Utopia [Gr.,=no place], title of a book by Sir Thomas More, published in Latin in 1516. The work pictures an ideal state where all is ordered for the best for humanity as a whole and where the evils of society, such as poverty and misery, have been eliminated. The popularity of the book has given the generic name Utopia to all concepts of ideal states. The description of a utopia enables an author not only to set down criticisms of evils in the contemporary social scene but also to outline vast and revolutionary reforms without the necessity of describing how they will be effected. Thus, the influence of utopian writings has generally been inspirational rather than practical.

The Utopian Ideal over Time

The name utopia is applied retroactively to various ideal states described before More's work, most notably to that of the Republic of Plato. St. Augustine's City of God in the 5th cent. enunciated the theocratic ideal that dominated visionary thinking in the Middle Ages. With the Renaissance the ideal of a utopia became more worldly, but the religious element in utopian thinking is often present thereafter, such as in the politico-religious ideals of 17th-century English social philosophers and political experimenters. Among the famous pre-19th-century utopian writings are François Rabelais's description of the Abbey of Thélème in Gargantua (1532), The City of the Sun (1623) by Tommaso Campanella, The New Atlantis (1627) of Francis Bacon, and the Oceana (1656) of James Harrington.

In the 18th-century Enlightenment, Jean Jacques Rousseau and others gave impetus to the belief that an ideal society—a Golden Age—had existed in the primitive days of European society before the development of civilization corrupted it. This faith in natural order and the innate goodness of humanity had a strong influence on the growth of visionary or utopian socialism. The end in view of these thinkers was usually an idealistic communism based on economic self-sufficiency or on the interaction of ideal communities. Saint-Simon, Étienne Cabet, Charles Fourier, and Pierre Joseph Proudhon in France and Robert Owen in England are typical examples of this sort of thinker. Actual experiments in utopian social living were tried in Europe and the United States, but for the most part the efforts were neither long-lived nor more than partially successful.

The humanitarian socialists were largely displaced after the middle of the 19th cent. by political and economic theorists, such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who preached the achievement of the ideal state through political and revolutionary action. The utopian romance, however, became an extremely popular literary form. These novels depicted the glowing, and sometimes frightening, prospects of the new industrialism and social change. One of the most important of these works was Looking Backward (1888), by Edward Bellamy, who had a profound influence on economic idealism in America. In England, Erewhon (1872), by Samuel Butler, News from Nowhere (1891), by William Morris, and A Modern Utopia (1905), by H. G. Wells, were notable examples of the genre; in Austria an example was Theodor Hertzka's Freiland (1890). The 20th cent. saw a veritable flood of these literary utopias, most of them "scientific utopias" in which humans enjoy a blissful leisure while all or most of the work is done for them by docile machines.

Connected with the literary fable of a utopia has been the belief in an actual ideal state in some remote and undiscovered corner of the world. The mythical Atlantis, described by Plato, was long sought by Greek and later mariners. Similar to this search were the vain expeditions in search of the Isles of the Blest, or Fortunate Isles, and El Dorado.

Satirical and Other Utopias

The adjective utopian has come into some disrepute and is frequently used contemptuously to mean impractical or impossibly visionary. The device of describing a utopia in satire or for the exercise of wit is almost as old as the serious utopia. The satiric device goes back to such comic utopias as that of Aristophanes in The Birds. Bernard Mandeville in The Fable of the Bees (1714) and Jonathan Swift in parts of Gulliver's Travels (1726) are in the same tradition. Pseudo-utopian satire has been extensive in modern times in such novels as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). The rise of the modern totalitarian state has brought forth several works, notably Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), by George Orwell, which describe the unhappy fate of the individual under the control of a supposedly benevolent despotism.


See V. L. Parrington, American Dreams (2d ed. 1964); L. Mumford, The Story of the Utopias (rev. ed. 1966); M. Holloway, Heavens on Earth (2d ed. 1966); G. Negley and J. M. Patrick, The Quest for Utopia (1952, repr. 1971); E. Rothstein, H. Muschamp, and M. E. Marty, Visions of Utopia (2003).

