“The Good Place? Tracing utopia and dystopia through literature” (Isabel Crespo)

Is utopia the best possible place possible or possible at all? Is one person’s utopia another’s dystopia?

EUROPEANA, June 17, 2020

Today we often hear the words utopia and dystopia used in informal conversations and in the media. But what do these words really mean? To find out, let’s trace the ideas behind utopia and dystopia through the history of literature and thought.

Utopia (from the Greek for ‘no place’ or the good place’) was coined for the first time in 1516 by the English philosopher and lawyer Sir Thomas More.

Published by his close friend Erasmus of Rotterdam, another famous humanist, More’s novel Utopia is ‘a little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in the new island Utopia’. In fact, it is a satire describing a fictional island’s social and religious structure, which interestingly includes slavery as an unavoidable consequence of its functioning. Influenced by the discovery of the new continent by Columbus and the possibilities for the foundation of a new world order (which resulted in one of the most horrific genocides and the beginning of European colonialism), the book gave rise to a literary genre which features ideal places and well-organised societies.

Some of the classical examples are the New Atlantis (Francis Bacon), Erewhon (Samuel Butler), or Candide (Voltaire).

In the 18th century, the French Revolution and its American counterpart brought the idea of universal rights and the need for political and social transformation to the utopian movement.

But it was during the 19th century, a prolific period for philosophical and technological changes due to industrialisation and great advances in science (Darwinism, railroads, telegraphs), that utopian literature as a genre started to flourish. Movements against slavery and for women’s rights began to be prominent… [+]

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