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See Utopia (disambiguation) for other meanings of this word

Utopia, in its most common and general meaning, refers to a hypothetical perfect society. It has also been used to describe actual communities founded in attempts to create such a society. The adjective utopian is often used to refer to good but (physically, socially, economically, or politically) impossible proposals, or at least ones that are very difficult to implement.

A utopia can be either idealistic or practical , but the term has acquired a strong connotation of optimistic, idealistic, impossible perfection. The utopia may be usefully contrasted with the undesirable dystopia (anti-utopia) and the satirical utopia.


Origin of the term

The term Utopia was coined by Thomas More as the title of his Latin book De Optimo Reipublicae Statu deque Nova Insula Utopia (circa 1516), known more commonly as Utopia. He created the word "utopia" to suggest two Greek neologisms simultaneously: outopia (no place) and eutopia (good place). In this original context, the word carried none of the modern connotations associated with it.

More depicts a rationally organised society, through the narration of an explorer who discovers it - Raphael Hythlodaeus. Utopia is a republic where all property is held in common. In addition, it has few laws, no lawyers and rarely sends its citizens to war, but hires mercenaries from among its war-prone neighbours.

It is likely that More, a religious layman who once considered joining the Church as a priest, was inspired by monachal life when he described the workings of his society. More lived during the age when the Renaissance was beginning to assert itself in England, and the old medieval ideals – including the monastic ideal – were declining. Some of More's ideas reflect a nostalgia for that medieval past. It was an inspiration for the Reducciones established by the Jesuits to Christianize and "civilize" the Guaranis.

Other terms

  • Eutopia is a positive utopia, roughly equivalent to the regular use of the word "utopia".
  • Dystopia is a negative utopia.

Other subcategories include Arcadias and Cockaygnes. Ruth Levitas is one who has developed such a categorisation.

Economic utopias

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 an 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 time passed and the socialist movement matured, utopianism was discarded. Socialists grounded their ideas firmly in the realities of the age; among the different emerging socialist currents, Marxism became by far the harshest critic of utopian socialism. (for more information see the History of Socialism article)

Utopias have also been imagined by the opposite side of the political spectrum. For example, Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an individualistic and libertarian utopia. Capitalist utopias of this sort are generally based on perfect market economies, in which there is no market failure—or the issue is never addressed. Some cynics, usually socialists, see most economics textbooks as being nothing but stories of capitalist utopias.

Political and historical utopias

A global utopia of world peace is often seen as one of the possible inevitable endings of history.

Sparta was a militaristic utopia founded by Lycurgus (though some, especially Athenians, may have thought it was rather a dystopia). It was a Greek power until its defeat by the Thebans at the battle of Leuctra.

Religious utopias

The Christian and Islamic ideas of heaven tend to be utopian, especially in their folk-religious forms: inviting speculation about existence free of sin and poverty or any sorrow, beyond the power of death (although "heaven" in Christian eschatology at least, is more nearly equivalent to life within God Himself, visualized as an earth-like paradise in the sky). In a similar sense, the Buddhist concept of Nirvana may be thought of as a kind of utopia. Religious utopias, perhaps expansively described as a garden of delights, existence free of worry amid streets paved with gold, in a bliss of enlightenment enjoying nearly godlike powers, are often a reason for perceiving benefit in remaining faithful to a religion, and an incentive for converting new members.

In the United States during the Second Great Awakening of the nineteenth century, many radical religious groups formed utopian 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 utopian societies was the Shaker movement. The largest such movement was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' settlement in Utah after 1846 (See Mormon Pioneer).

See also: End of the world, Eschatology, Millennialism, Utopianism

Scientific and technological utopias

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. 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.

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

See also: hedonistic imperative, transhumanism, technological singularity, abolitionist society

Opposing this optimism is the prediction that advanced science and technology will, through deliberate misuse or accident, cause humanity's extinction. These pessimists advocate precautions over embracement of new technology.


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