There is an air of triumphalism in any utopian movement. Members of utopian movements often portray themselves as an anointed group with higher values and a developed consciousness. They are the ones destined to bring about the new era of peace and equality, personifying the new man in a new future.

Among themselves they try to create harmony, collaboration, and pure democracy to demonstrate the new possibilities of a renewed human nature where all dualisms end and alienation ceases. Akin to a religion, their ideology is based revolutionary praxis in need of no specific plans on what to do on day one after the revolution. Evil will simply wither away, exorcised by the new air f heaven on earth. Every utopian ideology suffers from this triumphalism to one extent or another.

This is why it is so tempting for Christian leaders, already holders of comprehensive systems of thought suffering from the “totalistic temptation”, to join other comprehensive systems of thought that mirror, if only as an illusion, the goals of Christianity. Triumphalism gets a double shot of self-assertion when Christianity is merged with the pipe dreams of socialism.

Amidst such high expectations for themselves, it is easy to blame others for our shadows. The line of demarcation between wholeness and alienation is the willingness to change, the willingness to take personal responsibility.  The recapturing of that state of wholeness, of necessity, implies a willingness to admit our own demons; a readiness to look inside and recognize our lack as the first step toward healing. It is admitting that the far country of victimization is not home and that we must turn back. That brave determination implies a willingness to gaze where we don’t want to look within ourselves. In so doing, we will discover that we are both the problem and the answer to every obstacle we may encounter in life. But not for anointed ones.

As anthropologist Robert Ardrey made plain, Jean Jacques Rousseau may have initiated the ‘age of alibi’[1] by assigning the origin of human corruption to society. From there sprung the pernicious insistence upon pointing fingers at others. Modern man is constantly exposed to the esoteric ideas of complete wellness and harmony; man is good by nature and all can be perfected by human action. We are masters of the world, we are gods! Gurus show us the path, relationship experts make us weep, mega-church preachers preach to us that wealth and health are ours if we just ask, and “social justice” leaders tell us of the need to redistribute stuff. Heaven on earth is a real possibility, a great new world in waiting. Modern society is being built on this particular vision of the human person where nothing is impossible if we feel it; our potential is unlimited if we create the right social arrangement by applying the enlightened reason of the few to reality. Let us hammer existence to shape it into our mold.

As Thomas Sowell tells us, ‘visions rest ultimately on some sense of the nature of man—not simply his existing practices but his ultimate potential and ultimate limitations.’[2] It is important here to differentiate between vision and paradigm; a vision is an intuition, a personality pull, a tendency to see the world in a certain way. A paradigm, as Sowell states, is a more developed ‘theoretical model of causation.’[3] The unconstrained vision of human potentiality is an inarticulate sense that society is the cause of human suffering. Man, tells us that vision, is closer to the age of fulfillment and we can expedite such blissful condition if only contrary forces are destroyed. As William Godwin asserts, if we apply reason to solve every possible problem, ‘we cannot fail of thus conquering our erroneous propensities.’[4] But what if we fail to reach that ecstatic state of existence?

What we experience when reality crashes the party of ecstatic wonder is extremism. Extreme living and extreme thinking is what we can call the utopian syndrome.[5] There are varied expressions of such syndrome. One is readily apparent in the lives of many: self-pity. One may feel sorry for oneself as a victim of others and ‘drop out’ of reality into a world of withdrawal, depression, and callousness. The one in such predicament often becomes the victimizer of others without any sense of regret. In effect, the more he engulfs in the decadence of his condition, the more ready he  is to blame others. Another expression of the syndrome goes in the direction of empty nihilism; the search for immediate gratification in momentary and meaningless euphoric experiences such as drugs, sex, and violence. The ecstatic state offers momentary distance from a reality too ugly to look at. The third expression of the syndrome is rabid activism. If I am unable to attain the goal of a contented existence it is because I am being deprived of such experience by oppressive systems, by “them.” It is ‘because my parents, or society at large, by their rules and limitations, have crippled me and are unwilling to concede me that simple freedom needed for my self-actualization.’[6]

In a self-righteous crusade, we launch at the system, we rebel against reality. We will always find actual experiences of loss as examples of the effects of oppressive systems, as there is no perfection this side of heaven. The problem here is not with the fact of confronting evil (as such is a duty of man) but with the absolutization of victimhood; the clouding of reason preventing us from seeing things as they really are. When the premises upon which we base our existence become more real than reality itself, radicalism triumphs. What becomes more intolerable is not the actual experience of oppression whenever it may actually obtain, but rather the challenge against the paradigm. The error of such stance is that the premise goes unchallenged and reality is forced to conform to it. The subjective animus against society engulfs our view of reality and clouds the intellect. As Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch tell us in Change, ‘The idea that the fault might lie with the premises is unbearable, for the premises are the truth, are reality.’[7] Thus, if interventionism has not proven to be effective in uplifting the poor this is because we have not invested enough; if we have not yet achieved economic parity with other minority and majority groups it is because structural racism prevents it; if the black family is in shambles, it is due to the lingering effects of slavery and segregation; if my life is not what I wanted it to be, it is because I am a victim. There lies the lure and power of the utopian syndrome.

[1] Robert Ardrey, The Social Contract: A Personal Enquiry into the Evolutionary Sources of Order and Disorder (New York: Atheneum, 1970) p. 3.

[2] Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions, p. 35.

[3] Ibid, p. 204.

[4] William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol. I, p. 70 cited in Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions, p. 46.

[5] Watzlavick, et. al., Change, p. 48.

[6] Ibid, p. 51.

[7] Ibid, p. 54.