Skip to main content

Utopia and Utopian Ideals

Utopia and Utopian Ideals

Introduction

The idea of a perfect world can be uniquely individual. For some, it would be a society without war or violence. For others, it would be a world based on equality for all races, creeds, and genders. Still, others would consider a world free from financial burdens to be ideal. The possibilities are nearly endless and certainly everyone has their own personal answer to that dilemma. Although it may sound like something asked by a panel of judges at a Miss America pageant, it is a question that numerous writers and thinkers have attempted to answer. Some have considered changing certain political aspects to create an ideal society, and others have concentrated on economic factors. Either way, the dream of making a perfect world has become so much a part of the human existence that it has been given its own name: utopia. Though the quest for these utopian ideals is essentially a quest for a peaceful society, it has at times sparked revolution, war, and bloodshed. It is sometimes the case that one person's utopia is another person's prison.

Coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516 in his work of the same title, utopia (Greek for "no place") has come to mean an ideally perfect state. In "A Definition of 'Utopia,'" J. Max Patrick and G. R. Negley suggest that a "utopia represents … one of the noblest aspirations of man … to dream of [a] better world." This noble aspiration for a better world is quite significant when one considers that attempts to reshape reality into a perfect model have appeared throughout the history of civilization. The utopian ideal has found expression throughout history in a variety of formats, including religious and cultural movements, political and economic ideology, and literary expression.

Regardless of the forum it is presented in, at the heart of the utopian ideal is a peaceful, perfected existence. It is important to realize, however, that in some instances, this idea of peace does not prevent the eventuality of war and discord. In fact, utopian movements tend to be revolutionary in that they are an attempt to overthrow the status quo and provide an alternate way of life. Louis Kern suggests in An Ordered Love that the manifestation of utopian ideals displays a "general agreement in their opposition to the economic arrangements, the moral code, and the social organization of the broader … society." Thus, when looking at how the ideas of war and peace are expressed in utopian literature, it is by considering the issues of economics, morality, and sociology that an understanding of the true nature and scope of these works can be reached. In particular, utopian literature can best be approached by considering how literature handles economic issues such as ownership rights and the division of labor; morality issues such as religion and ethics; and social issues such as the family unit and the treatment of women and minorities. It is through these issues that the seeds for war and peace are often sown.

The Morality of Utopianism

Ethics, morality, and religion play a vital role in not only the development of actual utopian communities, but in many of the most famous works of utopian literature. For example, in Republic (390 b.c.), Plato seems especially concerned with living a perfect life and in finding an absolute state of justice. Plato's exploration of a utopian society can be summed up as an examination of the "good life," in which morality is fundamentally intertwined with the creation of an ideal state. Most utopian literature follows in the footsteps of Plato's example and presents morality and ethics as a primary concern of their ideal societies. Even those works where the utopian society described is not necessarily religious, the framework for the society as presented is usually reminiscent of religious morality. However, if this structure is rigid and exclusive, it can create conflict with neighboring societies that do not share a common religion or morality.

The importance of an ethical code in governing a utopia is particularly evident in More's Utopia (1516). Although the Utopians were fundamentally heathen, they still subscribed to a moral code that insisted they live a virtuous life. Likewise, Jonathon Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) also emphasizes the wickedness of mankind by presenting the reader with the Houyhnhnms, a race of civilized, rational, and most importantly, virtuous horses that stand in stark contrast to the malice of the Yahoos, the race inferior to the Houyhnhnms. It is evident that Swift condemns the Yahoos, whom he relates to his family, friends, countrymen, and the human race in general, for a lack of moral quality. He states that he considers those people in his life "as they really were, Yahoos in shape and disposition, perhaps a little more civilized … but making no other use of reason than to improve and multiply those vices." This episode in Swift's text can best be understood as a satirical, or sarcastic, comment on the lack of morality he finds in his world. Thus like More, Swift's account laments the fact that the prominence of virtue and moral character in humankind has been replaced by greed, which often leads to war and conflict.

In much the same vein as Swift and More, Samuel Butler, in Erewhon (1872), shows contempt for his contemporary moral conditions in the Victorian era. Erewhon, which is "nowhere" spelled backward, is a fictional land where machines are distrusted and children may choose their own parents. In it, Butler pokes fun at the religious, economic, and social conditions of the Victorian period. His satirical look at society offers a critique, in that Erewhon is not the utopia that it initially seems. As Peter Faulkner states in "Samuel Butler: Overview," Butler's commentary demonstrates his belief in the "inauthenticity of much of contemporary religious observances" and "the extravagances of moral dogma."

