Utopian Thought and the Law of Nations

20 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2010

See all articles by Stas Getmanenko

Stas Getmanenko

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: November 18, 2010


Thomas More in his conversation with Raphael Hythloday agreed with Plato that "nations will be happy, when either philosophers become kings, or kings become philosophers." Some five hundred years following More's sojourn to the New Isle of Utopia, the "philosophers" remain in search of a societal order that would appropriately reflect and encompass the humanity’s best social and political contrivances.

Inasmuch as humanity remains governed by law, and "[a]ll laws are promulgated for this end, that every man may know his duty," the quest for a modern Utopia is then appropriately placed in the purview of jurisprudence. This legal essay does not make any grandiose attempts to devise a utopian or messianic scheme for a new world order. Instead, it compiles for the reader a collage of thoughts on this subject from the past. Additionally, the author presents the reader with a brief overview of certain historical events as they pertain to the ideas of utopian thought and the law of nations. When examined together, the historical events provide grounding context to otherwise abstract world of thought.

This essay also attempts to establish a meaningful connection between the study of the law of nations and the study of utopian thought. The author believes such a connection exists, and it has been left principally unexplored. Over the centuries, the law of nations has evolved primarily from the study of maxims imposed by mutual consent to a sophisticated joint approach to global economic and social governance. The utopian thought, on the other hand, evolved from the classical study of city-state governance to its climax in "the daring scientific fables" of "the humanization of outer space" and into relatively recent "impoverishment of utopian imagination."

Both studies have been, for the most part, responsive to contemporary social and scientific developments, although in substantially different ways. This essay suggests that an abstract continuum exists where utopian thought, reality, and the law of nations exist in that sequential order. Utopian thought foreshadows in an avant-garde and attempts to imagine a paradisiacal future by solving the problems tormenting the humanity today. Reality then occurs "as does an apple fall when it is ripe," with or without any influence from the utopians. And the law of nations then simply sorts through the yesteryears and approves (codifies) or disapproves (rejects) the recent historical novelties, subject, of course, to the constraints of the codification process.

If such approach is absolutely correct, then the utopians' efforts could be ennobling inasmuch as futile. Perhaps the most relevant question in this context concerns the amount of influence the utopian thought is able to exert on future history and on the law of nations. Vattel authored the following supplication: "if the conductors of states, if all those employed in public affairs, condescended to apply seriously to the study of a science which ought to be their law, and, as it were, the compass by which to steer their course, what happy effects might we not expect from a good treatise on the law of nations." Indeed! And do not these words echo those of Plato and More that "nations will be happy, when either philosophers become kings, or kings become philosophers?" Were Plato, More, and Vattel discouraged by the amount of influence their work had on the rulers, and in turn, on the citizens? Were their efforts ultimately fruitful in bringing to pass liberating change? Or were their works merely prognostic, hopeful, utopian?

In short, does the world and the law of nations need utopian thought today? This essay answers affirmatively. As one commentator points out: "great utopians have been great realists" with keen knowledge that "serves them as springboard for a jump into a future." The author is convinced that the humanity has not yet seen that "not a place" where harmony and civility abound. Onward then!

Keywords: international law, the law of nations, utopian thought, utopia, peace of westphalia, plato, thomas more, leo tolstoy, gandhi, emer de vattel, martin luther king, Jr., karl marx, utopian socialism, capitalism, natural law, globalization, UN, MERCOSUR, Andean Community, ASEAN, African Union, EU

JEL Classification: F01, F02, F23, F29, B12, B14, B15, K33

Suggested Citation

Getmanenko, Stas, Utopian Thought and the Law of Nations (November 18, 2010). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1711485 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1711485

Stas Getmanenko (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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