Plato's American Republic: 'Complex marriage', 'male continence' and the selection of the perfect partner were all themes propounded by a 19th-century cult in New York State. Clive Foss explores the influence of Plato's Republic on John Humphrey Noyes and his Perfectionist movement.
Plato's Republic begins with an investigation of justice, with his teacher Socrates leading the discussion. Socrates first posits that a division of labour is essential, with all those necessary for a successful common existence devoting themselves to their special tasks. Since the state will have to fight wars--this was ancient Greece, after all--it will need trained warriors who will practice no other occupation. He calls them the Guardians; they will protect and essentially rule the state. The Guardians must be brave, serious, temperate, healthy and indifferent to wealth. A comprehensive education that trained both body and mind would instil virtue in them and banish the luxury and vice that lead to corruption. When they have completed their training they become rulers. The younger ones, still in their long process of education, will be auxiliaries who carry out the orders of the Guardians, while beneath them lies the class of farmers and craftsmen. A peculiar ideology will justify this stratification: the people will be told that they are gold, silver or bronze by nature and that their place in society is ordained.
The future Guardians must be removed from everything that might lead to disharmony. To that end, they should live the austere life of the military camp. They must not own houses or land, for possession of wealth, Socrates argues, inevitably leads to the discord, jealousy and hatred that can disrupt society. The Guardians will have no property and live a communal existence; the rest of the citizens will provide their support. To ensure social stability every citizen will stick to his own trade or occupation and avoid meddling with matters for which he is not qualified. This stable society will guarantee justice--the aim of the entire exercise.
Socrates goes on to advocate ever more radical changes, the first involving women. In most of the Greek states, women were secluded and played no part in public life. The ideal Republic would be different; since they have the same inherent qualities as men, women should receive the same education and participate equally in running the state. They should share the lives of the men, live in the same communal houses and meet at the common meals. Since having men and women live together in close quarters could raise jealousy and discord, Socrates proposed a solution parallel to his treatment of housing and money, that the wives and children of the Guardians were to be in common and that no parents were to know their own children, nor children their parents. He advocated a programme of eugenics, analogous to the breeding of hunting dogs or birds, where the best of either sex would be united as often as possible, and the inferior with the inferior as seldom. The braver and better youth might have greater facilities of intercourse with women and father as many sons as possible.
The products of these unions were to be segregated at birth: officials would entrust the best children to nurses who lived in special buildings, while the children of the inferior, or any deformed infant, would be put away and never seen again. The parents would not know which were their children or vice versa, so that family ties would be replaced by those of community. In this way, the state (or at least its ruling class) would constitute one large family and discord, the enemy of all good societies, would disappear. Communality of property and families would destroy the basis for disputes as the distinction between 'mine' and 'not mine' disappeared; and with it would vanish lawsuits, assaults and all similar evils.
Such a state may be ideal, but how to create and maintain it? Socrates argued that cities would never have rest from their troubles until philosophers were kings. The ideal state, therefore, would be a kind of monarchy whose ruler, the philosopher, must have outstanding qualities: a lover of truth and justice, of such magnificent intellect that he is not primarily concerned with daily existence, brave, good-natured, temperate, with an excellent memory and a clear sense of proportion. These philosopher-kings would be the product of highly specialised training and have experience of public office.
This ideal state remained on the drawing boards. When Plato did have the opportunity to influence politics--he was invited to advise the ruler of Syracuse--he confined himself to trying to instil virtue and philosophy into a recalcitrant subject, rather than proposing any of Socrates' extreme measures. Likewise, when philosophers actually did manage to rule states, they either became tyrants or followed a moderate path. It remained for a modern democratic society to produce a Platonic mini-state, which not only adopted theories like Plato's but even found ways of putting them into practice. Communism of property and of women, as well as eugenics, flourished successfully among the Perfectionists of 19th-century New York State. Although their society differed from Plato's in some fundamental respects, its application of similar principles suggests how the Republic might actually have worked.
