by Steve Mizrach
This Utopianism would not fade during the Enlightenment, although perhaps its roots might change. As reports of the native Americans showed them (read: constructed them) to be everything Europe was not but wished it was - free of guile, deception, disingenuousness, and corruption - the myth of Rousseau's Noble Savage was born: innocent, docile, unfettered, with his simple regality enough to endure the complexities of life. Through the concept of the Rousseauian State of Nature and 'Primitive Communism,' the Savage who knew not property, warfare, strife, deceit, or arbitrary authority would "fire" the imagination of the philosophes such as Montaigne and Voltaire. The great Law of Peace created by the Iriquois League of Six Nations was seen as the apogee of the Noble Savage's work, and inspired many of the early inhabitants of the American colonies, especially William Penn's Quakers. The colonists, while seeking to imitate the freedom and spontaneity of America's autochthons, proceeded to displace them from their lands at an amazing pace, a duality that has not been ignored by many of the Native Americans that have found their voice in 1992. (Do we not destroy our prototypes when we believe we have the finished model?)
Also, during the Enlightenment, sects such as the Scottish Rite Masons, Carbonari, and the Illuminati began to offer models of the ideal state which were seen to threaten both crown (monarchy) and cross (Church), "prince and pope." Some of these came out of Hermetic or Neoplatonic elements in the 'Rosicrucian' occult tradition of Europe, and many of the elements can be found even today in the symbols of the Republic, such as the Great Seal and its motto, "New Order of the Ages" (Novus Ordo Seclorum.) Few people realize how much of the symbolism on the dollar bill, from its many 13s down to the Eagle of Liberty, comes out of Masonic ritual, or how much of a role Free Masonry played in the French and American revolutions. (Some commentators located the anticlerical roots of the Revolution in the Masonic promise to avenge the Templars. Did not one revolutionary cry out at one point, "Jacques de Molay, you are avenged!") America was seen by many of these secret societies as a place where their ideal state might meet its fruition, and their belief that America was a place with a unique destiny in regenerating the world is echoed in phrases such as "Light unto the nations", "Manifest Destiny," and "Philadelphia." (Brotherly Love: the 'Philadelphians' were a secret French sect to which many of the "founding fathers" had been initiated.)
It is these three elements - Renaissance longing for a renewed Golden Age of harmony and plenty; Enlightenment longing for a return to the use of 'natural reason' best found in the American indigenes; and "Rosicrucian" longing for revenge against temporal and spiritual authority - that all confluenced in the 17th century, that time of the birth of the first Utopian communities in America, places of experiment for man's perennial quest to perfect and purify himself. Protestantism had revived the notion that Catholic teaching was some long, slacking adulteration of the 'pure' apostolic Christianity, and so in America many Utopian sects sought deliberate imitation of the primitive, apostolic Church. It was thought that the Christian communes would provide what modern man sought for, solace, peace, and brotherhood. Contrary to what some have suggested, the physical continent America - meaning its climactic, geographic, and demographic features - was far from paradisial, despite what Transcendentalist poets might say after the fact. We can only see the roots of American Utopianism in the invention of 'symbolic America' and the creation of America as a signifying entity.
The most interesting of these communities are the ones founded in the 17th and early 18th centuries. These are very different from the secular or Deist cooperatives of the 19th century, or the temporary cooperative agreements of the early Puritan settlers in Massachussetts. The ones that I am speaking of are the early communities known as the Woman in the Wilderness (founded by German Pietists in 1694), Irenia (founded by Moravians in 1695), Bohemia Manor (founded by the Labadists in 1683), the Ephrata Cloister (founded by Sabbatarians in 1732), Bethlehem (founded by Anabaptists in 1740), and Mount Lebanon (founded by the Shakers in 1787.) These communities all share certain salient features: they were all founded by sects considered apostate or heretical by the Lutheran or Calvinist Protestant Churches of Germany and central Europe; they were all founded in or around William Penn's Quaker "experiment of toleration" (what is today Pennsylvania); and each involved a migrant community who followed over a European charistmatic founder to inaugurate their experiment (i.e. they were not 'native' developments.)
