A Modern Utopia
H. G. Wells

H. G. Wells

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Appendix: Scepticism of the Instrument


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A Modern Utopia

Copyright © 1905 by H. G. Wells

A Note to the Reader I rejected from the outset the form of the argumentative essay, the form which appeals most readily to what is called the “serious” reader, the reader who is often no more than the solemly impatient parasite of great questions. He likes everything in hard, heavy lines, black and white, yes and no, because he does not understand how much there is that cannot be presented at all in that way; wherever there is any effect of obliquity, of incommensurables, wherever there is any levity or humour or difficulty of multiplex presentation, he refuses attention. Mentally he seems to be built up upon an invincible assumption that the Spirit of Creation cannot count beyond two, he deals only in alternatives. Such readers I have resolved not to attempt to please here.
Chapter the First

§ 2 The fertilising conflict of individualities is the ultimate meaning of the personal life, and all our Utopias no more than schemes for bettering that interplay. At least, that is how life shapes itself more and more to modern perceptions. Until you bring in individualities, nothing comes into being, and a Universe ceases when you shiver the mirror of the least of individual minds.



§ 5

Nothing endures, nothing is precise and certain (except the mind of a pedant), perfection is the mere repudiation of that ineluctable marginal inexactitude which is the mysterious inmost quality of Being. Being, indeed!—there is no being, but a universal becoming of individualities, and Plato turned his back on truth when he turned towards his museum of specific ideals. Heraclitus, that lost and misinterpreted giant, may perhaps be coming into his own. . . .

There is no abiding thing in what we know. We change from weaker to stronger lights, and each more powerful light pierces our hitherto opaque foundations and reveals fresh and different opacities below. We can never foretell which of our seemingly assured fundamentals the next change will not affect. What folly, then, to dream of mapping out our minds in however general terms, of providing for the endless mysteries of the future a terminology and an idiom! We follow the vein, we mine and accumulate our treasure, but who can tell which way the vein may trend? Language is the nourishment of the thought of man, that serves only as it undergoes metabolism, and becomes thought and lives, and in its very living passes away. You scientific people, with your fancy of a terrible exactitude in language, of indestructible foundations built, as that Wordsworthian doggerel on the title-page of Nature says, “for aye,” are marvellously without imagination!

This passage criticized



Chapter the Second

Concerning Freedoms
§ 1

Individual liberty in a community is not, as mathematicians would say, always of the same sign. To ignore this is the essential fallacy of the cult called Individualism. But in truth, a general prohibition in a state may increase the sum of liberty, and a general permission may diminish it. It does not follow, as these people would have us believe, that a man is more free where there is least law and more restricted where there is most law. [...] Consider how much liberty we gain by the loss of the common liberty to kill. Thereby one may go to and fro in all the ordered parts of the earth, unencumbered by arms or armour, free of the fear of playful poison, whimsical barbers, or hotel trap-doors. Indeed, it means freedom from a thousand fears and precautions.



There are two distinct and contrasting methods of limiting liberty; the first is Prohibition, “thou shalt not,” and the second Command, “thou shalt.” There is, however, a sort of prohibition that takes the form of a conditional command, and this one needs to bear in mind. It says if you do so-and-so, you must also do so-and-so; if, for example, you go to sea with men you employ, you must go in a seaworthy vessel. But the pure command is unconditional; it says, whatever you have done or are doing or want to do, you are to do this, as when the social system, working through the base necessities of base parents and bad laws, sends a child of thirteen into a factory. Prohibition takes one definite thing from the indefinite liberty of a man, but it still leaves him an unbounded choice of actions. He remains free, and you have merely taken a bucketful from the sea of his freedom. But compulsion destroys freedom altogether.

§ 2 The natural disposition of all peoples, white, black, or brown, a natural disposition that education seeks to destroy, is to insist upon uniformity, to make publicity extremely unsympathetic to even the most harmless departures from the code.
§ 3 It is unlikely there will be any smoke-disgorging steam railway trains in Utopia, they are already doomed on earth, already threatened with that obsolescence that will endear them to the Ruskins of to-morrow, but a thin spider’s web of inconspicuous special routes will cover the land of the world, pierce the mountain masses and tunnel under the seas.



