Utopia: Forever a Fantasy or Realist Blueprint
It’s safe to say that our world today is far from perfect. Amid a pandemic of horrifying proportions, some wake up fearful for the lives of their loved ones and themselves while others remain in a constant state of isolation — deprived of key social contact and anxious about the days passing by. Some, however, fear for their lives in an entirely different manner, waking every morning in a nation riddled with racial inequity. The lack of substantial policy change on racial injustice despite the explosive support for the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer makes it quite easy to feel as if our voices don’t matter…as if no one is truly listening. During this time of swift tension, some turn to literature to escape into the safe havens of fiction. Despite the divisive nature of our society, we find courage through the voices that reverberated from centuries past — voices that once proposed a new world…Will we ever create this new world, or will we continue to lay in the present fragments of the broken dreams we crafted in the past? Will we ever be able to agree on what this new world should look like? Has too much damage been done? We all wonder: will it ever end?
Coined by dignified social philosopher and 16th-century British humanist, Thomas More, utopia is a term of many meanings. For one, it’s a pun — a homophone for eutopia, meaning “good place.” The literal definition, however, is “nowhere.” Derived from ou, meaning “not,” and topos, meaning “place,” utopia translates to “not-place.” Some argue that More was satirizing the world with a civilization that could not possibly exist, mocking the extreme compartmentalizations required of the “perfect society.” However, others claim the conviction with which he makes the claims within his writings suggest a deep commitment to the pursuit of this “perfect society.”
When analyzing his work as a whole, More’s utopia is the product of a man who saw the tragedies of a world riddled with extreme poverty, vast inequity, and a tyrannical monarchy. He chose to look beyond what was in his line of sight to seek change within a fictional democratic nation where all were equal (some perhaps a bit more “equal” than others). By suggesting a world with mandated labor and the lack of an established hierarchy, More’s Utopia has this glimmer of hope within its pages, especially among its American audiences. Preaching “the land of the free,” the United States has glorified the idea of general happiness and liberty. Much like More’s Utopia, America once supported an isolationist world view in World War I, thinking this would keep it safe from the tragedies of the rest of the world. However, this opinion didn’t shed America’s doubt when standing in the face of countless crimes to humanity, including the Holocaust.
The irony arises when one draws a connection between the origins of the United States and More’s Utopia in that the US was founded as a safe haven from religious persecution in Europe. The aura of freedom and independence is preached as a tribute to the battles against the tyranny that led to the nation’s creation. However, in 2020, the very people who wish to “Make America Great Again” support the closing of our borders and the shunning of people unlike those who “look” like they belong. Perhaps More’s views of isolationism aren’t all that great.
This could make one wonder, did More really “think of it all?” Given the shattered carcass of a nation that has forgotten its roots, is a Utopia ever possible…?
“Yet, under the veil of a playful fiction, the talk is intensely earnest and abounds in practical suggestion. It is the work of a scholarly and witty Englishman, who attacks in his own way the chief political and social evils of his time.” — Henry Morley on More’s Utopia (The Project Gutenberg eBook)
Despite its in-depth nature, there is a lot left unsaid. While the concept of Utopia is structured to evoke happiness in every region of its community, reading between the lines proves beneficial in understanding the true intentions of certain niches. More was on the right track. In the 16th century, religious freedom and equality for women in terms of productivity was a very utopian thought. Today’s world has also shone some light on this concept. With every voice that is raised and every hand firmly knocking on doors asking for rights, women are making strides towards equality. Shushing men who preach the fact that “men and women are biologically different” as an excuse for inequalities present in the workforce has become an integral portion of the pledge towards equality and strength. Beginning with the Women’s Suffrage Movement of the 1900s to the #MeToo movement of the 21st century, women in every part of the nation are realizing today is the tomorrow they dreamt of yesterday.
By attacking societal norms with unforeseen bravery and innovation, More was quite the Renaissance thinker. However, he didn’t consider the effect of modern technology on society. He avoided individualism perhaps because it was far too utopian of an idea even back then. Luckily, due to our natural optimism towards reform, we’ve been able to put our own spin on things Twitter, a soapbox for society, a place where opinions and thoughts from citizens across the expansive 3.797 million square miles gather in communal discourse, debate, and contest. More may not have been able to visualize how far our world would go from his wooden desk and candled lights in western Britain in 1516, but we’ve made more progress than we give ourselves credit for.
With the upcoming innovations both within the tech industry as well as updates in the administration of our government, we have much to look forward to in our constant push towards the perfect society. By embracing our newfound voices and an administration more likely than not to be responsive to the principles of the masses, effective strides towards true protective measures for our Earth can be made. There is nothing more dystopian than believing that there is nothing we can do to reduce the harm left on our waters and lands. Unifying the understanding that our actions have a direct impact on our ecosystem is the first and foremost step towards saving the possibility of our perfect world.
But echoing Thomas More’s words, “are we fueled by the possibility of more, stretching the limits that we fail to discuss the much-needed changes in a structure we’ve created in the past?” Through the assurance of a safe haven for all its inhabitants, Utopia has always served the purpose of “compensation, critique, and change” as Ruth Levitas states in “For Utopia: the (limits of the) Utopian Function in Late Capitalist Society.” Providing a fantastical realm for millions living dystopian lives to bask in, More established a contrast of such integral flaws in our societies through the strengths of his Utopia.
So is Utopia a goal or a process? Is Utopia feasible given the state of our world now? Will America ever be able to reach the pinnacle of its success in terms of the conditions laid out in More’s Utopia? To many, this year has been wholly dystopian, but there is some hope to be held in terms of where our nation is headed. We’ve seen masses rise up for what they’ve believed in — changes being made on systemic levels. And yes. There is much work to be done. But we intend on doing it. We intend on holding our elected officials accountable. We intend to consistently work towards equality both within our society and within our acceptance of ideas. And most of all, we intend to never give up hope.
In a way, America has always pursued the perfect balance between freedom and order, toggling, and experimenting with the controls and constraints. But as we’ve evolved over the past 400 years, our concept of the “perfect world” has evolved with us. With a few noticeable similarities, the intriguing balance of utopia and dystopia in our world has remained. The beauty lies in the fact that Generation Z will now carry the world forward. We’ve already begun using our voices to rise up on issues across the spectrum. In a way, this is as perfect as it gets.
For more readings on Utopia, check out:
Thomas More’s book: Utopia
The Ones Who Walk Away from the Omelas, a short story by Ursula Le Guin (UC Berkeley native!)
Margaret Cavendish’s book: Blazing World
Francis Bacon’s book: New Atlantis
The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Most Dangerous Game, a short story by Richard Connell
For 2020 resources, check out:
More, Thomas. Utopia. Edited by Henry Morley, April 22, 2005 (eBook #2130), 1901 Cassell & Company, October 25 2020
Ruth Levitas, “For Utopia: the (limits of the) Utopian Function in Late Capitalist Society,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 3 (2000): 25–43.