For some people, the world as it is just isn't good enough. But where do they get their ideas about what might be created instead? John Walsh ponders the mystery of vision
There are two kinds of visionary: one kind looks into the future and sees what isn't there – yet. The other looks at the everyday, mundane reality and sees its true essence in a way that hasn't been grasped before. The former is rational and concrete, the latter is instinctive and spiritual.
History has tended to divide the two types into poets and scientists, the one a proclaimer of the imagination's importance, the other a pragmatist who sets out to change the world, for good or ill.
The poet and engraver William Blake is literature's most hard-core visionary; he genuinely saw visions. He saw all of Creation as interconnected, and all living things as sharing a stake in divinity.
This vision of the holiness of nature is a central tenet of the Romantic movement. The Romantics wrote, in a visionary delirium, about the dignity of peasants and the human being's place in the natural world, dwarfed but somehow ennobled by the sublime sights around him.
But the period in which they wrote – at the end of what is known as the Enlightenment – was also a magnificent time for visionaries of the non-poetic kind. It was when philosophy gave way to "natural philosophy", which meant asking questions about the world and finding that, surprisingly, some answers were available. Natural philosophy gradually became science. The key to the explorers of the new world was vision – suddenly, they could see through a telescope the bewildering greatness of the universe, or through a microscope the tiny particles of which the universe is made up.
Sir Joseph Banks, an insatiably curious Old Etonian, joined Captain Cook at the age of 26 in sailing the Endeavour around the world; his function was to collect specimens of plants and animals, but, in Tahiti, other things came under his scrutiny. He became fascinated by the natives' behavioural patterns; fascinated enough to keep records of everything they did and said. As well as the plants and flowers he brought home to London, he also brought into being a new, unheard-of science, which later evolved into anthropology.
He empowered other visionaries, too, notably William Herschel, a music teacher and composer, who turned a hobby of astronomy into a passion and became George III's personal astronomer. Herschel observed and made notes on every visible star (over 9,000 of them) and discovered Uranus in 1781. Not only that, he identified nebulae as far-off galaxies which were continuously unfolding and withering.
A century earlier, Isaac Newton had laid the foundations for modern physics, mechanics, cosmology and a dozen other scientific areas. Many of his discoveries came from simple observation, but observation followed by Homeric feats of speculation and guesswork. And so the laws that govern the universe were discovered by a process that can best be described as intelligent wool-gathering.
Sadly the majority of political visionaries, from Plato to Adolf Hitler, have been dark, repressive figures whose speculations as to the perfect society were coloured by personal psychological demons.
It's intriguing to see how some forward thinkers start out with revelations of the future that are full of goodness, virtue and tolerance, but gradually harden into something unyielding and stern. Gerrard Winstanley was a cloth merchant from Wigan, who in 1648 began to hear voices in his head, telling him "that the earth shall be made a common treasure of livelihood to whole mankind, without respect of persons... that everyone shall be a lord of himself..."
He and 20-odd friends cultivated some waste ground in Surrey, sowing vegetables, moving in livestock and inviting passers-by to help them, with a view to establishing a commune. They built little cottages and "hutches" to live in. It didn't last long. Local landlords asked for military assistance and personally attacked the commune and drove them away, cows, children and all.
The modern age is full of comparable voices: new religious and political ideologues, whether Islamic radicals or Christian fundamentalists, both demanding the rise of a morally cleansed West; but it is also full of the more ruminative descendants of the Romantics, such as the internet visionaries and know-no-boundaries cyber-geeks, whose technological visions sometimes merge with social ones.
The visions of both poet and pragmatist start from the same impulse: from indignation that the rest of mankind fails to see what lies in front of it – whether that's the dignity of animals, the soul of Nature, the humanity of the underclass or the dimness of human understanding.