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Episode
249

Visions of Utopia

Mar 29, 2022
Arts & Culture
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20
minutes

The idea of the perfect society is something that philosophers and political thinkers have written about for thousands of years.

In this episode, we look at different versions of this "perfect society" throughout history, and what happened when humans tried to create utopias on Earth.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about the idea of utopia, the perfect, ideal society.

[00:00:31] We’ll start by finding out about the book that gave rise to the term, then move onto learning about some utopian ideas, what happened when people tried to put these into practice, we’ll touch on the relationship between utopia and political theory, and look at what has caused some utopian societies to succeed where others have failed.

[00:00:58] OK then, let’s talk about utopia. 

[00:01:01] So, when you hear the word ‘utopia,’ what, exactly, comes to mind?

[00:01:07] Try to close your eyes and imagine it for a minute. What does “utopia” mean to you? 

[00:01:15] If you look it up in the dictionary you’ll find the definition as something like “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.”

[00:01:26] Perhaps you are imagining some sort of tropical paradise, filled with fruit trees and white-sand beaches. Perhaps it’s a wonderful forest. Perhaps it’s a beautiful garden.

[00:01:39] Although the word utopia is typically used in a general sense nowadays, it has a very specific origin. 

[00:01:50] The first recorded use of the word was in the year 1516, in a book called ‘Utopia.’ The book was written by an Englishman named Sir Thomas More, who, as well as being a writer, was a lawyer, member of parliament, and Lord Chancellor of England — a type of highly ranked government officer. 

[00:02:13] He was also executed by Henry VIII, but that’s a story for another day.

[00:02:19] In the book, More wrote about a fictional island community, whose geography and people he describes in great detail. 

[00:02:30] His utopia is a society governed by reason, one where no one is allowed to own private property, and is run by a system similar to what we would now call communism. 

[00:02:44] It is a place without indulgences like laziness, excessive drinking, and there is certainly no sex before marriage. 

[00:02:55] Citizens of Utopia could also choose their own religion — though, perhaps somewhat ironically, More himself is said to have had several men burnt alive for religious reasons, and he was certainly not too keen on Henry VIII choosing his own religion. 

[00:03:14] Whether we agree with More’s real-life practices or not, what we can agree on is that More coined the word utopia. 

[00:03:23] He created the word by combining parts of Greek: ‘ou,’ meaning not, and ‘topos,’ meaning place. 

[00:03:32] Put together, the word means: no place. 

[00:03:36] It’s a pun - More created this term to show that such a perfect place simply cannot exist. 

[00:03:43] A perfect society is impossible - the clue is in the name, no place.

[00:03:50] The entire book was meant as a satire: that is, a piece of fiction that is meant as an, often humorous, critique of some aspect of real life. It was a comment on the chaotic state of English society at the time, rather than an actual vision of a perfect society.

[00:04:12] Regardless of More’s intentions, the word utopia entered the English language and became a synonym, another word, for a perfect, ideal place. 

[00:04:24] Now, More may have coined the word utopia, but he was certainly not the first to write about this kind of place — this so-called perfect society – and certainly not the first person to imagine what a perfect society might look like.

[00:04:43] In Ireland, around the year 1330 — so nearly 200 years before the publication of Utopia — a collection of poems called the Kildare Poems describe a place called the Land of Cockaygne. 

[00:04:59] Cockaygne is a very different place to More’s Utopia. It is a land of ease and sensual pleasure, one where even monks and nuns are free to engage in things like sex and public nudity. No one works, but everyone eats and drinks to their heart’s content

[00:05:22] Rivers run with milk, honey, and wine, geese fly about already roasted, and monks hunt with hawks and dance with nuns.

[00:05:34] But the idea of utopia is still far, far older even than Cockaygne. 

[00:05:40] Around 380 BC, nearly two thousand years before the Kildare Poems were written, the Greek philosopher Plato dreamed up a very similar-sounding place in a piece of writing called The Republic. 

[00:05:54] The piece describes a place called Kallipolis, with a communist-style system of government — a type of political and economic ideology in which all social classes and private property are done away with, there are no social classes or private property, and all goods are distributed equally. 

[00:06:17] And, no doubt, before humans wrote down stories, prehistoric men and women would tell stories of wonderful utopian worlds completely uncorrupted by the problems they faced in their day-to-day lives.

[00:06:33] Utopian ideals are, of course, central to many world religions, either in the form of a utopian afterlife or a creation story. 

[00:06:44] In Christianity, the biblical Garden of Eden is a kind of utopia — a paradise on earth, free from suffering – that is until Adam and Eve decide to listen to the words of a snake rather than the words of God. 

