Asian Pacific American Heritage: utopia (concept)

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

A utopia is a conception of an ideal society in which the social, political, and economic evils afflicting humankind have been eradicated and the state functions for the good and happiness of all. Although utopian literature does not usually dwell on the practical means by which perfect societies are created, its stated and implied criticisms of social ills and its presentation of alternative modes of existence have assured it a prominent place in the history of thought. Plato's Republic , written in the 4th century, is generally regarded as the earliest and greatest work in the genre, although the biblical Garden of Eden might be described as a utopia.

The use of the word utopia (which means "no place" in Greek) to designate a perfect society began with the publication in 1516 of Saint Thomas More's Utopia, a Latin essay depicting the way of life and social institutions on an imaginary island. The work consists of two books: the first, a scathing account of conditions in contemporary England, is designed to contrast sharply with the second, a delineation of More's conception of a state ruled by reason. He describes in abundant detail his ideal community's religion, government, education, economics, wars, laws, and customs. Utopia gained a wide audience, and the term was subsequently applied to all such concepts advanced by social thinkers and visionaries.

Other famous utopian works include Tommaso Campanella's The City of the Sun (1623; Eng. trans., 1937), Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627), James Harrington's Oceana (1656), Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872), Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888), and William >Morris's News from Nowhere (1891). Influential 20th-century examples of the genre include H. G. >Wells's Modern Utopia (1905) and Walden Two (1948), by the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner.

During the 19th century numerous attempts were made actually to establish utopian communities. Most were experiments in utopian socialism, such as those advocated by the comte de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and √Čtienne Cabet in France, Robert Owen in Britain and the United States, and his son Robert Dale Owen in the United States. Although they differed considerably in their specific views, these utopian thinkers concurred in the belief that ideal societies could be created without much difficulty, starting with the formation of small cooperative communities made up of their followers. Saint-Simon regarded technological progress and large-scale economic organization as being of utmost importance. Future happiness, he believed, was tied to industrial growth. Fourier, in contrast, repudiated industry. He favored agricultural communities in which people lived in small, self-sufficient "phalanxes" free from the restraints imposed by civilization. Experimental settlements based on the theories of the utopians were set up in Europe and the United States and included Robert Owen's famous cooperative communities in New Harmony, Ind., and New Lanark, Scotland. Most did not long survive; one of the longest lasting was Oneida Community, in New York State, which lasted from 1848 to 1881. By the middle of the 19th century the utopian socialists were beginning to be eclipsed by more militant radical movements, including anarchism and Marxism.

In modern times utopianism has frequently suggested a naive and impossibly impractical approach to reality. Nevertheless, the tradition of utopian literature has persisted as a device for exposing contemporary ills. Much recent writing has focused on scientific utopias in advanced technological societies. The publication of satiric antiutopias, sometimes called dystopias, has also continued. Prominent examples of this genre are Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano (1951).

Bibliography:
Anderson, H., Utopian Feminism (1993);
Berry, B. J., America's Utopian Experiments (1992);
Chianese, Robert L., Peaceable Kingdoms: An Anthology of Utopian Writings (1971);
Erasmus, Charles J., In Search of the Common Good (1977; repr. 1985);
Francis, Richard, Transcendental Utopias: Individual and Community at Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden (1996);
Goodwin, Barbara, and Taylor, Keith, The Politics of Utopia (1984);
Levitas, R., The Concept of Utopia (1991);
Manuel, Frank E., and Fritzi, P., Utopian Thought in the Western World (1979).

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    Philosophy, Literature Appreciation, Asian History, Asian and Asian American
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