DO WE NEED UTOPIA?
TAKING its name from the fictional land depicted in Sir Thomas More's book of 1516, utopia has become a generic term for all imaginary worlds in which a society radically different from our own exists--one that is normally in every respect superior to the real world. It is a notion that is currently out of fashion, for nowadays utopian thought is suspect for its supposedly totalitarian tendencies.
Recent years have seen the collapse of more than one would-be real-life utopia, and the dream of an ideal society--long considered essential for the fulfilment of human potential--has for many people turned into a nightmare. Even the way the word is now used in everyday speech reflects its current discredit. It has become synonymous with wipe-dreams, unrealistic ambitions, and airyfairy ideas. For many people, the utopian vision has finally been laid to rest.
Such a view may be premature. Contemporary historical, political and philosophical thought has not entirely lost its utopian dimension. Although utopianism has been condemned for the ideological wrong turnings it has encouraged, perhaps it remains indispensable if we are to conceive of alternative models of the future.
It is often wrongly thought that utopianism is a form of literary escapism. Its practitioners have usually been deeply involved with the political, social and economic concerns of their day. The aim of most utopian works has been to make people reflect critically about their time. The ideal societies they have depicted have always been related in some way to the values of the world around them.
Thomas More himself was a humanist, diplomat and politician whose rose to be lord chancellor of England. The marvellous island he described in his Utopia housed an ideal society that …