Presenting Utopia(s)

“What unites utopians, and gives to utopian theory its distinctive emphasis, is the assumption that there is nothing in man, nature or society that cannot be so ordered as to bring about a more or less permanent state of material plenty, social harmony and individual fulfilment.” – Krishan Kumar

In everyday speech the word utopian means something too good to be true. Something or someone overly enthusiastic, with good intentions, wanting to do or be something. Utopia is an ideal dream world. Dictionaries from different places and cultures like China, Spain, Norway, Japan and Russia all agree on this (yes, I’ve checked). They tell the same story as the Oxford Concise Dictionary: Utopia is “an imagined perfect place or state of things”. To begin with this sounds rather nice and charming. But who’s to decide what perfect is? One person’s wishes might be the other person’s worst nightmare. That’s perfectly true. But is this the right understanding of the word “utopia”?

Thomas More published a book in 1516. He named it Utopia. A word constructed out of three Greek roots; top (place), eu (good) and ou (no), giving us a country that was good yet nowhere to be found. Utopia is the starting point of whole new genre. It brought the discussion about the good society out of the myths and into the world of reason.

On the other hand, if you happen to stumble upon scholars studying utopias you will find a wide range of opinions. About anything. Including how to define the word utopia. And whether or not this word stands in contrast to dystopia/anti-utopia (dys meaning bad in Greek). Krishan Kumar for instance describes the utopian genre as “a work of imaginative fiction in which (…) the central subject is the good society.” Dystopia (or anti-utopia), however, is a tale about a bad society. Or a critique of a particular utopia, and on some occasions the utopian genre in general.

Thomas More’s Utopia (1516)

(Saint/Sir) Thomas More studied and practiced law under Henry VIII. At the peak of his career (and the end of his life) he even served as Lord
Chancellor.

More’s Utopia is an well protected island, named Utopia, somewhere in the New World. The material conditions of the place is good, but it isn’t paradise. The island is totally self-reliant, and keeps being that way through control of the population (where they live, when they work in agriculture, how large the households are), making traditional symbols of riches into taboos (slave chains and chamber pots of gold, anyone?) and common property.

They have no lawyers among them. For they esteem them a class, whose profession it is to disguise matters, and to write the laws.

The society has very little formal law (Every one of them is skilled in their law, for as it is a very short study, so the plainest meaning of which words are capable is always the sense of their laws). But has a moral foundation based on the religious faith of judgement in afterlife (apparently, some of the inhabitants recently converted to Christianity). So, every man and woman is free to believe whatever he or she likes, as long as they believe in something.  Leaving atheism ruled out on the island, because it is by nature an immoral way of life. John Locke, for instance, would very much agree on this.

I could go on and on about all the details in More’s fictional society (the strongly protected monogamy (but divorces are possible) how women can become priests, and the way of formal politics etc.). But I won’t. Not this time around anyway. If you’re curious, both Gutenberg and Librivox have got the book. Read at your own risk.

The feature that makes Utopia by Thomas More so special is that it thoroughly describes an alternative way of life. Yes, it is a joke: Most of the names in the book are puns, paradoxes and meaningless nonsense presented in Greek. But the themes (as well as the solutions) offered by More set the scene for a new literary tradition. A place for exploring meanings and policies on a theoretical level, while still keeping the audience entertained.

In stark contrast to what the dictionaries tell us utopias aren’t perfect. They are not made of milk and honey, or other objects of desire. Of course, they do have some qualities that sets them aside them from the society of their authors (More abolished death penalty in his utopia, for instance). But this does not make them flawless; and that is half the fun.


This post is a part of the Zero to Hero WordPress blogging challenge; Day 6 assignment: publish a post that includes a new-to-you element. I chose to embed an e-book. Click on the image to join:)

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