“Man is wicked only because he mistakes his true interest.”
—Louis Sebastien Mercier, French utopian novelist
It is only by first imagining a better world that we can begin to create it. Right now, in the face of a financial crisis, global warming and myriad human conflicts, a peaceful future may seem distant. But it is worth remembering that out of hard times comes real change. During the French Revolution, utopian novelist Louis Sebastien Mercier wrote, “Force and courage belong to the people of this earth. Happy are the people who, by information or by instinct, seize the crisis.” History is filled with people like Mercier, who dreamed of a better world and tried to create it.
To solve a problem, you must find its root. The root of all human behavior is the human brain. For example, the financial crisis and global warming were both caused by pursuing immediate gains at the cost of future stability. Why do people reach for short-term rewards despite the long-term implications? It may be that over millions of years of evolution, short-term rewards were all we had to look forward to. If a prehistoric hunter killed a deer, it was in his interest to gorge himself, not knowing when and where his next meal would come from. We may have an innate predisposition to take advantage of short-term opportunities. Yet it is our ability to plan ahead that has allowed us to settle inhospitable lands, survive winters, grow harvests and develop into mature societies. All these questions and contradictions are ultimately reflections on the human brain.
Understanding the brain can help us envision a better future. After using our brains for millions of years, it is only in recent history that humans are beginning to understand how they work, and how to use them effectively. When we understand our strengths, we can capitalize on them. When we understand our limitations, we can compensate for them. Just as we may use this knowledge to improve our lives today, we may also use it one day to improve the world.
But what exactly is a “better world”? It’s a question people have been trying to answer for centuries. Myths, novels, political theories and social experiments have all been used, in different times, to explore the notion of a perfect society. They all have something to teach us.
“The progress of the human mind must … annihilate the prejudices that have brought out inequality.”
—Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet, philosopher
The Golden Age
Many legends, spanning many cultures, tell of an early paradise that humanity strayed from or was cast out of. These stories date back as far as the written word, and it is safe to assume much longer, told from mother to child, shaman to tribe, generation to generation, across the ages.
The first existing written account of the Golden Age comes from the eighth century B.C., when the Greek poet Hesiod described a time when people “lived as gods and no sorrow of heart they felt … they feasted gaily, undarkened by sufferings … they died as if falling asleep, and all good things were theirs.”
The great Sanskrit Hindu epic Mahabharata, written in 700 B.C., describes a world where “there were no poor and no rich; there was no need to labor, because all that men required was obtained by the power of will; the chief virtue was the abandonment of all worldly desires. There was no hatred or vanity, or evil thought whatsoever; no sorrow, no fear. All mankind could attain to supreme blessedness.”
Seven centuries later, the Roman poet Ovid told of an age when “the peoples of the world, untroubled by fears, enjoyed a leisurely and peaceful existence, and had no use for soldiers.”
Korean mythology refers to the Mago Age, when “people were pure-minded enough to know harmony, enjoyed an unlimited life span, were full of fresh vigor, drinking the milk of the land and keeping self-control, by which order was maintained.”
The moral is always the same: We had a better world, but we lost it. It is perhaps most well known in the story of Adam and Eve, who lived in a paradise where there was only one rule: Do not eat the fruit of the tree that would “make one wise.” Ironically, it was our hunger for knowledge that got us cast out of Eden. Could knowledge also be what can get us back in?
“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice …”
—Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 360 B.C., the Greek philosopher Plato wrote the first known account of an ideal society in his book The Republic. It is written as a dialogue, with Plato’s teacher Socrates debating how such a society would function. He emphasizes community and a social fabric where people are the guardians of society. Property is communal, so materialism is discouraged and people do not “tear the city into pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’”
Nearly 2,000 years later, in 1516, Sir Thomas More coined the term “utopia” in his book of the same name. On More’s fictional island, people are industrious and efficient, working just six hours a day. Everyone gets a good night’s sleep, and the rest of the time they read, make music and converse. The brain figures prominently in More’s vision of a better world; in fact, the purpose of the Utopian constitution is “to allow people as much time as is necessary for the improvement of their minds, in which they think the happiness of life consists.”
But pleasures in Utopia belong to both the body and the mind. More endorses, “knowledge … the contemplation of truth … joyful reflections on a well-spent life, and the assured hopes of a future happiness.” Utopians also place high value on music and vigorous exercise. Health, More says, is “the greatest of pleasures” because it is “the foundation and basis of all the other joys of life.”
The values More described 500 years ago are being confirmed by brain research today. A positive outlook improves the quality of life. Music is good for your brain. Learning is a process that should continue throughout life. And exercise, mental engagement and community are essential to sustained happiness and health.
Unlike early myths and the promises of religion, More’s Utopia was achieved by men, not miracles. The citizens of Utopia do not serve monarchs, as people did in Thomas More’s time (Henry VIII had More executed in 1535). The Middle Ages were a difficult time to be alive, and perhaps the most radical thing More was saying is that life didn’t have to be suffering. Yet, paradoxically, he named his paradise Utopia, which translates from Greek as “no place,” a pun on eutopia, which means “good place.” Was More suggesting that Utopia could not exist? His detailed, plausible depiction of Utopian society suggests otherwise. Utopia was probably written to affect future minds, and it did.
In a real sense, the idea of utopia (now a noun defined as an ideal and perfect place) forever changed the way we think about the future. After Thomas More, novelists, thinkers and social theorists began to actively map out what this perfect place would look like and how we could create it.