Literary Utopian Societies
The vision of one century is often the reality of the next (Nelson 108). Throughout time, great minds have constructed their own visions of utopia. Through the study of utopias, one finds that these perfect societies have many flaws. For example, most utopias tend to have an authoritarian nature (Manuel 3). Also, another obvious imperfection found in the majority of utopias is that of a faulty social class system (Thomas 94). But one must realized that the flaws found in utopian societies serve a specific purpose. These faults are used to indicate problems in contemporary society (Eurich 5, Targowski 1). Over the years, utopian societies have been beneficial in setting improved standards for society. By pointing out the faults of society, improvement is the most likely next step. Citizens should take advantage of utopian literature in order to better future societal conditions (Nelson 104). Because it is impossible to create a perfect society in which everyones needs can be met, society must analyze utopias in order to improve their existing environment.
Platos Republic was the first true work considered to be utopian literature. In fact, the Republic influenced almost all later text written on the subject of utopia (Manuel 7). Although the Republic was one of the most influential works in utopian literature, the society that it represented also had many obvious flaws. First, Platos utopia had a distinct class system (Morely iii, Bloom xiii). The privileged class that ruled the society also enforced censorship in order to keep control over the Republic (Manuel 5). To perform all of the lowly tasks of the society, a system of slavery was enforced (Manuel 9). In addition, different forms of propaganda were used to keep the citizens in check (Manuel 5, Bloom xiv). The political and economic systems, in which the wealthy class controlled all the funds, were extremely restrictive (Mumford 4, Bloom xiii). With the society being in opposition to change, it would have obviously failed. A static society, in which propaganda is used to promote the State, disrupts the creative thinking process. And, without the creative thinking process, intellectual growth as a whole also slows (Mumford 4, Benz 3).
Yet another famous Utopian society that appears to thrive on the surface is that of Sir Thomas Mores Utopia. Mores society was similar to Platos Republic in many ways (Will 1). The State, in Mores Utopia, controlled the masses through the use of propaganda just as in Platos Republic (Adams 154). Speaking out against the State was made an unthinkable action (Adams 253). The government of Mores Utopia was so centralized, that it was unable to adapt to changes and face problems (Mumford 4). This Utopia turned out to have a number of underlying problems.
Aldous Huxleys a Brave New World was another utopia with many imperfections.In the novel, the characters living in utopia were under complete control of the government. They were exposed to propaganda beginning at birth and continued to be exposed to it throughout their lives. The course a personslife would take was already determined before he was born.Basically, the citizens of this utopia were robots. They did as they were told, and they had no accurate knowledge of what was going on around them (26). Only the elite class of Controllers had an unobstructed view of the world (235). Another theme that was put forth throughout the novel was that of the class system. In Huxleys utopia, the quality of ones genes determined his social class. No person had a chance of leaving his caste, and his conditioning had programmed his mind into believing that this was all acceptable (66).
When looking at utopian literature as a whole, one realizes that utopias are merely a way that man uses to improve himself and the environment in which he lives (Eurich 7). The purpose of texts written about utopian societies is to inform the public of current social problems and to inform them how to fix these problems (Targowski 1). Almost every utopia is an implicit criticism of the civilization that served as its background. (Mumford 2). And with this criticism, positive change arises and sets us in another direction.Utopias give people examples on how to improve our society (Eurich 7). While utopias point out problems in contemporary society, they also point out ways to fix these problems (Mumford 2). In fact, Utopias are rational efforts to make the world a better place (Mumford 1). So, when looking at the classic utopias once again, one realizes why the authors of these texts created the problems that appeared in their utopias.
In the Republic, Platos showed how a small group of corrupt politicians could control a whole society (Bloom xvi). By making the ruling class in his Republic corrupt, he showed his dissatisfaction with the current role politicians played within the government. Platos answer to this problem was what is now known as communism (Bloom 1). Not only did Plato disapprove of politicians and their power, but he also despised the authoritarian nature of the government (Manuel 3). The controllers of Platos society had absolute control and managed the masses through the use of propaganda (Mumford 4). Yet a further disgust that Plato had was the role that women played in society. He believed that women should have more equal duties when being compared to men (Kateb 3). Through the Republic, Plato showed his feelings towards the society that surrounded him.
Throughout Mores Utopia, one can find that Mores goal was to satirize various contemporary European mistreatments (Adams 150-1). At the time of Utopias conception, Europe had various economic problems. The agricultural class was losing its property to rich landowners who had no real use for the land (Nelson 100). More also discussed the role women played in society. He agreed with Plato in the fact that women should have more responsibilities when being compared to men.Mores answer to this problem was communism as well (Nelson 102). By creating a Utopian society with the same problems that his current society had, More offered his input on how to adapt to these troubles.
The similarities between Platos Republic and Mores Utopia seem to be endless (Benz 3). This is due to the fact that most utopian authors follow a certain chain of thought (Nelson 120). Because utopian authors write about contemporary societal problems, certain themes reoccur throughout the history of utopian literature. Mores Utopia and Platos Republic share many of the same troubles. This is because both authors detested the fact that government had excessive amounts of money and control. The two authors wrote their works in order to improve their societal conditions, not to envision a perfect civilization that could never be accomplished in reality.
Although Aldous Huxley did not use a Brave New World to protest societal conditions, he did have a primary reason in writing his novel. Huxley used a Brave New World to show that technological advances and scientific advances are not the answer to creating a perfect society. By perfecting the use of genetic engineering, propaganda, hypnoaedia, and drugs, Huxleys Brave New World was supposed to be the ideal utopia. But in reality, all of the pleasures resulting from theses advances were empty. Genetic engineering was the basis for social structure and an unjust class system. By using propaganda and hypnoaedia to program its own citizens, the utopia maintained complete control of everything that went on within the society. No one ever questioned the way the society was run. When something did happen to go wrong, citizens were instructed to take soma, which made its users forget about all of their worries. By creating a flawed society that was technologically advanced and scientifically advanced, Huxley showed people that science and technology are not the answer to happiness.
In recent times, many theorists have questioned the belief that utopias cannot exist. People such as G.K. Chesterton and Nicolas Berdiaeff (Berdiaeff is quoted in the introduction of a Brave New World.) believed that due to technological advances, achieving utopia is a realistic ambition (Kateb 81). But, these theorists fail to present any valid data that would support their position. The technology that would allow these utopian societies to thrive is never mentioned. Without proof of this new technology, it is not possible to prove that utopia is attainable.
Throughout time, utopias have been models of contemporary society. By examining various utopias, one finds that certain faults have been purposely inserted (Thomas 96). This is because the authors of these works intended their texts to be used as objections against troubles in modern society (Coupland 3). After publication of this utopian literature, change often arose, and the problems, which had been discussed in the text, had been resolved (Nelson 100). As a result of writing about the injustices of the time, society has set improved standards for itself (Adams 178, Fitting 5). With more utopian experiments in the works, one can only hope that society will once again answer the call to improve, and progress into the next century.
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Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1932.
Kateb, George, ed. Utopia. New York: Atherton Press, 1971.
Manuel, Frank E., ed. Utopias and Utopian Thought. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966.
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Validation of Electronic Sources
Phillip Benz received a Masters Degree in English Literature and currently teaches in France.
Philip Coupland is a professor at Warwick University.
Jon Will is the Vice President of the Utopia Pathway Association.
Henry Taragowski is a professor at Xavier University.
Peter Fitting is the Chairman of the Society for Utopian Studies.