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Arcadia (utopia)

This page is about the proverbial land of Arcadia; for the province in modern Greece, see Arcadia; for other uses see arcadia (disambiguation)

Arcadia (Greek: Ἀρκαδία) refers to a Utopian vision of pastoralism and harmony with nature. The term is derived from the Greek province of the same name which dates to antiquity; the province's mountainous topography and sparse population of pastoralists later caused the word Arcadia to develop into a poetic byword for an idyllic vision of unspoiled wilderness. The Utopian vision, Arcadia, is associated with bountiful natural splendor, harmony, and is often inhabited by shepherds. The concept also figures in Renaissance mythology.

The inhabitants were often regarded as having continued to live after the manner of the Golden Age, without the pride and avarice that corrupted other regions. It is also sometimes referred to in English poetry as Arcady. The inhabitants of this region bear an obvious connection to the figure of the Noble savage, both being regarded as living close to nature, uncorrupted by civilization, and virtuous.

Arcadia in antiquity

According to Greek mythology, Arcadia of Peloponnesus was the domain of Pan, the virgin wilderness home of the god of the forest and his court of dryads, nymphs and other spirits of nature. It was a version of paradise, though only in the sense of being the abode of supernatural entities, not an afterlife for deceased mortals.

Arcadia has remained a popular artistic subject since antiquity, both in visual arts and literature. Images of beautiful nymphs frolicking in lush forests have been a frequent source of inspiration for painters and sculptors. Greek mythology inspired the Roman poet Virgil to write his Eclogues, a series of poems set in Arcadia. As a result of the influence of Virgil in medieval European literature (see, for example, The Divine Comedy), Arcadia became a symbol of pastoral simplicity. European Renaissance writers (for instance, the Spanish poet Garcilaso de la Vega) often revisited the theme, and the name came to apply to any idyllic location or paradise. Unlike the word "utopia" (named for Thomas More's book, Utopia), "Arcadia" does not carry the connotation of a human civilization; Arcadia is presented as the spontaneous result of life lived naturally, uncorrupted by civilization.

Of particular note is Et in Arcadia ego by Nicholas Poussin, which has become famous both in its own right and because of its (possible) connection with the gnostic histories of the Rosicrucians (see below). In 1502 Jacopo Sannazaro published his long poem Arcadia that fixed the Early Modern perception of Arcadia as a lost world of idyllic bliss, remembered in regretful dirges. In the 1590s Sir Philip Sidney circulated copies of his influential heroic romance poem The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia establishing Arcadia as an icon of the Renaissance; although the story is plentifully supplied with shepherds and other pastoral figures, the central characters of the plot are all royalty visiting the countryside.

[...] Does not the pleasantness of this place carry in itself sufficient reward for any time lost in it, or for any such danger that might ensue? Do you not see how everything conspires together to make this place a heavenly dwelling? Do you not see the grass, how in color they excel the emeralds [...]? Do not these stately trees seem to maintain their flourishing old age, with the only happiness of their seat being clothed with a continual spring, because no beauty here should ever fade? Doth not the air breathe health which the birds (both delightful both to the ear and eye) do daily solemnize with the sweet consent of their voices? Is not every echo here a perfect music? And these fresh and delightful brooks, how slowly they slide away, as, loath to leave the company of so many things united in perfection, and with how sweet a murmur they lament their forced departure. Certainly, certainly, cousin, it must needs be, that some goddess this desert belongs unto, who is the soul of this soil, for neither is any less than a goddess worthy to be shrined in such a heap of pleasures, nor any less than a goddess could have made it so perfect a model of the heavenly dwellings. [...]

Though depicted as contemporary, this pastoral form is often connected with the Golden Age. It may be suggested that its inhabitants have merely continued to live as people did in the Golden Age, and all other nations have less pleasant lives because they have allowed themselves to depart from the original simplicity.

Modern usage

Arcadia is now the name of many cities and towns around the world.

In 1945, Evelyn Waugh titled the first part of his novel Brideshead Revisited with the phrase 'Et in Arcadia ego', referring to his protagonist's blissful and innocent interbellum years as an undergraduate student at Oxford University at the height of the British Empire and his new-found friendship with an eccentric aristocratic family.

In 1993, Tom Stoppard wrote an acclaimed play with this title, referring to the sense of classical beauty and order associated with Arcadia.

In recent literature, especially fantasy, Arcadia has been used for a magical realm, respective to the fictional universe the story occurs. A number of role-playing games have also adopted the idea, either using it as a separate realm within the multiverse (a la the Arcadia of the Dungeons & Dragons universe), or even using it as the central focus of an entire game system (as was the case with White Wolf's Changeling: The Dreaming game). It is even included in the newly released BioShock as the name of one of the areas, a man-made tree farm and source of oxygen for an underwater city.

According to the best-selling PC-game The Longest Journey, Arcadia was divided from the primordial original world, and represents fantasy, dreams and magic, while our world, Stark, is the world of science and technology. 'Arkadia' was also a subterranean world in the French cartoon series Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea.

The name has recently been popularized by its connection to the pseudohistory of the Freemasons - in particular the Latin motto "Et in Arcadia ego" (even here, I [Death] exist.) The phrase is used frequently in conspiracy fiction and lore, such as the pseudohistorical work Holy Blood, Holy Grail and the novel The Da Vinci Code, where it is interpreted as an anagram of I! Tego Arcana Dei (Begone! I know the secrets of God).

The Libertines, especially Pete Doherty and Carl Barât, use Arcadia as the destination their ship Albion is sailing towards. It is thought of as a place without rules or authority, where cigarettes grow on trees and park benches are covered in denim, and it is evenly populated by Cockney Rudeboys and Dickensian Gentlemen. The American rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers refer to Arcadia in their album title "Stadium Arcadium".

Dragonhaven, a young adult fantasy by Robin McKinley, ends with the phrase "Arcadiae vias peregrinentur," which the author has stated roughly translates to "May they walk in Arcadia"* , though a more strict translation would be "They will wander the streets of Arcadia."

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