[00:06:59] In Judaism, Israel is the true homeland of the Jews, a place where Jewish people can be happy and safe from persecution.

[00:07:09] But back to More, our original creator of the modern idea of “utopia”.

[00:07:16] When More’s book came out in 1516, it described a very specific version of utopia, from a very specific point of view. 

[00:07:26] Yet the book opened the floodgates for countless others to write their versions of utopia, and to explore their own ideas about what a perfect society might look like. 

[00:07:40] In 1619, a German man named Johann Valentin Andreae wrote about a Christian utopia called Christianopolis. A few years later, in 1623, the Italian writer Tommasso Campanella published a piece of utopian writing called City of the Sun, which describes a theocratic society — or a society run by religious principles. 

[00:08:08] In this city, everything is shared, nobody owns private property, and poverty is nonexistent — quite similar to More’s version of utopia. 

[00:08:20] Now, many of these writers dreamt up utopias that were heavily based on religious ideas. But some also based their utopias on science and technology, such as the English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon.

[00:08:37] In 1627, Bacon wrote a book called ‘New Atlantis.’ In the book, Bacon imagines a world of human invention and discovery, where science plays a major role in society, and there are machines that sound very much like modern aeroplanes and submarines.

[00:08:58] But the idea of utopia wouldn’t be forever limited only to theory, only existing in people’s imaginations. 

[00:09:07] Many brave — and, perhaps, reckless — individuals went even further; they brought their versions and visions of utopia to life. 

[00:09:18] Indeed, from the Enlightenment onwards, as political theorists and philosophers started to question “why” society was the way it was, there was increasing room for alternative proposals.

[00:09:32] And how this relates to utopia is, of course, that utopia is something to aim for, it’s perfection, it is the perfect place.

[00:09:43] So, why not try to create it here on Earth?

[00:09:47] As you can imagine, and as I'm sure you know, these utopian visions didn’t always work out the way their architects planned. 

[00:09:57] But it is fascinating to see how they tried, so let’s take a look at some of them.

[00:10:03] One of the most successful utopian communities in history is a group called the Shakers. The Shakers was a Christian group founded in England in the mid-18th century, eventually leaving England and settling in America, in itself a new country built on semi-utopian ideals

[00:10:26] It was a celibate group: this meant that members of the group did not believe in either sex or marriage. Not exactly everyone’s idea of paradise–and it was certainly very different from the Land of Cockaygne–but it seemed to work for the Shakers.

[00:10:44] The group valued hard work, communal living, and gender equality. 

[00:10:49] It was one of the largest and longest-lived utopian societies in America, even though they couldn’t have children, they managed to sustain and grow their numbers entirely through recruitment, by encouraging people to join them. 

[00:11:05] And there are still Shakers today. 

[00:11:08] As of 2017, there were two living Shakers, who both live in Maine in the United States. 

[00:11:16] Another well-known utopian community was Oneida, founded in 1848 by a man named John Humphrey Noyes. The Oneidans lived on 65 hectares of land, just over half a km2 of land, in New York state, and, like the Shakers, were devout Christians, and believed in hard work and gender equality. 

[00:11:41] One thing that made Oneida quite different from the Shakers, however, was that members openly had sex with multiple partners, they were what we would now call “swingers”. 

[00:11:54] Though many utopian communities have been based on religious beliefs, quite a few have nothing at all to do with religion. Many are focussed on things like philosophy, science, and the environment, or simply on providing better working conditions. 

[00:12:12] Robert Owen, a Welsh mill-owner, was outraged by the long hours and terrible work conditions in 19th century Britain, particularly for children. So, he created a milling community in the town of New Lanark, in Scotland, that provided a relatively clean, and safe environment to workers escaping from cities like Edinburgh, which was crowded and dirty at the time. 

[00:12:40] Owen built a number of other communities that were similar to New Lanark, based on cooperation and unity. Families lived in apartments set around a large square, and children were raised communally after the age of three. 

[00:12:57] At the end of the 19th century, against a backdrop of increasing industrialisation and urbanisation, an Englishman named Ebenezer Howard came up with an idea for a type of city called a garden city, which was a place where the natural environment and the built environment could exist in harmony. 

[00:13:18] Howard built two of these cities, called Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, in Hertfordshire, in England, just north of London. 

[00:13:27] Howard’s ideas also inspired the creation of a number of other garden cities worldwide. 