Utopia is a name for an ideal community, taken from the title of a book written in 1516 by Sir Thomas More describing a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean, possessing a seemingly perfect socio-politico-legal system. The term has been used to describe both intentional communities that attempted to create an ideal society, and fictional societies portrayed in literature. "Utopia" is sometimes used pejoratively, in reference to an unrealistic ideal that is impossible to achieve, and has spawned other concepts, most prominently dystopia.

The word comes from Greek: οὐ, "not", and τόπος, "place", indicating that More was utilizing the concept as allegory and did not consider such an ideal place to be realistically possible. It is worth noting that the homophone Eutopia, derived from the Greek εὖ, "good" or "well", and τόπος, "place", signifies a double meaning that was almost certainly intended. Despite this, most modern usage of the term "Utopia" assumes the latter meaning, that of a place of perfection rather than nonexistence.

Related terms

Some questions have arisen about the fact that writers and people in history have used utopia to define a perfect place. Utopia is a perfect but unreal place. A proper definition of a perfect and real place is eutopia.

More's utopia is largely based on Plato's Republic. It is a perfect version of Republic wherein the beauties of society reign (eg: equality and a general pacifist attitude), although its citizens are all ready to fight if need be. The evils of society, eg: poverty and misery, are all removed. It has few laws, no lawyers and rarely sends its citizens to war, but hires mercenaries from among its war-prone neighbors (these mercenaries were deliberately sent into dangerous situations in the hope that the more warlike populations of all surrounding countries will be weeded out, leaving peaceful peoples). The society encourages tolerance of all religions. Some readers have chosen to accept this imaginary society as the realistic blueprint for a working nation, while others have postulated More intended nothing of the sort. Some maintain the position that More's Utopia functions only on the level of a satire, a work intended to reveal more about the England of his time than about an idealistic society. This interpretation is bolstered by the title of the book and nation, and its apparent equivocation between the Greek for "no place" and "good place": "Utopia" is a compound of the syllable ou-, meaning "no", and topos, meaning place. But the homonymous prefix eu-, meaning "good," also resonates in the word, with the implication that the perfectly "good place" is really "no place."'''

Economic utopia

These utopias are based on economics. Most intentional communities attempting to create an economic utopia were formed in response to the harsh economic conditions of the 19th century.

Particularly in the early nineteenth century, several utopian ideas arose, often in response to the social disruption created by the development of commercialism and capitalism. These are often grouped in a greater "utopian socialist" movement, due to their shared characteristics: an egalitarian distribution of goods, frequently with the total abolition of money, and citizens only doing work which they enjoy and which is for the common good, leaving them with ample time for the cultivation of the arts and sciences. One classic example of such a utopia was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. Another socialist utopia is William Morris' News from Nowhere, written partially in response to the top-down (bureaucratic) nature of Bellamy's utopia, which Morris criticized. However, as the socialist movement developed it moved away from utopianism; Marx in particular became a harsh critic of earlier socialism he described as utopian. (For more information see the History of Socialism article.) Also consider Eric Frank Russell's book The Great Explosion (1963) whose last section details an economic and social utopia. This forms the first mention of the idea of Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS).

Utopias have also been imagined by the opposite side of the political spectrum. For example, Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress portrays an individualistic and libertarian utopia. Capitalist utopias of this sort are generally based on free market economies, in which the presupposition is that private enterprise and personal initiative without an institution of coercion, government, provides the greatest opportunity for achievement and progress of both the individual and society as a whole.

There is another view that capitalist utopias do not address the issue of market failure, any more than socialist utopias address the issue of planning failure. Thus a blend of socialism and capitalism is seen by some as the type of economy in a utopia. It talks about the idea of small, community-owned enterprises working under the capitalist model of economy.

Political and historical utopia

Political utopias are ones in which the government establishes a society that is striving toward perfection. A global utopia of world peace is often seen as one of the possible endings of history. Within the localized political structures or spheres it presents, "polyculturalism" is the model-based adaptation of possible interactions between different cultures and identities in accordance with the principles of participatory society. Sparta was a militaristic eutopia founded by Lycurgus (though some, especially Athenians, may have considered it a dystopia). It was a Greek power until its defeat by the Thebans at the battle of Leuctra.

