A utopia (/juːˈtoʊpiə/ yoo-TOH-pee-ə) is an imaginary community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities for its citizens. The term was coined by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, describing a fictional island society in the south Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South America. The opposite of a utopia is a dystopia, which dominates the fictional literature from the 1950s onwards, chiefly because of the impact of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949. However, the term can also denote actual experiments in what participants regard as a vastly superior manner of living, generally in what are termed intentional communities. In common parlance it is synonymous with "impossible", "far-fetched", and "deluded". Literary utopias focus on, amongst other things, equality, in such categories as economics, government and justice, with the method and structure of proposed implementation varying based on ideology. Lyman Tower Sargent argues that the nature of a utopia is inherently contradictory because societies are not homogeneous and have desires which conflict and therefore cannot simultaneously be satisfied. According to Sargent:
The word utopia was coined from Ancient Greek by Sir Thomas More in 1516. “Utopia” comes from Greek: οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”) which translates as “no-place” and literally means any non-existent society, when ‘described in considerable detail’. However, in standard usage, the word's meaning has shifted and now usually describes a non-existent society that is intended to be viewed as considerably better than contemporary society.
In his original work, More carefully pointed out the similarity of utopia to eutopia, which is from Greek: εὖ (“good” or “well”) and τόπος (“place”), hence eutopia means “good place”, which ostensibly would be the more appropriate term for the concept the word “utopia” has in modern English. The pronunciations of eutopia and utopia in English are identical, which may have given rise to the change in meaning.
Famous writers about utopia:
Utopian socialist Etienne Cabet in his utopian book The Voyage to Icaria cited definition from contemporary Dictionary of ethical and political sciences: "Utopias and other models of government, based on the public good, may be inconceivable because of the disordered human passions which, under the wrong governments, seek to highlight the poorly conceived or selfish interest of the community. But even though we find it impossible, they are ridiculous to sinful people whose sense of self-destruction prevents them from believing."
Marx and Engels used the word utopia to denote unscientific social theories.
Philosopher Slavoj Žižek told about utopia: "Which means that we should reinvent utopia but in what sense. There are two false meanings of utopia one is this old notion of imagining this ideal society we know will never be realized, the other is the capitalist utopia in the sense of new perverse desire that you are not only allowed but even solicited to realize. The true utopia is when the situation is so without issue, without the way to resolve it within the coordinates of the possible that out of the pure urge of survival you have to invent a new space. Utopia is not kind of a free imagination utopia is a matter of inner most urgency, you are forced to imagine it, it is the only way out, and this is what we need today."
Philosopher Milan Šimečka told: “... utopism was a common type of thinking at the dawn of human civilization. We find utopian beliefs in the oldest religious imaginations, appear regularly in the neighborhood of ancient, yet pre-philosophical views on the causes and meaning of natural events, the purpose of creation, the path of good and evil, happiness and misfortune, fairy tales and legends later inspired by poetry and philosophy ... the underlying motives on which utopian literature is built are as old as the entire historical epoch of human history. ”
According to the Philosophical Dictionary, proto-utopian ideas begin as early as the period of Ancient Greece and Rome, medieval heretics, peasant revolts and establish themselves in the period of the early capitalism, reformation and Renaissance (Hus, Müntzer, More, Campanella), democratic revolutions (Meslier, Morelly, Mably, Winstanley, later Babeufists, Blanquists,) and in a period of turbulent development of capitalism that highlighted antagonisms of capitalist society (Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, Cabet, Lamennais, Proudhon and their followers).
Philosopher Richard Stahel told: "... every social organization relies on something that is not realized or feasible, but has the ideal that is somewhere beyond the horizon, a lighthouse to which it may seek to approach if it considers that ideal socially valid and generally accepted."
In 1876, writer Charles Renouvier published a novel called Uchronia (French "Uchronie"). The neologism has since been used to refer to non-existent idealized times in fiction, such as Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, and Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle from 1962.
