Ever since they were cast out of the Garden of Eden, mankind has been seeking a return to a self-sustaining utopian society based on peace, harmony and communal living. Perhaps at no time in history was this more evident than during the 19th century when hundreds of such societies littered the nation’s landscape, most disappearing within a few years without a trace.
Often led by charismatic leaders with high religious or secular moral ideals, these settlements experimented wildly with different models of government, marriage, labor and wealth. Unfortunately, paradise in the present has always been elusive but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Seekers attempting to leave behind the conventions and restrictions of traditional society have created self-sustaining communities ranging from groups of tofu-making hippies in rural Virginia to expatriates living in treehouses in the Costa Rican rainforest.
So why have they failed? For one thing, the bar is constantly being raised. Life in a modest American home today would have been the envy of the Middle Ages. It seems that humans are not able to maintain a moral, financial or educational equality. People will always want more, or someone else’s toys. Competition is a core human quality of “survival of the fittest.” Any land of milk and honey automatically attracts swords and muskets.
Secondly, although acceptance into these societies is often carefully controlled and outsiders are not welcome, internal power grabs are even more poisonous to utopian dreams than external threats. Utopian leadership based on the model of the “benevolent prince” or “philosopher king” is inherently unstable. There are inevitably factions out of power who are unhappy with things. Charismatic leaders typically do not provide successors with anything like their talents. The competition for succession invariably favors not the wise, but the ruthless.
Finally, ideals are constraints, and the more constraints one tries to impose, the less viable the community will be. Since most religious utopias imposed constraints on the members’ worldly desires, they needed a mechanism for self-selection and, thus, exclusion of non-believers. Over time, however, these constraints become weakened through changes in leadership and outside influences and the lines between the society and the outside world become blurred. In the end, each member must choose his own way.
In my new book, The Stone House Legacy, I will explore this phenomenon in more detail. I will look at the failure of one such settlement through the lens of modern day society. Are we doomed to continue to make the same mistakes in our search for paradise? In James Madison’s view, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.