May 21, 2013

Case File #013.05.21: UTOPIA

In the year 1516, English social philosopher and statesman Sir Thomas More published a book in which he described what he deemed to be the ideal society, and he referred to this exemplary but fictional community as Utopia. More coined the word by combining the Greek words ou, meaning “not,” and topos, meaning “place.” Thus, utopia literally means “not a place” or “nowhere,” and this was indeed the idea More intended to suggest, as he believed that people should always strive to create a perfect world but that they will never be able to fully attain such a goal. Around 1610, however, the word utopia sort of lost that original implication of impossibility when English speakers started using it to mean “any agreeable or harmonious place, community, or state of being,” and that's essentially the sense it retained for the next two and half centuries or so. Then in the mid-nineteenth century—probably around the time that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto—More's original intent was revived but carried to its ultimate extreme when utopia took on the secondary and pejorative sense of “a highly impractical or ludicrous scheme for social improvement or reform.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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