The various religious sects involved in founding these Utopian communities established certain near-universal belief patterns. For one, they all held a special reverence for the Old Testament and were ardent Hebrophiles, many seeing themselves as the "New Israel" sited in the New World (among the Indians, who they considered the "old" or "fleshly" "lost tribes" of old Israel.) Because of this, many kept the Jewish sabbath or other aspects of Old Testament law. For another, they all rejected 'common' marriage, most replacing that institution either with celibacy or the taking of 'spiritual wives,' although some sects practiced 'complex' marriage, i.e., the sharing of women. Most were milleniarians or adventists who expected the Second Coming of Christ shortly after their arrival in the New World. All the communities were 'quietist' or pacifist, refusing to pay taxes, vote, go to war, or hold any sort of elected office; they abstained from all worldly power and institutions. They also subscribed to the moral perfectionism that Weber called the Protestant Ethic, i.e. the idea that salvation here on Earth could only be vouchsafed through hard, laborious work. (Few accepted Calvinist predestination, although they believed that in forming their communities they 'assumed' the election and Grace of the Lord, becoming the 'saved'.) Most were also inspirationalists, manifesting the 'charismatic' or 'pentecostal' enthusiasmos of the Apostles (such as the turbulent shuddering of the Shakers); some were also antinomians who even felt that the Grace of the Divine negated all earthly and manmade laws.
All of these communities were founded on certain assumptions. Many of them believed Europe and the Christian Church had fallen into a period of irreversible decline, largely due to the distancing the 17th century Church had from the 'pure' apostolic Christianity of the 1st century. (Constantine and the Roman Church were said to have inaugurated this decline, by allowing the Church to hold property, exert temporal power, and establish hierarchies.) They felt that in the New World Christianity and the Christian "race" could be made regenerate, and purify itself once more, in expectation of the Second Coming of Christ. Most of these sects felt the Apocalypse described in the Book of Revelation would be coming soon, and that the Divine Judgement was imminent. Like Noah fleeing in his Ark, they felt they would be spared this judgement for their holiness and fidelity to the Law in their new land. Only in isolation from the fallen, sinful, irredeemable world could they become the elect of the Lord's salvation, they felt.
These sects of these communities were often at odds with many of the precepts of the established Protestant churches at the time. The Pietists felt that the Lutheran church had become too "papal" itself, and too focused on ecclesiasical hierarchy. The celebration of Sunday as the Sabbath, the practice of infant baptism, the denial of "inward illumination" or inspiration (and the charismatic 'gifts of the spirit' that followed), the relationship between Church and State, and the nature of the sacraments were often points of difficult contention. Most of these sects - Shakers, Moravians, Pietists, Labadists, Anabaptists, etc. - were radically democratic and took very seriously Luther's suggestion that "every man be a priest." Some of them so eschewed the use of force and coercion that even if a member was declared banished or expelled, they would not use force to make him to leave, although other methods (such as anathema) might be attempted. In many cases, they were on friendly terms with the indigenes of America - the Ephrata Cloister made one of the first attempts at providing a written translation of the Indians' language.
The parallels between the 1690s communities and the 1960s communes have attracted the attention of many authors. The renuniciation of legal marriage, the sharing of property, the rebellion against organized religion, the disaffection and alienation from the outside world, and the fierce opposition to war and the State, which was seen primarily as an agent of violence, are common features. But the hippies of the 1960s might be surprised at the practices of austerity, celibacy, and monasticism of those early communities: there was little dancing, singing, music-playing, artmaking, drugtaking, or lovemaking there. If transported 250 years into the future, the Ephrata communists might look askance at the hippies' eschewing of hard work and ethic of "if it feels good, do it." The common thread between these communes was Utopianism: a belief that paradise could be recreated in miniature, because people could be made regenerate if their environment was improved.
The fact that they were charismatic and intelligent was not unusual. So were the founders of many of the 'open' communities in America, such as William Penn, Roger Williams, and John Smith. What was unusual was that they wanted to create a whole new reality in America, a counter-reality that was to be strikingly different from the world from which they came. The Pilgrims, Puritans, and other colonists might have escaped the persecutions of the Old World, but they did not reject wholesale its social systems and cultural elements in the way the founders of the closed Christian communities did. In the mystical poetry of Beissel, one can see a desire for a clean break with the Old World and its dens of corruption. Their idealism survived undaunted, despite the way many of their communities collapsed or dissolved. Within their closed circles would come charlatans, exploiters, and conmen, who saw ways to make the communes' public wealth into private gain. Because of this, some, like de Labadie, became strict, ruthless authoritarians, forced to dissolve their own systems of egalitarian decisionmaking and assume a strong hand in the guidance of their communities.
The personalities of the Utopian founders were very determined. Since many of their communities had short lives (many of the communalists would find swamps and deserts for their common lands, rather than the verdant fields they had been promised) and often disincorporated within one or two years, they would often lead a band of traditionalists to start over elsewhere. On those occasions where some dissidents within the community began holding property in private, they might take their followers and leave so as to "do it right this time." Upon their death, it was only rarely possible to find a successor who equalled them in determination and authority. Ephrata was fortunate to have Peter Miller to follow its Beissel, and for that reason survived for several generations. The greatest impact of these early Utopian founders may have been the way they shaped the ideas of some of the other American "founding fathers." William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams are known to have visited and been impressed by Ephrata and the wisdom of its leaders.
