Utopianism: Definition & Communities

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will examine utopianism. We will define the term and understand its nuances, and we will identify various prominent utopian societies throughout history. Following the lesson, you'll be able to test your understanding of the content with a quiz.

What is Utopianism?

Maybe you've heard the word 'utopia' before. Maybe you haven't, and that's fine too. In this lesson we will be examining utopianism and utopian societies. Utopia is a term used to describe an ideal or nearly perfect place, usually in the context of a society or community. Throughout history there have been many attempts to set up utopian societies, places where human beings can live free from hunger, greed, war, strife, etc. The aim of these societies is to promote the highest quality of living possible.

Often times, in the minds of their creators, utopian societies border on the imaginary or mythical. In fact, sometimes the term is even used with a negative connotation because there is an underlying understanding that societal perfection is unattainable. For example, you might hear someone say something like, 'Yeah, so much for that utopia' to refer to a social structure that has fallen apart. Many of us might argue a true utopia is an impossibility, but not everyone feels that way, as the course of history shows.

So basically, utopianism is the belief in the possibilities of utopian societies. The word 'utopia' was coined by the English Renaissance humanist and philosopher, Sir Thomas More, in his 1516 book, Utopia, which is about a fictional island community in the Atlantic Ocean.

Not always, but typically in modern history, utopianism tends to be leftist in nature. When we say 'leftist' here, we are referring to the political spectrum in terms of 'right' and 'left' political systems. Modern utopianism often stresses sharing, collectivism, and other communal aspects intended to erase human greed and corruption. But please keep in mind that utopianism is an incredibly broad and inclusive term.

Utopian societies can be built upon a number of philosophical or social frameworks. For example, a nudist utopia would involve a society in which everyone walks around naked because there is a shared belief that clothes are negative, and that being naked will result in a better quality of life. Similarly, a communist utopia would stress the tenants of communism in order to bring about a sort of 'heaven' on earth. Science, religion, naturalism, education, and many other themes could all serve as the foundations for utoptian societies.

Famous Utopian Societies

One of the best ways to fully understand what a utopian society looks like is to examine some of the past examples. The famous Greek philosopher Plato wrote a work called the Republic that is sometimes considered a utopian proposal. In the Republic, Plato proposes a class structure for society consisting of golden, silver, bronze, and iron socioeconomic classes. The golden class are the benevolent philosopher-kings who rule society, and from there the classes descend with each class performing certain duties and roles.

Plato, author of the Republic.
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If there was an 'age of utopianism,' it would probably be the 19th century. All kinds of bizarre utopian societies emerged during this time, often stemming from disillusionment with conventional ideas (whether that be capitalism, traditional marriage, or you-name-it).

One well-known utopian society was Brook Farm near Boston, Massachusetts. Brook Farm was an experimental utopia founded in the 1840s that emphasized the values and ideals of Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism stressed the innate goodness of man and themes of nature, and was opposed to organized religion and intellectualism in general.

Brook Farm was founded by Unitarian minister, George Ripley. The basic idea was that if everyone farmed together and shared the profits of the labor, there would be more time available to devote to literature and science. Writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was a founding member of Brook Farm. Internal disputes and financial difficulties spelled the end of the community after only a few years.

Another famous utopian society was New Harmony, Indiana. This is possibly the best known utopian society. The town of New Harmony was founded in 1825 by a Welsh industrialist and social reformer named Robert Owen. Owen sailed to America and invested his fortune in establishing a communal society based on science and 'enlightened' principles. There he hoped members could devote themselves to pursuing knowledge while escaping the harsh realities of capitalism. The town thrived for a short period of time and became home to many brilliant scientists and scholars. However, within a few years, squabbles over money and internal disputes doomed the community. Are you seeing a pattern here?

A sketch of New Harmony as envisioned by Robert Owen.
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