The Constitution of Bliss

Glenn C. Arbery, Ph.D.

Tonight we begin a new series of lectures that, in a way, addresses our general series title-The City of Imagination-for the first time since we started these lectures five years ago. Utopias are nothing if not cities of imagination, or perhaps “invisible cities,” in Italo Calvino’s words. Cities as we now experience them might be longing for what Rainer Maria Rilke says about the Things of earth in his Ninth Elegy:”They want us to change them, utterly, in our invisible heart, / within-oh endlessly-within us! Whoever we may be at last.”

But it seems fitting at the beginning of the series to take a moment considering what the idea of utopia does and does not contain. The word was coined in 1516 by Thomas More as the name of an island regime that he imagined. Why More might begin thinking about this “no place,” which is what the word literally means, with a pun in Greek on “good place,” has a great deal to do with his own time and place. He was responding to the recent discoveries of places in the New World that gave rise to speculations about what human societies might be; in fact, the man who describes Utopia in More’s book is said to have taken three voyages with Amerigo Vespucci. The fact that so many new places and new ways of life were being discovered meant that the given character of the regimes of old Europe was called into question, and it seemed possible all at once to begin to conceive of regimes based on a rational understanding of whatmight be, instead of an inherited set of customs and laws that had come about more or less piecemeal or by happenstance.

The impulse to think in utopias is not altogether different in this respect from what moved the authors ofThe Federalist Papers to urge the people of New York to consider in their first paper “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. “But obviously there is a difference between founding the United States and devising a utopia, and it lies in the fact that the United States Constitution was proposed, out of difficult negotiations, for a real place in a real historical circumstance. As we will surely see later in this series, schemes that we would readily call “utopian” have many times been proposed and attempted historically, even here in Dallas, but I suspect that they were not undertaken as utopian, but as real possibilities. In fact, Alexander Hamilton uses the word “utopian” in Federalist 6 to distinguish sharply between actual and imaginary conditions:

A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations who can seriously doubt that, if these States should either be wholly disunited, or only united in partial confederacies, the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would have frequent and violent contests with each other. To presume a want of motives for such contests as an argument against their existence, would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.

The very character of a utopia in More’s sense, by contrast with the American founding, is that it never existed in any real place and never will, and for this reason it is allowed a certain level of forgetfulness about human nature-allowed, for example, to imagine that under the right circumstances men would notbe ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. In this sense a utopia always reflects the politics of the imagination-but I need to insist that it is an imaginary politics, not a garden realm of earthly delights. A utopia allows its creator to think about the best regime, the best order of external arrangements for an imaginable human happiness, but this very thing makes it ironic when it is posed against actualities, and as a literary form, it usually has some satirical intention.

It would be interesting, though I’m by no means equipped to do it, to consider utopias as they arise out of particular historical circumstances-ancient Greece, medieval Florence, Renaissance England, 19th century England or America, among many others. One of the first might be the land of the Phaiakians in theOdyssey ruled over by King Alkinous and his queen Arete. This is an isolated kingdom particularly close to the gods. Outside the courtyard of Alkinous is a four-acre orchard:

The trees there grow tall,

Blossoming pear trees and pomegranates,

Apple trees with bright, shiny fruit, sweet figs

And luxuriant olives. The fruit of these trees

Never perishes nor fails, summer or winter-

It lasts year round, and the West Wind’s breath

Continually ripens apple after apple, pear upon pear,

Fig after fig, and one bunch of grapes after another.

With such bounty, there’s no need of hard labor. The Phaiakians excel at sailing, but only because they’re particularly dear to the God Poseidon. Their land is a utopia in the sense that it thrives without the pain of ordinary effort, and it contrasts very strongly with the rocky Ithaca where Odysseus lives and with the way of life that he leads-one characterized by endurance, suffering, and hard work. I should distinguish this kind of eu-topia, or good place, from the ones that depend upon a fundamental revision of education and laws. The Phaiakians thrive because they are blessed by the gods, and these blessings have little or nothing to do with their virtues as men. As a result, the excellences of Odysseus far exceed theirs, in the degree to which real-life exceeds fantasy. The Phaiakians represent something like the last temptation of Odysseus, a utopia that would leave him in a comfortable security but rob him of the possibility of real excellence.