[00:13:34] Although I would perhaps warn you that if you go to Letchworth or Welwyn Garden City now in search of utopia, you will probably be somewhat disappointed - they are simply slightly sad suburbs of London, and I don’t think any resident of Welwyn Garden City would describe living in utopia.

[00:13:55] Now, moving on to more modern utopias, the heyday of utopia creation, or should I say attempted utopia creation, came in the 20th century.

[00:14:07] While Thomas More might have got rid of private property in a theoretical, fictional, utopia, in the 16th century, the 20th century saw countries actually get rid of private property in practice.

[00:14:22] From the Soviet Union to China, Cuba to even Spain, the 20th century saw areas of countries, and entire large nation states experiment with various forms of socialism and communism.

[00:14:38] To state the obvious, these didn’t always lead to prosperity for all citizens, and it turns out that although the idea of everyone sharing everything sounds nice, actually getting it to work in practice is very difficult. Perhaps even impossible.

[00:14:57] It was also clear that ideas about a perfect society can end up being very dangerous and exclusive.

[00:15:05] The National Socialist German Workers' Party, for example, had a vision for a perfect Germany where all Germans could live happily and freely.

[00:15:16] If you don't immediately recognise the name, the National Socialist German Workers Party, well you’ve surely heard of its other name, The Nazi Party, and of its leader, Adolf Hitler. 

[00:15:29] Evidently, this utopian vision for a perfect Germany involved exterminating Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and anyone else who didn’t fit into his idea of a Utopian society. 

[00:15:43] Now, while successfully forming a completely utopian nation state has proved problematic, nigh impossible, and in many cases it only succeeds in creating a dystopian state, creating smaller utopias has proved slightly more achievable.

[00:16:03] One of the most fascinating of today’s utopia-like communities is Arcosanti, which is in the Arizona desert. The people who designed Arcosanti wanted a community where people could live in harmony with nature, and so they made Arcosanti energy-efficient. 

[00:16:22] It looks a bit like something a little bit out of a sci-fi novel, but it is in fact a real community: there are currently 70 full-time residents living there. You can also visit or even stay overnight. 

[00:16:37] There’s also Maharishi Vedic City in the state of Iowa, where residents practise something called transcendental meditation. 

[00:16:45] In the community of Auroville, in the South of India, around 3,000 residents from nearly 60 different countries live together. 

[00:16:54] Another example of a kind of modern-day utopia is the Israeli kibbutz — a type of communal farm founded on socialist ideals. On a kibbutz, residents share all work and responsibilities, and are given free room and board

[00:17:12] Of course, none of these communities is perfect; they have problems like anywhere else. But they were all built by people hoping to create their own version of a perfect society. 

[00:17:24] The reason that they have succeeded, or semi-succeeded, or at least they continue to exist, comes down primarily to their small size. 

[00:17:34] Everyone has slightly different visions of what a perfect society is. Yours is probably different to mine, and is probably slightly different to your partner’s, your parent’s, or your child’s.

[00:17:48] If you have a utopian society of 10 or 100 people, it’s perhaps manageable; you can do it, your differences are small, and there are sufficiently few people that any differences are easily resolved. 

[00:18:05] If you have a society with 10 million, 100 million or even a billion people, well, it becomes a whole lot more difficult.

[00:18:13] So, while Utopia is something that we can all strive towards, that we can all aim for, it’s important to remember that the clue is in the name. 

[00:18:23] Utopia is no place, a place that does not and cannot exist.

[00:18:29] In the original Utopia, More wrote “Things will never be perfect, until human beings are perfect - which I don't expect them to be for quite a number of years!”

[00:18:42] Well, he wrote the book over 500 years ago, and if he were alive today I’m sure he’d look around and think that there’s still a fair bit of waiting to be done.

[00:18:56] OK then, that is it for today's episode on visions of utopia. I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:19:06] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:19:10] What does utopia mean to you?

[00:19:13] What are some interesting attempts to recreate utopian communities that you know about? What are some that have gone right, and what are some that have gone terribly wrong?

[00:19:25] And how does the idea of a utopian society marry, how does it relate, to the practicalities of the real world?

[00:19:34] I would love to know what you think, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:19:39] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com, and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:49] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:54] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about the idea of utopia, the perfect, ideal society.

[00:00:31] We’ll start by finding out about the book that gave rise to the term, then move onto learning about some utopian ideas, what happened when people tried to put these into practice, we’ll touch on the relationship between utopia and political theory, and look at what has caused some utopian societies to succeed where others have failed.

[00:00:58] OK then, let’s talk about utopia. 

