Broadly speaking, societies seek either greatness or happiness. These two goals are articulated quite early in the history of human thought by Plato and Aristotle.
Aristotle writes in Politics that every community seeks some good. For Plato, that good is the pursuit of an ideal, whereas Aristotle thinks that it is happiness. Plato believes in the perfectibility of man; Aristotle is sceptical whether the ideal state can be attained, considering human weaknesses.
In The Republic, Plato describes an ideal state in which guardians rule over a society divided into groups according to people’s abilities. The purpose of the state is not individual happiness but the creation of an ideal community.
In Politics, Aristotle criticises Plato’s ideal state point by point on the grounds that that state does not agree with common sense. According to Aristotle, Plato makes people unhappy by expecting too much from them. He sees in Plato’s model of social organisation the influences of the Spartan constitution, which is ‘adverse to the happiness of the state’. Plato ignores human weaknesses. His project is impractical because it is based on a false understanding of human nature.
The end of the state, says Aristotle, is to create conditions in which people will lead happy lives without troubling themselves with Plato’s unattainable ideals because ‘perfection in everything can hardly be expected’. Perfectionism can only lead to despair. All utopian projects invariably fail.
Modern history of Europe and its outposts on other continents shows a clear tendency towards the distrust of utopian projects, at least from the times of the Enlightenment. Happiness features prominently in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness … it is the Right of the People to … institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Europeans and Americans live nowadays in open societies in which citizens clearly opt for the principles of liberalism, pragmatism and utilitarianism. There is little appetite for grand and idealistic projects. Millions of people died because of idealism of national socialists and communists.
And yet utopianism is still very much alive in Islam. Islamists are Platonists of the most vulgar kind. They want to restore the ideal state of affairs from centuries ago, regardless of the cost in terms of human suffering. Their thinking is strictly theocentric. They profess their commitment to creating God’s kingdom on earth. Like national socialists and communists before them, Islamists see themselves as idealists. Their extreme idealism though is nothing but nihilism because it sacrifices individual human beings for the sake of an imaginary deity.
The argument between Plato and Aristotle now manifests itself again in the most cruel manner.