Religious utopia

These utopias are based on religious ideals, and are to date those most commonly found in human society. Their members are usually required to follow and believe in the particular religious tradition that established the utopia. Some permit non-believers or non-adherents to take up residence within them; others (such as the Community at Qumran) do not.

The Islamic, Jewish, and Christian ideas of the Garden of Eden and Heaven may be interpreted as forms of utopianism, especially in their folk-religious forms. Such religious "utopias" are often described as "gardens of delight", implying an existence free from worry in a state of bliss or enlightenment. They postulate existences free from sin, pain, poverty and death, and often assume communion with beings such as angels or the houri. In a similar sense the Hindu concept of Moksha and the Buddhist concept of Nirvana may be thought of as a kind of utopia. In Hinduism or Buddhism, however, utopia is not a place but a state of mind. A belief that if we are able to practice meditation without continuous stream of thoughts, we are able to reach enlightenment. This enlightenment promises exit from the cycle of life and death, relating back to the concept of utopia.

However, the usual idea of Utopia, which is normally created by human effort, is more clearly evident in the use of these ideas as the bases for religious utopias, as members attempt to establish/reestablish on Earth a society which reflects the virtues and values they believe have been lost or which await them in the Afterlife.

In the United States and Europe during the Second Great Awakening of the nineteenth century and thereafter, many radical religious groups formed eutopian societies. They sought to form communities where all aspects of people's lives could be governed by their faith. Among the best-known of these eutopian societies was the Shaker movement, which originated in England in the 18th century but moved to America shortly after its founding. Other good examples are Fountain Grove, Riker's Holy City and 15 other Californian eutopian colonies between 1855 and 1955 (Hine), as well as in B.C., Canada and 15 other socialist and religious communities round the world, including Finnish "kolkhozes".

Scientific and technological utopia

These are set in the future, when it is believed that advanced science and technology will allow utopian living standards; for example, the absence of death and suffering; changes in human nature and the human condition. These utopian societies tend to change what "human" is all about. Technology has affected the way humans have lived to such an extent that normal functions, like sleep, eating or even reproduction, has been replaced by an artificial means. Other kinds of this utopia envisioned, include a society where humans have struck a balance with technology and it is merely used to enhance the human living condition (e.g. Star Trek). In place of the static perfection of a utopia, libertarian transhumanists envision an "extropia", an open, evolving society allowing individuals and voluntary groupings to form the institutions and social forms they prefer.

Buckminster Fuller presented a theoretical basis for technological utopianism and set out to develop a variety of technologies ranging from maps to designs for cars and houses which might lead to the development of such a utopia.

One notable example of a technological and libertarian socialist utopia is Scottish author Iain M. Banks' Culture.

A variation on this theme was found earlier in the theories of eugenics. Believing that many traits were hereditary in nature, the eugenists believed that not only healthier, more intelligent race could be bred, but many other traits could be selected for, including "talent", or against, including drunkness and criminality. This called for "positive eugenics" encouraging those with good genes to have children, and "negative eugenics" discouraging those with bad genes, or preventing them altogether by confinement or forcible sterilization.

Opposing this optimism is the prediction that advanced science and technology will, through deliberate misuse or accident, cause environmental damage or even humanity's extinction. Critics advocate precautions against the premature embrace of new technologies.


Utopianism refers to various social and political movements.

In many cultures, societies, religions, and cosmogonies, there is some myth or memory of a distant past when humankind lived in a primitive and simple state, but at the same time one of perfect happiness and fulfillment. In those days, the various myths tell us, there was an instinctive harmony between man and nature. Men's needs were few and their desires limited. Both were easily satisfied by the abundance provided by nature. Accordingly, there were no motives whatsoever for war or oppression. Nor was there any need for hard and painful work. Humans were simple and pious, and felt themselves close to the gods.

