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The Utopian Ideal over Time
The name utopia is applied retroactively to various ideal states described before More's work, most notably to that of the Republic of Plato. St. Augustine's City of God in the 5th cent. enunciated the theocratic ideal that dominated visionary thinking in the Middle Ages. With the Renaissance the ideal of a utopia became more worldly, but the religious element in utopian thinking is often present thereafter, such as in the politico-religious ideals of 17th-century English social philosophers and political experimenters. Among the famous pre-19th-century utopian writings are François Rabelais's description of the Abbey of Thélème in Gargantua (1532), The City of the Sun (1623) by Tommaso Campanella, The New Atlantis (1627) of Francis Bacon, and the Oceana (1656) of James Harrington.
In the 18th-century Enlightenment, Jean Jacques Rousseau and others gave impetus to the belief that an ideal society—a Golden Age—had existed in the primitive days of European society before the development of civilization corrupted it. This faith in natural order and the innate goodness of humanity had a strong influence on the growth of visionary or utopian socialism. The end in view of these thinkers was usually an idealistic communism based on economic self-sufficiency or on the interaction of ideal communities. Saint-Simon, Étienne Cabet, Charles Fourier, and Pierre Joseph Proudhon in France and Robert Owen in England are typical examples of this sort of thinker. Actual experiments in utopian social living were tried in Europe and the United States, but for the most part the efforts were neither long-lived nor more than partially successful.
The humanitarian socialists were largely displaced after the middle of the 19th cent. by political and economic theorists, such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who preached the achievement of the ideal state through political and revolutionary action. The utopian romance, however, became an extremely popular literary form. These novels depicted the glowing, and sometimes frightening, prospects of the new industrialism and social change. One of the most important of these works was Looking Backward (1888), by Edward Bellamy, who had a profound influence on economic idealism in America. In England, Erewhon (1872), by Samuel Butler, News from Nowhere (1891), by William Morris, and A Modern Utopia (1905), by H. G. Wells, were notable examples of the genre; in Austria an example was Theodor Hertzka's Freiland (1890). The 20th cent. saw a veritable flood of these literary utopias, most of them “scientific utopias” in which humans enjoy a blissful leisure while all or most of the work is done for them by docile machines.
Connected with the literary fable of a utopia has been the belief in an actual ideal state in some remote and undiscovered corner of the world. The mythical Atlantis, described by Plato, was long sought by Greek and later mariners. Similar to this search were the vain expeditions in search of the Isles of the Blest, or Fortunate Isles, and El Dorado.
Satirical and Other Utopias
See V. L. Parrington, American Dreams (2d ed. 1964); L. Mumford, The Story of the Utopias (rev. ed. 1966); M. Holloway, Heavens on Earth (2d ed. 1966); G. Negley and J. M. Patrick, The Quest for Utopia (1952, repr. 1971); E. Rothstein, H. Muschamp, and M. E. Marty, Visions of Utopia (2003).
utopia(from the Greek, meaning ‘nowhere’) any imaginary society or place, intended to stand as an ethical or theoretical ideal or to provide an illuminating contrast with existing patterns of social organization. Utopia may be based on historically existing societies or located in the future. Well-known examples of utopias are PLATO's Republic and Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516).
Assessments of the value of utopian thinking vary. By its advocates the use of utopian imagery is justified if it aids critical imagination and extends awareness of alternatives to existing forms of social organization. By its detractors it is seen as liable to mislead and to promote unreal expectations about social change. See also UTOPIANISM. Compare IDEAL TYPE.
Utopia(religion, spiritualism, and occult)
Utopia, asteroid 1,282 (the 1,282nd asteroid to be discovered, on August 17, 1933), is approximately 35 kilometers in diameter and has an orbital period of 5.5 years. Utopia (literally, “no place”) was named after the imaginary republic of Sir Thomas More. J. Lee Lehman associates this asteroid with ideals and, more particularly, with people who act from a blueprint for a better society.
a portrayal of an ideal social system lacking scientific foundation. The term was taken from T. More’s Utopia, a book published in 1516. The concept of Utopia acquired a generic meaning that served a double purpose: it was applied to any description of an imaginary country represented as the model of a social system, and it was also used in the broader sense, to designate any composition or tract containing some unrealizable plan of social transformation.
As a distinct form of social consciousness in the history of mankind, the idea of Utopia has included various concepts of the ideal society, criticism of existing systems, and the desire to escape from drab reality, as well as attempts to anticipate society’s future. Originally, the idea of utopia was woven into such legends as that of a “golden age” or of the Isles of the Blest. In antiquity as well as during the Renaissance, utopias were generally represented as perfect states that supposedly existed somewhere on earth or had existed in the past; in the 17th and 18th centuries, various Utopian tracts and projects of political and social reform gained wide renown. Beginning with the mid-19th century, the term “utopia” was increasingly applied to a specific genre of polemic literature that was concerned with the question of social ideals and moral values.
