Mark Danner

Dreaming Utopia: The Theory and Practice of Ideal Worlds

HR 230
Monday 1:30PM — Kayden Center 101
Tuesday 1:00PM — Kayden Center 102
Mark Danner
Since Plato and before, writers and thinkers have conjured pictures of ideal society and contrasted these glittering dreams with the reality they found around them. Such “utopias” – or “no places,” to use the word coined by Sir Thomas More nearly two millenia after Plato – served as a philosophical critique of the present and millenarian aspiration for the future, and, in the hands of some more ambitious, charismatic and sometimes ruthless dreamers, as a model for radical social experiments in the here and now. In this class we will study some of the landmark works in the history of utopia and dystopia, including writing by More, Owen, Fourier, Marx, Bellamy, Welles, London and Orwell, and examine the provocative and sometimes catastrophic embodiment of the utopian ideal in the so-called “real world” (from the Oneida Community and Jonestown to the Soviet Gulags, the reeducation camps of Pol Pot and the New Caliphate of the Islamists).



Requirements. This is a discussion course about politics. Its method is simple: read a book a week, sometimes two; come to class prepared to talk about them. Or, in schematic form, the requirements are:
1.   Attend class
2.   Come Prepared
3.   Take Part

Apart from this, a final paper taking up some of the themes and works discussed in the class will be due on December 8. A short paragraph setting out the theme or subject of the final paper will be due on November 18.

Course Grading. Grades awarded for the course will be based on attendance, class participation and the quality of the written work.

Required Reading and Editions.  Please use the editions specified in the list below. I would strongly urge you to purchase the required texts, from the Bard Bookstore or elsewhere; but in any event do make sure you read the required texts in the particular editions indicated.


Required Reading


Sir Thomas More, Utopia (1516)

Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis (1627)

Plato, The Republic (c. 360)

Aristophanes, The Birds (c. 416)

Sir Henry Neville, The Isle of Pines (1668)

Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism (1759)

Crane Brinton, Anatomy of Revolution (1945)

Edmund Wilson, To The Finland Station (1940)

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (1848)

Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Children (1862)

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From the Underground (1863)

Charles Norduff, American Utopias (1875)

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1887)

William Morris, News From Nowhere (1890)

Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940)

Richard Lourie, The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin (1999)

David Chandler, Brother Number One: A Biography of Pol Pot (1999)

David Chandler, Voices from S-21 (1999)

Claeys and Sargent, The Utopia Reader (1999)


Recommended Reading

John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007)

Russell Jacoby, Future Imperfect: Utopia Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (Columbia, 2005)

Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopias (Viking, 1962 [1922])


Syllabus for Fall 2008
*With a Few Class Notes by Course Assistant Abigail Napp

September 2  Utopia: An Introduction


          – The Here-and-Now Struggle Over Utopia: Michelle Obama’s Utopian Analysis of 
                Barack’s Politics (Michelle’s Convention Speech).
          – The Roots of Utopia.
          – The Word and How We Got It. 
          – Definitions: Utopia, Revelation, Millenial, Apocalyptic, Chialistic.
          – Utopia and the Unveiling
          – Utopia and the End of Time.
          – The Religious Structure of Progressive and Radical Politics
          – Secular Utopias and the Coming of Modernity


          The Plan of Our Inquiry. Course Requirements. Mutual Introductions.

September 9  Thomas More, Utopia (Norton, 1992 [1516])
Discussion Themes:
– Hythloday, Rafael as a creation of Puns
– Critique of counselors
– Reaction to Enclosure, Idleness, and Private Property

September 15  Francis Bacon, “The New Atlantis” (1627) in Three Early Modern Utopias (Oxford, 1999)

Essays from Utopia (Norton Edition):
Amerigo Vespucci, “The First Voyage”
“The Humanist Circle: Letters” (Peter Giles et al)

Discussion Themes:
– Utopia as a Critique of Present
– Law in society
– Communism/uniformity in the Bible (Chapter Four Acts of the Apostles) and Plato                    (myth of Guardians)

September 16  Francis Bacon, “New Atlantis” (1627) and “Background” Essays From Claeys and Sargent (eds.), The Utopia Reader (NYU, 1999), p 87-104.