The Founding Fathers of the new American nation were steeped in the classics. As they made their plans for a new government, they constantly looked back to antiquity, where they drew much inspiration from the Romans, for Greek democracy was viewed as too radical and unstable, while the Roman republic had lasted for centuries. Plato rarely appears in the debates about the American constitution, since his constructs were considered too idealistic to have any practical value; his influence as a political model was negligible. Yet his philosophy played a major role in the curricula of higher education and certainly impinged on John Humphrey Noyes (1811-80), whose main inspiration, though, came from a different philosophy, that of the Bible. Noyes founded a religious community of which he was the unquestioned head. His doctrine of Perfectionism, his idiosyncratic interpretation of the scriptures and the relative isolation in which his people lived enabled him to create a society that in many ways resembles Plato's Republic.
Noyes was born in Vermont, a close contemporary of another Vermonter, Joseph Smith (1805-44), the prophet of the Mormons. He was well educated, achieving distinction at Dartmouth College, where the Greek and Latin classics were prominent in the curriculum, and went on to study law. In 1831, however, he attended a revival meeting that changed his life; he felt he had been miraculously saved from sin and resolved to devote himself to the service of God. This took him to the theological school at Andover, Massachusetts, then to Yale Divinity School, where in 1834 a revelation convinced Noyes that he had a special relation to the divinity and that he could achieve a kind of personal perfection that would allow him to live entirely free from sin--or at least enable him to avoid knowingly doing anything wrong. As usual, a careful reading of the scriptures justified his view: since the lamb of God takes away the sins of the world, it followed that anyone who truly adopted the teachings of Jesus would become free from sin. Such a doctrine suited the optimistic atmosphere of the time, with its notion of unlimited possibilities of human progress, for it taught that individuals could achieve perfection and thus hasten the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven on this earth. However convincing all this was to Noyes, the Yale authorities were not impressed; they expelled him for heresy and took away his licence to preach.
Noyes struck out on his own, convinced that God had chosen him to lead a heavenly kingdom on earth. Love and harmony were key concepts for the group that Noyes gathered in Putney, Vermont, in 1838. His followers tended to be rural and small-town people with a cross-section of occupations. During the decade of its existence, Noyes worked out the doctrines and practices that would form the basis of the larger, more famous and successful Perfectionist community of Oneida, New York, that lasted more than 30 years (1848-80).
To achieve perfection individuals had to live in harmony with the group and subordinate their interests to it. They subordinated themselves to Noyes, swearing to submit themselves in all things spiritual and temporal because he was the overseer whom the Holy Ghost had appointed. In other words, this tiny community was a theocracy. Its members had to avoid the possessiveness, jealousy and competitiveness that arose from property and differences in wealth. From the mid-1840s on, therefore, they agreed to share all their belongings, giving their goods and money over to the community and in turn being supported by it. Noyes saw this also as a means of imitating the earliest Christians, who after the Pentecost had all things in common, sold all their goods and distributed them as needed (Acts 2:44-45). In the creation of his ideal 'state', Noyes took the same first step as Plato, who saw private property as the inevitable source of divisiveness and so ordained communism for his Guardians.
Noyes had long turned his attention to marriage and sexuality, for which he found some remarkable solutions. Once again, he based his doctrine on scripture, notably Matthew 22:30 where Jesus is quoted as saying 'in the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage'. This was normally taken to mean that Heaven was a sexless kind of place, but Noyes saw it differently. He maintained, on the contrary, that Jesus actually meant there would be no conventional monogamous marriage in Heaven. Jesus had also prayed that all men should be one and perfect in one (John 17: 21-23) and that they should love God and their neighbours. For Noyes this meant that there should be no exclusivity in marriage, but that all men would be married to all women, a system he called 'complex marriage: In a letter of 1837, which became notorious when its recipient allowed it to be published, Noyes wrote that 'when the will of God is done on earth as it is in Heaven, there will be no marriage. The marriage supper of the Lamb is a feast at which every dish is flee to every guest. Exclusiveness, jealousy, quarreling have no place there.' He therefore introduced complex marriage at Putney and maintained it with considerable success in Oneida. Not surprisingly, rumours of the community's practices spread and when Noyes was charged with adultery and the atmosphere in Putney became openly hostile he and his group decamped to remote Oneida, in the centre of New York state, where they reconstituted themselves in 1848. From an initial 30 members they grew to over 300 by the 1860s.
