The Story of Utopias

by Lewis Mumford. With an Introduction by Hendrik Willem Van Loon. New York: Boni and Liveright. 1922. 8vo. xiv+304 pp. $3.00
THE unfortunate mental squint into which the word Utopia throws most of us is corrected pretty fully after donning the spectacles of Mr. Mumford’s first chapter. We find as we take the journey through the broad territories of Utopia, which extend from Plato to H. G. Wells and after, that, with Mr. Mumford as guide, such traveling is as important educationally as a trip to the Orient; and so the book grows into a peculiarly practical treatise. ’In the midst of the tepid and half-hearted discussions that continue to arise out of prohibition laws and strikes and “peace" conferences, let us break in with the injunction to talk about fundamentals—consider Utopia!’ We consider it through all of the classic treatises on this highly abused country, from Plato to H. C. Wells. Some of these are amusing, some fascinating, some dull, and there are times, when one wonders if the travel over this pari of Utopia is worth the discomfort of the journey. But most of the chapters are written with grace and easy diction, and the large feats of summary and judgment performed are apt to pass unrecognized.
To most readers, the analysis of the ‘ collective utopias or social myths’ of contemporary life will be the most arresting. There are two powerful utopias, or idola, that control the industrial civilization of the twentieth century, Mr. Mumford says — the idolum of the ‘Country House,’ and the idolum of ‘Coketown.’ ‘The Country House is concerned not with the happiness of the whole community but with the felicity of the governors. The conditions which underlie this limited and partial good-life are political power and economic wealth; and in order for the life to flourish, both of these must be obtained in almost limitless quantities. The chief principles that characterize this society are possession and passive enjoyment.’ As a supplement to the Country Mouse idolum. in fact the cause of it, is the modern idolum of Coketown. ‘Coketown is devoted to the production of material goods; and there is no good in Coketown that does not derive from this aim.'
There is no chapter given to the author’s own Utopia, but it is clear and well rounded in the reader’s consciousness by the end of the book. The chapters breathe a catholic receptivity to the varied forces of civilization, and a vital humanism that is both flexible and rigid enough to push through superstition, whether of the sentimental or the ‘hard-boiled’ variety.
Dating from Aristotle’s day the world of science and the world of the ‘humanities’ —once a single world, have grown apart. The poets, the artists, the philosophers live in one region, the scientists and engineers in another. Mr. Mumford pleads for a reunion of the former world — the world of value — with the region of mechanical and economic realities. Only so can we hope to fit man’s environment to his own nature.
The book is one of those rare mental luminaries of which the muddled dwellers in a world of confusions, intellectual, moral, and economic, stand in deep need. It takes one up into a high mountain and shows clearly against a fair sky, the long perspective of man’s past and his future — related to an adequate vision of the immediate foreground.