P. Destrée u.a. (Hrsg.): Utopias in ancient thought

Utopias in ancient thought.

Destrée, Pierre; Opsomer, Jan; Roskam, Geert
Beiträge zur Altertumskunde
Berlin 2021: de Gruyter
Anzahl Seiten
309 S.
€ 109,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Marília P. Futre-Pinheiro, Faculdade de Letras/School of Arts and Humanities, Universidade de Lisboa/Lisbon University

The fourteen papers assembled in this volume originated as oral presentations given at an International Conference held in Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve from 10 to 12 March 2016. There are also included other articles which were not presented at the Conference but which were specially written for this collection. The articles are grouped according to literary genres, which include comedy (Sissa and Kidd), history (Lockwood, Atack, Sulimani), myth and philosophy (McConnell), Lucian (Kuin), and philosophy (Annas, El Murr, Hatzistravou, Horn, Husson, Reydams-Schils). The last paper deals with Classical Chinese literature (Engels).

When we talk about utopia, we need to define it. Aristophanes’ Nephelokokkugia, Atlantis, or the Golden Age are not readily comparable with, for example, Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s “City of our Prayers”. Pre-Platonic utopias convey a desire for escape and can be seen as "sentimental idylls", having little in common with critical utopias. Negley and Patrick 1 consider utopia from a political angle. In most cases, political utopias are ideal structures, aiming at revealing the political constitution of an imaginary state. As a literary genre, utopia describes the ideal city or rather, the "myth of the ideal city".2

However, alongside the literary utopian genre there is also a utopian mode3, which we might call utopianism. Whereas the utopian genre is constructive and objective and aims to create a certain type of society, the utopian mode reflects a utopian aspiration and merely alludes to ideal elements. Utopianism can then be defined as a tendency to utopia and an aspiration to happiness. We might characterize utopia as the crystallization of the utopian spirit or utopianism.4 The organizers of this volume do take account of this complex issue, reflected in the title: "Utopias in Ancient Thought".

Sissa focuses on the utopian impulse in comedy (Aristophanes’ Nephelococcygia is a novel polis, located up in the sky) and the parodic subversion of the principles and values on which Athenian democracy is based. Kidd investigates the reasons why dice are a feature of the landscape of Paradise but are erased from the landscapes of utopia, having no place in an ideal society. Kuin focuses on the meta-utopian and humorous aspects of Lucian’s underworld, which is presented as an egalitarian eschatological utopia: wealth or power do not matter, once everybody is equal.

Annas, El Murr, and Hatzistravou address the issue of the practicability of Plato’s ideal city. According to Annas, for the Republic’s main argument it is irrelevant whether the ideal state actually exists or not. Plato’ aim is to make readers reflect critically on their own society. This utopian picture is extended and made more vivid in “the Atlantis story” (recounted in the frame dialogue of the Timaeus/Critias), in which Socrates states that the myth he proposes to relate and which is supposed to represent Athenian imperial history is a dramatization of the city described in Book X of the Republic. According to Annas’ thesis, Plato left it unfinished because he would have discovered how fascinating the dystopia of Atlantis has become to his audience. And that would go against his ethical aims. It is worth recalling that Protagoras, in the dialogue named for him, considers a mythos and a logos on the same theme to be distinct didactic and literary modalities. We might argue, then, that Plato leaves it up to readers to draw their own conclusion: even if utopias and ideal states can degenerate and become dystopias, it is always better to be just than to be unjust. For his part, El Murr defends the thesis that the practicability of the Republic's radical political changes will depend, above all, on the radical transformation of the philosopher's bad reputation in popular opinion (doxa). However, he leaves it open whether he considers the Republic a utopia or not. Hatzistavrou argues that utopian modes have psychological counterparts and considers a utopian model of human agency implausible, if only its epistemic component is taken into account. Plato, Hatzistavrou claims, offers a psychological theory related to the motivational component of the rule of reason, which he calls "utopia within us". On the other hand, does Aristotle's pragmatic view of ethics and morality radically oppose Platonic idealism and should Aristotle therefore be considered as belonging to the group of anti-utopian, realistic thinkers? The answer given by Horn is that the polis κατ ̓ εὐχήν (city of prayer) represents Aristotle's ideal political constitution, that is, one whose normative ideals are framed by ethical and moral values.