Chronologically, the first recorded Utopian proposal is Plato's Republic. Part conversation, part fictional depiction and part policy proposal, Republic would categorize citizens into a rigid class structure of "golden," "silver," "bronze" and "iron" socioeconomic classes. The golden citizens are trained in a rigorous 50-year-long educational program to be benign oligarchs, the "philosopher-kings." Plato stressed this structure many times in statements, and in his published works, such as the Republic. The wisdom of these rulers will supposedly eliminate poverty and deprivation through fairly distributed resources, though the details on how to do this are unclear. The educational program for the rulers is the central notion of the proposal. 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.
During the 16th century, Thomas More's book Utopia proposed an ideal society of the same name. Readers, including Utopian socialists, have chosen to accept this imaginary society as the realistic blueprint for a working nation, while others have postulated that Thomas More intended nothing of the sort. It is believed 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 confusion 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 homophonic prefix eu-, meaning "good," also resonates in the word, with the implication that the perfectly "good place" is really "no place."
Ecological utopian society describes new ways in which society should relate to nature. These works perceive a widening gap between the modern Western way of living that destroys nature and a more traditional way of living before industrialization. Ecological utopias may advocate a society that is more sustainable. According to the Dutch philosopher Marius de Geus, ecological utopias could be inspirational sources for movements involving green politics.
Particularly in the early 19th century, several utopian ideas arose, often in response to the belief that social disruption was created and caused by the development of commercialism and capitalism. These ideas are often grouped in a greater "utopian socialist" movement, due to their shared characteristics. A once common characteristic is an egalitarian distribution of goods, frequently with the total abolition of money. Citizens only do 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 appears in Edward Bellamy's 1888 novel Looking Backward. William Morris depicts another socialist utopia in his 1890 novel 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 which he described as "utopian". (For more information, see the History of Socialism article.) In a materialist utopian society, the economy is perfect; there is no inflation and only perfect social and financial equality exists.
Edward Gibbon Wakefield's utopian theorizing on systematic colonial settlement policy in the early-19th century also centred on economic considerations, but with a view to preserving class distinctions; Wakefield influenced several colonies founded in New Zealand and Australia in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s.
In 1905, H.G. Wells published A Modern Utopia, which was widely read and admired and provoked much discussion. Also consider Eric Frank Russell's book The Great Explosion (1963), the last section of which details an economic and social utopia. This forms the first mention of the idea of Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS).
During the "Khrushchev Thaw" period, the Soviet writer Ivan Efremov produced the science-fiction utopia Andromeda (1957) in which a major cultural thaw took place: humanity communicates with a galaxy-wide Great Circle and develops its technology and culture within a social framework characterized by vigorous competition between alternative philosophies.
The English political philosopher James Harrington (1611-1677), author of the utopian work The Commonwealth of Oceana, published in 1656, inspired English country-party republicanism (1680s to 1740s) and became influential in the design of three American colonies. His theories ultimately contributed to the idealistic principles of the American Founders. The colonies of Carolina (founded in 1670), Pennsylvania (founded in 1681), and Georgia (founded in 1733) were the only three English colonies in America that were planned as utopian societies with an integrated physical, economic and social design. At the heart of the plan for Georgia was a concept of "agrarian equality" in which land was allocated equally and additional land acquisition through purchase or inheritance was prohibited; the plan was an early step toward the yeoman republic later envisioned by Thomas Jefferson.
The communes of the 1960s in the United States often represented an attempt to greatly improve the way humans live together in communities. The back-to-the-land movements and hippies inspired many to try to live in peace and harmony on farms or in remote areas and to set up new types of governance. Communes like Kaliflower, which existed between 1967 and 1973, attempted to live outside of society's norms and to create their own ideal communalist society.
People all over the world organized and built intentional communities with the hope of developing a better way of living together. While many of these new small communities failed, some continue to grow, such as the religion-based Twelve Tribes, which started in the United States in 1972. Since its inception, it has grown into many groups around the world.