Discussion Themes: Bacon as First Science Fiction Utopia
– Bacon’s Four Idols of the Mind-man holds the power to change the world through
science and knowledge
– Salomon’s house  a research institution
– “twice paid”   Bacon’s critique of corruption
– The “tirsan” title shows the rigid patriarchy and hierarchical aspect of society with its
goal of expansion of power

September 22  Aristophanes, The Birds, (Penguin, 2003 [c. 414 BC]) and
The Utopia Reader p. 6-71: Utopianism Before Thomas More:

The Golden Age:
Hesiod,  Works and days
Ovid, Metamorphosis
Virgil, Fourth Eclogue

Earthly Paradises:
Genesis, “The Garden of Eden”
Pindar, “The Elysian Fields,”
Horace, “Islands of the Blest,” Epode 16

The Middle Ages: Eden, Dracontius
The Land of Prester John

The Lawgivers: Plutarch, “Solon,” “Lycurgus”

Utopias and Utopian Satires:
Plato, “Republic”
Aristophanes, “Ecclesiazusae”
The Prophets, Isaiah

Hellenistic Utopias:
Iambulus, “Heliopolis”
Lucian, “Saturnalia”

The Millennium: “The Revelation of St. John,” Il
Monasticism, “The Rule of St. Benedict,” “The Rule of St. Francis”

The Cockaigne: Telecleides, Cockaigne

Discussion Themes:
– The impact of the “New Atlantis” – 2001 Space Odyssey metaphor
– Man becoming like the Gods, or Shiva “Death and Destroyer of Worlds”
– Limits of the scientific view- Global warming as a sign of the Earth fighting back
– The “Golden Age” as a cultural commodity

September 23  Plato, The Republic (Basic, 1991 [c. 360 BC])

MAKE UP CLASS- 6:30-7:50 Aspinwall 302

Discussion themes:
– 1st Century AD – a critique of Plato’s own time
– Spring and its relationship to fertility and the “new”
– Genesis as a counter monotheistic story to the polytheistic Babylonian creation story
(more centered around Nature)

September 30  Plato,The Republic and Aristophanes, The Birds (Penguin, 2003 [c. 414 BC])

Discussion Themes:
– “The Assembly women”
– “Communist state” all property held in common and women’s role.

October 6  Plato, The Republic

“Interpretive Essay” on Plato by Allen Bloom
“Cockaigne” essays in Norton edition of Utopia and Utopia Reader
Henry Neville, “The Isle of Pines,” (1668) in Three Early Modern Utopias (Oxford, 1999)

Discussion Themes:
The Republic
– Influence of Plato on Utopian genre (criticism of Karl Popper of Plato’s Utopia as class-
based, eugenics-based and fascist)
– Plato’s causes of war; Plato’s idea of an ideal state having qualities of temperance,
living within one’s means; disinterested ruling class; elimination of faction/political
turmoil by eliminating powerful families and ordering class by their function in society;
– Essences, Inheritance, and Justice 1668 “Pornutopia” or Isle of Pines
– Plot includes geographical trope, shipwreck and land of plenty; George the
Bookkeeper lives a “nerd’s fantasy”
– Treatment of Phillipa and black children
– Story serves as an aria for Arcadia and Genesis story – Eden then decay. Also,
operates as an allegory of failed Colonialism.

October 7  Henry Neville, “The Isle of Pines” and Voltaire, Candide (Norton, 1991 [1759])

Norton Background Essays
Voltaire’s poem, “Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne ”

Discussion Themes:
– a picaresque and a conte philosophique
– 18th century intellectuals’ framework for evil without religion; “for the best and the best
of all possible worlds”- Liebniz and social optimism (which Voltaire ridicules)
– Qualities of El Dorado – anti-clerical, limited freedoms, Western riches are devalued
(think More and Plato)
– Conclusion: man has been exiled from the garden – recovery from the fall comes
through work

[Fall break]

October 20 Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution (Vintage, 1965 [1945])

Discussion Themes:
– “Bliss was it then to be alive, but to be young was very heaven” Wordsworth, from The
Prelude, 1789
– Revolution situated on the map of History and Out-Of-History: First, the Golden Age; the
Fall plunges Man Down to the Quotidian World (Vulgar History); only Revolution
(reversing the Fall) can take him back up to Utopia (the achieved Golden Age)

MAKE-UP CLASS  8 pm Aspinwall 302

Discussion Themes:
– Utopia in relation to our time and the current election

October 21 Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution and Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station (New York Review Books, 2003 [1940])

Discussion Themes:
– How do we make a revolution?
– Recipe for revolution 1.) Mass hysteria/mass enlightenment  2.) Propaganda of the
deed/backlash etc.
– Lenin, “What is to be done?”
– Change, Reform and Property, and Restoration of old ideas

October 27 Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Norton, 1988 [1848]) and The Utopia Reader p 182-227 including:

The Nineteenth Century: Communal Societies as Utopias
Frederick William Evans, ¨The Shaker Compendium¨;
“The Millennial Laws,” “Shaker Covenant”
“Amana or the Community of True Inspiration,” “The Twenty-One Rules”
Oneida, “System of Criticism””
Charles Fourier, “Selections Describing the Phalanstery,”
American Fourierism: Albert Brinsbane, “Association”
Charles Henri de Saint-Simon, ¨Sketch of a New Political System¨
John Adolphus Etzler, ¨The Paradise within Reach of all Men¨
Robert Owen, ¨The Book of the New Moral World¨
Ettienne Cabet,¨ Voyage to Icaria¨

