What Is the Meaning of Utopia?

The literal meaning of utopia is “no place.” In contemporary usage, the term represents the concept of a place, community, or society of ideal perfection.

Apr 7, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

understanding the meaning of utopia


Sir Thomas More coined the term utopia in his 1516 book, depicting a fictional island society in the New World. The word utopia originates from the Greek roots “ou(meaning “no, not”) and “topos” (meaning “place”) – literally “no place.” While More’s book outlines a perfect political society on an imaginary island, – Utopia – over time the term has come to represent the idea of a place or society of ideal perfection. Conversely, the concept of “dystopia” is the antithesis of utopia – societies plagued by injustice and suffering, often under totalitarian, apocalyptic conditions.


Thomas More’s Utopia

The Dialogue of Council (part one) of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Dialogue of Council (part one) of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), Source: Wikimedia Commons


Thomas More (1478-1535), an English lawyer, judge, and statesman, served as Henry VIII’s Lord High Chancellor of England (1529-1532). He wrote his magnum opus “De Optimo Reipublicae Statu Deque Nova Insula – Utopia” (On the best State of a Republic – Utopia) in 1516. 


Utopia comprises two distinct parts: the first, the Dialogue of Council, sketches More’s analysis of the discontent and corruption of rural England, while the second presents a solution through a narrative detailing the social and political landscape of the fictional island of Utopia. 


As a document of political thought, Utopia envisions the workings of an ideal state, as an actual place – as opposed to a set of principles. Yet, a true work of satire, it is also at pains to make clear that such a place doesn’t exist. Its major river Anyder means “no-water” and its capital, Amaurotum, is derived from the Greek amauros (meaning ‘dim’, or ‘obscure’).

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Utopia and Imperialism

auhtor unknown utopia illustration
Utopiæ Insulæ Tabula, Author unknown, 1518. Source: Princeton University Library.


Thomas More’s Utopia serves both as a meditation on the evils of society as he saw them, and how they might be resolved. It was also probably an intervention in the Renaissance humanist debates of his time. Namely, a literary platform to explore ideas of civic virtue and republican government.  


Nonetheless, a more tangible aspect of Utopia is its depiction of a fictional land that is marked out as “existing” in the New World. Notably, the text portrays native Americans in derogatory terms and characterizes the so-called “New World” as terra nullius, an untouched, uninhabited land ripe for pioneers to build abundant, ideal societies. 


Indeed, in addition to More’s Utopia, other works of utopian literature such as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), and William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890) are all steeped in imperialist rhetoric, placing utopian ideas within the firm context of European imperialism.  


Utopian Literature

Kelmscott Manor, from William Morris's News From Nowhere, Source: Wikimedia Commons
Kelmscott Manor, from William Morris’s News From Nowhere, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Beyond More’s Utopia, the allure of a utopian ideal world brimming with abundance, happiness, and peace has captivated the minds of numerous writers throughout history. Going as far back as (approx) 375 BC, Plato outlined his vision of the ideal state in The Republic


In The City of the Sun (1602) Tommasso Campanella depicted utopian citizens living and working together toward the end of rational scientific achievement. 25 years later, Francis Bacon imagined a New Atlantis in the South Pacific, in which enlightenment rationality and science reigned supreme. 


The socialist utopia of William Morris was idyllic, pastoral, and rural. Whereas Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) imagined luxuriant utopian urban planning as the key to a socialist paradise. 


H.G Well’s A Modern Utopia (1905), Men Like Gods (1923), and Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962) explored themes of communal living, technological progress, environmentalism, and spirituality as a route to greater compassion, interconnectedness, and self-awareness. 


The End of Utopia?

1984 george orwell dystopia
1984 (Movie Still) by Michael Radford, 1984. Source: Onedio


Since Huxley, and indeed, the Utopian Socialists – Saint Simon, Robert Owen, and Charles Fourier – there has been a noticeable decline in writers exploring utopian themes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. 


Instead, dystopia has emerged as a prevailing theme. Works such as Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), alongside celebrated dystopian sci-fi classics such as Blade Runner (1982) and The Matrix (1999), depict worlds animated by injustice, totalitarianism, and apocalyptic conditions. 


For some, the waning of utopian visions is best explained by the fact that in today’s commercial culture, capitalism is seen as the only game in town, to the extent that it’s ‘impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it (Fisher, 2009).


Utopian visions have given way to the dominance of dystopian imaginings. While utopian ideals may return, contemporary twenty-first century popular culture seems fixated on darker, more pessimistic visions of the future.

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.