Towards dusk, after a heavy rainfall, I am walking past a woodlot burned over a year ago by a brushfire. A sudden cracking noise and I see a large cluster of blackened branches crash to the earth. “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, is there a sound?” Suddenly (a little sheepishly) I realize the import of this old philosophical question. If “I” am not here, does the universe go on? The sound in the forest — any sound — is a frequency wave of energy that depends on the creature for aural interpretation. Otherwise, there is a profound silence. And this silence is the silence of the universe, palpable and real, as real as any “sound,” real regardless of whether the little wave on the sea called “I” is present to heard its sound and fury.
Utopias are literary and creative brainstorms, imaginative sketches of how the world and society ought to be. Reading early works such as More, Campanella, or Bacon, we smile in recognition of our own society’s obsession with contrivances and the preservation of wealth and production through power and authority. These authors had found literary devices to criticize contemporary values under the guise of presenting amusing speculative fiction. Putting the description of Utopia in the mouth of a Portuguese sailor, for example, gives More the freedom to say what he wants without the necessity of advocating his own ideal scenarios to be forced upon unenlightened society. This was the mistake of Plato, whose utopian Republic would depend upon power and authority to establish virtue, whereas the later utopias would not.
The night is still and dark but for the circle of light on the page of the open book. A moth hovers while I read under the small lamp. For a moment, it perches on my hand, a delicate tawny yellow, like burnished gold. In another moment it is gone. Next morning, just at dawn, the first rays of sunlight dance along the edge of the window curtain. The flickering light crosses the spot where I was reading last night, and for a moment the light touches my hand. The light is a delicate tawny yellow, like burnished gold.
Utopias are conceived as alternatives to the overwhelming control of power and authority. The premise of every utopia is the innate decency of each person given freedom from the socialization of a society controlled by power and authority. This control is seldom understood or even acknowledged by the average person, taken as a necessary given to maintain civilization, to keep people from being “nasty, brutish, and short,” to quote Hobbes. These average people are, as Seneca said, bound by golden chains, just as firmly as if the chains were coarse iron, but the gold gives them the illusion of being autonomous and content. Power and authority feeds the illusion of contentment through the marketplace of material goods and pleasures. As the goods and pleasures become “necessities,” so too does the power and authority that perpetuates them and perpetuates their captivity.
What utopias — or those who conceive them — try to sketch for us are challenges to the premises of society. The premises that humans are innately evil and that superfluous material goods and power structures to maintain them are essential are serious delusions. To shake off these delusions is the first step of the solitary. The solitary, just by following his or her own disposition, is prepared to understand these issues. The solitary is disposed to understand that what is vital need not be and cannot succeed as mere contrivance, however vast. The solitary lives in a kind of utopia, which literally means “no place.” Where better to begin?
Poverty is deprivation of material necessities (food, clothing, shelter), but a cultural or spiritual poverty also exists: deprivation of self-expression, autonomy, self-development. Historical hermits from Asia to the European forests have always been willing to cope with material poverty, setting themselves physically outside the zones of power and authority centered in cities. The corollary poverty of soul and person has been the more urgent concern. The poor in the world suffer deprivation of self the more keenly because of abuse, manipulation, and control by authority and power. But the better off suffer spiritual poverty from the same sources of authoirty and power. In urban settings or in today’s modern nation-state, the surveillance by authority makes escape to deserts and mountains less plausible to solitaries, so that fleeing into material simplicity is still not an issue. But the control of the minds and hearts of people through consumerism and various addictions of soul and mind (as well as body) is ubiquitous. This form of poverty is often not material deprivation at all. It is a poverty that leaves the individual destitute of purpose, regardless of material circumstances. The hermits of the past knew that it was essential to flee spiritual deprivation even at the price of material poverty.