Though "Utopia" means "nowhere," many real-life societies have been strongly influenced by various concepts of a perfect realm where humans live in harmony with each other. Here are some of the most influential Utopian visions — and how they changed our distinctly non-Utopian world.
Sculpture by Cornelia Konrads
Many religions across the world, from Christianity and Islam to Buddhism and Hinduism, have concepts of a paradise that humans enter after death. In Christianity and Islam, which share a common historical tradition, Heaven is a fairly concrete location where people who engage in good works during their lives find peace, health and happiness for eternity. Philosophers have devoted centuries to describing Christian-Islamic paradise, likening it to everything from a city to a kingdom or temple. In Buddhism and Hinduism there are many heavens, often connected to the Earthly realm, which well-behaved humans can pass through on their way to a state of spiritual enlightenment. For many Buddhists and Hindus, "heaven" is more like a state of mind than a physical place.
Regardless of the spiritual tradition, humanity has been transformed by the idea of a heavenly afterlife, or a state of mind that is free from suffering. Striving to reach these heavens, people have tried to engage in good works, often donating huge amounts of money or many years of their lives to the cause. Of course religions have inspired many acts of cruelty, but the Utopian idea of paradise has been the spiritual fuel for many of humanity's greatest works.
Thomas More was a British writer who invented the word "utopia" — from a Greek pun that means both "no place" and "good place" — for this book about his idea of the perfect society. Published in 1516, the book is about a man who has returned from the Isle of Utopia, where many of England's social ills don't exist. Though fictional, the book makes references to many real people and places, and thus has been read as sharp social commentary on the British justice system, politics, and wars. In fact, the book begins with a group of friends discussing how unfair sixteenth century England's inheritance and prison systems are.
On the Isle of Utopia, which scholar Stephen Duncombe calls "Europe turned upside-down," all property is owned communally. When one region has surplus food, they share it with impoverished areas. Other features of the society, according to Duncombe, include "an elected government and priesthood, freedom of speech and religion, public health and education, an economy planned for the good of all, compassionate justice and little crime, and perhaps most Utopian of all, no lawyers."
Many of More's ideas were so influential that several of them have become commonplace in contemporary industrialized societies. Others have simply remained democratic ideals in the West. You can read the full text of Utopia, with modern explanatory notes and helpful background materials, free online at Duncombe's Open Utopia project.
In the early nineteenth century, the French author Alexis de Toqueville set out to the newly-formed United States of America to study its prison system. Like Thomas More's fictional protagonists, who begin their discussion of the Isle of Utopia by talking about prison reform, de Toqueville's project began with prisons and ended with a full exploration of democratic ideals. Eventually he produced two books about his travels though the young country called Democracy in America published in 1835 and 1840.
Though allegedly based on the real-life United States, de Toqueville's vision was pretty idealized. Everywhere he went, he found evidence of a culture where everyone was treated equally and had a chance to reach the highest levels of society despite their birth. Religious freedom was everywhere, as was a more casual manner of relating to one's neighbors. Though he did identify potential problems with democracy, including a tendency toward "soft despotism," De Toqueville's descriptions of a democratic Utopia in action influenced European ideas of democracy throughout the nineteenth century.
It's likely that many of the most idealized ideas of American politics originated in these books. And many democratic European societies, in their quest to spread their Utopian ideals, have engaged in less-than-ideal behavior that led to slaughter and economic oppression in the colonies of India, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
A couple of decades after de Toqueville published his books about America, Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto popularized the idea of Communism. Though Marx is mostly remembered as a radical who incited working class revolts in the early twentieth century, his work in the three volumes of his masterwork Capital is decidedly philosophical and Utopian.
In these books, Marx argues that the horrific conditions of feudalism inevitably gave way to capitalism, which his parents and grandparents had witnessed firsthand in Europe. But what comes after capitalism, which created its own horrible conditions in cities like London and Manchester, where workers were abused and the air was poisonous with factory smoke? Marx imagined that after a truly global workers' revolution the world would enter a phase of Communism.
