The Path of Mankind`s Woe

On the 8th March 1908 the Dutch writer and psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden outlined his philosophy in a speech at Carnegie Hall. He made a bold declaration, claiming that utopia was not just admirable in theory but evidently possible in practice. He was a learned and respected man, but seemingly unfamiliar with the niceties of political and economic theory.

He was renowned as a visionary and idealist, maintaining that humanity could not continue to survive through the pursuit of money. Instead he advocated a philosophy which now sounds extreme and unrealistic. He was convinced that people could be persuaded into living a purely ascetic and altruistic life. He thought that happiness was a state of mind only realised through selfless dedication.

In one of his famous moralistic essays he stated,

“Where mankind is, and her woe, there is my path”.

Dr. Van Eeden`s motivation for utopian societies derived from the often intractable problems endured by his patients. Many of them were afflicted by trauma, addiction and insurmountable depression.

Van Eeden opined that a world driven by materialism neglected the spiritual needs of its population. He established his own version of utopia in his native Holland, in a town called Bussum in the north of the country where the residents produced their own food and shared all of their goods. They also chose to eschew any luxury or comfort, as their lives were only dedicated to the well being of each other.

The community at Bussum was designed to resemble the self-sufficient dwelling of the American writer Henry David Thoreau, who famously built a hut in the wilderness of Massachusetts. However Thoreau`s dream project was only realised through private funds. The money question is the central dilemma obstructing the development of any utopian society. Also other questions arise whenever anyone suggests alternative communities. Many people would feel uncomfortable if they were forced to sacrifice their familial or individual identities.

Utopia literally translated means “nowhere place”. It is apt that the literal definition clashes with the ideology. Wealth has to be generated and earned to fund other people’s lifestyle choices. Not one innovation has been created in societies where the wealth is controlled by the state.

However many thinkers from the late nineteenth century onwards only saw the iniquities embedded within materialist societies and dreamed about alternative ways of existing. They lacked sufficient foresight to perceive the pitfalls of communitarian societies, and enthused lyrically about their vision of this mythical paradise.

In 1890 the British artist and writer William Morris wrote a fantasy novel on this subject. It was called “The News from Nowhere” and it imagined a socialist utopia. In Morris` fantasy there is no hardship, nor any crime because the only driver in this society is to do good to others. It now seems ridiculous to modern readers that such a sanitised version of reality was presented, and that Morris envisaged a set of flawless characters that appear hollow and barely human.

Van Eeden died in Bussum in 1932. Even in his later years he never stopped believing in the potential goodness of all human beings. His belief was admirable, but impractical. However the Bussum example has been proven to be a useful template in treating troubled individuals and has paved the way for future therapeutic communities and for this we must be thankful.

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