A Definition of Utopia

To define utopia, we must look for the etymology given by Thomas More. “U-topos” means “no place, nowhere”. “Eu-topos” means “the good place”, it is therefore ambiguous.

Utopia has no real location, it is a vision, impossible to find. It is good, the world is perfect, and it represents a quest for perfection. Thus, how can we reach such perfection? More’s Utopia tries to answer this: in Book I, he describes the English system and institutions he wants to eliminate. Book II describes Utopia, the materialisation of the perfect world in the future. 

Utopias are always prospective. It suggests that present-day institutions are dangerous and that we need to create a new system in the future. The characteristics of utopia are:

  • Isolated
  • Self-centred
  • An island

It is a world that cannot be contaminated by the outside world, far away from corruption. The Protestant Reformation was fighting against the corruption of the Catholic Church. Andreae, a Protestant leader wrote Christianopolis. The second reason for the emergence of Utopia is America, for it was a world of perfection, uncontaminated by civilisation.

Utopia’s subgenre is dystopia. “Dys” means “bad place”. It is a counter model, the place we must avoid at all costs. Counter-utopia and anti-utopia are confusing. A counter-utopia is a model that tries to abandon an austere model.

Perfection is dangerous. Most 19th and 20th ideologies were inspired by utopias: communism, and fascism. They aimed at creating a perfect world. In the 1960s there was a strong response to the tyranny of utopians, with the libertarians and the hippies: they refused bureaucracy and forged an individualistic response to a utopian future – the community. Utopia is interested in a group, a mass of people but not individuals. 

In the 16th century, there was a lot of interest in Thomas More’s Utopia because people were fed up with the regime, yet they did not see the problems.

The first utopia, Plato’s Republic, is a search for justice with a strong emphasis on community and property, and the abolition of money, gold and silver. Gold is used for chamber pots. The emphasis is on education and equality between men and women. We find the same features in Thomas More’s Utopia. Some ideas are acceptable, and some are not (like eugenics). Utopia endowed an implicit tyranny: while it means to make people happy, it contributes to their fall.

The concept of utopia

There have been many utopias, especially now that the definition is more precise. The definition depends on the ideological context. We can try to point out several concepts through centuries.

Plato: The Utopia of Atlantis

Plato is the founder of utopias, even though the word was coined by Thomas More.

The Utopia of Atlantis‘ by Plato (500 BC) consists of two texts: Timaois and Kritias, which deal with a perfect world to the West called Atlantis.

This perfect world is described as circular and more and more powerful. Atlantis was destroyed because of the Gods. The Atlantes were too proud and challenged the Gods. Text 1 was a dystopia as well because the people of Atlantis decided to conquer the rest of the world, and therefore the Gods punished them. It created a myth, powerful for centuries.

Utopia has religious roots

The sources of utopia are to be found in religion. Utopia is Judeo-Christian, a product of the Western mind for the Western civilisation. The beginning of this vision and prospect is based on the concept of the Old Testament prophet.

The essential idea is that man, after losing his unity with Nature and fellow men, begins to make his history. Obedience is the source of his freedom. Man wants to be free, he is a separate individual from society. He develops his faculty with a union with nature, in harmony. The main concept is that man makes his history. It is a prophetic idea even though times were more secular (religion was more and more absent). It is the prophecy of a new link between Man and Nature.

During the Renaissance, man discovered nature. It is the beginning of the study of science, the right tool to understand the world. Man has the potential to transform Nature: it is a new sense of power and strength. 

There comes the vision of a good society, as a goal of history and faith in reason and science: utopia was born again. It was Plato’s first, then it went away, then came back. Each period created its utopia.

There is something religious about utopia, even if man wants to get rid of religion. Communism was a religious utopia, based on the Golden Age. Utopia is an important biblical myth, a source of inspiration for arts. It is the pastoral Arcadia. The world was perfect in the Golden Age, they thought. In modern times, the Golden Age is a goal to reach.

The main source for William Morris is Thomas More, even though there are major differences between them.

Gargantua by Rabelais mentions the abbey of Thélème. The main idea is simple: people are happy and should be happy because they have no regimentation. They are free. Men and women are equal and encouraged to develop their talents (libertarianism).

The early 17th century marks the appearance of several ambitious utopians:

  1. Campanella: City of the Sun (1623)
  2. Andrea: Chrisitanopolis (1619)
  3. Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis (1624), which is the resurrection of Atlantis in the modern world.

There are many common points with Thomas More. They are prophecies of the modern world. In City of the Sun, it is an island in community property, one of the main features of modern utopia. This world is based on equality: equality of labour, and an emphasis on education and science. The purpose is to spread information on all branches of knowledge. There are images of wars and corridas. The rulers are men of superior intelligence. This city conforms to Christianity: people are moral and good. The sun symbolises the city and the prestige of the spreading of the island. The light will be connected to the Enlightenment and knowledge.

Christianopolis is a distant island. Citizens use no money and own no property. They are on an equal basis, economically and socially. Husbands share in cooking and things. There is a division of labour: everyone shares in work. There is a development of trade and scientific experimentation. Progress is found in imagery, in murals for example.

The New Atlantis is the most direct prophecy of the Western world. The island is close to America and some people claim it is America. It is a perfect society of community: common good, a world of equity, learning, justice, and science. The most spectacular thing is Salomon’s house, a huge academy/laboratory that foreshadows present-day laboratories. Bacon advocates the scientific method for human progress. Nature should be systematically explored.

