We can define utopia as an imagined, nonexistent, and at the same time ideal or desirable society that seems difficult to realize. At the same time, the politics, plan, project, doctrine, and system lodged in fiction constitute a criticism of/to the real society.
The word Utopia was coined by Thomas More in his book “The Ideal State of a Republic in the New Island of Utopia” published in 1516. In it, Utopia is the name given to an island and to the fictional community that inhabits it, whose Political, economic and cultural organization contrasts in many respects with the English society of the time.
Alcoberro (see bibliography at the end) tells us that a utopia is a socio-moral analysis, that is, we describe a fictional physical space (often a remote island/in an indefinite place) in which it is a matter of making a highly Moral, governed by altruistic feelings. All utopia starts from a contrast between what really happens and what we deserve to happen.
Utopias are products of the will: they cannot be imposed but come from the voluntary association of humans who want to live in a radically different way to be happier. A utopia is built through human labor and not by the will of the gods. Better organization of work, however, does not lead the utopian community to productivism but, on the contrary, to leisure, to play, generally, since the benefits of what is edified by all must also revert to all.
Utopias exude nostalgia for the past, considered a time of more moral values than the present. What is wanted to put in crisis with utopia is the present time that utopians consider morally degenerate or in crisis. In utopias the future time announced serves to ridicule and to satirize the misery of the present. More than to understand the future (which will always be different from the dream), utopias serve to capture the anxieties and fears of the time they were written.
In another sense we could consider utopia as the space in which evil does not appear, thanks to a set of rules that make possible a world in which evil has been abolished, in which human needs are satisfied to the highest degree High potential, in which all avoidable pain has been avoided and pleasure has been maximized. The expression of evil in society is disorder. On the contrary, in utopias everything is perfectly regulated, directed and geometrized. The most obvious feature of the utopian world is security: there can be neither chance nor surprise nor risk in a world in which everything is rationally ordered. Utopia poses a civilization of fullness, in which concepts such as guilt, autophobia or perverse asceticism are meaningless.
Although More was the creator of the genre of utopias, there are narratives that contain utopian elements and can be considered as precursors of the utopian genre. Since then utopias have been appearing to this day. We refer the reader to the list of utopian works contained in Wikipedia. In this article we will talk about only a few:
- The Republic of Plato
- The Garden of Gilgamesh
- The Sacred Inscription of Euhemerus
- Hesiod Myths
- The Utopia of Thomas More
1.The Republic of Plato
The first model of utopian society we owe to Plato. In one of his most well-known dialogues, the Republic, in addition to defending a certain conception of justice, we find a detailed description of what the ideal state would be like, i.e., the just state.
Plato, deeply dissatisfied with the political systems that had taken place in Athens, especially with democracy, imagines how a state would be organized with the aim of achieving justice and social welfare. According to him, the republic would be formed by three social classes: the rulers, the guards and the producers. Each of these classes would have in the republic a rigidly differentiated function, rights, and duties.
The rulers would be concerned with the direction of the state; to the guards their protection and defense; to producers supplying everything necessary for life: food, clothing, housing…
Each would be educated to efficiently perform the functions of his group: wisdom for rulers; the courage for the guards, and the appetite for the producers, since for Plato, the good march of the State depends on that each class fulfills efficiently with its mission.
In short, Plato’s Republic would, according to him, be a just society because it would govern the wisest (philosophers) and the other two classes would perform the functions assigned to them.
2. The Garden of Gilgamesh
At the beginning of the poem, Gilgamesh is a tyrannical king, whose subjects complain to the gods, tired of their unbridled lust, which leads him to force the women of his city, Uruk, to their liking. The gods heed this complaint by creating Enkidu, a savage man destined to face Gilgamesh. But when they engage in combat, instead of killing each other, they become friends forever and engage in dangerous adventures. Together they kill the giant Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, and Gilgamesh rejects the love of the goddess Inanna. As punishment for these acts of impiety, the gods cause Enkidu to die in his youth. Impressed by the disappearance of his friend, Gilgamesh undertakes the search for immortality, which takes him to the ends of the world, where the wise man Utnapishtim and his wife, the only survivors of the Deluge, live, to whom the gods gave the gift that Gilgamesh Pretend now. However, the hero does not achieve what he intends. On the way back, he finds, following instructions from Utnapishtim, a plant that returns the youth to the one who takes it; But a serpent steals it and Gilgamesh returns to Uruk empty-handed, convinced that immortality is the exclusive patrimony of the gods.
3. The Sacred Inscription of Euhemerus
Euhemerus, who was born perhaps in Sicily and lived between 330 BC. And 250 BC, was a Greek thinker who advanced the hypothesis according to which behind the myths hid history. He was one of the thinkers of that period during which the Greeks questioned the superstition, looking for natural causes and reasonable and reasoned explanations to the myths.
The theory of Euhemerus was expressed by a novel (a utopia), called Sacred Inscription or Sacred History, which is not preserved, but whose argument is known. The narrator arrived at mysterious islands in the Indian Ocean and there described in detail a utopian society. At one point, he discovered the tombs of Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus. Then they explained to him that the Greek gods had been kings of that island, that is to say historical personages that with time had become mythological legends. The idea of the human character of the gods had some precedents, such as the historian Herodotus and some sophists, or the witty explanations of Palaephatus of many myths.