In the United States and Europe, during the Second Great Awakening (ca. 1790–1840) and thereafter, many radical religious groups formed utopian societies in which faith could govern all aspects of members' lives. These utopian societies included the Shakers, who originated in England in the 18th century and arrived in America in 1774. A number of religious utopian societies from Europe came to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, including the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness (led by Johannes Kelpius (1667–1708)), the Ephrata Cloister (established in 1732) and the Harmony Society, among others. The Harmony Society was a Christian theosophy and pietist group founded in Iptingen, Germany , in 1785. Due to religious persecution by the Lutheran Church and the government in Württemberg, the society moved to the United States on October 7, 1803, settling in Pennsylvania. On February 15, 1805, about 400 followers formally organized the Harmony Society, placing all their goods in common. The group lasted until 1905, making it one of the longest-running financially successful communes in American history.
The Oneida Community, founded by John Humphrey Noyes in Oneida, New York, was a utopian religious commune that lasted from 1848 to 1881. Although this utopian experiment has become better known today for its manufacture of Oneida silverware, it was one of the longest-running communes in American history. The Amana Colonies were communal settlements in Iowa, started by radical German pietists, which lasted from 1855 to 1932. The Amana Corporation, manufacturer of refrigerators and household appliances, was originally started by the group. Other examples are Fountain Grove (founded in 1875), Riker's Holy City and other Californian utopian colonies between 1855 and 1955 (Hine), as well as Sointula in British Columbia, Canada. The Amish and Hutterites can also be considered an attempt towards religious utopia. A wide variety of intentional communities with some type of faith-based ideas have also started across the world.
Anthropologist Richard Sosis examined 200 communes in the 19th-century United States, both religious and secular (mostly utopian socialist). 39 percent of the religious communes were still functioning 20 years after their founding while only 6 percent of the secular communes were. The number of costly sacrifices that a religious commune demanded from its members had a linear effect on its longevity, while in secular communes demands for costly sacrifices did not correlate with longevity and the majority of the secular communes failed within 8 years. Sosis cites anthropologist Roy Rappaport in arguing that rituals and laws are more effective when sacralized. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt cites Sosis's research in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind as the best evidence that religion is an adaptive solution to the free-rider problem by enabling cooperation without kinship. Evolutionary medicine researcher Randolph M. Nesse and theoretical biologist Mary Jane West-Eberhard have argued instead that because humans with altruistic tendencies are preferred as social partners they receive fitness advantages by social selection, with Nesse arguing further that social selection enabled humans as a species to become extraordinarily cooperative and capable of creating culture.
The Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible depicts an eschatological time with the defeat of Satan, of Evil and of Sin. The main difference compared to the Old Testament promises is that such a defeat also has an ontological value (Rev 21:1;4: "Then I saw 'a new heaven and a new earth,' for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea...'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away") and no longer just gnosiological (Isaiah 65:17: "See, I will create/new heavens and a new earth./The former things will not be remembered,/nor will they come to mind"). Narrow interpretation of the text depicts Heaven on Earth or a Heaven brought to Earth without sin. Daily and mundane details of this new Earth, where God and Jesus rule, remain unclear, although it is implied to be similar to the biblical Garden of Eden. Some theological philosophers believe that heaven will not be a physical realm but instead an incorporeal place for souls.
Though Francis Bacon's New Atlantis is imbued with a scientific spirit, scientific and technological utopias tend to be based 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. Technology has affected the way humans have lived to such an extent that normal functions, like sleep, eating or even reproduction, have been replaced by artificial means. Other examples 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.
Mariah Utsawa 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 Banks' Culture.
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, such as Jacques Ellul and Timothy Mitchell advocate precautions against the premature embrace of new technologies. Both raise questions about changing responsibility and freedom brought by division of labour. Authors such as John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen consider that modern technology is progressively depriving humans of their autonomy and advocate the collapse of the industrial civilization, in favor of small-scale organization, as a necessary path to avoid the threat of technology on human freedom and sustainability.
There are many examples of techno-dystopias portrayed in mainstream culture, such as the classics Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, often published as "1984", which have explored some of these topics.
