For a long time Brook Farm was viewed as a well-intended debacle … What if we thought of the utopian experiments in the time before the Civil War as successful to some extent, rather than merely thinking of them as failed? Utopia is by definition never to be achieved, but what is to be achieved on the road to utopia?
I realize that it seems ridiculous to even broach the topic of utopia after a government shutdown, but, you know, I had this post planned before it happened. Besides, I’m not going to waste my time suggesting we try to create one. Rather, my intent with this post is to fact-check the assertion in the above excerpt from Robert Sullivan’s The Thoreau You Don’t Know and ask: Is the inability achieve utopia really inherent in the word’s definition?
The answer it seems is, “yeah, for the most part.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, utopia is, first and foremost, an imaginary island depicted by Sir Thomas More in a book of the same name. In that text, the island is described as “enjoying a perfect social, legal, and political system.” However, as in the quote above, the word is typically used as an adjective to denote, in rather snide fashion, “an impossibly ideal scheme, usually for social improvement.”
Although you can (clearly) hear the sarcasm in that second sense of the word, such attitude fails to provide the whole story. To arrive at a complete understanding of why utopia “is not to be achieved,” you have to dig a little deeper, into the word’s etymology.
As the Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories notes,
That such an ideal state is unattainable in reality is implied by the name More gave to the island, which literally means “no place,” from Greek ou- (meaning not, no) and topos (meaning place).
In Modern English utopia has become, through the influence of More’s classic, a generic term for any place of ideal perfection, especially in laws, government, and social conditions. Less optimistically utopia has also come to mean an impractical scheme for social improvement.
“Less optimistically”? How droll ….
Since the word can be traced back to the man who invented it, I suppose it’s not a surprise the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, Dictionary of Word Origins, and even the long-titled Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English all agree on its origin. However, if you really want to know why utopia is “no place” … err … and you don’t feel like reading More’s book, check out the multi-page entry for utopia in the astounding Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Although much to long to recap here, here’s a tiny piece of it to wet your whistle.
Politically, Utopia is a republic in which there is no private property and in which everyone takes seriously his [sic] duty toward the community. No one is rich, but there is no poverty and no one risks going short of anything. The public storehouses are perpetually full, thanks to the efficiency of the economy and the rationally planned distribution of natural resources. The abolition of private property and money have wiped out the passion for property and money; it also led to the disappearance of all crimes and abuses connected with the desire for wealth and superiority and, for the same reasons, poverty itself has vanished.