There are many other utopias I could mention. Dante’s Paradiso is in a way a utopia, with many ironic references back to contemporary Rome and Florence, and Jonathan Swift certainly presents one in the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels in describing the rational society of talking horses, the Houyhnmhnms. But I want to concentrate on one of the first that imagines a fundamental rethinking of laws-Plato’s Republic. It is certainly a utopia and unquestionably the model for Thomas More’s. Obviously never intended for any real city, the rational Socratic regime presents a way of life in which the passions are moderated by reason under the rule of philosophy. What we might tend to forget about Plato’s ideal city is that it begins by assuming the universal condition of war and therefore the need for a warrior class or, as Socrates describes it, a guardian class. What concerns Socrates in the whole construction of his city in speech is the education of the guardians. As the dialogue progresses, the nature of this guardianship becomes more and more complex until what is truly being guarded is the best order of the soul, which is also the best order of the city.

Plato has been accused of many things, including a taste for fascism or communism, but it is important to recognize the character of this city-in-speech-that is, the fact it is a utopian construct which allows certain things about human nature, particularly human nature in cities, to come to sight. The distinctive features of the regime that he imagines are three:first, a common education for men and women, as though there were no sexual distinctions to be made-a radical innovation at the time; second, the eradication of private property and the private institution of marriage and family in favor of spouses, children, and goods in common; and third, the most startling feature of all, rule of this city by a philosopher-king.

If such a utopia is to succeed and achieve the ends of its guardianship, it must be unified, and the character of this unity arises from the absence of particular ownership or any private passions on the part of every citizen in it. When a citizen of this city in speech thinks mine, every feeling of affection or sense of offense usually attached to that pronoun applies not to his own things but to the city as a whole. Let me pause on this for a moment. The closest approximations to it in real regimes probably come from Sparta and Rome. In his book the Emile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes that “A citizen of Rome was neither Caius nor Lucius, he was a Roman; he even loved his country better than his life.”He also cites two examples of Spartan citizenship:

The Spartan Pedaretes presented himself for admission to the council of the Three Hundred and was rejected; he went away rejoicing that there were three hundred Spartans better than himself. I suppose he was in earnest; there is no reason to doubt it. That was a citizen. A Spartan mother had five sons with the army. A Helot arrived; trembling she asked his news. “Your five sons are slain.” “Vile slave, was that what I asked thee?” “We have won the victory.”She hastened to the temple to render thanks to the gods. That was a citizen.

It is extremely difficult for us to imagine how such sincere identification could be brought about without propaganda or brainwashing. On the other hand, I suspect that no one in this room would consider it ignoble to put aside one’s own interests and think of the good of a larger whole. One of the terms of praise that we use is that someone is acting “for something larger than himself”-in fact, we usually speak of the recognition of something larger as a kind of awakening from selfishness, a re-centering. One of the first projects of the utopian imagination is to begin to address seriously how an even more profound identification can come about between the individual I and this larger whole. For Socrates, it would be impossible without the education that he describes in the early books of the Republic, and at a certain crucial point, everything depends upon what he calls a noble lie:all the young who are being educated are told that everything they think they remember about their formation has been a dream, and that they have just been born from their common mother, the earth of their homeland. They are brothers and sisters from the earth. They did not come to be out of human means or even by human participation, but they have been fashioned by the god and brought forth whole and one from a common heritage, with a common inheritance.

Why is it called a noble lie?It is a lie because it is a fiction of a useful kind associated in the Republic with medicine, something like a placebo; and it is noble or beautiful because of what it makes possible-a kind of harmony otherwise inconceivable.

I don’t want to misrepresent Socrates’ actual teaching by suggesting some sort of radical equality. Here’s what they would actually be told:”All of you in the city are brothers, but the most precious are the ones fit to rule, because when the god formed you at birth he mixed gold into them, silver into the auxiliaries, and iron and bronze into the farmers and craftsmen.”Each generation will be examined for these qualities. How the judgments are made and when they’re made is left obscure in the Republic-Socrates is not imagining practical implementation-but the aim of the noble lie is clearly to present the distinctions in ability as natural ones, not dependent on human decision, and certainly not owing to prior advantages. If differences exist by nature and not by custom or convention, then class envy should not arise, because things will be disposed in such a way that one’s actual place and one’s actual gifts exactly coincide.

