||Utopianism (from Greek outopia, â€˜nowhereâ€™, or more likely eutopia, â€˜good placeâ€™â€”and sometimes called Atlanteanism, after the mythical Greek kingdom of Atlantis) is the imagining of ideal societies. It has been a common literary and philosophical activity, and takes in works as diverse as Plato\'s Republic, Thomas More\'s Utopia (which gave the activity its name), and Samuel Butler\'s Erewhon. Much travel writing and even anthropological writing (for example, Margaret Mead\'s books about Samoa) is also tinged with it: the urge to find excellence in places and societies unlike our own. As this implies, Utopianism often draws comparisons with the state of the writer\'s own society, usually to its disadvantageâ€”Swift\'s Gulliver\'s Travels is a notable example. Many 20th-century writers, both mainstream (such as Anthony Burgess, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell) and sf (J.G. Ballard, Frank Herbert and George Turner) have imagined alternative societies which are terrible rather than seductive, and this kind of literature has been named dystopian (from Greek dystopia, â€˜bad placeâ€™).
The writings of political Utopians, whether theoretical or fiction, can be differentiated in two ways. First, the Utopian vision can be ascetic, like that of Plato, Moore and Rousseau: frugality and simplicity are considered virtues, and the institutionalization of these traits removes the corrupting possibilities of greed and egoism. Alternatively the Utopian vision can be materialist: plenty, abundance, indeed cornucopia characterize the perfect society, and the abolition of scarcity resolves the problems of politics. Ascetic Utopias had great appeal in agrarian societiesâ€”although they are making a comeback in green and â€˜postindustrialâ€™ political thought, and they have never disappeared from Christian-inspired and monastic social thinking. Materialist Utopias, by contrast, are characteristic of industrial societies, and have been particularly common among writers inspired by anarchism or socialism, though there have also been libertarian Utopias.
Second, the Utopian vision can be either egalitarian or hierarchical. Thus as regards the functional division of labour William Morris\'s News from Nowhere is egalitarian whereas Plato\'s Republic praises a caste-like order; while relations between the sexes are feminist in Plato\'s Republic Rousseau\'s writings are now considered sexually â€˜incorrectâ€™.
The technique of the Utopian author is to extrapolate some principle, ideal or trait of an existing society, and to work through the consequences of its full expression; or, alternatively, to elaborate the repercussions of abolishing some social institution (like private property, or monogamy) or radically transforming it. Utopian thought is considered by some to be purely fanciful, mere entertainment. For others its virtue lies in its capacity to extend the range of what is considered possible or thinkable and to provide regulative ideals for the conduct of political activity. The converse position, common among conservatives, condemns Utopianism because it encourages people to believe in the prospects of heroic or large-scale re-engineering of society: given that axiomatic belief in the imperfectibility of humans and the human condition is the hallmark of conservatives, it is not surprising that Utopianism attracts their ire.
In the centuries following the first European explorations of America and Australasia, a few hardy souls set out to form real Utopian communities. Unfortunately, in every social, intellectual and ethical Eden, the serpent of human nature sooner or later reappeared. Nonetheless, the vision remained, and still remains. As that great socialist and satirist Wilde once put, â€˜A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at.â€™ KMcL BO\'L
Further reading B. Frankel, The Post-Industrial Utopians; , B. Goodwin and , K. Taylor, The Politics of Utopia: a Study in Theory and Practice; , F.E. Manuel and , F.P. Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World; , J. Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man.