§ 6 But the modern Utopians, having systematised their sociology, will have given some attention to the psychology of minor officials, a matter altogether too much neglected by the social reformer on earth. They will not put into the hands of a common policeman powers direct and indirect that would be dangerous to the public in the hands of a judge. And they will have avoided the immeasurable error of making their control of the drink traffic a source of public revenue.
“Let us in this saner and more beautiful world drink perdition to all earthly excesses. Let us drink more particularly to the coming of the day when men beyond there will learn to distinguish between qualitative and quantitative questions, to temper good intentions with good intelligence, and righteousness with wisdom. One of the darkest evils of our world is surely the unteachable wildness of the Good.”
Chapter the Third

Utopian Economics
§ 1 At any rate, the common liberty of the Utopians will not embrace the common liberty to be unserviceable, the most perfect economy of organisation still leaves the fact untouched that all order and security in a State rests on the certainty of getting work done.
Money, did you but use it right, is a good thing in life, a necessary thing in civilised human life, as complicated, indeed, for its purposes, but as natural a growth as the bones in a man’s wrist, and I do not see how one can imagine anything at all worthy of being called a civilisation without it. It is the water of the body social, it distributes and receives, and renders growth and assimilation and movement and recovery possible. It is the reconciliation of human interdependence with liberty. What other device will give a man so great a freedom with so strong an inducement to effort?



§ 4

Each man and woman, to the extent that his or her individuality is marked, breaks the law of precedent, transgresses the general formula, and makes a new experiment for the direction of the life force. It is impossible, therefore, for the State, which represents all and is preoccupied by the average, to make effectual experiments and intelligent innovations, and so supply the essential substance of life. As against the individual the state represents the species, in the case of the Utopian World State it absolutely represents the species. The individual emerges from the species, makes his experiment, and either fails, dies, and comes to an end, or succeeds and impresses himself in offspring, in consequences and results, intellectual, material and moral, upon the world.

Biologically the species is the accumulation of the experiments of all its successful individuals since the beginning [...]



From our human point of view the mountains and sea are for the habitable lands that lie between. So likewise the State is for Individualities. The State is for Individuals, the law is for freedoms, the world is for experiment, experience, and change: these are the fundamental beliefs upon which a modern Utopia must go.
§ 5 Very speedily, under terrestrial conditions, the property of a man may reach such proportions that his freedom oppresses the freedom of others. Here, again, is a quantitative question, an adjustment of conflicting freedoms, a quantitative question that too many people insist on making a qualitative one.



§ 6 An infinitude of nonsense about the Greek mind would never have been written if the distinctive intellectual and artistic quality of Plato’s time, its extraordinarily clear definition of certain material conditions as absolutely permanent, coupled with its politico-social instability, had been born in mind. The food of the Greek imagination was the very antithesis of our own nourishment. We are educated by our circumstances to think no revolution in appliances and economic organisation incredible, our minds play freely about possibilities that would have struck the men of the Academy as outrageous extravagance, and it is in regard to politico-social experiments that our imaginations fail. Sparta, for all the evidence of history, is scarcely more credible to us than a motor-car throbbing in the agora would have been to Socrates.

Hitherto, either slave labour (Phaleas), or at least class distinctions involving unavoidable labour in the lower class, have been assumed [...] or there is—as in Morris and the outright Return-to-Nature Utopians—a bold make-believe that all toil may be made a joy, and with that a levelling down of all society to an equal participation in labour. But indeed this is against all the observed behaviour of mankind. It needed the Olympian unworldliness of an irresponsible rich man of the share-holding type, a Ruskin or a Morris playing at life, to imagine as much. Road-making under Mr. Ruskin’s auspices was a joy at Oxford no doubt, and a distinction, and it still remains a distinction; it proved the least contagious of practices.



The plain message physical science has for the world at large is this, that were our political and social and moral devices only as well contrived to their ends as a linotype machine, an antiseptic operating plant, or an electric tram-car, there need now at the present moment be no appreciable toil in the world, and only the smallest fraction of the pain, the fear, and the anxiety that now makes human life so doubtful in its value. There is more than enough for everyone alive. Science stands, a too competent servant, behind her wrangling underbred masters, holding out resources, devices, and remedies they are too stupid to use.

§ 8 Ugliness is the measure of imperfection; a thing of human making is for the most part ugly in proportion to the poverty of its constructive thought, to the failure of its producer fully to grasp the purpose of its being. Everything to which men continue to give thought and attention, which they make and remake in the same direction, and with a continuing desire to do as well as they can, grows beautiful inevitably. Things made by mankind under modern conditions are ugly, primarily because our social organisation is ugly, because we live in an atmosphere of snatch and uncertainty, and do everything in an underbred strenuous manner. This is the misfortune of machinery, and not its fault. Art, like some beautiful plant, lives on its atmosphere, and when the atmosphere is good it will grow everywhere, and when it is bad nowhere.
Chapter the Fourth

The Voice of Nature
§ 3 We “take up our positions,” silly little contentious creatures that we are, we will not see the right in one another, we will not patiently state and restate, and honestly accommodate and plan, and so we remain at sixes and sevens. We’ve all a touch of Gladstone in us, and try to the last moment to deny we have made a turn. And so our poor broken-springed world jolts athwart its trackless destiny. Try to win into line with some fellow weakling, and see the little host of suspicions, aggressions, misrepresentations, your approach will stir—like summer flies on a high road—the way he will try to score a point and claim you as a convert to what he has always said, his fear lest the point should be scored to you.



