For thousands of years human beings have dreamt of perfect worlds, worlds free of conflict, hunger and unhappiness: where disease and death are vanquished and all human beings are fulfilled and happy. But can these worlds ever exist in reality?
In 1516 Thomas More wrote the first 'Utopia'. He coined the word 'utopia' from the Greek ou-topos meaning 'no place' or 'nowhere'. But this was a pun - the almost identical Greek word eu-topos means a good place. So at the very heart of the word is a vital question: can a perfect world ever be realised?
Are Utopias blueprints?
Are utopian ideas meant to be acted on? If not, what other purposes do they serve?
Some Utopias are simply satires or veiled criticisms of the status quo in a society and are not intended as prescriptions to be acted on. Gullivers Travels is case in point. Some think that Moore's Utopia is largely meant to be a comparison with his contemporary Europe to show up its failures and corruptions - but done in a way that it would not rebound on him.
Some Utopias are ironical - like Huxley's Brave New World, which is offered as a description of a progressive society but which on closer examination is in fact a 'dystopia' - a depressing prophesy of what the future might bring.
Some Utopias are indeed detailed prescriptions for how to organise and run an ideal society. Surely Soviet Russia must be seen in this light? But the problem with such detailed prescriptions is that they appear to need a large amount of conformity by the citizenry, which if not voluntarily forthcoming, must be coerced. Most utopias tend to be communist in the way they organise labour and distribute goods. Is this inevitable?
The horrors resulting from Soviet Russia prompted Karl Popper to write his anti-utopian study, the Open Society and its Enemies during WWII. Other anti-utopians of the same generation included Isaiah Berlin, Hannah Arent and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who dismissed the utopianism of the 1930s as "an adolescent embarrassment."
Other, more benign, Utopian experiments such as Robert Owen's New Harmony Community in Indiana USA also seem to have failed through requiring too much voluntary cooperation. On the other hand many religious communities such as the Shakers were successful over a long period of time. Perhaps the overriding commitment to a religious ideology enabled them to cope with the stresses and strains of enforced cooperation.
The main objection to Utopianism by the sceptics is that human nature is too diverse to be fitted into a simple unified social pattern. There is also a fundamental conflict between the needs of humans to cooperate with each other towards common ends on the one hand and to pursue private interests on the other. This tends to create conflict which militates against a settled, peaceful society. Frequently, the only way to deal with these conflicts in a Utopia is to suppress individual differences but that can lead to a very repressive society - the story of many dystopias.
Bertrand Russell has pointed out that utopias also tend to be very dull places as risk is completely removed from the picture in the interests of universal peace. Risk and the possibility of failure and sufferings are for many people important constituents of the good life.
An alternative way of approaching Utopias is to see them not as blueprints but as motivating visions. If we are moved by the plight of the poor, the oppressed and the sick in our society then we will naturally want to alleviate those evils and we will develop a vision of what that society might look like when the evils have been eradicated. Such a vision can act as a motivator rather than as a prescription for crushing people into an unwilling conformity. As Oscar Wilde said:
"Without the Utopias of other times, men would still live in caves, miserable and naked. It was Utopians who traced the lines of the first city... Out of generous dreams come beneficial realities. Utopia is the principle of all progress, and the essay into a better future".
Where is utopia?
Some Utopias are set outside of ordinary time. Some, like the Garden of Eden, are set in a distant past or in a Golden Age from which we have declined and for which we nostalgically pine. Some Utopias are set in the future, like the New Jersusalem in the Book of Revelations or the post-revolutionary world of the Marxists.
In science fiction it is customary to locate Utopias far distant from here in spacial terms. These visions may be pure escapist fantasy intended simply for entertainment or genuine attempts to speculate on what a life in a purely human-made environment would be like. By basing utopian speculations on hard science (or at least extrapolations from current hard science) they gain some credibility compared with the vision embedded in ancient myths.
Some visions are actually realised in real life in terms of Intentional communities. The Communes movement in the 60's in the UK, gave rise to a large number of experiments in different ways of living, some of which survive to today. ('Utopia Britannica' is web site which documents intentional communities in the Britain from 1325 to 1945).
Are Utopias really meant to be fully realised real life communities or are they do they really belong in the world of myth, intended to inspire and motivate us?
Can intentional communities be accessible to everyone or are they inevitably just for an elite?
Can Utopian visions ever break out of the assumptions of the age
When you read Moore's Utopia you are struck by the power of his imagination but you cannot help seeing him as a man of his time largely trapped in his own assumptions. He cannot help but validate his own religious beliefs and notions of family in his island. (There are a couple of condensed versions on the website that you read in a few minutes!).
Is this not inevitable - and is this not the weakness of Utopian visions? Are we not always bound to have a very limited view of Utopia bound to our own assumptions? In our discussion I think it would be helpful to look at the various dimensions of Utopia that come out of Moore's own Utopia. (See my Summary of Ideas in Moore's Utopia).
The main headings are:
- Housing and Town Planning
- Family structure and authority
- Social structure and organisation
- Politics, International relations and War
- Class and Servants
- Property & Economics
- Medical Care and Old Age
Some reflections on Utopia
The word UTOPIA stands in common usage for the ultimate in human folly or human hope – vain dreams of perfection in a Never-Never Land or rational efforts to remake man's environment and his institutions and even his own erring nature, so as to enrich the possibilities of the common life. Sir Thomas More, the coiner of this word, was aware of both implications. Lest anyone else should miss them, he elaborated his paradox in a quatrain which, unfortunately, has sometimes been omitted from English translations of his Utopia , the book that at last gave a name to a much earlier series of efforts to picture ideal commonwealths. More was a punster, in an age when the keenest minds delighted to play tricks with language, and when it was not always wise to speak too plainly. In his little verse he explained that utopia might refer either to the Greek 'eutopia', which means the good place, or to 'outopia', which means no place. — Lewis Mumford (in The Story of Utopias, 1922)
Utopias are models for mimesis usually timed for the future, and the best of them may well have influenced many readers. We do not claim them to be formative to civilization except as they are related to ideals affecting man's behaviour and giving him new aims. — Nell Eurich (in Science in Utopia , 1967)
The authoritarian utopias of the nineteenth century are chiefly responsible for the anti-utopian attitude prevalent among intellectuals today. But utopias have not always described regimented societies, centralized states and nations of robots. Diderot's Tahiti or Morris's Nowhere gave us utopias where men were free from both physical and moral compulsion, where they worked not out of necessity or a sense of duty but because they found work a pleasurable activity, where love knew no laws and where every man was an artist".
Utopias have often been plans of societies functioning mechanically, dead structures conceived by economists, politicians and moralists; but they have also been the living dream of poets — Marie Louise Berneri (in Journey Through Utopia, first published posthumously in 1950).
We should think of utopia as a world in which individuals and groups had the freedom, will, energy, and talent to make and remake their lives unencumbered by insufficiency and the fear of violent death. — George Kateb (from the preface to Utopia and its Enemies, 1972 edition)
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias. — Oscar Wilde
Without the Utopias of other times, men would still live in caves, miserable and naked. It was Utopians who traced the lines of the first city... Out of generous dreams come beneficial realities. Utopia is the principle of all progress, and the essay into a better future. — Anatole France
The world is now too dangerous for anything less than Utopia. — R. Buckminster Fuller