These mythical or religious archetypes are inscribed in all the cultures and resurge with special vitality when people are in difficult and critical times. However, the projection of the myth does not take place towards the remote past, but either towards the future or towards distant and fictional places, imagining that at some time of the future, at some point of the space or beyond the death must exist the possibility of living happily.

These myths of the earliest stage of humankind have been referred to by various religions:

Golden Age The Greek poet Hesiod, around the 8th century BC, in his compilation of the mythological tradition (the poem Works and Days), explained that, prior to the present era, there were other four progressively more perfect ones, the oldest of which was the Golden age.

Plutarch, the Greek historian and biographer of the 1st century, dealt with the blissful and mythic past of the humanity.

Arcadia, e.g. in Sir Philip Sidney's prose romance The Old Arcadia (1580). Originally a region in the Peloponnesus, Arcadia became a synonym for any rural area that serves as a pastoral setting, as a locus amoenus ("delightful place"):

The Biblical Garden of Eden The Biblical Garden of Eden as depicted in Genesis 2 (Authorized Version of 1611):

"And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. [...]

And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. [...]

And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; [...] And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; and the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man."

The Land of Cokaygne The Land of Cokaygne [also spelled Cockaygne or Cockaigne] (in the German tradition referred to as "Schlaraffenland" ) has been aptly called the "poor man's heaven", being a popular fantasy of pure hedonism and thus a foil for the innocent and instinctively virtuous life that is depicted in all the other accounts mentioned above. Cockaygne is a land of extravagance and excess rather than simplicity and piety. There is freedom from work, and every material thing is free and available. Cooked larks fly straight into one's mouth; the rivers run with wine; sexual promiscuity is the norm; and there is a fountain of youth which keeps everyone young and active.

There is a medieval poem (c. 1315) written in rhyming couplets which is entitled "The Land of Cokaygne":

"Far in the sea, to the west of Spain,
Is a country called Cokaygne.
There's no land not anywhere,
In goods or riches to compare.
Though Paradise be merry and bright
Cokaygne is of far fairer sight...."

Finding utopia

These myths also express some hope that the idyllic state of affairs they describe is not irretrievably and irrevocably lost to mankind, that it can be regained in some way or other.

One way would be to look for the "earthly paradise"—a place like Shangri-La, hidden in the Tibetan mountains and described by James Hilton in his Utopian novel Lost Horizon (1933). Such paradise on earth must be somewhere if only man were able to find it. Christopher Columbus followed directly in this tradition in his belief that he had found the Garden of Eden when, towards the end of the 15th century, he first encountered the New World and its indigenous inhabitants.

Another way of regaining the lost paradise (or Paradise Lost, as 17th century English poet John Milton calls it) would be to wait for the future, for the return of the Golden Age. According to Christian theology, the Fall from Paradise, caused by Man alone when he disobeyed God ("but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it"), has resulted in the wickedness of character that all human beings have been born with since (original sin).

In a scientific approach to finding utopia, the Global Scenario Group, an international group of scientists founded by Paul Raskin, used scenario analysis and backcasting to map out a path to an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable future. Its findings suggest that a global citizens' movement is necessary to steer political, economic, and corporate entities toward this new sustainability paradigm.

Examples of utopia

See also utopian and dystopian fiction

Related terms and concepts


  • Kumar, Krishan (1991) Utopianism (Milton Keynes: Open University Press) ISBN 0-335-15361-5
  • Manuel, Frank & Manuel, Fritzie (1979) Utopian Thought in the Western World (Oxford: Blackwell) ISBN 0-674-93185-8
  • Hine, Robert V. (1983) California's Utopian Colonies (University of California Press) ISBN 0-520-04885-7
  • Kumar, K (1987) Utopia and Anti-utopia in Modern Times (Oxford: Blackwell) ISBN 0-631-16714-5
  • Shadurski, Maxim I. (2007) Literary Utopias from More to Huxley: The Issues of Genre Poetics and Semiosphere. Finding an Island (Moscow: URSS) ISBN 978-5-382-00362-7


External links

Search another word or see utopiaon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2014, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature