Definition of Utopia
A utopia is a nearly perfect or ideal society or community. Most utopias, whether real or fictional, are theoretically based on egalitarian principles in which the members of the community have equal rights, control over the direction of the society, and access to resources. Utopias are generally considered to be peaceful communities. Different ideologies have produced different types of utopias, such as ones in which there are no taxes, no laws, no money, and so on (though many hypothetical utopias do have some form of all of these aforementioned things). Utopias are perhaps more prevalent in literature than in reality, as they are notoriously difficult to maintain. More prevalent still are dystopias, which are often supposed to have started off as utopias. Many dystopia examples involve the perversion of once-noble goals.
The word utopia was coined by Sir Thomas More, an English philosopher and statesmen, in his 1615 book Utopia. He derived the term from the Greek prefix ou (ou-), meaning “not” and the word τόπος (topos), meaning “place.” The original definition of utopia thus was simply “nowhere,” which More chose to emphasize the fictionality of the island. Over time, however, it was a common misunderstanding that the prefix of the word came from the Greek eὐ (eu-), meaning “good.” Since More wrote about a kind of perfect society, the word utopia came to stand for any similar idealized society. Later, the word dystopia was created for the opposite concept.
Common Examples of Utopia
There have been many attempts throughout human history to create real examples of utopias. Most of these have failed, many of them spectacularly so. Here are just a few examples of real utopias:
- Brook Farm: A Massachusetts community that lasted for 5 years in the 19th century, founded on the principles of transcendentalism.
- The Republic of Minerva: Founded in 1972 on American Libertarian principles of no taxation or welfare, the Republic of Minerva was located on an artificial island in the South Pacific. It attracted multimillionaires, and also the ire of nearby Fiji and Tonga, who fought over possession of the island.
- Arcosanti: Built in Arizona on the principles of Italian architect Paolo Soleri which involved the alignment of architecture with ecology, Arcosanti exists to this day. It has not flourished as Soleri wished mostly due to its remoteness in the Arizona desert.
Significance of Utopia in Literature
As noted above, Sir Thomas More created the definition of utopia to describe a fictional island society in the Atlantic Ocean. Some notable features of the fictional community include a lack of private property, free hospitals, all meals taken in communal dining halls, and an even distribution of resources amongst the people.
More’s book was not the first exploration of a utopian society—arguably, that award goes to Plato for his book The Republic—but it did increase the popularity of the genre and influenced other notable works such as New Atlantis by Francis Bacon and Candide by Voltaire. Whereas the genre of dystopia is still very popular, and indeed there are more examples of dystopia being written now than ever before, the popularity of utopias has diminished noticeably. The most famous examples of utopian fiction come to us from the 16th-19th centuries, and there have been no recent utopia examples for the past two decades. It is difficult to pinpoint why exactly this is the case. The difference in the two genres is that dystopia examples point out the wrongs in society by showing what could happen if they were taken to an extreme, whereas a utopia example shows the failings of society by demonstrating the good that could happen if they were reversed.
Examples of Utopia in Literature
Then the just man will not be any different from the just city with respect to the form itself of justice, but will be like it.
(The Republic by Plato)
Written in 380 BCE, Plato’s Republic is perhaps the first example of utopia ever described in literature. It’s also often credited with founding the entire field of philosophy. Much of the book is concerned with the nature of justice, just as the above quote is. The ideal society in this Socratic discussion is one ruled by philosopher-kings, and contains no slavery and no discrimination between men and women. Plato advocated for universal education for all citizens of this utopia, as well as the abolishment of all riches.
What kind of justice is it when a nobleman, a goldsmith, a moneylender, or someone else who makes his living by doing either nothing at all or something completely useless to the commonwealth gets to live a life of luxury and grandeur, while in the meantime a laborer, carter, or a farmer works so hard and so constantly that even beasts of burden would scarcely endure it?
(Utopia by Thomas More)
Similar to Plato’s Republic, the perfect society that Thomas More explores in his novel Utopia is chiefly concerned with economic justice and equal rights. It is interesting to consider that humans have come to these same conclusions for thousands of years, and yet we are still grappling with how to make these idyllic parameters for a society come true.
Temperance, industry, exercise, and cleanliness, are the lessons equally enjoined to the young ones of both sexes: and my master thought it monstrous in us, to give the females a different kind of education from the males, except in some articles of domestic management; whereby, as he truly observed, one half of our natives were good for nothing but bringing children into the world; and to trust the care of our children to such useless animals, he said, was yet a greater instance of brutality.
(Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift)
One of the many societies that Gulliver encounters during his travels is a group of horses called the Houyhnhnms. They live in as close to a utopia as can be found in the novel. Many common features of utopias are found here, as shown in the excerpt above. Male and female horses and educated in the same way, and positive virtues such as “temperance, industry, exercise, and cleanliness” are of utmost importance. These horses don’t have laws, and live instead by rationality and reason. They accept only facts, and have no opinions, and value friendship and benevolence above all else. Marriage is not based on love, and is supposed to lead to two children—one male and one female—with an allowance for another if one of these children dies. However, even in this utopian society there are less-than-ideal factors, such as a tendency towards the principles of eugenics (breeding out “inferior” qualities).
When we say men, man, manly, manhood, and all the other masculine-derivatives, we have in the background of our minds a huge vague crowded picture of the world and all its activities. . . . And when we say women, we think female—the sex.
But to these women . . . the word woman called up all that big background, so far as they had gone in social development; and the word man meant to them only male—the sex.
(Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novel Herland explores a female-only island society capable of reproducing asexually. This example of utopia is a pacifist community that reveres education above all else. Three men visit the society and are shocked by the change in what they view as traditional gender roles and the lack of property and communal raising and education of the children.
Test Your Knowledge of Utopia
1. Which of the following statements is the best utopia definition?
A. An impossible society that can never be achieved.
B. A piece of literature that reveals societal ills in a pessimistic way.
C. A community founded on ideal conditions, usually of an egalitarian nature.
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2. Which of the following features would you not likely find in an example of a utopia, real or fictional?
A. Lack of private property
B. A totalitarian government
C. No discrimination between men and women
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3. Which of the following statements is true?
A. There are no contemporary examples of utopias in literature.
B. The first known literary description of a utopian society was in Sir Thomas More’s novel Utopia.
C. Utopian novels are gaining in popularity, while the dystopian novel is dying out.
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