For Marx, Communism might as well be Utopia. In the third volume of Capital, he explores how a Communist society would be liberated from the punishing labor of capitalism, and everyone would be able to do many kinds of productive, rewarding work. There would be no bosses, and no class divisions. Resources would be shared and nobody would find themselves without life's necessities.
It's fairly obvious how Marx's powerful vision of a Communist Utopia changed the world in the twentieth century. It inspired coups, union movements, and even hippie communes. Communist-influenced societies fell far short of the Marxist ideal, however, just as many Christian societies in previous centuries fell short of the ideal in their pursuit of Heaven. Millions were slaughtered in China and the Soviet Union, often in the name of achieving Utopia. But the influence of Communist Utopia wasn't all bad. Pop versions of Communism inspired many "soft" revolutions in the uprisings of the 1960s that bloomed across the United States and Europe, often inspiring positive social changes and greater freedoms.
Image: Clarisse d'Arcimoles, Brittania (2012), From the series Forget Nostalgia
While Democratic and Communist Utopias battled it out (or joined together in social democratic societies) across the world in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, another kind of Utopia was born in the 1915 science fiction novel Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Like More's Isle of Utopia, Herland is a lost island nation where everyone is equal, goods are plentiful, and war is unknown. It is an enlightened, scientifically advanced society where everyone is educated and healthy.
Much to the surprise of the explorers who discover Herland, it is run and populated entirely by women. Gilman suggests that if women could be removed from the male-dominated societies of the early twentieth century, their achievements might be even greater than those of "mankind." This idea, that woman leaders would create a far less cruel and authoritarian world than men have, has influenced everything from philosophy to feminist politics. Despite the fact that actually-existing female leaders have led their countries into war and semi-authoritarian surveillance regimes, the Utopian ideal of a female society persists into the present day.
Published in the early 1930s, Huxley's novel is one of the first truly ironic and satirical Utopian books. Though More's Utopia definitely has satirical parts, and de Toqueville's Democracy in America explores the dark side of democracy, none took their criticisms as far as Huxley. His Brave New World is about a society based on early-twentieth century Utopian ideals that has gone horribly wrong.
Huxley imagines a future where all humans are genetically engineered and given behavioral conditioning so that they all enjoy their stations in life. They live in an extreme version of capitalism, worshipping "Fordism" (yes, as in the cars), where life is all about consuming leisure products. To keep everyone happily consuming sporting goods, food, and cars, the state makes a drug called Soma available that sounds a lot like a version of opium or heroin. Basically, the future of Brave New World is an anti-democratic and anti-communist nightmare, where everybody is born into a rigidly-defined social class — but instead of rebelling, they are conditioned to love it.
Brave New World has influenced countless criticisms of Utopian thinking, and can also be viewed as the first stirrings of anti-consumerist groups like Adbusters. The novel's ideas are also a touchstone for the Occupy movement, which is in part a rebellion against capitalist societies that try to distract people with happy consumerism, instead of addressing problems with the disparity between rich and poor.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the TV show Star Trek offered people a new idea about what our Utopian future might look like. Freed from the need for money and from the horrors of war, humans in the Star Trek universe devote their lives to exploration or productive work that is freely chosen. But of course, Star Trek's vision is almost as old as Thomas More's. The Enterprise is a lot like the Isle of Utopia, with elements of de Toqueville's America, Marx's Communism, and even Gilman's Herland thrown in.
Unlike most of these other Utopian works, however, Star Trek offers its Utopian vision as a real place that humans could build in the future. It's not some imaginary, hidden island, nor is it a snarky critique of the very idea of Utopia like Huxley's future vision is. In this way, Star Trek's future most resembles those of de Toqueville and Marx, who both believed that a better society could be build by humans in real-life countries.
Despite what happened to American democracy and Communism in real life, both ideals offered people a powerful sense of hope. Today, we don't have much of a tradition of Utopian writing the way they did in the nineteenth century, so popular science fiction Star Trek has taken the place of Utopian philosophy in public discourse. And this makes a kind of sense. Utopia, after all, has always been a fiction. But it's one that can inspire us to change our worlds — sometimes, if we're lucky, in a way that brings us just a little closer to our ideals.