AskDefine | Define utopian

Dictionary Definition

utopian adj
1 of or pertaining to or resembling a utopia; "a Utopian novel"
2 characterized by or aspiring to impracticable perfection; "the dim utopian future"; "utopian idealists"; "recognized the utopian nature of his hopes" [ant: dystopian] n : an idealistic (but usually impractical) social reformer; "a Utopian believes in the ultimate perfectibility of man"

User Contributed Dictionary



A term coined by Sir Thomas More, from οὐ + τόπος.


  1. Ideal but often impractical; visionary.



  • German: utopisch
  • Greek: ουτοπικός



Extensive Definition

For Sir Thomas More's novel of 1516, see Utopia (book).
Utopia is a term for an ideal society. It has been used to describe both intentional communities that attempted to create an ideal society, and fictional societies portrayed in literature. The term is sometimes used pejoratively, in reference to an unrealistic ideal that is impossible to achieve, and has spawned other concepts, most prominently dystopia. The term was taken from a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean, written by Sir Thomas More as the fictional character Raphael Hythloday (translated from the Greek as "knowing in trifles") as possessing a seemingly perfect socio-politico-legal system.
The word comes from Greek: οὐ, "not", and τόπος, "place", indicating that More was utilizing the concept as allegory and did not consider such an ideal place to be realistically possible. It is worth noting that the homophone Eutopia, derived from the Greek εὖ, "good" or "well", and τόπος, "place", signifies a double meaning that was almost certainly intended. Despite this, most modern usage of the term "Utopia" incorrectly assumes the latter meaning, that of a place of perfection rather than nonexistence.

Related terms

Some questions have arisen about the fact that writers and people in history have used utopia to define a perfect place, as utopia is a perfect but unreal place. A proper definition of a perfect and real place is eutopia.
More's utopia is largely based on Plato's Republic. It is a perfect version of Republic wherein the beauties of society reign (eg: equality and a general pacifist attitude), although its citizens are all ready to fight if need be. The evils of society, eg: poverty and misery, are all removed. It has few laws, no lawyers and rarely sends its citizens to war, but hires mercenaries from among its war-prone neighbors (these mercenaries were deliberately sent into dangerous situations in the hope that the more warlike populations of all surrounding countries will be weeded out, leaving peaceful peoples). The society encourages tolerance of all religions. Some readers have chosen to accept this imaginary society as the realistic blueprint for a working nation, while others have postulated More intended nothing of the sort. Some maintain the position that More's Utopia functions only on the level of a satire, a work intended to reveal more about the England of his time than about an idealistic society. This interpretation is bolstered by the title of the book and nation, and its apparent equivocation between the Greek for "no place" and "good place": "Utopia" is a compound of the syllable ou-, meaning "no", and topos, meaning place. But the homonymous prefix eu-, meaning "good," also resonates in the word, with the implication that the perfectly "good place" is really "no place."'''

Economic utopia

These utopias are based on economics. Most intentional communities attempting to create an economic utopia were formed in response to the harsh economic conditions of the 19th century.
Particularly in the early nineteenth century, several utopian ideas arose, often in response to the social disruption created by the development of commercialism and capitalism. These are often grouped in a greater "utopian socialist" movement, due to their shared characteristics: an egalitarian distribution of goods, frequently with the total abolition of money, and citizens only doing work which they enjoy and which is for the common good, leaving them with ample time for the cultivation of the arts and sciences. One classic example of such a utopia was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. Another socialist utopia is William Morris' News from Nowhere, written partially in response to the top-down (bureaucratic) nature of Bellamy's utopia, which Morris criticized. However, as the socialist movement developed it moved away from utopianism; Marx in particular became a harsh critic of earlier socialism he described as utopian. (For more information see the History of Socialism article.) Also consider Eric Frank Russell's book The Great Explosion (1963) whose last section details an economic and social utopia. This forms the first mention of the idea of Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS).
Utopias have also been imagined by the opposite side of the political spectrum. For example, Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress portrays an individualistic and libertarian utopia. Capitalist utopias of this sort are generally based on free market economies, in which the presupposition is that private enterprise and personal initiative without an institution of coercion, government, provides the greatest opportunity for achievement and progress of both the individual and society as a whole.
There is another view that capitalist utopias do not address the issue of market failure, any more than socialist utopias address the issue of planning failure. Thus a blend of socialism and capitalism is seen by few as the type of economy in a utopia. It talks about the idea of small community owned enterprises working under the capitalist model of economy.

Political and historical utopia

Political utopias are ones in which the government establishes a society that is striving toward perfection. A global utopia of world peace is often seen as one of the possible inevitable endings of history. Sparta was a militaristic eutopia founded by Lycurgus (though some, especially Athenians, may have considered it a dystopia). It was a Greek power until its defeat by the Thebans at the battle of Leuctra.