Utopias have been used to explore the ramifications of genders being either a societal construct or a biologically "hard-wired" imperative or some mix of the two. Socialist and economic utopias have tended to take the "woman question" seriously and often to offer some form of equality between the sexes as part and parcel of their vision, whether this be by addressing misogyny, reorganizing society along separatist lines, creating a certain kind of androgynous equality that ignores gender or in some other manner. For example, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1887) responded, progressively for his day, to the contemporary women's suffrage and women's rights movements. Bellamy supported these movements by incorporating the equality of women and men into his utopian world's structure, albeit by consigning women to a separate sphere of light industrial activity (due to women's lesser physical strength) and making various exceptions for them in order to make room for (and to praise) motherhood. One of the earlier feminist utopias that imagines complete separatism is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915).
In science fiction and technological speculation, gender can be challenged on the biological as well as the social level. Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time portrays equality between the genders and complete equality in sexuality (regardless of the gender of the lovers). Birth-giving, often felt as the divider that cannot be avoided in discussions of women's rights and roles, has been shifted onto elaborate biological machinery that functions to offer an enriched embryonic experience. When a child is born, it spends most of its time in the children's ward with peers. Three "mothers" per child are the norm and they are chosen in a gender neutral way (men as well as women may become "mothers") on the basis of their experience and ability. Technological advances also make possible the freeing of women from childbearing in Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex. The fictional aliens in Mary Gentle's Golden Witchbreed start out as gender-neutral children and do not develop into men and women until puberty and gender has no bearing on social roles. In contrast, Doris Lessing's The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (1980) suggests that men's and women's values are inherent to the sexes and cannot be changed, making a compromise between them essential. In My Own Utopia (1961) by Elizabeth Mann Borghese, gender exists but is dependent upon age rather than sex – genderless children mature into women, some of whom eventually become men. "William Marston's Wonder Woman comics of the 1940s featured Paradise Island, also known as Themyscira, a matriarchal all-female community of peace, loving submission, bondage and giant space kangaroos."
Utopian single-gender worlds or single-sex societies have long been one of the primary ways to explore implications of gender and gender-differences. In speculative fiction, female-only worlds have been imagined to come about by the action of disease that wipes out men, along with the development of technological or mystical method that allow female parthenogenic reproduction. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1915 novel approaches this type of separate society. Many feminist utopias pondering separatism were written in the 1970s, as a response to the Lesbian separatist movement; examples include Joanna Russ's The Female Man and Suzy McKee Charnas's Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines. Utopias imagined by male authors have often included equality between sexes, rather than separation, although as noted Bellamy's strategy includes a certain amount of "separate but equal". The use of female-only worlds allows the exploration of female independence and freedom from patriarchy. The societies may be lesbian, such as Daughters of a Coral Dawn by Katherine V. Forrest or not, and may not be sexual at all – a famous early sexless example being Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Charlene Ball writes in Women's Studies Encyclopedia that use of speculative fiction to explore gender roles in future societies has been more common in the United States compared to Europe and elsewhere, although such efforts as Gerd Brantenberg's Egalia's Daughters and Christa Wolf's portrayal of the land of Colchis in her Medea: Voices are certainly as influential and famous as any of the American feminist utopias.
In many cultures, societies, and religions, 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 humanity and nature. People'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 their God or gods. According to one anthropological theory, hunter-gatherers were the original affluent society.
These mythical or religious archetypes are inscribed in many cultures and resurge with special vitality when people are in difficult and critical times. However, in utopias, 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 in the future, at some point in space, or beyond death, there must exist the possibility of living happily.
These myths of the earliest stage of humankind have been referred to by various cultures, societies and religions:
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 four other progressively more perfect ones, the oldest of which was the Golden Age.