As Socrates moves the dialogue toward more and more abstract considerations of the Good, he gives hints about the nature of the turn away from accepted opinion toward the truth in such episodes as the allegory of the cave. His real interest lies in finding the ideal internal regime, the order of the soul consonant with the philosophic life, and he subordinates competitive thumos or spiritedness as well as the appetites, sexual and otherwise, so that the city or the soul can follow the dictates of reason. Reason discerns the ideas underlying appearances-for example, it allows one to think past what is a good in a particular circumstance to the idea of the good that informs all particular instances of goodness. In order for reason to be able to pursue ideas in themselves, however, reason must be free first of self-concern. I cannot stress this enough. In other words, if my interest is, not the truth for its own sake, but saying something in order to look superior to someone else, then I’m not so much reasoning as using reason in a kind of competitive self-promotion. In this respect, I have not subordinated the competitive part of my soul whatsoever. Whether we are talking about a single individual or a city, the middle part of the soul calledthumos is always the problem, because it has most to do with the relation to others. According to Aristotle in the Politics, “it is thumós that causes affectionateness, for thumós is the capacity of the soul whereby we love. A sign of this is that thumós is more roused against associates and friends than against strangers, when it thinks itself slighted. …Moreover it is from this faculty that power to command and love of freedom are in all cases derived; for thumós is a commanding and indomitable element.”When reason comes up against the strong interests of thumos, it tends not to prevail.

In Some Thoughts Concerning Education, John Locke says that from a very early age a child exhibits two passions:the desire for liberty, and the desire for dominion. The passion for dominion first shows up prominently in anything having to do with property, so the trick of education for life in common is finding some way to circumvent the desire to dominate. Locke does it by amply rewarding any kind of generosity; the child finds that being generous is more profitable than trying to hold onto what is one’s own. Rousseau calls this “a usurious liberality which gives an egg to get a cow.”In his educational utopia Emile (in effect a utopia with one citizen), Rousseau centers the problem in what he calls amour-propre, the kind of self-love that always arises in relation to others. Amour-propre always involves what Rousseau calls the “relative I,” whereas the more primitive self-love that he calls amour de soi has no outside or relational reference. The governance of this relative I is clearly what Socrates tries to address with the noble lie, and it is what Thomas More in his Utopia recognizes as the problem of pride:”this vice does not measure happiness so much by its own conveniences as by the miseries of others; and would not be satisfied with being thought a goddess, if none were left that were miserable, over whom she might insult.”The first impulse of pride or selfishness or amour-propre is to try to be first in any situation, and being egotistical as we say-and notice that the Latin ego in egotistical means I (literally, I-tistical)-always involves others. If that’s true, then the first problem in any utopian scheme will be how to overcome this individual self-preference yet somehow also to satisfy the “commanding and indomitable element” in the soul. Concentration on the self, on whatI want as an I, is the first thing that must go, yet this pride cannot simply be excised. I propose that any imaginary politics has to begin with a radical transformation of the I.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, telling a Socratic noble lie to the children of Dallas. What would it serve?The first thing it would address would be differences in birth. Imagine a whole generation in which wealth, race, and social standing would suddenly be meaningless, a generation unencumbered by cultural and familial baggage. All the children of Dallas are born from the Texas earth, let us say, out of the grasslands and the Oak Cliff limestone and the Trinity River bottoms, under a vast sky. Their natures have this absolutely in common. They may look different,as their native earth looks different in places, but they have the same heritage; they are all born from this place and intended exactly for this place, each with a particular purpose. Brought up with a perfect balance of sports and poetry and then told this noble lie, their most ardent ambition is to serve and protect this particular city and no other. Everything that they know about the good comes from the city that grew up in this place, and every impulse of gratitude that they feel, every affection, every movement of righteous anger, has its central focus in Dallas alone, in which they find their own burgeoning identity. The word has little meaning for them outside the meaning of the word Dallas, which signifies not just the visible people and places, not just its laws, but a transcendent unity, a majestic and luminous being whose reality each one feels at the heart, and in which each one participates. Something like this must have been the case in ancient Sparta and Rome.

But to see what Socrates is doing in the Republic, we would need to put this utopian education against the realities of the actual city. What would leap to sight would be all the real problems of dealing with the 166,000 or more students who currently attend classes in DISD. But the central issue remains the same:getting individuals to imagine themselves, not as part of a special group, but as essentially one with the city. Everything we now call identity politics, everything that we now try to address by speaking of multiculturalism and a pluralistic society, is at odds with the kind of vision that Socrates sets forth-and these things certainly existed in his own day under different names. The utopian vision emphasizes unanimity, unity of soul. In the utopian city of the Republic, applied to Dallas, no parents are divorced, no child is abused, no one feels a divided loyalty between this country and another, no one struggles between two languages, no one feels the effects of a racial heritage or a particular cultural way of seeing things, because all come from the same ground, all have the same roots.

