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Although utopias and utopianism are associated with modern Western political literature and social movements that describe a place in which the ideal has become real, they exist in many cultures throughout world history and might be typically categorized as literary, philosophical, or historical.
The word utopia, coined by Thomas More (1478–1535) in his political fantasy of the same name, literally means “nowhere” (from the Greek ou = no, topos = place)—which of course raises the question of whether More believed such a place could even exist—but has come to be applied to any fictional or actual community based on social and political idealism. Utopias have been portrayed in literature and in philosophical treatises, and humans have experimented in creating them throughout history.
A frequently documented fantasy in both folk and formal literatures of many different cultures across world history is that of the ideal world in which there is comfort, ease, and plenty for all. Greeks such as Hesiod (c. 800 BCE) and Romans including Virgil (70–19 BCE) and Ovid (43 BCE–?CE) imagined an early stage in human history (the golden age) in which people and gods lived together in harmony. Virgil imagined peasants in Arcadia enjoying effortless agrarian work resulting in nature’s bounty. The Hebrew scriptures’ book of Genesis begins with a similar original golden age in the Garden of Eden, which most modern readers interpret symbolically but which was considered very real by medieval and Renaissance Christians who speculated about its location.
Idealized lands and kingdoms preoccupied the medieval mind. The Land of Cockaigne was a folk fantasy of a peasant’s paradise—and was also immortalized in a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in 1567—into which the aristocrats or wealthy clergy would not be admitted. The Land of Prester John, documented in the travel narratives of Marco Polo (1254–1324) and John Mandeville (flourished 1356), was a product of the medieval fascination with distant lands. It is surrounded by pagan nations but ruled by a benign priest-king (so it has much in common with the philosophical utopias of Judaism and Christianity).
Theorizing about the ideal human community has an ancient and diverse ancestry. In The Republic, Plato (c. 428 BCE–348? BCE) discussed the necessity for virtuous philosopher kings to rule over virtuous citizens. In Critias and in his obscure work Timaeus, Plato introduced the world to the legend of Atlantis, a staple of utopian literature even today. The Analects of Confucius (551 BCE–479 BCE) collects the Chinese philosopher’s teachings about the right order of society in which the ruler’s and the people’s virtue ensure stability and prosperity.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share common traditions relating to an ideal social order. The Torah describes a promised land flowing with milk and honey, and the prophetic literature of Judaism imagines a messianic kingdom ruled over by a virtuous, priestly king who takes care of the poor and dispenses justice. Christian scriptures similarly imagine a community of believers united under the messianic leadership of Christ. The Muslim Qur’an also describes an ideal social order uniting people of faith, as well as a future paradise for the just and virtuous.
During the European Renaissance, many writers examined the conditions and institutions that would produce an ideal society. Some of these texts would become the template for new experiments in communal living. The most famous of these, of course, is Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), a fictional account of a traveler who has returned to Europe after having visited an island commonwealth where land is held in common, both men and women are educated, and there is religious tolerance. Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639) combined revolutionary and scholarly insights to write his utopian visions. His Monarchia messiae (Anointed King) proposes the establishment of one world ruler and one world religion. Citta del sole (City of the Sun) suggests that the head of the ideal city would be a priest-king, like that of the Land of Prester John. Drawing on Plato’s Timaeus as well as More’s Utopia, Francis Bacon (1561–1626) imagined an ideal society in New Atlantis; its capital, Bensalem, is organized around scientific study and its rulers are scientist-kings.
Actual communities based on the principles spelled out in the literary or philosophical utopian traditions have often been attempted. Rarely outliving their visionary founders, utopian communities nonetheless introduce innovations into mainstream societies.
European colonization of the Americas was accompanied by utopian schemes that tried to implement what visionary texts merely described. English settlements in North America, in particular, imagined themselves as the “new Israel,” or the “new Chosen People.” Puritan Separatists (such as the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation) established a theocratic community, which they tried to keep pure by exiling their more wayward members, among whom were those who settled Rhode Island as a refuge for religious dissenters. Similarly, Pennsylvania as a haven for European dissenters and Maryland as a Catholic enclave endorsed the principle of religious freedom that characterized More’s Utopia. The seventeenth century English revolution, resulting in a short-lived republic, spawned even more radical social experiments, such as the communistic Diggers and Levelers. The American Revolution may have been a rationalist project (like its protege in France), but the early Republic became a laboratory for a variety of religious and secular utopian experiments.
If the eighteenth-century American and French revolutions institutionalized political utopianism, the nineteenth century bred its most diverse intellectuals and practitioners. While some of these were religious, like the Mormons and the Shakers, many were secular, like the American Brook Farm Community (the object of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 satire, The Blithedale Romance), William Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement and the Fabian Socialists in England, and the French utopian socialists Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), Charles Fourier (1772–1837), and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865).
Preeminent among the intellectuals was Karl Marx (1818–1883), who towered above the age both for the extent of his social, historical, and economic analyses and for the breadth of his influence well into the twentieth century. Ironically, the nineteenth-century industrial societies that Marx imagined to be the most fertile ground for his ideas did not produce the kind of revolution he predicted, which occurred instead in agrarian countries like Russia, China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Cuba in the twentieth century. Moreover, by developing Leninist and Stalinist models of government, the totalitarian regimes that succeeded these revolutions (and their fascist counterparts in Spain, Germany, and Italy) encouraged the creation of a “dystopian” literature, including Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949).
Despite a history of spectacular failures of utopian schemes in the twentieth century, the twenty-first century is likely to continue to witness two forms of utopianism: small-scale intentional communities and large-scale religious utopianism. In the West small, local, intentional communities of like-minded people will persist as a way to resist the values and structures of mass culture, mass economics, and mass politics. Mass culture often makes utopian claims based on its technological advancements, which are driven by consumer capitalism. Atlantis, for example, is no longer a Platonic prototype of utopia but a vacation resort in the Bahamas. Similarly, the Western proliferation of the Internet has frequently idealized “cybertopia” with claims of the Internet’s power to transform society, politics, education, and the economy. Digital communism, the notion that digital intellectual property should not be privately owned, will continue to confront digital capitalism. Although the dominant large-scale utopian ideologies of the twentieth century were secular, in the developing world the twenty-first century is likely to witness more frequent attempts to establish utopian theocracies founded on religious principles. Throughout the latter twentieth century, Islamic movements in particular demonstrated a growing disenchantment with the utopian claims of Western democratic capitalism and Communist socialism. The Iranian revolution that overthrew the country’s shah in 1979 and the Taliban’s resistance to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan put into power Islamic republics whose laws were said to reflect the Qur’an and Muslim law, or sharia. The terrorist entity al-Qaeda might be more coherently understood as a militant movement following a utopian ideal. A continuing phenomenon of revivalism in the world’s largest religious communities (Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam) preaches to audiences who are receptive to a message of clarity and hope (in exchange for obedience). Historically each of these religions has attempted to imagine and to affect a more perfect world. Whether they will do so without coercion or violence remains to be seen.
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