Project 2: Designing Utopia

So far in our class, we’ve moved through about 2,000 years of Western history, ranging from Ancient Greece to Medieval England. Our conversations have covered a similarly broad range of topics. In this assignment, you’ll be looking back at some of our key ideas and then preparing to look forward to the rest of the class. There are two parts to this assignment:

PART 1: Take-Home Exam (100 pts)

Our class has focused on a series of oppositions or tensions that have helped to define Western ways of thinking about ourselves and the world around us. As you answer the following questions, you should feel free to borrow from any of your Analysis Journal posts. You should answer each question below in 300 words (answers to multi-part questions like #1 should add up to 300 words, total). NOTE: If you copy and paste the question itself, that does not count towards your word total.

NOTE: You will need to discuss at least 4 different thinkers throughout your answers. So, for example, we can’t just talk about Plato in each question. I’ll want to see that you’re engaging with a range of the readings that we’ve done.

1. The Ideal vs the Real

Plato thought that the world around us is only a shadow, an imperfect version of a more perfect ideal. He says that in order to know the truth about the world, we have to focus on that ideal version — and not the imperfect world around us. Aristotle disagreed. Aristotle said that we can only know the world around us by observing it, measuring it, and testing it.

During the period of early Christianity, Saint Augustine used Plato’s ideas about the relationship between the ideal and the real in order to describe humanity’s relationship with God. Augustine rejected Aristotle’s focus on the world around us — the “City of Man” — saying that instead we need to work toward realizing a more perfect world — the “City of God.”

Even today in the West, we see this battle between the ideal and the real in the way that we build and think about the world around us.


A. Give me one example of how you see this tension in the world today.

B. What do you think? In your opinion, how should we find a balance between our focus on the ideal and the real? Is one more important than the other? In stating your own opinion, please tell me how your opinion builds off of (or opposes) one or more of the thinkers we have discussed so far.

2. Spirit vs Body (or Mind over Matter)

But this tension between the ideal and the real doesn’t just shape how we see the world around us. It also shapes how we see ourselves as human beings. Are we defined by our physical bodies and genetics? Is this what makes us human? Or are we defined by our minds and our ability to reason? Is this what sets us apart from animals? Or are we defined by our souls?

If we want to know what it means to be human, should we take a cue from Aristotle and turn to science? Or do we follow Plato and examine our talent for logic and reason? Or do we listen to Augustine, who thinks that our souls are what define us as human beings?


A. Give me one example of how you see this tension in the world today.

B. What do you think? In your opinion, how should we find a balance between these two things? Is one more important than the other? In stating your own opinion, please tell me how your opinion builds off of (or opposes) one or more of the thinkers we have discussed so far.

3. Future vs Past / Present

Throughout this class, we have talked about the way that Western cultures often emphasize a focus on the future, at the cost of focusing the present or the past. That is, supposedly we should focus not on the world around us but instead on the world that is to come — the one that we are working towards. Sometimes that world-to-come is earthly, like Plato’s Kallipolis. Sometimes it’s heavenly, like Augustine’s City of God.


A. How do you see this way of thinking in the world around us today? How are we asked to ignore the present in favor of the future?

B. How would you compare this current-day example to any of the examples that we’ve read about so far in this class? Be as specific as possible.

4. Civilization vs Barbarism

The Greeks, who lived within the walls of their polis, used the word “barbarous” to refer to the supposedly wild, savage, non-Greek-speaking peoples who lived on the outside. “Civilization” became a way of describing those people who are supposedly more refined and orderly than other people. It is based on the idea (like Plato’s or Augustine’s) that we can always be a more ideal version of ourselves — and that we’re always at risk of sliding backwards. The very idea that there IS a backwards and forwards in terms of culture is an idea at the heart of Western history. Supposedly, civilization is what we aspire to become and barbarism is what we are moving away from.

The issue with this is that, like any powerful idea, this idea of civilization can be used as a weapon against other peoples. In class, we talked about how Western cultures (and often especially Christian cultures) have used this civilization/barbarism divide as a way of justifying their wars against Muslim peoples.