[00:01:01] So, when you hear the word ‘utopia,’ what, exactly, comes to mind?

[00:01:07] Try to close your eyes and imagine it for a minute. What does “utopia” mean to you? 

[00:01:15] If you look it up in the dictionary you’ll find the definition as something like “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.”

[00:01:26] Perhaps you are imagining some sort of tropical paradise, filled with fruit trees and white-sand beaches. Perhaps it’s a wonderful forest. Perhaps it’s a beautiful garden.

[00:01:39] Although the word utopia is typically used in a general sense nowadays, it has a very specific origin. 

[00:01:50] The first recorded use of the word was in the year 1516, in a book called ‘Utopia.’ The book was written by an Englishman named Sir Thomas More, who, as well as being a writer, was a lawyer, member of parliament, and Lord Chancellor of England — a type of highly ranked government officer. 

[00:02:13] He was also executed by Henry VIII, but that’s a story for another day.

[00:02:19] In the book, More wrote about a fictional island community, whose geography and people he describes in great detail. 

[00:02:30] His utopia is a society governed by reason, one where no one is allowed to own private property, and is run by a system similar to what we would now call communism. 

[00:02:44] It is a place without indulgences like laziness, excessive drinking, and there is certainly no sex before marriage. 

[00:02:55] Citizens of Utopia could also choose their own religion — though, perhaps somewhat ironically, More himself is said to have had several men burnt alive for religious reasons, and he was certainly not too keen on Henry VIII choosing his own religion. 

[00:03:14] Whether we agree with More’s real-life practices or not, what we can agree on is that More coined the word utopia. 

[00:03:23] He created the word by combining parts of Greek: ‘ou,’ meaning not, and ‘topos,’ meaning place. 

[00:03:32] Put together, the word means: no place. 

[00:03:36] It’s a pun - More created this term to show that such a perfect place simply cannot exist. 

[00:03:43] A perfect society is impossible - the clue is in the name, no place.

[00:03:50] The entire book was meant as a satire: that is, a piece of fiction that is meant as an, often humorous, critique of some aspect of real life. It was a comment on the chaotic state of English society at the time, rather than an actual vision of a perfect society.

[00:04:12] Regardless of More’s intentions, the word utopia entered the English language and became a synonym, another word, for a perfect, ideal place. 

[00:04:24] Now, More may have coined the word utopia, but he was certainly not the first to write about this kind of place — this so-called perfect society – and certainly not the first person to imagine what a perfect society might look like.

[00:04:43] In Ireland, around the year 1330 — so nearly 200 years before the publication of Utopia — a collection of poems called the Kildare Poems describe a place called the Land of Cockaygne. 

[00:04:59] Cockaygne is a very different place to More’s Utopia. It is a land of ease and sensual pleasure, one where even monks and nuns are free to engage in things like sex and public nudity. No one works, but everyone eats and drinks to their heart’s content

[00:05:22] Rivers run with milk, honey, and wine, geese fly about already roasted, and monks hunt with hawks and dance with nuns.

[00:05:34] But the idea of utopia is still far, far older even than Cockaygne. 

[00:05:40] Around 380 BC, nearly two thousand years before the Kildare Poems were written, the Greek philosopher Plato dreamed up a very similar-sounding place in a piece of writing called The Republic. 

[00:05:54] The piece describes a place called Kallipolis, with a communist-style system of government — a type of political and economic ideology in which all social classes and private property are done away with, there are no social classes or private property, and all goods are distributed equally. 

[00:06:17] And, no doubt, before humans wrote down stories, prehistoric men and women would tell stories of wonderful utopian worlds completely uncorrupted by the problems they faced in their day-to-day lives.

[00:06:33] Utopian ideals are, of course, central to many world religions, either in the form of a utopian afterlife or a creation story. 

[00:06:44] In Christianity, the biblical Garden of Eden is a kind of utopia — a paradise on earth, free from suffering – that is until Adam and Eve decide to listen to the words of a snake rather than the words of God. 

[00:06:59] In Judaism, Israel is the true homeland of the Jews, a place where Jewish people can be happy and safe from persecution.

[00:07:09] But back to More, our original creator of the modern idea of “utopia”.

[00:07:16] When More’s book came out in 1516, it described a very specific version of utopia, from a very specific point of view. 

[00:07:26] Yet the book opened the floodgates for countless others to write their versions of utopia, and to explore their own ideas about what a perfect society might look like. 

[00:07:40] In 1619, a German man named Johann Valentin Andreae wrote about a Christian utopia called Christianopolis. A few years later, in 1623, the Italian writer Tommasso Campanella published a piece of utopian writing called City of the Sun, which describes a theocratic society — or a society run by religious principles. 

