the imaginative conservative logo

utopiaWhat is utopia? Is it a good place, a bad place, or simply no place at all? In terms of etymology it is usually defined as being literally “no-place”, from the Greek ou (not) and topos (place). This is seen in the titles of Victorian utopian literature, such as William Morris’ News from Nowhere and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, an anagram of “nowhere”. Yet it is also defined as a “good place”, from the Greek eu (good) and topos place. This latter meaning is implicit in the fact that the opposite of utopia is dystopia, which means “bad-place”, from the Greek dus (bad) and topos (place). If the antonym of utopia is dystopia, it follows that utopia is eu-topia and not ou-topia.

Does any of this matter? Is utopia important enough to warrant our concern over its etymological roots? Should we care whether an imaginary place is good or bad? Is it not literally “nowhere”, in the sense that it does not exist? Why concern ourselves with such fantasies about worlds which are the fertile or furtive figments of a writer’s dreams or nightmares? Should we not keep our feet firmly grounded in the real world in which we live and not allow our heads to drift into the clouds of neverland?

The problem is that those who refuse to see the clouds or the heavens are like the walking dead in Eliot’s Waste Land, commuter-zombies who have forgotten how to live or what it means to be alive:

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Those who spurn the clouds, the stars and the heavens, and the God of the heavens, keeping their eyes fixed before their feet, see only their own self-centred shadows and not the goodness, truth and beauty of reality. Returning to the wisdom of Eliot, and paraphrasing lines from “The Waste Land”, we need to be shown something different from either our own shadow at morning striding behind us or our own shadow at evening rising to meet us. We need to be shown visions of the person we are meant to be and also visions of the society in which we are meant to live. As Christ, the Perfect Person, shows us who we should be; utopia, insofar as it is genuinely eu-topia, shows us the sort of society in which we should live. Although we will never be perfect as Christ is perfect, we are nonetheless called to strive towards perfection, which is the call to holiness. Similarly, although we will never have heaven on earth, we should strive to bring earth closer to heaven, which is the call to make the earth a better place, a good place—eutopia. The fact that we are miserable sinners does not mean that we should not take the Sinless One as our model; the fact that our society is full of miserable sinners, ourselves included, does not mean that we should not strive to make our society a good place. Even if the frailty and sinfulness of fallen human nature will mean that the good place to which we strive will never be a perfect place, it is sufficient to know that all efforts towards the good place will make the world a better place.

It is for this reason that the utopian visions of great writers, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, who shows us an agrarian utopia in his depiction of the Shire, should be valued as a source of inspiration that leads to the aspiration to make our own world a better place. There are, however, other ways of showing us utopia, such as the way of satire adopted by St. Thomas More in his Utopia and by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. These great satirists show us ou-topia, “nowhere”, as a scathingly satirical mirror of our own world caricatured through the process of reductio ad absurdum. In seeing our own corrupt society in ugly and absurd caricature we are shocked out of our complacent comfort zones into seeking a better and more just society. In this sense the satirical depiction of ou-topia inspires the vision of eu-topia.

The other means of inspiring the desire for eu-topia is via the via negative of dystopia. Writers such as R. H. Benson (Lord of the World), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and George Orwell (Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four) present us with visions of the bad-place that could become reality if certain inherent tendencies in our own world are not countered and checked. In Benson’s dystopia we see the dangers of secularism and the rise of the popular demagogue; in Huxley we see the dangers of hedonism and the heedless numbness of comfort-addiction; in Orwell we see the inherent corruption in socialist revolution and the ominous potential that the modern world presents for globalist tyranny. In being shown these cautionary scenarios of the way things could be (dystopia), we are inspired to a better understanding of the way they should be (eutopia).

It goes without saying that our understanding of what is good determines our understanding of what is a good society. If we have a false and fallacious understanding of the good our utopian dreams will metamorphose into dystopian nightmares. This is what happened to the utopian dreams of Rouseau whose “noble savage” transformed vampire-like into the ignoble savagery of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror that followed in its wake. This is what happened to the utopian dreams of Marx whose dictatorship of the proletariat collapsed into the dictatorship of the politicians and the mass murder that they instigated. This is what is happening as the utopian dreams of radical relativism turn into the eugenic nightmare of institutionalized infanticide (abortion) and institutionalized geriatricide (euthanasia).