Religious utopia

These are set in the future, when it is believed that advanced science and technology will allow utopian living standards; for example, the absence of death and suffering; changes in human nature and the human condition. These utopian societies tend to change what "human" is all about. Technology has affected the way humans have lived to such an extent that normal functions, like sleep, eating or even reproduction, has been replaced by an artificial means. Other kinds of this utopia envisioned, include a society where humans have struck a balance with technology and it is merely used to enhance the human living condition (e.g. Star Trek). In place of the static perfection of a utopia, libertarian transhumanists envision an "extropia", an open, evolving society allowing individuals and voluntary groupings to form the institutions and social forms they prefer.
Garrett Jones published "Ourtopia" in 2004, arguing that, instead of a 'no place' we need to use all the resources at our command to make 'our place' proof against climate change and obsolete tribalisms. Buckminster Fuller presented a theoretical basis for technological utopianism and set out to develop a variety of technologies ranging from maps to designs for cars and houses which might lead to the development of such a utopia.
One notable example of a technological and libertarian socialist utopia is Scottish author Iain M. Banks' Culture.
A variation on this theme was found earlier in the theories of eugenics. Believing that many traits were hereditary in nature, the eugenists believed that not only healthier, more intelligent race could be bred, but many other traits could be selected for, including "talent", or against, including drunkness and criminality. This called for "positive eugenics" encouraging those with good genes to have children, and "negative eugenics" discouraging those with bad genes, or preventing them altogether by confinement or forcible sterilization.
Opposing this optimism is the prediction that advanced science and technology will, through deliberate misuse or accident, cause environmental damage or even humanity's extinction. Critics advocate precautions against the premature embrace of new technologies.


Utopianism refers to various social and political movements.
In many cultures, societies, religions, and cosmogonies, there is some myth or memory of a distant past when humankind lived in a primitive and simple state, but at the same time one of perfect happiness and fulfillment. In those days, the various myths tell us, there was an instinctive harmony between man and nature. Men's needs were few and their desires limited. Both were easily satisfied by the abundance provided by nature. Accordingly, there were no motives whatsoever for war or oppression. Nor was there any need for hard and painful work. Humans were simple and pious, and felt themselves close to the gods.
These mythical or religious archetypes are inscribed in all the cultures and resurge with special vitality when people are in difficult and critical times. However, the projection of the myth does not take place towards the remote past, but either towards the future or towards distant and fictional places, imagining that at some time of the future, at some point of the space or beyond the death must exist the possibility of living happily.
These myths of the earliest stage of humankind have been referred to by various names:
Golden Age The Greek poet Hesiod, around the 8th century BC, in his compilation of the mythological tradition (the poem Works and Days), explained that, prior to the present era, there were other four progressively more perfect ones, the oldest of which was the Golden age.
Plutarch, the Greek historian and biographer of the 1st century, dealt with the blissful and mythic past of the humanity.
Arcadia Arcadia, e.g. in Sir Philip Sidney's prose romance The Old Arcadia (1580). Originally a region in the Peloponnesus, Arcadia became a synonym for any rural area that serves as a pastoral setting, as a locus amoenus ("delightful place"):
The Biblical Garden of Eden The Biblical Garden of Eden as depicted in Genesis 2 (Authorized Version of 1611):
"And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. [...]
And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. [...]
And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; [...] And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; and the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man."
The Land of Cokaygne The Land of Cokaygne [also spelled Cockaygne or Cockaigne] (in the German tradition referred to as "Schlaraffenland" has been aptly called the "poor man's heaven", being a popular fantasy of pure hedonism and thus a foil for the innocent and instinctively virtuous life that is depicted in all the other accounts mentioned above. Cockaygne is a land of extravagance and excess rather than simplicity and piety. There is freedom from work, and every material thing is free and available. Cooked larks fly straight into one's mouth; the rivers run with wine; sexual promiscuity is the norm; and there is a fountain of youth which keeps everyone young and active.
There is a medieval poem (c. 1315) written in rhyming couplets which is entitled "The Land of Cokaygne":
"Far in the sea, to the west of Spain, Is a country called Cokaygne. There's no land not anywhere, In goods or riches to compare. Though Paradise be merry and bright Cokaygne is of far fairer sight...."

Finding utopia

All these myths also express some hope that the idyllic state of affairs they describe is not irretrievably and irrevocably lost to mankind, that it can be regained in some way or other.
One way would be to look for the earthly paradise -- for a place like Shangri-La, hidden in the Tibetan mountains and described by James Hilton in his Utopian novel Lost Horizon (1933). Such paradise on earth must be somewhere if only man were able to find it. Christopher Columbus followed directly in this tradition in his belief that he had found the Garden of Eden when, towards the end of the 15th century, he first encountered the New World and its indigenous inhabitants.
Another way of regaining the lost paradise (or Paradise Lost, as 17th century English poet John Milton calls it) would be to wait for the future, for the return of the Golden Age. According to Christian theology, the Fall from Paradise, caused by Man alone when he disobeyed God ("but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it"), has resulted in the wickedness of character that all human beings have been born with since (original sin).
In a scientific approach to finding utopia, the Global Scenario Group, an international group of scientists founded by Paul Raskin, used scenario analysis and backcasting to map out a path to an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable future. Its findings suggest that a global citizens' movement is necessary to steer political, economic, and corporate entities toward this new sustainability paradigm.

Examples of utopia

See also utopian and dystopian fiction


  • Kumar, Krishan (1991) Utopianism (Milton Keynes: Open University Press) ISBN 0-335-15361-5
  • Manuel, Frank & Manuel, Fritzie (1979) Utopian Thought in the Western World (Oxford: Blackwell) ISBN 0-674-93185-8
  • Hine, Robert V. (1983) California's Utopian Colonies (University of California Press) ISBN 0-520-04885-7
  • Kumar, K (1987) Utopia and Anti-utopia in Modern Times (Oxford: Blackwell) ISBN 0-631-16714-5
  • Shadurski, Maxim I. (2007) Literary Utopias from More to Huxley: The Issues of Genre Poetics and Semiosphere. Finding an Island (Moscow: URSS) ISBN 978-5-382-00362-7

External links

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utopian in Modern Greek (1453-): Ουτοπία
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Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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