Our word chronology comes from the name of the Greek mythical Titan Cronus. Among other attributes, Cronus carried a sickle and our usual association now is with harvest season and hence the passage of time. The Roman god of agriculture, similar to Cronus, was Saturn. The Feast of Saturnalia in December was a time of gifts, temporary freedom for slaves, and celebration of an alternate society of Misrule. In the Middle Ages this tradition was called the Feast of Fools, regarded by historian A. L. Morton as one source for utopianism in popular culture.  1

 

 

            To associate utopia with time is to associate utopia with history. Ancient writers sometimes viewed history as a cycle of recurring events, as in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, or with a decline, as in Hesiod's account of decline from the Golden Age to the brutal Age of Iron, in the Works and Days.

            Another ancient idea about history is implied in Plato's contrast between the Ideal world of Being and the Actual world of Becoming. In this paradigm, the Ideal is located outside time and outside history, as Heaven came later to be thought of; time and history are part of the merely transitory world of Becoming, a world of continual dissolution.

            The definition of the word utopia in many dictionaries, and broadly in Western culture, is an ideal and perfect place which is analogous to Plato's ideal realm and outside time and history in the same way. This has caused many critics to dismiss utopianism as mere fantasy about neverlands.

            Thomas More coined the term utopia in 1516, incorporating a pun on the Greek roots so that the word has an ambiguous double meaning; it is both good place (eu-topos) and no place (ou-topos). This seems to echo the ancient Platonic notion of an ideal world, except that for More this was not quite true. His imaginary land of Utopia is not presented merely as a concept. More gives it a "local habitation" with both a geography and a history. Although More includes a number of statements questioning whether such a state as Utopia could ever be achieved in reality, the text of Utopia itself is deeply ambiguous. It has a powerful Medieval sense of the fallen condition of humanity, and thus our incapacity to create or sustain a utopia, yet it also participates in the emergence, during the Renaissance, of the idea of historical progress which has become one defining characteristic of modernity.

            With this in mind, utopia may be viewed not as an other-worldly idea, but as an imagined vision of an alternate and better world. Several streams flow into the generic river of alternate worlds visions. These include: fantasy worlds, which are typically distinguished by the presence of magic; science fiction which in its "hard" form emphasizes technology; and utopias, which present an imaginative picture of an alternate but theoretically attainable world. Northrop Frye calls a utopia a vision of the telos or end-point at which social life aims. Lyman Sargent calls it "social dreaming."2  The literary genres of utopia and science fiction tend to be closer to each other than either is to fantasy, because neither involves magic and because social progress in utopias is often accompanied by or based on scientific progress. However, from another perspective, works of fantasy may also present visions of alternate societies which are worth serious consideration by utopian scholars.

            The field of utopian scholarship today includes work on positive utopian visions of past and present but also on those horrific visions called dystopias, as well as on satirical or anti-utopian works. It includes the study of utopian thought in texts which are not themselves utopias, such as political constitutions. It also includes study of utopian experiments in such forms as intentional communities and alternative concepts in urban design.

Notes

1. The English Utopia. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1969 [1952].

2. Northrop Frye, "Varieties of Literary Utopias" in Utopias and Utopian Thought, ed. Frank E. Manuel, Boston: Beacon Press, 1967 [1965] 25. Lyman Tower Sargent, Utopianism A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 5. Sargent recognizes, along with other scholars, the important theoretical contribution of Ernst Bloch, whose Principle of Hope argued that human beings are day-dreamers about the future and that a utopia takes this universal human attribute and makes it a dream of communal happiness rather than merely a dream of individual happiness.