A. How do you think that the civilization/barbarism binary is still important for Western society today? That is, how do we see it used today, either within the United States or as a way of relating to people outside of the United States?

B. How would you compare this current-day example to any of the examples of clashes between cultures that we’ve read about so far in this class? Be as specific as possible.

PART 2: Your Utopia (80 pts)

As we have started to see throughout our class, Utopias aren’t just idle fantasies. They serve a purpose. Sometimes they are a telos — a point of perfection to work toward, just like Plato thought that we should work toward making the philosophical ideal forms a reality. Or it is like Saint Augustine’s thought that we should work toward building the City of God here on earth. In a world of imperfect circles, utopias are built on the hope that someday we might be able to draw a circle that is perfect.

Utopias also always serve as a point of comparison to the real world, and for that reason they often function as a criticism of the world we actually inhabit. For example, Plato uses Kallipolis as a criticism of Athens, which he saw as chaotic, decadent, and degenerate. Similarly, Saint Augustine uses the City of God as a criticism of Rome, which he thought was falling apart because it had lost its values and was worshipping the wrong gods. And Thomas More designs his Utopia as a criticism of English society during the 1500s, which he saw as immoral, greedy, and miserable. Much like these three, Renee de Montaigne imagines Brazil as a sort of utopian society that reveals all of the flaws of his own home country, France. Montaigne imagines a world that is the opposite of France: generous, brave, selfless, simple, and not materialistic or greedy. Montaigne never actually visited Brazil, so his Brazilian society is just as imaginary as the other utopias we’ve looked at.

First: What aspects of life or society in the United States today do you find most problematic? Give me at least 5 aspects that you think we need to address most urgently. There are a couple requirements here:

First, I want you to think big. Maybe you think it’s a problem that we usually have to buy milk in gallon containers (and so we end up wasting a lot of it), or that our public buses aren’t fuel-efficient. These are both smaller examples of a much bigger-picture issue, which is that we often aren’t aware of the ways in which our daily habits might harm the environment around us. I want you to give me the bigger picture.
Second, I want you to be specific. In the example I just gave, you I don’t just want to know that “we harm the environment.” I want you to be more specific: “We harm the environment because we use goods and services without thinking about how they might affect the environment.”
Third, summarize the problem for me in 100-150 words. Describe it fully. Explain what you think is causing it.
Fourth, I want you to give me evidence. There should be something to back up your claim. So if you think there’s a problem in the way we treat the environment, give me at least one article to back up your claim. You should include this in a Works Cited section at the end of your write-up.

Now: In an ideal world, what would the solution be? Imagine that you are going to start your own utopian community where you will fix the mistakes and problems facing American society. You don’t have to come up with solutions that solve the problems for the entire US — just within the confines of your new, more perfect city. Here’s the key: You don’t have to abide by any laws but your own. Keep in mind that YOUR utopian society will not necessarily be the way that someone else would design it.

How could you design a society and a city in a way that solves your problems? Dream big! For inspiration, you should check out these example utopian city plans. You might also think back to your collaborative plan for Kallipolis, Plato’s ideal city. You could use Bai Board for this part of the project, or you could use PowerPoint, Notability, etc.

Here’s the catch: you can’t just automatically snap your fingers and change human nature. You can’t tell me, “well, in my ideal society people are more environmentally conscious.” How are YOU going to MAKE them more environmentally conscious? Just like Plato, I want you to imagine an ideal society and an ideal city for non-ideal citizens. That is, how do we help flawed people to build a more perfect society?

To recap, you are writing around 2,000 words:

Part 1:
Answers to our 4 prompts — at least 300 words each
Part 2:
Clear descriptions of the 5 biggest problems facing the US, in around 50 words for each problem
5 (at least) sources that show us examples of the problems you’re talking about
5 responses, 100 words each, in which you describe your ideal solution to the problem
A Works Cited section NOTE: VeriCite is enabled, and you should check your score. Any borrowing without citation and/or quotation will result in a 0 on the assignment.

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