Between Utopia and Tradition: William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball

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Davidson, Joe 

William Morris, author of the famous nineteenth-century utopian novel News from Nowhere, thought it both possible and desirable to develop a utopian vision that could be affirmed by many individuals. However, Morris also recognised that achieving such utopian unity was not easy. There is, at least potentially, something personal about utopian visions; they are shaped by idiosyncratic desires that cannot be shared. Through a new reading of Morris’s A Dream of John Ball, I argue that Morris offers a temporal solution to the problem of utopian unity. The central characters in the text, medieval priest John Ball and a nineteenth century socialist agitator, come to recognise their shared adherence to the same image of a new society. This is achieved through the mediation of tradition: Ball and the agitator overcome their differences by committing themselves to disappointed hopes elaborated in past struggles that have been handed down to the present. Morris’s articulation of utopia and tradition – the sense that visions of the future can be made shareable through reference to the past – offers the possibility of a transtemporal solidarity of utopians and the bringing together of the dreams of a plurality of individuals.

50 Philosophy and Religious Studies, 5002 History and Philosophy Of Specific Fields
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The European Legacy: toward new paradigms
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Taylor & Francis
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ESRC (ES/J500033/1)
Economic and Social Research Council 1+3 Scholarship for MPhil and PhD. Grant number ES/J500033/1.