Chapter the Fifth

Failure in a Modern Utopia
§ 2

There is no justice in Nature perhaps, but the idea of justice must be sacred in any good society. Lives that statesmanship has permitted, errors it has not foreseen and educated against, must not be punished by death. If the State does not keep faith, no one will keep faith. Crime and bad lives are the measure of a State’s failure, all crime in the end is the crime of the community. Even for murder Utopia will not, I think, kill.

I doubt even if there will be jails. No men are quite wise enough, good enough and cheap enough to staff jails as a jail ought to be staffed.




§ 3 Of course, money is not the root of any evil in the world; the root of all evil in the world, and the root of all good too, is the Will to Live, and money becomes harmful only when by bad laws and bad economic organisation it is more easily attained by bad men than good. It is as reasonable to say food is the root of all disease, because so many people suffer from excessive and unwise eating. The sane economic ideal is to make the possession of money the clear indication of public serviceableness, and the more nearly that ideal is attained, the smaller is the justification of poverty and the less the hardship of being poor.



§ 6 One of the many things to which some will make claim as a right, is that of going unrecognised and secret whither one will. But that, so far as one’s fellow wayfarers were concerned, would still be possible. Only the State would share the secret of one’s little concealment. To [...] all professed Liberals, brought up to be against the Government on principle, this organised clairvoyance will be the most hateful of dreams. Perhaps, too, the Individualist would see it in that light. But these are only the mental habits acquired in an evil time.
Chapter the Sixth

Women in a Modern Utopia
§ 1 I feel to think, he thinks to feel. It is I and my kind that have the wider range, because we can be impersonal as well as personal. We can escape ourselves. In general terms, at least, I understand him, but he does not understand me in any way at all. [...] My philosophical insistence that things shall be reasonable and hang together, that what can be explained shall be explained, and that what can be done by calculation and certain methods shall not be left to chance, he loathes. He just wants adventurously to feel. He wants to feel the sunset, and he thinks that on the whole he would feel it better if he had not been taught the sun was about ninety-two million miles away. He wants to feel free and strong, and he would rather feel so than be so. He does not want to accomplish great things, but to have dazzling things occur to him. He does not know that there are feelings also up in the clear air of the philosophic mountains, in the long ascents of effort and design.
§ 4 But the further control of private morality, beyond the protection of the immature from corruption and evil example, will be no concern of the State’s. When a child comes in, the future of the species comes in; and the State comes in as the guardian of interests wider than the individual’s; but the adult’s private life is the entirely private life into which the State may not intrude.




§ 5

And it is a question by no means easy and yet of the utmost importance, to determine how far the wide and widening differences between the human sexes is inherent and inevitable, and how far it is an accident of social development that may be converted and reduced under a different social regimen. Are we going to recognise and accentuate this difference and to arrange our Utopian organisation to play upon it, are we to have two primary classes of human being, harmonising indeed and reacting, but following essentially different lives, or are we going to minimise this difference in every possible way?

The former alternative leads either to a romantic organisation of society in which men will live and fight and die for wonderful, beautiful, exaggerated creatures, or it leads to the hareem. It would probably lead through one phase to the other. Women would be enigmas and mysteries and maternal dignitaries that one would approach in a state of emotional excitement and seclude piously when serious work was in hand. A girl would blossom from the totally negligible to the mystically desirable at adolescence, and boys would be removed from their mother’s educational influence at as early an age as possible. [...] Under the latter alternative the sexual relation would be subordinated to friendship and companionship; boys and girls would be co-educated—very largely under maternal direction [...] It is obvious that a marriage law embodying a decision between these two sets of ideas would be very different according to the alternative adopted.


Men and Women

§ 6 No one would freely submit to such a condition of affairs as multiple marriage carried out, in the spirit of the Aristotelian interpretation, to an obscene completeness, but that is all the more reason why the modern Utopia should not refuse a grouped marriage to three or more freely consenting persons. There is no sense in prohibiting institutions which no sane people could ever want to abuse.

text checked (see note) Mar 2006

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