Like Plato, Noyes saw sexual rivalry as an important force in disrupting the harmony of a community and like Plato he believed that women should have the same privileges and rights as men. This became a striking aspect of the Oneida community, where men and women shared the same jobs. The community in fact was a busy place: everyone pitched in to help with necessary tasks while profitable production--at first of a superior animal trap, then of the silver-plated flatware whose flame long outlasted the religious community-provided an economic base. Members were inventive, producing among other ingenious devices the Lazy Suzan that enables dishes of food to circulate easily round the dining table. Since the women all worked, they rejected the demands of Victorian fashion, cut their hair short and wore pantaloons under their short skirts.
The Perfectionists lived and ate together in the specially designed Mansion House that they built themselves. A substantial three-storey brick structure it featured common facilities. The dining room was large enough to accommodate everyone; seating in it was according to the position members happened to occupy in the serving line, so that cliques could not form. A grand meeting room with a stage was the setting for the regular evening assemblies and for the frequent entertainments the members put on. Private quarters consisted of narrow individual rooms with single beds. They were suitable for casual meetings and provided surveillance of the bedrooms, where sexual activity was not supposed to take place. For that, trysting rooms were made available for an hour or two.
Community, not individuality, dominated and privacy was virtually non-existent. Since competitiveness could lead to jealousy and disharmony, the members followed Noyes' injunction that they should all be mediocre, not trying to rise above the others. Members who did stand out over-achievers and shirkers alike--had to face the Mutual Criticism sessions, which could be devastating.
At first, Noyes had hesitated to intro duce complex marriage at Putney, not just because of social disapproval from the outside world, but because it would produce a mass of illegitimate children. He found a solution derived from his own experience in 'male continence', whereby in sexual congress the man would not ejaculate, though the woman could be completely satisfied. He had already discovered and applied this practice at Putney in 1844 and discussed it in detail in Male Continence, a pamphlet published in 1872, in flank terms very uncharacteristic of the time.
After his wife Harriet Holton gave birth to four premature babies, all of whom died, Noyes took the view that unnecessary pregnancy was a great evil that his wife (who had joined the Perfectionists in 1834 after reading an article by Noyes, whom she married in 1838) should never suffer again. Yet he was opposed to abortion, which he called baby-killing, and considered total abstinence as unnatural and unnecessary. For Noyes the sexual act was 'amative' (pleasurable and social) as well as 'propagative' (fur reproduction). The amative, as experienced by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, had been primary till their expulsion from Paradise made the propagative dominant. Noyes divided the sexual act into three parts: presence of the male organ in the female; a series of reciprocal motions; and the ejaculatory crisis. The order of nature and gratification of the amative instincts could be achieved by eliminating the propagative crisis stage. Noyes knew from experience not only that this was possible, but that a couple could have a satisfactory sex life without the male climax. He responded to criticism that coitus interruptus would lead to tensions and nervous disease by commissioning a study of his own community (carried out by his son) that showed that psychiatric disturbance was less common at Oneida than in the general population.
This system actually worked; the members of the community had active sex lives but produced few children (only 31 in 20 years between 1848 and 1869). Noyes was careful to avoid complete sexual freedom, however, which could also undermine the community. As in Plato's Republic, where the elders regulated the choice of partners and procreation, Noyes set up an elaborate system to enable complex marriage to function without disruption. Sexual liaisons were strictly controlled; prospective partners had to be approved by a Central Guidance Committee made up of Noyes, his family and close older associates, and their activity was carefully regulated so that no exclusive attachments could be formed. The committee enforced liaisons between younger and older members, whereby the experienced could initiate the novices and so that sexual satisfaction should reach the whole community, ensuring a measure of enjoyment to those past the peak of sexual attraction. Noyes himself often initiated the adolescent girls, while his wife and sister took care of the young boys. After members reached their 20s, they had a freer choice of partners.
Plato also advocated a community of children: offspring of his Guardians should be raised and educated by the state. But according to his ideal, children should not know who their parents were and vice versa. Plato never explained how this could be accomplished; Noyes dealt with the practicalities. Despite complex marriage, Oneida produced children and some were brought in by converts. Their upbringing was Platonic. As soon as they were weaned, they were taken away from their parents and lodged in the Children's House, where they received all their basic education, training and socialisation from adults to whom they were not related. Unlike Plato, Noyes was under no illusion that parents and children could be kept from knowing each other. But while children knew their parents, they saw them less often than their guardians in a system designed to diminish the natural bonds of affection (an exclusive, potentially disruptive force) by distributing the love between children and adults as widely as possible. Adults reminiscing about their time in the children's house usually saw it as happy, though the mothers had the most difficult time adjusting to the loss of their offspring.
