In My Greek City State…

In My Greek City State… December 1, 2016


We have a game at our house that we occasionally play as part of our homeschool curriculum called “In My Greek City State.” The rules are fairly straightforward: everyone is given an imaginary polis that they can run however they want. They get to make up laws, invent an economic system, design the government, and basically create a utopia. Then everyone else (mostly the parents) gets to point out the practical limitations of a system in which a perfect and wise queen dishes out candy and ponies to all.

The point of the exercise is not so much to encourage creativity (my kids don’t need any special encouragement in that department), but rather to discourage the kind of fantasy-thinking that so often dominates popular discourse. I think it’s important for my children to understand that the reason why we don’t live in a utopia, is that utopias are a pipe dream.

Unfortunately, this is a truth that a lot of people struggle with well into adulthood. We develop theoretical ideas about how things should be, and then do a lot of hand-wringing about how far distant reality is from our imaginary kingdom. When this gets really out of hand it leads to all kinds of spiritual problems: contempt, constant outrage, despair, arrogance, paranoia, and a sense of being the sole possessor of common sense in the world.

There are a couple of forms of this that I see all the time.

Probably the most common is the tendency to reject realistic proposals because they fail some kind of ideological purity test. For example, say you propose that Catholic schools should create an alternative to gay-straight alliances where LGBTQ kids can be supported and protected from bullying – without at the same time being introduced to a completely laissez-faire sexual ethic. It’s an idea that could be critiqued in a number of reasonable ways, however, it rarely is. Instead, invariably, someone will pop up in the combox or the audience and say, in a tone dripping with contempt, “Wouldn’t it be better if children weren’t being encouraged to identify with their sexual sins?”

Or, to give an example from the left, say that a male pastor writes a book talking about the need for greater inclusion of women in a highly patriarchal denomination. Suddenly there are the Twitter activists rolling their eyes and dragging out the pitchforks, because how dare he speak for women. If he really believes in inclusion, why not step back out of the spotlight and let a woman write the book.

I could multiply examples endlessly, but I think these two suffice to illustrate the fundamental problem. They’re what I call “magic wand” solutions: that is, they are solutions that would only work if someone gave you the keys to the universe, or at the very least, the keys to the culture. There’s no feasible way of actually applying the proposed solutions in real life. Nobody has the power to remove the idea of sexual identity from contemporary culture, nor does anybody have the means to compel super-patriarchal male pastors to read or accept a feminist critique of their theology written by a woman. Magic-wand solutions are therefore not actually solutions at all, so much as expressions of petulant ire directed against the status quo.

These are rather small-scale examples, but there are large scale ones as well. You will come across them if you’re discussing political theory. There are all kinds of well-meaning, and often very intelligent, people who go in for utopian theories like libertarianism, distributism, anarcho-communitarianism, and so forth. Generally they have a very well-developed idea of what an ideal society would look like – but absolutely no plan for how you would go about getting to that society from the actual society that we have. Even less do they have any idea of how it would be possible to integrate the new, utopian culture into the broader geo-political reality outside of their own national borders.

These are ideas that would work great in My Greek City State, but until there’s an action plan for getting to there, from here, without violent revolution, or complete economic collapse, or reckless exposure to international threats, it’s just a daydream. It may look very good on paper – but so did Communism.

Ideas like this are relatively harmless in-so-far as they remain in the realm of thought-experiments or cute little niche political movements. The problem is that utopian thinking can often prove a real obstacle to the implementation of actual solutions. Daydreaming about a perfect world is okay if you do it on the side, coupled with actual, effective action in the real world. Unfortunately, it more often produces severe discontent with reality and a sense of overwhelming social impotence.

The result is fruitless rage against the machine, crippling moral paralysis, and/or useless symbolic acts of defiance against “the establishment.” Instead of actually doing the good that it is possible to do, one ends up building a concrete bunker and gnashing one’s teeth about how terrible the world is.

Taken to an extreme this can grotesquely distort our perceptions of reality. Patently ridiculous beliefs, like “The modern United States is the Most Depraved Nation of All Time,” or “President Obama will go down as one of the great villains of history,” are often the result of unrealistic social ideologies combined with a more or less complete lack of historical perspective.

Benedict XVI gently directs us away from futile speculations of this sort, instructing each Christian instead to “practice…charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis.” (Caritas in Veritate)

This last clause is super important. We can’t effect genuine social improvement unless we first recognize and accept the degree of influence that we actually wield in our respective societies. So if you’re a minister of education, and you think you can improve sex-ed in a way that will actually effectively promote chastity in a porn-saturated world, then by all means, use your influence. But if you’re an angry com-boxer who doesn’t even have any children in the school system, it is a complete waste of your time (and of everybody else’s patience) if you read every new sex-ed curriculum that comes out just so that you can rage about it on FaceBook.

If you’re a professor of economics and you think you’ve come up with some really great proposals for how distributist principles could be integrated into late capitalist economies, please pass them on to your students and publish them in economic journals. But if you’re a Catholic homeschool mom dreaming about a little farmstead where you sell eggs and decorative bun-warmers, maybe focus less on the hope of radical economic transformation, and more on opening an Etsy shop and petitioning your town council to let you keep backyard chickens.

Coming up with realistic ideas to improve the things we are actually able to influence, doing the good that we are actually capable of, and finding ways of implementing our ideals, even if only on a small scale, is a lot more humbling than imagining how much better the whole world would be if only if we were suddenly granted God-like powers. It forces us to confront the fact that seemingly great ideas are often impracticable, and that any change which involves other people’s co-operation is likely to demand compromise and consensus building.

It’s also, in a strange way, calming. It’s way too easy to be angry at people in power – politicians, Church authorities, business leaders, etc. – if most of your leadership experience involves sitting around in your living room complaining about the state of the world. Having a more realistic perspective on the problems involved in leading makes it easier to accept the limitations and imperfections of those who wield power.

When you start working towards the kind of changes that you actually have the power to effect, you come to understand that nobody is in a position to just snap their fingers and make the problems disappear. You discover that even the smallest improvements can take a very long time, and that there are almost invariably logistical difficulties that you would never have envisioned from your armchair. You find that it’s generally impossible to get anything done without sacrificing at least some ideological purity in order to build relationships or gain access to the effective means of power. You learn that there is actually a reason why people with more on-the-ground experience just keep rolling their eyes at those perfect, unimplementable, dreams.

Image credit: Jupiter Pluvius by Joseph Gandy – Tate Britain Gallery / Photography: Gts-tg, Public Domain,
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