Created | Updated Mar 25, 2013
Utopia: (you-toh-pia) (noun) an imaginary place or state of things where everything is perfect. Also the title of a book by Sir Thomas More, published in 1516.
The novel's frontispiece1 reads:
and pleasant work of the
beste state of public weale, and of the newe yle called Utopia
Utopia means no place, or good place. The Greek roots of the word - coined by scholars Thomas More and/or Erasmus during the Renaissance - allow for both concepts. In Latin, the language of scholarship of the time, Utopia can only translate as 'no place', which has become its modern meaning.
This is just the first of a thousand quandaries and ambiguities of Utopia. It has come to mean something like perfection in society, or Heaven on Earth. Some see it as an impossible dream, others an attainable goal. Thomas More left many ambiguities in his novel, for example Hytholody (the traveller who describes the island of Utopia, literally means 'dispenser of nonsense'.
More's Utopia was the first description of a 'Heaven on Earth', an ideal place in the real world.
The crucial shift thanks to Thomas More was from believing Utopias were only possible through God and Magic (eg, Eden, Augustine's City of God, Shangri-La) to thinking they are possible through rational human efforts.
Utopia spawned a new genre of Utopian fiction. The City of the Sun by Campanella, published in 1602, was the first Utopia to abolish slavery. Gerrard Winstanley's Heaven-on-Earth saw the land as a 'common treasury of livelihood to all mankind', a vision he explored in real communities and in his last work, The Law of Freedom. In the 1880s, Ebenezer Howard published Tomorrow - a Peaceful Path to Reform which introduced the idea of the 'Garden City'. The first Garden City was built in 1903.
Dystopia - Hell on Earth
The trouble really started in the 20th Century, when leaders like Hitler began to build their Utopias. Hitler's dreams of Lebensraum, the grand vision and brutal rule of some Communists, and the promises and disasters of the free-market and technological progress could be seen as failed Utopias. Hence the notion of 'dystopia' - perfection gone wrong, Hell on Earth. 1984 by George Orwell, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley are classics of dystopian fiction.
Nearly 30 years after writing Brave New World, Huxley wrote Island, his last novel in which the horrors of Brave New World melt into the vision of an eastern state governed by reason and love. The island of Pala has remained an ocean of humanity, rejecting the excesses of consumerism and communism, dogma and the tyranny of patriotism...
Patriotism is not enough. But neither is anything else. Science is not enough, religion is not enough, art is not enough, politics and economics are not enough, nor is love, nor is duty, nor is action however disinterested, nor, however sublime, is contemplation. Nothing short of everything will really do.
Utopia is still a controversial term. To some it means absolute freedom. To others it implies the ideal society and environmental sustainability as espoused by the New Civilisation Network. Some might see it as an individual temporary, localised state of happiness - a nice cup of tea , some chocolate and a few friends on the sofa on a Sunday.
Just 42 years after the printing press was invented, Thomas More published Utopia, a fanciful tale describing his vision of a perfect world. Today the web allows that imagined zone of perfection to become a collectively evolving vision. For more information, visit the New York Public Library's online exhibition called Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World.