Discussion Themes:
– Evolution of Obama’s language to current post-partisan rhetoric (Utopian)
– Making peace with the horrors of Capitalism,
– Fourier’s influence on Marx; Marx vs. Hegel: history as a motive force; what pushes
history forward?
– St. Simon and Marx’s treatment of class conflict

October 28   Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto and The Utopia Reader p 182-227

Supplementary (optional) reading: Allison’s recommendation: The German Worker found under Reserveweb and Norton Edition Essays in The Communist Manifesto

Discussion Themes:
– Marx said little about the mechanics of revolutions and classless society; argument
– His pamphlet as the precursor to many revolutions that ended in totalitarian regimes
– Optimistic view of the future- capitalism evolve to bring about a class-conflict and

November 3  No Class– ELECTION WEEK, GO O!

November 4  No Class– ELECTION WEEK, GO O!

November 11  Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (Norton, 1995 [1862]), Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground (Norton, 2001 [1863]) and Charles Nordhoff, American Utopias (Berkshire House, 1993 [1875])

Discussion Themes:
– Critique of reform and incremental change vs destruction
– Creation and undermining of Bazarov
– Definition of Spite

November 17 Turgenev, Fathers and Sons, Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground and Charles Nordhoff, American Utopias

MAKE UP CLASS- 9 pm  Kaden, Pizza

Discussion Themes:
– Dostoevsky’s view of human nature, the impossibility of utopia, critique of social
– Nordhoff’s concern with the threat/impact of unions and organized labor

November 18 Turgenev, Fathers and Sons, Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground and Charles Nordhoff, American Utopias 

November 24 Turgenev, Fathers and Sons, Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward 2000-1887 (Oxford, 2007 [1887]) and William Morris, News From Nowhere (Penguin, 1994 [1890])

Recommended: Dostoevksy’s Demons and Hamburg Cell (film)

Also: Bring copies of your paper proposal and select your favorite Utopia from Nordhoff’s book.

MAKE UP CLASS- 9 pm Kaden 200. Screening of “Jonestown: A Life and Death of The Peoples’ Temple” (American Master Series, PBS documentary 2007). Chinese Food.

Discussion Themes:
– Generational conflict: liberals of the ’40s vs. Bolsheviks of the ’60s
– Questioning (or not) rationality in human character
– Nietszche on Dostoevsky “frightening how well he knows himself” — power of
recognition in fiction

November 25  Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward and “Jonestown: A Life and Death of Peoples Temple”

Discussion Themes:
– Jonestown impact- adoption, racial issues, care for the elderly, Uciah
– “Post-Marxist” Utopia of Julian West’s world, mass industrialization and nationalization

December 1 William Morris, News From Nowhere, Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward and  “Review of Looking Backward” in Penguin edition of News From Nowhere.

MAKE UP CLASS- 9 pm RKC 200.

Discussion Themes:
– Two future worlds and Utopian romances, one reacting to the other.
– Rural, Holistic ideal of art and craftsmanship and fulfillment through work-Morris
– Morris and Bellamy’s opposing views on labor and production within the state

December 2 The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin (Da Capo, 1999) and Michael Pollan’s “Open Letter to the Farmer in Chief” (New York Times Magazine, 2008)

December 8  Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940)

December 9  CCS film screening and skype discussion with Andy Bichlbaum , “Barthesian Filmicity and the Nugatory Dilemma” at CCS…THE YES MEN! Accessed here: and

December 15  PAPER DUE (12-15 pages) Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

Discussion Themes:
– Are the Yes Men true to their methodology? Is awareness enough?
– Revolutionary faith becomes a nation’s morality
– The interesting equation- Marx and Utopia traditions…Pol Pot and dedicated

December 16  David Chandler, Voices from S-21 (California, 1999), David Chandler, Brother Number One (Westview, 1999)

Discussion Themes:
– Pol Pot’s secret Regime
– The horrible climax of “the end justifies the means” in revolutionary change
– Can the liberal model be adapted to a Utopia and thus achieve equality while
maintaining the same degree of freedom and creativity?

Recommended texts for later study of Utopia: Dostoevsky, Demons (1872); Turgenev, First Love (1860)

Recommended films: Roland Joffe, “The Killing Fields” (1984), Mick Jackson, “A Very British Coup” (1988), Gillo Pontecovro, “Battle of Algiers” (1966), John Sayles, “Matewan” (1987), Martin Ritt, “The Molly Maguires” (1970)