What I want to do for a few minutes is to imagine the outcome of this vision some hundreds of years from now as a way of getting at the construction of the utopian I. I want to do this by conceiving a utopian society in D, an international city which has at its core a community of 500 called Bliss occupying 700 acres of parklands carefully restored to their natural condition-native grasses and trees, for example, all the original springs and watercourses, and so on. The city rises around it, separated from Bliss by a great wall. The means of access are hidden from all but a few. With rare exceptions, no one ever comes to Bliss before the age of 28 or stays beyond the age of 70; at any given time, at least half of the members of the community are in their early thirties, but regardless of when they come, they live there continuously for four years, with no access of any kind to the world outside. The 125 new inhabitants each year, once chosen, are transported to it in their sleep underground, and they wake among the others on the first Sunday morning following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. In very rare instances, someone might return after leaving, and a very few-those most essential to the continuity of Bliss-might remain there for life. They live very simply in tents or in simple buildings; they eat in common at the expense of the city of D, which supports it in every respect; and they live under a set of laws called the Constitution of Bliss.

The first law is that the pronoun I will never be spoken. In its place is the word Bliss, which is both the proper name of the community and the only first person pronoun. The purpose of this law is to habituate every member of the community of Bliss to think in terms of the whole. Each time anyone speaks in the first person he or she must do so by considering whether the statement is true for Bliss. Private bodily needs and desires are simply never spoken. No one says, for example, Bliss is thirsty, or Bliss needs to go to sleep. These things one simply acts upon. On the other hand, everyone in the community feels the obligation to take seriously other thoughts or feelings, since each individual is part of the whole by necessity. Each one speaks for Bliss in this sense. For example, someone might say, Bliss thinks that a landscape needs some point of focus in order to become fully present, and someone else might say, Bliss believes that a landscape contains many perspectives and no single point of focus. Each is speaking the truth, since the mind of Bliss is complex, not necessarily unified in a single thought, but containing many thoughts in tension in a dynamic whole. What Bliss thinks at any given moment is kaleidoscopic, yet one, contained by Bliss and always changing. Each person understands himself or herself to have the whole dignity of the mind of Bliss. Each person thinks in Bliss, as Bliss.

The second law is that to be in Bliss one must think constantly of the good, both in itself and in every particular circumstance one encounters, with one stipulation- that nothing limited to the satisfaction of a bodily need can ever be considered as a good. Individual bodily states are not considered part of the mind of Bliss, with the exception of injury or illness, in which case healing of the particular body is considered good, since injuries or illnesses hurt the whole mind of Bliss. Otherwise, bodily satisfactions are neutral at best, and they do not rise to the dignity of the good for which the first person pronoun Bliss might be appropriate. On the other hand, one might say, Bliss proposes a blue jay feather separated at mid-vane and ruffled against the lie or grain of the barbs-the stiffly yielding flexion on the thumb. This is obviously an individual experience, but it leads to a further inquiry into the good, and therefore it is entirely appropriate. Depending on the circumstances, the proposal might be taken metaphorically, in which case the conversation might end up being a discussion of habit-what the good of the usual lie or grain of things might be, and what good might emerge from the tension of going against anything habitual or customary. Or it might lead into a conversation on the natural construction of good wings, on the barbules and barbicels that hook feathers together, on the natural fitness of bodies to the elements they inhabit, on the good of particular adaptations for flight, and so on.

The custom of saying “Bliss proposes” at first seems formal, but it quickly becomes habitual. It is essentially invitational:something is being proposed as part of the ongoing inquiry into the good, and it can be taken up or not by Bliss. I should also mention that things are rarely proposed on the spot of an observation or insight. Proposals or propositions are always made at a meal or in one of the conversations arranged with liturgical regularity through the day. Otherwise the inhabitants of Bliss maintain silence. In conversations, verbal accuracy is much prized, and a great deal of thought goes into exact wording. But in general, the great effect of the second law of Bliss is that it holds open every question to more than the facts of a situation; one is always seeking what is good in things, as evidence of what is good per se, and the habit of discernment becomes extraordinarily acute.

Bodily satisfactions could also lead into further inquiries, of course, and such inquiries are encouraged as part of the unspoken meditation on the good, but they are considered too dangerous to voice since their basic referent tends to be a particular body. If someone were to say, for example, Bliss thinks this salad is excellent, as newcomers sometimes do, the others would at first look away in acute embarrassment. But then some experienced person would quickly change the subject, as though nothing had happened.

Bliss proposes, she might say, that it is better to choose the right thing without a mediating concept of right than with one.

There would be a pause, and then someone would respond, How can that be, Bliss wonders, unless it is better to act unconsciously than consciously?

Someone else would say, Perhaps it is best when what is at first conscious becomes unconscious, which is what we mean by “second nature.”Bliss remembers the lines from Alexander Pope:”True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, / As those move easiest who have learned to dance.” In this way, the embarrassment of dangerous self-reference in naming the good would be circumvented.