In the midst of the madness of so many dystopias, real and imagined, it is the vision of utopia which shows us the vision of sanity which keeps us sane.

The only alternative to utopia or dystopia is myopia, the short-sighted pragmatism that refuses to see beyond the present-day. This pragmatic near-sightedness, masquerading as realism, puts its trust in the myopia of the market, which has no way of measuring or seeing anything but the present, and the myopia of our media-manipulated “democracy”, which has no inclination to see beyond the next election. It places its trust in an untried and untested globalist future, the consequences of which it cannot fathom, but refuses to see the past and the long-sighted and tried and tested lessons it teaches. Ultimately this myopia is no real alternative to utopia because it leads inexorably to dystopia. It is the path of least resistance which leads to hell, and not merely the hell in the hereafter but the hell in the here and now. Only the blind and the foolish take such a path. The rest of us are keeping our eyes on the good place!

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
7 replies to this post
  1. This is a good post. There is a working definition of ‘utopia’ which might have been overlooked, however. That definition is an implied one by those who dismiss certain attempts to improve society as being utopian. Such is saying that you can’t improve on relative perfection. Those who counter attempts to improve in this way may not just be suffering from myopia, they are suffering from a limited gaze for can only see what is in the mirror.

    But we do need to balance the desire to improve with knowing our limits, which is knowing what is unattainable. That those who do not recognize our limits can be in league with those mentioned above who preach that we have arrived at a relatively perfect place. For what they share is a desire to control and the practice of externalizing evil. And for them, the label utopia is a marketing tool.

    As for the statement on Marx, his belief in the proletariate dictatorship both lent itself to and was hijacked by those seeking to control others. And we should note that Marx’s circle has no monopoly on such people. He wrote about such people when writing about the bourgeoisie.

    • The idea that the proletariat is inherently more moral and ethical than a bourgeois or capitalist leader is, among other things, one of the very outstanding flaws of Mr. Marx. the notion of a “dictatorship”, blue collar or otherwise, underscores this point.

      • Thomas,
        The elevation of the proletariate above the bourgeoisie by Marx included the externalization of evil by Marx and the proletariate. Though I really like his analysis of Capitalism, the externalization of evil by any group puts that group in grave danger of becoming the pharisee in the parable of the two men praying.

        Martin Luther King Jr., being a Democratic Socialist himself corrected this thinking in two ways. First, he sought to win over opponents and then only lobbied for laws that would control the ability to persecute by any group. Second, he spoke against internal violence which he described as violence of the spirit often exhibited in how we speak about others.

  2. Uncle Screwtape reminds us that the devils promote calm in an age of stupor, and enthusiasm in an age of recklessness. This is the age of perfectionism, of “never-satisfied”. Like the Borg, we seek “Perfection”. We look for the perfect spouse, the perfect job, the perfect life. Not finding them,, we either cast off the old spouse, job, or life and keep trying to attain the unattainable, or succumb to despair.

    I would humbly make a case that, since we do not have the Perfect, the imperfect we have will serve rather well. This is not to suggest complacency and quietism, but rather an opposite to overweening greed and ambition at the expense of others, which so often characterizes the Don Drapers among us.

    • I have never known of anyone to expect a “Perfect” job or “Perfect” spouse–life teaches one early on enough that such does not really exist and the definition of “perfect” is most likely not even that attractive upon second look.

      However, many have high standards–and this is something quite different. If one holds oneself to a high standard, there is nothing wrong with wanting to find the same. As in, birds of a feather. Happily enough, quite often such people, and such jobs, often find each other.

  3. Yes, but what really divides society is not the vision of a utopia, but on the means of getting toward it. The Communists believe they were achieving a utopia on earth.

  4. That’s provably giving the Communists WAY too much credit. Most of them had to know that, in reality, they were creating a Hell on Earth.

Leave a Reply