Husson and Reydams-Schil examine traces of utopian thought in Hellenistic philosophy. Husson claims that Cynic self-sufficiency (autarkeia) does not involve psychological self-sufficiency and a global rejection of all human relationships, and therefore concludes that utopian thought is not incompatible with Cynicism. Reydams-Schils, while recognizing that there is a clear utopian dimension in Zeno’s Politeia, concludes that “the cosmopolis for the Stoics is always here already, in reality, and so it is not a ‘utopia,’ but rather an ‘everywhere.”

McConnell and Engels explore the myth of the Golden Age in Cicero and in ancient Chine literature, respectively. Cicero, McConnel claims, uses the aurea aetas tradition in his analysis of the Roman res publica in order to show that an identification of the Roman people with the golden age implies that they have the capacity to realise a golden age in the present, just as they did in the past. In turn, Engels uses a comparative approach to establish analogies between Tao Yuanming’s famous utopian tale “The Peach Blossom Source,” and Greco-Roman utopian narratives.

Lockwood, Atack and Sulimani deal with Herodotus, Xenophon and Isocrates, and Diodorus Siculus, respectively. Herodotus’ inclusion in More’s reading list raises the question whether Herodotus is in any sense a utopian political theorist. Lockwood argues that if Herodotus is not a utopian in the sense of offering a blueprint for the radical transformation of society, his reflections on the political and social customs of distant peoples warrants the classification of him as a utopian thinker. Atack analyzes temporality in Xenophon and Isocrates and argues that the manipulation of time in their works is key to the classification of utopias and to later debates on utopian thought. Sulimani explores Diodorus’ descriptions of idyllic islands that are located on the actual map of the world as well as descriptions of real lands and islands that have utopian characteristics. However, the terms “utopia”, “utopian” and “idyllic” are used indiscriminately. Besides, motifs such as nature´s fertility or idyllic descriptions (e.g. pp. 243, 244, 245, 246) are not necessarily essential components of utopia, but are present in other literary genres since Homer. Therefore, to say that “Diodorus considered utopia as part of the real world” (pp. 245 and 250) is misleading. The fact that Diodorus mixes reality and imagination reinforces the fictional component of his Bibliothēkē, which, on the whole, is not necessarily utopian.

All the essays follow a uniform pattern and the subdivision into subheadings helps the reader to follow the exposition and systematize the ideas. It is also worth highlighting the careful use of primary and secondary sources. This volume does not, of course, cover the whole of the complex theme of utopian thinking. However, in the preface, the editors provide an overview of the subject and its background. Also the topic of reception, as a methodological device, or the comparative approach5, could have been used more extensively, as well as the use of new hermeneutical and interdisciplinary analytic tools would have broadened the range of angles with which utopia can be assessed. However, this fact does not detract from the merit of this publication. One of the rare typos detected (e.g. Vidal-Naquet instead of Vidal-Narquet, p. 229) attests to the meticulousness with which the texts were proofread.

In sum, this is a fine collection, offering novel approaches to the idea of utopia and shedding new light on a variety of classical instances.

1 Glenn Negley / J. Max Patrick, The Quest for Utopia. An Anthology of Imaginary Societies, New York 1952.
2 Roger Mucchielli, Le Mythe de la Cité Idéale, Paris 1960 (reimp. Brione, 1982).
3 Raymond Ruyer, L'Utopie e les Utopies, Paris 1950, p. 9.
4 Marília P. Futre Pinheiro, Utopia and Utopias: a Study on a Literary Genre in Antiquity, in: Shannon N. Byrne / Edmund P. Cueva / Jean Alvares (eds.), Authors, Authority, and Interpreters in the Ancient Novel. Essays in Honor of Gareth L. Schmeling [Ancient Narrative Supplementum 5], Groningen 2006, pp. 147–171, p. 148.
5 See, e.g., Paulo Ferreira da Cunha, Constituição, Direito e Utopia, Coimbra 1996.

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