This is Chapter ten from the seminal The Story of Utopias of the American historian, sociologist and philosopher Lewis Mumford.
How the Country House and Coketown became the utopias of the Modern Age; and how they made the world over in their image.
Now that we have ransacked the literature of ideal commonwealths for examples of the utopian vision and the utopian method, there remains another class of utopias which has still to be reckoned with, in order to make our tally complete.
All the utopias that we have dealt with so far have been filtered through an individual mind, and whereas, like any other piece of literature, they grew out of a certain age and tradition of thought, it is dangerous to overrate their importance either as mirrors of the existing order or as projectors of a new order. While again and again the dream of a utopian in one age has become the reality of the next, as O’Shaughnessy sings in his famous verses, the exact connection between the two can only be guessed at, and rarely, I suppose, can it be traced. It would be a little foolish to attempt to prove that the inventor of the modern incubator was a student of Sir Thomas More.
Up to the present the idola which have exercised the most considerable influence upon the actual life of the community are such as have been partly expressed in hundred works and never perhaps fully expressed in one. In order to distinguish these idola from those that have occupied us till now, we should perhaps call them collective utopias or social myths. There is a considerable literature that relates to these myths in French, one of the best known works being M. George Sorel’s Reflections on Violence; and in practice it is sometimes rather hard to tell where the Utopia leaves off and the social myth begins.
The history of mankind’s social myths has still in the main to be written. There is a partial attempt at this over a limited period in Mr. Henry Osborn Taylor’s The Mediæval Mind; but this is only a beginning, and other ages are almost untouched. The type of myth that concerns us here is not the pure action myth which M. Sorel has analyzed; we are rather interested in those myths which are, as it were, the ideal content of the existing order of things, myths which, by being consciously formulated and worked out in thought, tend to perpetuate and perfect that order. This type of social myth approaches very closely to the classic utopia, and we could divide it, similarly, into myths of escape and myths of reconstruction. Thus the myth of political freedom, for example, as formulated by the writers of the American revolution, frequently serves as an excellent refuge for disturbed consciences when the Department of Justice or the Immigration Bureau has been a little too assiduous in its harassment of political agitators.