Utopias vary in both social content and literary form: they include the various currents of Utopian socialism as well as the slaveholding Utopias of Plato and Xenophon; additional examples are the feudal theocratic Utopia of Joachim of Fiore, J. V. Andreae’s Christianopolis (1619), the bourgeois and petit bourgeois Utopias—J. Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), E. Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), and T. Hertzka’s Freeland (1890)—and many other types, including technocratic and anarchistic Utopias. Many Utopian writings proposed solutions to specific problems—for example, the tracts on “everlasting peace” by Erasmus of Rotterdam, E. Crucé, C. Saint-Pierre, I. Kant, and J. Bentham, the pedagogical Utopias of J. Comenius and J.-J. Rousseau, and such scientific-technological Utopias as F. Bacon’s.
Utopias are vividly pictured, too, in the history of social thought of ancient and medieval China (as in the Utopian writings of Mo Tzu, Lao Tzu, and Shang Yang) and of the peoples of the Near and Middle East (al-Farabi, ibn Bajja, ibn Tufail, and Nizami), as well as in the literature of 18th- to 20th-century Russia—for example, in M. M. Shcherbatov’s Journey to the Land of Ophir (1786), in the writings of the Decembrists and revolutionary democrats, and in the novels of A. A. Bogdanov.
With the gradual development of the social sciences, and especially after the rise of Marxism, the cognitive and prognostic significance of Utopias was considerably diminished.
The 20th century’s revival of Utopias owes much to H. G. Wells, who not only was the author of many Utopian works but also considered the creation and criticism of social Utopias to be one of sociology’s fundamental tasks. G. Sorel identified Utopia as a rationalized false consciousness, to which he opposed his concept of the social myth as the spontaneous manifestation of social needs. The study of Utopia plays an important part in K. Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge. Mannheim sought to establish the difference between, on the one hand, Utopias that serve the functions of social criticism and, on the other, Utopia as ideology—which, in his opinion, serves as apologia. According to L. Mumford, the basic function of Utopia is to channel social development into a “routinized future,” forcing the masses to be reconciled to the latter as to something inevitable, dictated by the “technological imperative.”
Bourgeois sociologists have long regarded Utopias as chimerical schemes for transforming society, and—without any supporting evidence—they included Marxism among such chimeras; their scornful attitude, however, changed radically after the victory of the Socialist Revolution in Russia. This reevaluation of the whole significance of Utopia in social development was concisely formulated by N. Berdiaev: “Utopias seem to be much more realizable than was formerly believed. And the agonizing question that we are now faced with is a very different one: How can we escape their final realization?” (A. Huxley uses this quotation as his epigraph to Brave New World, London, 1958, p. 5.) This point of view, which embodies the voluntarists’ idea of the “arbitrariness of history,” became the leitmotiv in the evaluation of Utopias by modern non-Marxist sociologists. Among the latter, the prevailing attitude toward Utopias is distinctly negative; Utopia, as they define it, violates reality and human nature, idealizing and laying the foundation for a totalitarian system.
The ideas of the “antiutopians” gained considerable currency. The purpose of antiutopias is to present the opponent’s social ideals, as though realized in actuality, in a deliberately frightening manner or in the guise of a caricature. This method, which comes close to social satire, had previously been used by such writers as Swift, Voltaire, and S. Butler, but it was in the 20th century that it became predominant within the Utopian genre. The best-known works of this type are E. Zamiatin’s We, A. Huxley’s Brave New World, and G. Orwell’s 1984. In addition to their hostility toward socialism, these works manifest disarray in the face of the impending social consequences of scientific and technological advances; they represent the attempt to defend bourgeois individualism against a rationalized technocratic civilization. At the same time, some of the antiutopias voice a legitimate anxiety over the fate of the individual in “mass society” and a protest against the manipulation of consciousness and of personal behavior under state-monopoly capitalism.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, when the bourgeois consciousness was undergoing a profound ideological crisis, the concept of Utopia drew the increasing attention of public figures, ideologists, and sociologists in the capitalist West. What was called for, on the one hand, was a liberal-democratic version of Utopia that would attract the great mass of people as an alternative to Marxism and scientific communism; such an alternative aims directly at the idealization of state-monopoly capitalism or at laying the moral groundwork for its revival by means of “reform from above,” as against the alternative of socialist revolution. (F. von Hayek, F. L. Polak, and W. Moore may be cited as representing this point of view.) On the other hand, many petit bourgeois radicals and “new left” ideologists, seeing no practical way of achieving social justice, have deliberately followed the line of militant utopianism (as exemplified by C. W. Mills, H. Marcuse, P. Goodman, A. Touraine, and H. M. Enzensberger). The contemporary bourgeois concept of Utopia is a combination of Utopian and antiutopian tendencies: as a rule, in fact, the modern Utopias’ proclaimed social ideals prove to be unacceptable to the great mass of people, inasmuch as such ideals involve the rejection of traditional humanist and democratic values (as in B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two).