Thomas More’s Utopia

Marx and Engels talked about the importance of Thomas More. In Utopia, there is no luxury, no exploitation, no poverty. It is a land of happy communists, healthy, where money and private property are extinct. Anyone can enter your house as the doors are not locked. Everyone works at trade. People are free to choose their jobs. They work six hours a day, so there is leisure but no taverns. Sex is restricted. You eat in the communal hall together. Food is available for everyone: it is a revolution for at the time people were starving.

This picture of a world is an indirect satire of the English world. It is fictional but it aims at being credible. Thomas More was sentenced to death. A utopia is a risk, a controversy. It is a very serious picture of a sick world the writer wants to get rid of. We must decipher the romance.

William Morris’s News From Nowhere

William Morris was interested in Thomas More’s Utopia. More and Morris are both attached to the abolition of private property. More is a sort of “socialist”.

Sharing labour: Morris read Marx and he re-read More with a Marxist mind: communism was the only remedy to social injustice. “Though no man has anything, yet every man is rich”.

The economy of distribution: money has been abolished (the idea is found in News from Nowhere), and there is equalitarian abundance.

Pleasure: Morris was shocked by the useless production. The goal is to be happy to produce useful tools for society.

From the 19th century to contemporary influences

Here’s Victor Dupont’s definition of a utopia:

“Un tableau imaginaire d’un idéal constructif de vie en société supposé réalisé et présenté sous une forme concrète dans une œuvre d’imagination et le cadre d’un récit. C’est le mariage entre une réalité imaginable et l’imaginaire.

The Coming Race (1871) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Utopia is set in an underground world. It describes an advanced species prepared to dominate the world above one day. Is it dystopia? Is this race too perfect? They look like robots.

After London (1885) by Richard Jefferies

It’s a pessimistic utopia, a post-Holocaust novel. England is turned into a gigantic forest where no life is possible. We are back to the beginning but in the future. Chapter 1 is a relapse into barbarism and chapter 2 depicts a wild England. We are back to simplicity. It leaves the door open to a kind of happy ending. It is a return to medieval times.

A Crystal Age (1887) by W.H. Hudson

A Crystal Age tells the story of a man who falls into a hole. It is a fairly typical 18th-century utopia, with a real paradise populated by happy vegetarians. The hero has fallen into space and time. Science is dangerous. Money is unknown to them. The countryside is opposed to the city. There is an important number of utopias written in Anglo-Saxon countries from the mid-1800s to the present day.

Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1888) by Edward Bellamy

Looking Backward is one of the greatest best-sellers of all time. News from Nowhere was written as a reaction to it. The book became the manifesto of the Nationalist Movement and the emergence of the People’s Party.

In this thought-provoking novel, we follow the extraordinary journey of Julian West, a young man from the late 19th century who finds himself transported over a century into the future. After falling into a deep, hypnotic slumber, he awakens in the year 2000, only to discover that the world he once knew has undergone a remarkable transformation.

Julian’s guide, Doctor Leete, introduces him to a society that has embraced a utopian vision of socialism. Gone are the problems associated with capitalism; instead, a nationalised system has been implemented, where all industries are owned and operated by the state. Production and distribution are meticulously organised by an “industrial army,” ensuring efficient allocation of resources and equal distribution of goods among citizens.

As Julian navigates this brave new world, he is awestruck by the advancements that have taken place. Work hours for menial jobs have been drastically reduced, and goods can be delivered almost instantaneously through a system reminiscent of the modern internet. Retirement is a universal right, with all citizens receiving full benefits at the age of 45, and public kitchens (akin to the factory kitchens of the Soviet era) provide nourishment for the populace.

The novel delves into the intricacies of this socialist utopia through a series of dialogues between Julian and Doctor Leete. Julian’s confusion and curiosity serve as a vehicle for Leete to explain the inner workings of this future society, employing metaphors and comparisons to the 19th-century world with which Julian is familiar.

While Bellamy’s novel does not delve into technological or economic details, it offers a thought-provoking exploration of alternative societal structures. Concepts such as “credit” cards (functioning more like modern debit cards), equal distribution of resources, and the provision of art and news through independent public outlets are introduced, sparking discussions on the possibilities and challenges of a socialist system.

All citizens shared profits. both men and women must enrol in the Industrial Army, a compulsory military service until 45, the age of retirement, except if the woman is a mother. People live longer (85-90 years old). War is extinct because of the peaceful army and strict military discipline through equality and the same reward for everyone. Women are released from domestic slavery. Women choose men for their natural abilities in sexual selection and the improvement of the breed. There is no crime no prison because education has played its part.

Through Julian’s eyes, we are invited to contemplate the potential of a world free from the inequalities of capitalism, where crime is treated as a medical issue and the pursuit of knowledge and creativity is encouraged. Bellamy’s vision challenges us to imagine a future where the collective good takes precedence over individual gain, prompting us to question our own societal norms and envision alternative paths towards progress.

The one enormous difference between Bellamy and Morris is that Bellamy believes in progress. For him, mankind is essentially good (like Morris).  The two were utopians because they were confident about achieving their dream. Utopia is both powerful and dangerous (cf. the 20th century). Morris’s utopia is open and libertarian. 

Articles conseillés :


Matt Biscay est développeur WordPress et WooCommerce certifié chez Codeable, ainsi que sysadmin qualifié et enseignant-chercheur. Passionné par le code performant et les solutions sécurisées, je m'efforce d'offrir une expérience utilisateur exceptionnelle sur chaque projet.

Vous avez aimé cet article ? Vous avez un projet en tête et vous pensez que je pourrais vous aider à le concrétiser ? N'hésitez pas à me contacter, je serais ravi de discuter avec vous de votre projet !