Thoreau Takes On Technological Utopianism in “Paradise (to be) Regained”

In my ongoing project of bringing to the web more of Thoreau’s writings on political philosophy, I come now to a piece he wrote in for the United States Magazine and Democratic Review titled Paradise (to be) Regained.

It does not touch on the things I find most compelling about Thoreau’s political thinking — such as the conflict between individual conscience and state demands — but it has been a fun one to work with because of its humor value, and because it intersects a number of quirky side-roads of American history.

Thoreau is reviewing John Adolphus Etzler’s The Paradise within the Reach of all Men, without Labor, by Powers of Nature and Machinery: An Address to all intelligent men, in two parts, which had come out in a new edition (Google Books has a scan of an earlier edition if you’re curious).

The book is technological utopianism taken to amazing extremes. Etzler believed that the technology of his time was adequate, if astutely applied, to usher in a paradise on earth in which nobody would need to toil, all needs would be provided, and the earth would be transformed into palaces and gardens. He just needed about ten years and some start-up financing; the blueprints were already written-up.

Thoreau’s review includes several lengthy excerpts from Etzler’s book that give a good feel for its contents and its bombast (the opening paragraph, for instance). In fact, to a large extent, Thoreau lets the book review itself through these demonstrative excerpts, only occasionally stopping to advance a minor technical quibble against a grandiose technological extrapolation or to experiment with going even further out on Etzler’s limb.

Thoreau sees Etzler’s mad utopian dreams as being something like the unstated and unconscious wishes of the more moderate and practical technological utopians of his time — the trajectory wished for (but never out loud) by the Industrial Revolutionaries and scientists and reformers: “Let us not succumb to nature. We will marshal the clouds and restrain tempests; we will bottle up pestilent exhalations; we will probe for earthquakes, grub them up, and give vent to the dangerous gas; we will disembowel the volcano, and extract its poison, take its seed out.” And why stop there?

We will wash water, and warm fire, and cool ice, and underprop the earth. We will teach birds to fly, and fishes to swim, and ruminants to chew the cud. It is time we had looked into these things.

But though Etzler’s ends — all these man-made islands, full of gardens and palaces, taking their passengers to follow an eternal Spring around the oceans of the world — still seem ridiculous, his means today merely seem ahead of their time.

Etzler looked at the universe and saw it as an untapped bounty of renewable energy resources: waves, wind, sun, tide. All of these resources, so it seemed to him, could be tapped using the technology of the day: sails and windmills to turn the wind into mechanical motion, mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays and generate steam, and so forth. Mankind just needed to get off its butt and start helping itself to this wealth.

Etzler supplemented this by proposing solutions to the problem that these energy sources can be intermittent: the sun goes down, winds and waves calm. He pointed out that energy can be stored — one battery he proposed for this purpose was to use surplus energy to push water uphill into reservoirs; this energy could then be retapped at any time by running the water back down over a wheel. We use this technology today under the name pumped hydrostorage.

He also proposed that huge amounts of energy be generated at a central location and then distributed to enterprises over a large area, rather than just being produced on a small-scale at individual factories and farms.

He tried on a few occasions to put one of these energy-hub “Satellites” (as he called them) into action, but without much success. An amusing account of one attempt comes from one Andreas (Andrew) Smolnikar, who described himself as: “Formerly eighteen years priest benedictine monk and imperial royal professor of biblical literature; afterwards , by signs according to prophecies declared and confirmed representative of messengers for the introduction of the universal republic, commonly although improperly called the millennium.”

Smolnikar believed in Etzler’s dream, but for a different reason:

[Etzler] was a great materialist, not knowing that he himself was a strong medium of spirits of a similar character as spirits of Napoleon were, to subdue the world by physical means, while I considered that machine as the means of peculiar spirit manifestations to awaken nations from their materialism to our message of peace containing the true spiritualism.

So Smolnikar signed on to the project and they tried to bring the Satellite to life in Pennsylvania. The first version failed, as some of its parts broke (as Smolnikar tells us a seeress foreordained). The second version was even more plagued:

[The project’s lead engineer] was brought into the Allegheny River and drowned by the instrumentality of the departed Mormon Prophet Joe Smith, not directly but indirectly by the instrumentality of a cow. But a week after that, on , the same destroying spirit Joe Smith was allowed to attack me directly, to show how he would be able to kill a man, if he would be permitted. But he was seized by my guardian and cast into a combustible matter which was by his infernal electricity instantly kindled.

(These quotes come from Smolnikar’s magnificently-titled book Secret enemies of true republicanism, most important developments regarding the inner life of man and the spirit world, in order to abolish revolutions and wars and to establish permanent peace on earth, also: the plan for redemption of nations from monarchical and other oppressive speculations and for the introduction of the promised new era of harmony, truth and righteousness on the whole globe.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson had recommended Etzler’s book to Thoreau and suggested that he write the review. Emerson himself had been impressed enough by Etzler’s technological prescience to worry about whether the vast energy and machinery of the future would make the working class obsolete and endangered.

Also, where the Concord and Merrimack Rivers meet, at Lowell, Massachusetts, about 15 miles North of where Thoreau lived, and at , John Greenleaf Whittier was writing about his own memories of Etzler in The City of a Day.

Whittier’s essay was about the city of Lowell — “this new world Manchester” — that was tapping the energy of the Concord and Merrimack to become a boomtown of the emerging mechanized textile industry.

Lowell’s mills were the real-life cutting edge of the sort of dreams Etzler was weaving, and Whittier stopped to notice that Etzler’s paradise — of palaces and gardens and people freed from drudgery to enjoy their plenty — seemed no closer there:

To [Etzler’s] mind the great forces of Nature took the shape of mighty and benignant spirits, sent hitherward to be the servants of man in restoring to him his lost paradise; waiting only for his word of command to apply their giant energies to the task, but as yet struggling blindly and aimlessly, giving ever and anon gentle hints, in the way of earthquake, fire, and flood, that they are weary of idleness, and would fain be set at work. Looking down, as I now do, upon these huge brick workshops, I have thought of poor Etzler, and wondered whether he would admit, were he with me, that his mechanical forces have here found their proper employment of millennium making. Grinding on, each in his iron harness, invisible, yet shaking, by his regulated and repressed power, his huge prison-house from basement to capstone, is it true that the genii of mechanism are really at work here, raising us, by wheel and pulley, steam and waterpower, slowly up that inclined plane from whose top stretches the broad table-land of promise?

Every web which falls from these restless looms has a history more or less connected with sin and suffering, beginning with slavery and ending with overwork and premature death.

As Thoreau sees it (once he gets the review behind him and starts letting his own philosophy take center stage) the problem is not that we have not applied sufficient energy and technology to put our great schemes into action, but that we have not energetically applied ourselves to improve our schemes. Etzler would have a person harness the wind, waves, sun, and moon who hasn’t even developed self-control.

Thus is Paradise to be Regained, and that old and stern decree at length reversed. Man shall no more earn his living by the sweat of his brow. All labor shall be reduced to “a short turn of some crank,” and “taking the finished article away.” But there is a crank, — oh, how hard to be turned! Could there not be a crank upon a crank, — an infinitely small crank? — we would fain inquire. No, — alas! not. But there is a certain divine energy in every man, but sparingly employed as yet, which may be called the crank within, — the crank after all, — the prime mover in all machinery, — quite indispensable to all work. Would that we might get our hands on its handle!