What 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!
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