truth about the world, they believed themselves to be free from lies.
This state of mind is exemplified by the Bolshevik Aleksandr Arosev, who wrote in his diary that he was “in awe of the tenacity, durability and fearlessness of human thought, especially that thought within which – or rather, under which – loomed something larger than thought, something primitive and incomprehensible, something that prevented men from not acting in a certain way, from not feeling the need to act so powerful that even death, if it got in his way, would seem helpless.
History, however, seems to have granted victory to Dostoyevsky. After all, every attempt to create a utopia as described by humanity’s greatest thinkers has ended in failure. Many were disasters in their own right, giving rise to regimes far more destructive and disorganized than those they replaced. But while utopian fiction spawned real-world dystopias, it also inspired readers to think creatively about solving the social problems of their time — and that’s a precious thing.