The traces of the early Christian communes are only faint today. They have left behind traces in material culture (Shaker furniture), literature (Ephrata appears in Byron's poetry), and local folklore. But, by and large, their place in social memory has been erased by more successful communal experiments in the 19th century such as Oneida, New Harmony, Icaria, and Brook Farm. These later communities were often established on a different basis - their founding ideas were universalism, unitarianism, deism, or outright agnosticism - and were more focused on practical, social considerations than on 'moral' ones: hence their longer physical and symbolic survival. The importance of the early communities is that they are the earliest expression of Europe's Utopian imagination, and hence perhaps most representative of its archetypal roots and unconscious influences. The writings of the founders of these communities would prefigure the speeches many later reformers, zealots, and prophets, ranging from Thoreau to Martin Luther King. In many cases, they shaped American cultural life: the first volume of music and first printing press in America were made by the Pietists of the communes.
If O'Neill wants to build his high-tech space Utopias, his enthusiasm is perhaps exceeded only by Timothy Leary, the psychedelic priest who wants the human race to SMI2LE (Space migration, exponential intelligence, and life extension) by the 21st century. Leary is notable for pointing out that "it will not be the bureaucrats, engineers, and technicians who settle out in space: instead it will be the 'heads'." In other words, today's counterculture, the drug-taking dharma bums, will be the ones to escape out into space, even as Europe's counterculture sought their own "head trip" in America with Ephrata and the Woman in the Wilderness. Leary sees a connection between the 'dropped out', 'freaked out' youth disaffected by the world of the 1970s, and the world-weary, alternative-cosmos-seeking "trippers" of the 1690s. And are not their California communes and "Jesus freak" tent-cities the first step in the recreation of Paradise, asks Leary? Leary even sees a eugenic spin to all this: the spacegoers will be the 'mutants' of our race, they of chemically enhanced intelligence and neuroatomic awareness, even as the Utopian pioneers of America were the advanced 'mutants' within the European body politic. And if Leary has not been explicit enough in his analogies, he adds, "The North American experiment is the greatest success in evolutionary (my emphasis) history. Each gene pool sends its seed west, as a form of self-selection... the Pilgrim mothers and fathers wanted a place to live out the collective kooky, freaky reality that they shared. Californians are a new species (my emphasis) evolving away from other Americans."
Others add their emphasis to this point. "Edmund G. Brown, Jr." talks about closed systems and the psychological impact of the closing of the frontier on America, and how logical it is that California's aerospace industry will leads us into the next one. (This is Jerry Brown, returned from Zen meditation, but before his incarnation as a populist presidential candidate.) Buckminster Fuller talks about the explorers of the Age of Discovery as the first World men, and the explorers of the Space Age as completing their realization by seeing the Whole Earth from space, unconnected, without borders. Many others see the problems of "Limits to Growth" - pollution, overpopulation, the energy crisis, world hunger - as just like the "parochial" problems that they claim some Portuguese and Italians invoked to hinder Colombus from his journey. Once out in space, we can solve (or escape?) them all. Those who do not want to make the evolutionary leap into space migration are implicitly linked to the 'naysayers' and 'doubters' who did not trust Colombus. The point here is not to dismiss the links, but to see the reasons why these connections between 1492 Spain and 1992 America are being made. The Utopian imagination of Europe lives on, and space offers it the next sphere of experimentation.
I say "Europe," because some of the greatest doubters of the promise of space are the African-Americans, Latin Americans, and Native Americans of 1992- the "Other America" - who wonder aloud why the great nation which plans to settle on the moon cannot feed its people right here on Earth. The problems which threaten our planet - environmental destruction, atomic warfare, economic collapse - and force the Europeans to look for the next one to move onto - many of the "other America" see as the results of the Euro-Americans' own handiwork. Some see the fetish of technology- the technology that will supposedly bring us out into space and fix our planetary ills - at the very root of these problems. The Utopian imagination is doublesided. The same ideal that brought the alternative-reality-seekers, rebels, troublemakers, heretics, and "mutants" of Europe over here to found paradise also led many of them to hewn down its "sinful" wilderness, to destroy its "Satanic" indigenes, and develop a xenophobic ethic which saw sin in the hearts of all men, and often brought about purges, like of the witches of Salem. Is not the perfectionism of the Utopians still alive, as thousands of Americans starve and poison themselves each year to attain an impossibly perfect body? Are the flesh and spirit still not at war in our debates over pornography, etc.? If there is a conclusion to be drawn, it is that the relentless quest for Utopia may not find itself in any spatial geography, whether it be new continents or outer space; perhaps it is in the geography of the human heart.