It is characteristic of some very bad ideas that they smell nice but stink up the place when put into practice.
One of the classic bad ideas that persists in our own time is that there exists a true and perfect “science of society.” Widespread in the 19th century, this “scientism” became an ersatz religion, attributing an unchallengeable scientific gloss to pet theories of how humanity should organize itself.
Serious people in the 19th century — and well into the 20th century — believed that bumps on the skull predicated intelligence. And very serious people believed that they knew precisely how people should live scientifically.
At the heart of “scientism” is the denial of the value, dignity and sacredness of the individual human life. We each become subject to the all; we each are lost in a scientific collective that knows only scientific right and wrong, even if the current scientific “right” is phrenology. Or eugenics. Or population control. Or abortion. Or suicide.
In “Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism” (Random House, $28), Chris Jennings presents how the collectivist scientism of the perfect society became an American fad in the 19th century. They preached a post-Enlightenment, end-of-history belief in a collectivist golden age based on the “science of society.”
Jennings’ “Paradise Now” studies five of the classic Utopian groups: the faith-based Shakers and New Harmony Owenists, Fourierists, Icarians and the Oneida Perfectionists. They touched down in various places around the country, such as Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky, western New York and Texas.
These Utopian paradises believed in communal living without private property, marriage and family life, and individual liberty. There were faith-based utopians, such as the Shakers. But they were millennials, believing that the end of the world was imminent. They were not so much creating a new utopian society as preparing for the Second Coming.
Most of the utopian communities, however, were decidedly secular in their perspective, though not so much atheist as they were anti-dogmatic religion (and shared in the anti-Catholicism so prevalent in 19th-century America).
Individually, they advocated everything from shared communal labor to “free love” to gender equality. They lived in communities that, they believed, would be shining lights pointing to a history-free future.
They were uninterested in social causes outside their own private self-absorption. They followed the example of Transcendentalist “Ralph Waldo Emerson’s answer to a hypothetical do-gooder seeking contributions, ‘Are they my poor?’”
Jennings dips into a few offshoots such as the Fruitlandians. Pure vegans, a Fruitlandian has the best quote in the book, revealing that he would not eat tubers “because any vegetable that grows downward displays questionable ambitions.”
Another Fruitlandian advocated spiritually cleansing obscenity. “Good morning, damn you!” was his form of greeting.
Brook Farm, founded in 1841 outside Boston by a former Unitarian minister and his wife, eventually collapsed in bankruptcy. But not before the founder’s wife was converted to Catholicism and began “a minor stampede Romeward” from the community.
“The essential flaw of utopianism,” Jennings writes, is the failure to recognize the “complexity and variety of humanity.”
Scientism is still with us today. It thrives in the aggressiveness of the New Atheism, the eugenics of abortion, capital punishment and the assisted suicide crusade. The stink of bad ideas indeed persists.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.