Perhaps the oldest Utopia of which we know, as pointed out many years ago by Moses Finley, is Homer’s Scheria, island of the Phaeacians. A mythical place, often equated with classical Corcyra, (modern Corfu/Kerkyra), where Odysseus was washed ashore after 10 years of storm-tossed wandering and escorted to the King’s palace by his daughter Nausicaa. With stout walls, a stone temple and good harbours, it is perhaps the ‘ideal’ Greek colony, a model for those founded from the middle of the 8th C onward. A land of plenty, home to expert mariners (how could they fail to be with the self-navigating ships Homer describes), and skilled craftswomen who live in peace under their King’s rule and fear no strangers.
Plutarch, the Greek historian and biographer of the 1st century, dealt with the blissful and mythic past of the humanity.
From 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, a locus amoenus ("delightful place").
The Biblical Garden of Eden as depicted in the Old Testament Bible's Book of 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. 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.
According to the exegesis that the biblical theologian Herbert Haag proposes in the book Is original sin in Scripture?, published soon after the Second Vatican Council, Genesis 2:25 would indicate that Adam and Eve were created from the beginning naked of the divine grace, an originary grace that, then, they would never have had and even less would have lost due to the subsequent events narrated. On the other hand, while supporting a continuity in the Bible about the absence of preternatural gifts (Latin: dona praeternaturalia) with regard to the ophitic event, Haag never makes any reference to the discontinuity of the loss of access to the tree of life.
The Land of Cockaigne (also Cockaygne, Cokaygne), was an imaginary land of idleness and luxury, famous in medieval stories and the subject of several poems, one of which, an early translation of a 13th-century French work, is given in George Ellis' Specimens of Early English Poets. In this, "the houses were made of barley sugar and cakes, the streets were paved with pastry and the shops supplied goods for nothing." London has been so called (see Cockney) but Boileau applies the same to Paris.
The Peach Blossom Spring (桃花源), a prose written by the Chinese poet Tao Yuanming, describes a utopian place. The narrative goes that a fisherman from Wuling sailed upstream a river and came across a beautiful blossoming peach grove and lush green fields covered with blossom petals. Entranced by the beauty, he continued upstream and stumbled onto a small grotto when he reached the end of the river. Though narrow at first, he was able to squeeze through the passage and discovered an ethereal utopia, where the people led an ideal existence in harmony with nature. He saw a vast expanse of fertile lands, clear ponds, mulberry trees, bamboo groves and the like with a community of people of all ages and houses in neat rows. The people explained that their ancestors escaped to this place during the civil unrest of the Qin dynasty and they themselves had not left since or had contact with anyone from the outside. They had not even heard of the later dynasties of bygone times or the then-current Jin dynasty. In the story, the community was secluded and unaffected by the troubles of the outside world.
The sense of timelessness was predominant in the story as a perfect utopian community remains unchanged, that is, it had no decline nor the need to improve. Eventually, the Chinese term Peach Blossom Spring came to be synonymous for the concept of utopia.
Datong is a traditional Chinese Utopia. The main description of it is found in the Chinese Classic of Rites, in the chapter called "Li Yun" (禮運). Later, Datong and its ideal of 'The World Belongs to Everyone/The World is Held in Common' 'Tianxia weigong/天下为公' 'influenced modern Chinese reformers and revolutionaries, such as Kang Youwei.
It is said, once Maitreya is reborn into the future kingdom of Ketumati, a utopian age will commence. The city is described in Buddhism as a domain filled with palaces made of gems and surrounded by Kalpavriksha trees producing goods. During its years, none of Jambudvipa will need to take part in cultivation and hunger will no longer exist.
Schlaraffenland is an analogous German tradition.
All 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 might be a quest for an "earthly paradise" – a place like Shangri-La, hidden in the Tibetan mountains and described by James Hilton in his utopian novel Lost Horizon (1933). 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.
In the 21st century, discussions around utopia for some authors include post-scarcity economics, late capitalism, and universal basic income; for example, the "human capitalism" utopia envisioned in Utopia for Realists (2016) includes a universal basic income and a 15-hour workweek, along with open borders.
Scandinavian nations, which as of 2019 ranked at the top of the World Happiness Report, are sometimes cited as modern utopias, although British author Michael Booth has called that a myth and wrote a 2014 book about the Nordic countries.