In Panquea, the utopian island of Euhemerus, public life is divided into three parts: (1) priests and artisans, (2) peasants, and (3) soldiers and shepherds; the priests are the leaders of all, they have the power and the supreme authority.
Mythographers who consider Euhemerus’ explanations of historical events in myths are simplistic, that myths can be created without there being behind a historical reason and are not mere covert chronicles.
4. Hesiod Myths
The contents of Works and Days, the main work of Hesiod next to the Theogony, is varied: myths related to the human race appear (the Ages of Man, Prometheus and Pandora), the first fable of Western literature is introduced (the falcon and the nightingale), and we found catalogs, with a personal and didactic tone. In contemplating human reality, Zeus’s conception as guarantor of justice raises the poet’s responsibility for the existence of the world; thus arise the three myths that explain that the origin of evil lies in human nature itself.
The first part, the Works, is a list of the tasks that must be carried out by the farmer during the year. She follows a calendar relating to navigation and some councils of family administration and social and religious conduct. The poet sings the excellences of work as the only means of overcoming the difficulties of human life in addition to the glory of Zeus. It is a synthesis of myths, personal experiences, agricultural traditions and folk wisdom, linked with the oldest methods of composition (the association of ideas and the ring structure), which will be paramount for later authors such as the pre-Socratic philosophers.
A real situation seems to be following the poem’s statement: Perses, Hesiod’s brother, intends to bring a trial against him to take away his inheritance, and the poet decides to dissuade him from the need to work as the only legitimate means to escape poverty and hunger.
5. The Utopia of Thomas More
The book consists of two parts. The first is a dialogue that revolves around philosophical, political and economic issues in contemporary England to the author and the second part is the narration that one of the characters of the dialogue performs on the island of Utopia.
The name of the island comes from the Greek: ou, meaning “no” and topos, which translates as “place”. It is probable therefore that Utopia comes from the Greek outopia that means “no place”.
Although over time the term utopia has become popular as a synonym for perfection, or objective unattainable, Thomas More does not explicitly attribute that meaning to his work.
Thomas More creates a fictional community with philosophical and political ideals, among others, different from those of the contemporary communities of his time. This intellectual creation is presented in his work through the narration and description that realizes of that community an explorer, called Raphael Hythloday, when returning to the European medieval society.
Utopia is a peaceful community, which establishes the common property of goods, in contrast to the system of private property and the conflictive relationship between contemporary European societies to Thomas More.
Unlike medieval societies in Europe, the authorities are determined in Utopia by popular vote, although with important differences with respect to twentieth-century democracies.
The book contains numerous references to the thoughts of the Greek philosopher Socrates, set forth in Plato’s The Republic, which also describes an idealized society.
Finally, some lines on modern utopias:
Utopias give dynamism to modernity, allow it an extension of its democratic bases and have been a kind of reflexive system of modernity for which it has constantly improved. That is why it would not be possible to understand modernity without its utopian character.
Utopias have had derivations in political, literary and cinematographic thought, as for example in socialist currents linked to Marxism and anarchism, or new sociological realities like the one contained in “Sociofobia” (Rendueles, 2013).
Recent developments in evolutionary psychology and in the theory of complex adaptive systems allow us to create more realistic, intuitive and attractive visions, although less easily visualized (if accepted by their recipients). As a compromise against this double requirement Heylighen (2002) proposes Global Brain as a new utopia.
On the other hand, the Urban Sciences/Smarts Cities (Townsend, 2013, Coca, 2015 and Aritz, 2016) and the anti-globalization movement/anti-austerity movement in Spain (15-M Movement) are responsible for updating the utopia…
If you want to know a little bit more…
Mumford, L. (2013) Historia De Las Utopías. Pepitas de calabaza Ed. Logroño.
Rendueles, C. (2013) Sociofobia. El cambio político en la era de la utopía digital. Ed. Capitán Swing. Madrid.
Heylighen, F. (2002) The Global Brain as a New Utopia. In Maresch, R. y Rötzer, F. Ed. Zukunftsfiguren (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt).
Townsend, A.M. (2013) Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. Norton & Company.
Coca, J.R. (2015) Artefactos, Ciborgs y Ciencias Urbanas: Estudio Socio-Hermenéutico Pluri-analógico de los Imaginarios Sociales Urbanos… Contexto. Revista de la Facultad de Arquitectura de la Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León 2015, IX (10).
Herrera, R. (2013) Breve historia de la Utopía. Ediciones Nowtilus, S.L. Madrid.
Aritz, A. (2016) Actualizando la Utopía. Las Espacialidades emancipadoras urbanas. XIV Coloquio Internacional de Geocrítica. Las utopías y la construcción de la sociedad del futuro. Barcelona, 2-7 de Mayo de 2016. Universidad de Barcelona.
Other websites of interest:
Alcoberro. Filosofia i pensament.