Other works of utopian literature, including Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1888) by Edward Bellamy, The Tempest (1611) by William Shakespeare, and Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, can also be perceived to some extent as commentary on the moral conditions of the society from which they arose, presenting an alternative view to traditionally accepted ethical and religious issues. The utopian vision presented in works such as Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince (1532) and Karl Marx and Frederick Engels's The Communist Manifesto (1848) also consider issues of morality, but in slightly different terms. Rather than being concerned with ethics, these works often take an indifferent stance towards morality. For instance, unlike Plato, Machiavelli encourages a banishment of ethics from the governing aspect of society, advocating power at any cost. According to Robert Sobel in Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince and The Discourses, Machiavelli's view on ethics and morality can best be approached when one realizes that in Machiavelli's ideal state, "the important questions of power were not of a moral nature," and thus "Machiavelli emerges as a man who rejects revealed religion, and considers all personal actions to be amoral." Like Machiavelli, Marx too believes that morality is irrelevant in the basic foundation of society and is merely a byproduct of the economic conditions. In other words, Marx views morality as a condition of the classes, and thus nearly useless in his classless utopian vision. Marx's and Engel's view of a peaceful, classless utopian society inspired several bloody revolutions in the twentieth century, including those led by Joseph Stalin in Russia, Che Guevara in South America, Fidel Castro in Cuba, Mao Tse-tung in China, and Pol Pot in Cambodia.

The Economics of Utopianism

A critical approach to and alternative view of economic issues is also common to many utopian texts. H. G. Wells, in A Modern Utopia (1905), sees economics as an issue that continually evolves in a perfect society, declaring, "the Modern Utopist will, in its economic aspect, be a compendium of established economic experience, about which individual enterprise will be continually experimenting." A system of communal ownership is also present to varying degrees in many of the societies laid out by the literature. This idea is first suggested by Plato who believes, as Sir Ernest Barker states in his essay "Utopia and Plato's Republic," that "communism is necessary for the realization of justice." Of course, whereas Plato advocates communism for only the elite class and declares that some forms of private ownership should still exist, More takes the Platonic idea further; in his Utopia there is no private property and communism is practiced by all. Likewise, the division of property is at the crux of Marx and Engels's The Communist Manifesto where a total elimination of private property is the utopian ideal. Gilman also presents her utopia of Herland as communal, with no private property, and in Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000–1887, socialism is the basis of the economic system where "the nation became the sole employer" and "all the citizens, by virtue of their citizenship, became employees."

The ownership of property is a major economic concern of utopian texts because of the belief that without private ownership, everyone would be a financial equal. Thus monetary aspects of the economy also figure prominently in utopian literature as a means of creating uniform wealth in the society. In Republic, the reasoning behind the elimination of the divisions of wealth is eloquently stated: "Wealth … and poverty; the one is the parent of luxury and indolence, and the other of meanness and viciousness, and both of discontent." Also, in Shakespeare's The Tempest, the idealistic nature of a communal society with no separation in monetary worth among its inhabitants is portrayed through the character Gonzalo, who, dreaming of a perfect commonwealth in act 2, scene 1, declares that such a place would have no riches or poverty. Herland also has no poverty; the women that make up this society do not even know the meaning of the word. More presents the ideal society as being based on a money-less economy, and in Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000–1887, everyone earns the same wage. This monetary concern can be seen throughout various texts' discussions of an ideal state, and therefore a classless economy, which allows no financial distinction between the rich and the poor, remains at the center of much of the literature.

The ideal of a classless society is best demonstrated in the division of labor set forth in the utopian texts. Marx especially links class rivalry with private property. His vision entails the total dismantling of the separation between the working class and the bourgeois, or upper class. Even utopian texts such as Republic, while not classless, promote a view of labor division radically different from that of the society from which they arose. For instance, in Republic it is suggested "that one man should practise one thing only, the thing to which his nature was best adapted." More also emphasizes the division of labor as a major part of his utopian design, although his ideal differs from Plato's in that everyone is expected to work at farming and some other chosen craft. Ultimately, More's overarching concern is "that no man sit idle: but that every one [apply] his own craft with earnest diligence." Looking Backward: 2000–1887 also insists that in the ideal state everyone from the age of twenty-one to forty-five must work "for himself in accordance with his natural aptitude," in order to contribute to the overall wellbeing of the society.

The Sociology of Utopianism

Social aspects have also proved to be an important theme in utopian literature. Utopian texts provide an alternative view of the social order in a perfect world. One area in which this is largely evident is in the description of the family unit. In most utopian texts, the modern idea of the family is at odds with the vision these texts promote, and therefore "family" does not exist in the terms usually proscribed to it. For instance, in Herland, like many utopian texts, the redefinition of the family resembles that seen in tribal societies where children are raised by the whole community rather than their biological parents. Erewhon also openly criticizes the family unit and calls for a total breakdown of that unit. Likewise, The Communist Manifesto insists that familial designations be redefined in more communal terms where every one in a society becomes responsible for everyone else. Republic promotes "the very great utility of having wives and children in common," as a preferable alternative to the typical family structure. Even More, who still subscribed to the notion that "families most commonly be made of kindreds," represents family units that are atypical, in that they consist of a strict number of members from various generations.