Marxist sociology classifies Utopia as one of various inadequate reflections of social reality; nevertheless, the concept of Utopia once had important ideological, educational, and cognitive functions in the life of society, some of which it fulfills even today. Accordingly, the significance of Utopia depends on its class content and social purpose. Utopias express the interests of specific classes and social strata—as a rule, not those that are in power (see V. I. Lenin, “Two Utopias,” in Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 22, pp. 117–21).
An additional property of Utopias is that, in ideological terms, they have much in common with social myths; in literary terms, with social satire; and in terms of their cognitive function, with science fiction. At the same time, Utopias have many distinctive features of their own, chief among these being the conviction that all the contradictions in society can be resolved at one stroke by adopting one or another type of universal scheme—such schemes being presented as panaceas for whatsoever ails society. As a consequence, Utopias are characteristically marked by antihistoricism, a deliberate break with reality, a generally nihilistic attitude toward the real world, an attempt to design things and relationships according to the principle that “everything should be the opposite of what it is,” a tendency toward formalism, a disregard of the transition from the real to the ideal, an idealistic interpretation of history—as shown by the exaggerated role assigned to education and legislation—and a hopeful reliance on the support of leading personalities, such as prominent public figures, philanthropists, or individuals who are in positions of power. Antiutopia, while sharing the inherent shortcomings of the Utopian conception, also represents its exact opposite, in the sense that it renounces any progressive social ideal and calls for reconciliation with the existing system in order to escape a worse future.
In the history of society and social thought, Utopias often served to express the revolutionary ideology of the oppressed masses, as in the case of the uprising led by Aristonicus in Pergamum in the second century B.C., at the time of the Yellow Turbans in China in the late second and early third centuries A.D., during the peasant wars of the feudal era, and in the period of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions. Many Utopian works were written by prominent public and political figures; among the leaders of the American and French bourgeois revolutions, many were seriously influenced by Utopian ideas—Harrington’s in the case of the Americans, and Rousseau’s, as chief example, in the case of the French. Attempts were even made to implement various Utopian projects in practice. One such attempt was the establishment of the Icarian colonies in North America by followers of E. Cabet; these and other colonies of this kind were of short duration.
Many of the basic principles of the workers’ liberation movement, as well as many moral and legislative norms and educational systems, were first conceived in the form of Utopias. It was Lenin who cited the great Utopian thinkers “whose genius anticipated innumerable things, the correctness of which is now being scientifically proved by us” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 6, p. 26).
Although the emergence of scientific socialism undermined the social significance of Utopia and deprived the latter of many of its previous functions, Utopia in general—unlike Utopian socialism—has not relinquished the role it plays as a specific literary genre. The positive meaning of Utopia in our own time is twofold: Utopia serves as a means to anticipate that which is likely to occur in the distant future but whose specific details cannot be scientifically predicted at a given level of knowledge; furthermore, Utopia can serve as a warning against certain negative social consequences of human activity and against other undesirable tendencies in society. These aspects of Utopia have given impetus, in sociology, to the development of the method of normative forecasting and scenarios, which are used to analyze and evaluate the desirability and probability of a presumed course of events.
Kirchenheim, A. Vechnaia utopiia. St. Petersburg, 1902. (Translated from German.)
Sorel, G. Razmyshleniia o nasilii. Moscow, 1907. (Translated from French.)
Swietochowski, A. Istoriia utopii. Moscow, 1910. (Translated from Polish.)
Morton, A. L. Angliiskaia utopiia. Moscow, 1956. (Translated from English.)
Frantsov, G. P. Istoricheskie puti sotsial’noi mysli. Moscow, 1965.
Agosti, H. Vozrozhdennyi Tantal. Moscow, 1969. (Translated from Spanish.)
Batalov, E. la. Filosofiia bunta. Moscow, 1973.
Wells, H. G. A Modem Utopia. London, 1909.
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E. A. ARAB-OGLY
What does it mean when you dream about a utopia?
A dream about utopia could reflect an individual’s ideals. It could also represent impossible ideals and a retreat from life’s difficulties.