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Utopianism

Utopianism refers to various social and political movements, and a significant body of religious and secular literature, based upon the idea of paradise on earth. See Utopia.

Various conceptions of past and future paradise

I

In many cultures, there is some myth or memory of a distant past when humankind lived in a primitive and simple state, but at the same time one of perfect happiness and fulfillment. In those days, the various myths tell us, there was an instinctive harmony between man and nature. Men's needs were few and their desires limited. Both were easily satisfied by the abundance provided by nature. Accordingly, there were no motives whatsoever for war or oppression. Nor was there any need for hard and painful work. Humans were simple and -- with the exception of the Land of Cockaygne (see below) -- pious, and felt themselves close to the gods.

These myths of the earliest stage of humankind have been referred to by various names, as the following examples will demonstrate:

[...] Men neither bought nor sold; there were no poor and no rich; there was no need to labour, because all that men required was obtained by the power of will; the chief virtue was the abandonment of all worldly desires. The Krita Yuga was without disease; there was no lessening with the years; there was no hatred or vanity, or evil thought whatsoever; no sorrow, no fear. All mankind could attain to supreme blessedness. [...]

Aurea prima sata est aetas, quae vindice nullo
sponte sua, sine lege fidem rectumque colebat.
Poena metusque aberant [...]

Originally a region in the Peloponnesus, Arcadia became a synonym for any rural area that serves as a pastoral setting, as a locus amoenus ("delightful place"):

[...] Does not the pleasantness of this place carry in itself sufficient reward for any time lost in it, or for any such danger that might ensue? Do you not see how everything conspires together to make this place a heavenly dwelling? Do you not see the grass, how in color they excell the emeralds [...]? Do not these stately trees seem to maintain their flourishing old age, with the only happiness of their seat being clothed with a continual spring, because no beauty here should ever fade? Doth not the air breathe health which the birds (both delightful both to the ear and eye) do daily solemnize with the sweet consent of their voices? Is not every echo here a perfect music? And these fresh and delightful brooks, how slowly they slide away, as, loath to leave the company of so many things united in perfection, and with how sweet a murmur they lament their forced departure. Certainly, certainly, cousin, it must needs be, that some goddess this desert belongs unto, who is the soul of this soil, for neither is any less than a goddess worthy to be shrined in such a heap of pleasures, nor any less than a goddess could have made it so perfect a model of the heavenly dwellings. [...]

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. [...]

And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. [...]

And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; [...] And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; and the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

  • The Land of Cokaygne:

The Land of Cokaygne [also spelled Cockaygne or Cockaigne] (in the German tradition referred to as Schlaraffenland) has been aptly called the "poor man's heaven", being a popular fantasy of pure hedonism and thus a foil for the innocent and instinctively virtuous life that is depicted in all the other accounts mentioned above. Cockaygne is a land of extravagance and excess rather than simplicity and piety. There is freedom from work, and every material thing is free and available. Cooked larks fly straight into one's mouth; the rivers run with wine; sexual promiscuity is the norm; and there is a fountain of youth which keeps everyone young and active.

There is a medieval poem (c. 1315) written in rhyming couplets which is entitled "The Land of Cokaygne":

Far in the sea, to the west of Spain,
Is a country called Cokaygne.
There's no land not anywhere,
In goods or riches to compare.
Though Paradise be merry and bright
Cokaygne is of far fairer sight.
In Paradises's happy bowers,
They've only grass and trees and flowers,
Though they've joy and pleasure great,
There they've only fruit to eat;
There's no boudoir, hall nor bench
And water only, thirst to quench.
[...]
There is no quarrelling or strife
Nor is there death, but lasting life;
[...]
There's no fly, no flea, no louse
In clothes, in town, in bed, in house;
There's no thunder, sleet or hail;
Nor any filthy worm, or snail;
[...]
There are rivers broad and fine
Of oil and honey, milk and wine;
Water serves there for no thing
But looking at or washing in.
[...]
The larks, so tasty to every youth,
Flutter gently to man's mouth,
Cooked in a stew, upon the stove,
Flavoured with cinnamon and clove.
[...]
When the summer's day is hot
The young nuns get themselves a boat
And launch it out and make it shudder
So fast they handle oars and rudder.
When they are safely behind the bluff
And hidden, they quickly strip to the buff
.
They slip down into the waters brimming
And happily pass their time in swimming.
When the young monks cast their eye
On this, they get up fast and fly
And reach the nuns' pool at the run.
Then each and every monk takes one
And quickly carries off his prey
As far as his fine and great abbey
And teaches the nuns an orison
With jigging up and jigging down.
[...]

II

All these myths also express some hope that the idyllic[?] state of affairs they describe is not irretrievably and irrevocably lost to mankind, that it can be regained in some way or other.

One way would be to look for the earthly paradise -- for a place like Shangri-La[?], hidden in the Tibetan mountains and described by James Hilton in his Utopian novel Lost Horizon (1933). Such paradise on earth must be somewhere if only man were able to find it. Christopher Columbus followed directly in this tradition in his belief that he had found the Garden of Eden when, towards the end of the 15th century, he first encountered the New World and its peoples.

Another way of regaining the lost paradise (or Paradise Lost, as 17th century English poet John Milton calls it) would be to wait for the future, for the return of the Golden Age. According to Christian theology, man's Fall from Paradise, caused by man alone when he disobeyed God ("but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it"), has resulted in the wickedness of character that all human beings have been born with since ("Original Sin") and, consequently, in the mediocre world full of crime and vice we are still living in. But of course Christians have something to look forward to, a future that is radically different from, and much better than, the here and now. In other cultures and religions, there are similar beliefs.

See also: Millennialism



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