The way in which women are viewed along with their various societal responsibilities also occupied the interest of utopian texts. The best example of this is Herland, where the perfect society is one made up only of women. Contrary to the view that women could not be expected to take an active role in the organization of society, or the idea that if they did it would be a disaster, Herland presents a nation that is highly civilized and functional. In Looking Backward: 2000–1887, women are completely liberated and highly appreciated for the worth that they contribute to society. Even Plato, writing over two thousand years ago, expresses the belief that women should be afforded much of the same opportunities as men. This includes women's right to be educated, to serve their country, and to otherwise perform the same tasks allowed to men. Baker, in Utopia and Plato's Republic, indicates that More's views on women are very similar to those accepted by Plato: "As in the Republic, the women of Utopia bear offices; as in the Republic, they go to war." Wells also supports the liberation of women in his utopian vision, where "women are to be as free as men."

Some utopian texts, such as Erewhon, Utopia, and Republic, also offer a novel approach to dealing with those who are sick or elderly. In the perfect society of Erewhon, "illness of any sort was considered … to be highly criminal and immoral," and those who suffer from maladies are sentenced to varying degrees of punishment. Also, in both Utopia and Republic, being elderly is considered in negative terms and those who are old are no longer seen as contributing to the perfection of society. In Republic, Plato suggests that society as a whole should let the old die. More goes even further, instructing that those who are too old should commit suicide, so as not to be a burden to the rest of society.

Utopian texts share to varying degrees the idea that society should be an equal playing field with no one group being inferior to another. Swift satirizes the concept of discrimination by presenting the reader with Gulliver, who at certain points in his travels is both the superior and inferior being. Shakespeare too provides a similar model in his play The Tempest, where the hierarchical nature of society is ridiculed through the behavior of various characters. Both Swift and Shakespeare seem to suggest that organizations of a society are largely artificial, and thus the classifications between various social groups are often distorted by society as a whole. Without doubt, the text that best demonstrates the misrepresentations of minorities in society and advocates for a more fair view is "I Have a Dream" by Martin Luther King Jr. In his text, the ideal world is presented as one in which "the heat of injustice and oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice."

Conclusion

Clearly the utopian texts discussed, and utopianism in general, has a very distinct purpose in its portrayal of the conditions of an ideal society. Utopian writers compose their treatises as a description of the ills they view in society and present remedies to these ills. Although the form of utopian literature is varied, ranging from satirical commentary to descriptive dialogue, the purpose of these texts remains largely the same. They present a vision of an ideal society that stands in stark contrast to the world around them. They are worlds at peace.

This theme of a perfect world is one that has recurred throughout history, not only in literature, but also in the real world. There have always been those who believe that society is not functioning correctly, and that the entire structure needs to be overhauled. Utopian movements and their respective literature have historically taken a revolutionary approach to changing the structure of society to an ideal state by focusing on economic, moral, and sociological issues. Based on the persistent appearance of utopian thought in both the real world and in literature, one can assume that as long as people are dissatisfied with the society in which they live, and as long as they continue to dream of a better life, the vision of a perfect society will continue to manifest itself through those who believe, or simply hope, that a utopian world is possible.

SOURCES

Barker, Sir Ernest, "Utopia and Plato's Republic," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Utopia, edited by William Nelson, Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968, pp. 100, 102.

Bellamy, Edward, Looking Backward: 2000–1887, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org, (August 1996), pp. 31, 33.

Butler, Samuel, Erewhon, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org (August 2005), pp. 45-46.

Faulkner, Peter, "Samuel Butler: Overview," in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd edition, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991; reproduced in Literature Resource Center, p. 1.

Kern, Louis J., An Ordered Love, The University of North Carolina Press, 1981, pp. xi, 3, 4.

King, Martin Luther, "I Have A Dream," in Elements of Literature, edited by Fannie Saffer, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2000, p. 678.

More, Sir Thomas, Utopia, in Vol. 23 of Harvard Classics: The Five Foot Shelf of Books, edited by Charles W. Eliot, P F Collier & Son, 1910, pp. 189, 194.

Patrick, J. Max and G. R. Negley, "A Definition of Utopia," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Utopia, edited by William Nelson, Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968, p. 108.

Plato, Republic, translated by B. Jowett, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org (August 16, 2005), pp. 102, 114, 136.

Sobel, Robert, The Prince and The Discourses, Monarch Press, 1965, p. 73.

Swift, Jonathan, Gulliver's Travels, Doubleday, 1945, p. 290.

Wells, H. G., A Modern Utopia, Odhams Press Limited, 1908, pp. 46, 97.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Utopia and Utopian Ideals." Literary Themes for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. 12 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Utopia and Utopian Ideals." Literary Themes for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 12, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/utopia-and-utopian-ideals

"Utopia and Utopian Ideals." Literary Themes for Students. . Retrieved November 12, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/utopia-and-utopian-ideals

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.