As time went on it became clear that the Kingdom of Heaven was not immediately at hand, so Noyes took a further step for strengthening defence against the Devil. He allowed the community to reproduce naturally, but along strictly eugenic lines, what he called 'stirpiculture'. In this he was greatly influenced by the new theories of Darwin and by the works of Francis Galton (1822-1911), the founder of modern eugenics. But in his 1875 Essay on Scientific Propagation, where he explained his novel doctrine, Noyes quoted a highly relevant passage from the fifth book of Plato's Republic where Socrates leads the dialogue from the breeding of animals to that of people. Like Plato, Noyes saw the possibility of improving the human race by selective breeding. Marriage, of course, was anathema to such improvement, for it substituted haphazard mating for scientific selection. In Oneida eugenics meant that those with the highest level of spiritual development would be favoured as parents. The community accepted the new dispensation, often applying in couples to a selection committee, which could accept or reject the application, or suggest suitable couplings. This experiment produced 45 children between 1869 and 1879, nine of whom were sired by Noyes himself, since he was the closest to perfection. Ironically, stirpiculture was one of the roots of the ultimate failure of the community, since these parents, who could not avoid the exclusive love of their children, tended to favour matrimony and often attracted the unwelcome jealousy of those not selected to participate.
By 1878 the community was in trouble. Noyes was ageing, the Kingdom of Heaven seemed no nearer and Oneidans were entering into closer contact with the outside world. Add to that the growing dissatisfaction of younger members with the sexual restrictions, Noyes entrusting administration increasingly to his incompetent son Theodore and the ever-louder opposition from established churches, and the end soon came. In June 1879 Noyes fled to Canada to avoid a lawsuit and arrest on moral grounds; two months later complex marriage and mutual criticism came to an end and the following year the community was replaced by a corporation, the Oneida Community Limited, a joint-stock company with shares allocated according to the contributions of the members, which long continued as a successful business noted for its silver plate. In the final analysis everything had depended on the active leadership of Noyes; as his powers declined the baser aspects of human nature that he and Plato both feared came to the fore.
Communism, sharing wives, women's rights, eugenics--all sound like a recreation of Plato's Republic in the New World, but with some significant differences. Most important, the Perfectionists were no small elite class of Guardians, organised for war. On the contrary, they were workers and farmers, actively involved in every aspect of the life of the community and highly motivated, practical and innovative; they had nothing to do with the military. Likewise, their education was relatively normal, with a high dose of Bible study, not the arduous philosophical training of the Guardians. Politically, though, there were some resemblances. Although no one would call Noyes a philosopher-king, he, like the perfected Guardians, did have complete control of the religious and social lives of his followers, a power he exercised through a small inner circle. Though he left most day-to-day decisions to the body as a whole and never hesitated to change plans and adapt to circumstances, in the final analysis he exercised a kind of despotic or dictatorial control, made all the firmer by the social system he put into practice.
It is hard to know how far the Perfectionist movement was directly influenced by Plato. Noyes, of course, always appealed to the Bible to support his audacious social experiments but he did study Greek at Dartmouth and his brother and close associate Horatio was a scholar of the classics at Yale. It is likely, therefore, that Noyes knew the Republic from an early age; he certainly did by the 1860s, when he proclaimed 'stirpiculture: In any case his community incorporated so many Platonic elements that it can at least serve as an illustration of one way the philosopher's teachings could have been applied.
It was Noyes who had the ultimate power over the sex lives of the Community and it was Noyes who instituted and often presided over the greatest element of social control--public sessions where the wayward were exposed to detailed criticisms of their actions by the others. In other words, a tightly controlled Platonic community came into being in America and enjoyed a moment of considerable success.
Further reading Plato, The Republic (many editions and translations); Spencer Klaw, Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community (Penguin, 1993); Maren Lockwood Carden, Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation (Johns Hopkins, 1971); J. H. Noyes, Male Continence (published together with Essay on Scientific Propagation and Salvation from Sin; New York 1974; also available at http://libwww.syr.edu/digital/collections, as is his Bible Communism); Robert Parker, Yankee Saint (Putnam, 1935).
Clive Foss teaches history at Georgetown University.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2010|
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