The third law is that the good per se should never be named, even as “the good per se,” since to name it would imply that it could be brought before the mind as an object. This law takes the longest to master, and it is rivaled in difficulty by the fourth, which is that nothing can be produced in Bliss in any lasting form. Buildings, for example, or paintings or sculptures can be proposed in speech, but not made. Original poems-sometimes very long ones-can be composed orally and presented as proposals for conversation, but they may not be written down. Music can be composed and sung, and others can even be trained in it, but no instruments can be used, and it can never be written down. Sometimes the whole of Bliss sings so beautifully that D falls silent around it. Memory in Bliss becomes remarkably capacious. There are other laws, but I am forbidden to repeat them, and there are also the so-called protocols of departure. Those leaving Bliss must spend three months working in menial positions before being reincorporated into their former lives. For the first year after they leave, their official records will indicate that they have been in prison, and they must suffer the effects of this misapprehension. After a year, their records will be changed, and they will begin to be eligible for positions of leadership. They cannot talk about the experience except with other former participants, and then only indirectly, in the context of decision-making.

The relation of D to Bliss is of course extremely complex. This closed community at the center of the larger city, this hidden place present behind its great wall, occupies the consciousness of every inhabitant. It becomes part of the configuration of every psyche-an orientation toward the mysterious center. Young children speculate about it from the time that they’re old enough to talk. Rumors about it circulate with great frequency, some of them wild-usually about nudity or Dionysian revels or parachutists set upon and torn to pieces-but some of them are accurate enough to alert those who really want to know about its nature. No one can go there without being chosen, no one knows who does the choosing, and it is by no means a matter of indifference whether one is chosen or not:only those who have been in Bliss can hold public office or any position of leadership or public influence in D. Sometimes this is considered extremely repressive. No young architect, for example, can have his plans realized in an actual building unless he has been in Bliss.No artist can exhibit, no filmmaker have her work shown, no one be promoted to executive levels of corporations, no one be named a judge, and so on, unless they have been in Bliss.

But this is the absolute law, without exception. All ambition, in other words, must be filtered through Bliss, but the ambition to be in Bliss is not enough to get there, especially if it is desire for the wrong reason.Everyone recognizes after a certain point that Bliss is inaccessible to ambition of the usual kind.Whoever makes the choices-and this is always mysterious-favors those who pursue things for their own sakes, not for competitive advantage.No one who habitually thinks of himself in competitive comparisons would ever be admitted.

The consequences of the central presence of Bliss are therefore enormous.It has become unthinkable in D to carry out any public project simply to rival some other city or to garner business advantages or to raise the city’s profile.Since all positions of leadership are occupied by those deeply habituated to think in terms of the good and extremely precise in thinking through its subtleties, D is perhaps the world’s most beautiful and livable city, but it does not think of itself in terms of comparisons.The city as a whole has put aside civic amour-propre, in the usual sense.It thinks as much as possible as one, and it concerns itself entirely with what is best for D, in constant reference to Bliss.

The government of D depends upon Bliss, not only for those who occupy its offices and form its habits, but in another respect as well.Once a year, D is given its annual directive by a conclave of the 125 about to depart from Bliss. This comes in a single saying from which the propositional form-Bliss proposes-has been excised, which means that it is mandated for civic conversation.These sayings usually have no apparent relation to the problems facing the city, but for the year in which they are given, they are at the heart of every decision made.For example, one year D received this one:the last long pod of summer, swinging on a bare catalpa branch, still unfallen in early March.Meditation on it led to resignations by a number of leaders who had been in office too long, to reforms in health care for the elderly, to a new system of archiving in the city’s main database, and to several design breakthroughs in public lighting, hammocks, and sleeping bags.

At this point, the question, of course, is how to get back out of this Utopia of mine, and I will take sleeping bags as my cue.I propose the Constitution of Bliss in part because I wanted to try to explore what the utopian imagination does, particularly with respect to the “relative I.” What’s strange-I admit this candidly-is the way that I find myself drawn into imagining it and worrying about details, because constructing it makes it feel like my property or my child, and I find myself wanting to be its defender or guardian.I start comparing my utopia to others, and I find myself wanting to downplay influences from Calvino or Borges:thumos all over the place.That might be a key to one of the questions we should ask about utopias and their origins-what kinds of pride might arise from inhabiting a city where a collective or communal Idisplaces the individual one, especially in the context of those not in it. The Phaiakians considered themselves the best at everything, until Odysseus, who had seen so many cities of men, proved otherwise.These are serious questions, exactly the kind that utopias as an imagined politics help us see. In the meantime, until they’re resolved, I’m thinking-just as a precaution-of putting some high quality razor wire on top of the walls of Bliss.

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