[00:08:08] In this city, everything is shared, nobody owns private property, and poverty is nonexistent — quite similar to More’s version of utopia. 

[00:08:20] Now, many of these writers dreamt up utopias that were heavily based on religious ideas. But some also based their utopias on science and technology, such as the English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon.

[00:08:37] In 1627, Bacon wrote a book called ‘New Atlantis.’ In the book, Bacon imagines a world of human invention and discovery, where science plays a major role in society, and there are machines that sound very much like modern aeroplanes and submarines.

[00:08:58] But the idea of utopia wouldn’t be forever limited only to theory, only existing in people’s imaginations. 

[00:09:07] Many brave — and, perhaps, reckless — individuals went even further; they brought their versions and visions of utopia to life. 

[00:09:18] Indeed, from the Enlightenment onwards, as political theorists and philosophers started to question “why” society was the way it was, there was increasing room for alternative proposals.

[00:09:32] And how this relates to utopia is, of course, that utopia is something to aim for, it’s perfection, it is the perfect place.

[00:09:43] So, why not try to create it here on Earth?

[00:09:47] As you can imagine, and as I'm sure you know, these utopian visions didn’t always work out the way their architects planned. 

[00:09:57] But it is fascinating to see how they tried, so let’s take a look at some of them.

[00:10:03] One of the most successful utopian communities in history is a group called the Shakers. The Shakers was a Christian group founded in England in the mid-18th century, eventually leaving England and settling in America, in itself a new country built on semi-utopian ideals

[00:10:26] It was a celibate group: this meant that members of the group did not believe in either sex or marriage. Not exactly everyone’s idea of paradise–and it was certainly very different from the Land of Cockaygne–but it seemed to work for the Shakers.

[00:10:44] The group valued hard work, communal living, and gender equality. 

[00:10:49] It was one of the largest and longest-lived utopian societies in America, even though they couldn’t have children, they managed to sustain and grow their numbers entirely through recruitment, by encouraging people to join them. 

[00:11:05] And there are still Shakers today. 

[00:11:08] As of 2017, there were two living Shakers, who both live in Maine in the United States. 

[00:11:16] Another well-known utopian community was Oneida, founded in 1848 by a man named John Humphrey Noyes. The Oneidans lived on 65 hectares of land, just over half a km2 of land, in New York state, and, like the Shakers, were devout Christians, and believed in hard work and gender equality. 

[00:11:41] One thing that made Oneida quite different from the Shakers, however, was that members openly had sex with multiple partners, they were what we would now call “swingers”. 

[00:11:54] Though many utopian communities have been based on religious beliefs, quite a few have nothing at all to do with religion. Many are focussed on things like philosophy, science, and the environment, or simply on providing better working conditions. 

[00:12:12] Robert Owen, a Welsh mill-owner, was outraged by the long hours and terrible work conditions in 19th century Britain, particularly for children. So, he created a milling community in the town of New Lanark, in Scotland, that provided a relatively clean, and safe environment to workers escaping from cities like Edinburgh, which was crowded and dirty at the time. 

[00:12:40] Owen built a number of other communities that were similar to New Lanark, based on cooperation and unity. Families lived in apartments set around a large square, and children were raised communally after the age of three. 

[00:12:57] At the end of the 19th century, against a backdrop of increasing industrialisation and urbanisation, an Englishman named Ebenezer Howard came up with an idea for a type of city called a garden city, which was a place where the natural environment and the built environment could exist in harmony. 

[00:13:18] Howard built two of these cities, called Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, in Hertfordshire, in England, just north of London. 

[00:13:27] Howard’s ideas also inspired the creation of a number of other garden cities worldwide. 

[00:13:34] Although I would perhaps warn you that if you go to Letchworth or Welwyn Garden City now in search of utopia, you will probably be somewhat disappointed - they are simply slightly sad suburbs of London, and I don’t think any resident of Welwyn Garden City would describe living in utopia.

[00:13:55] Now, moving on to more modern utopias, the heyday of utopia creation, or should I say attempted utopia creation, came in the 20th century.

[00:14:07] While Thomas More might have got rid of private property in a theoretical, fictional, utopia, in the 16th century, the 20th century saw countries actually get rid of private property in practice.

[00:14:22] From the Soviet Union to China, Cuba to even Spain, the 20th century saw areas of countries, and entire large nation states experiment with various forms of socialism and communism.

[00:14:38] To state the obvious, these didn’t always lead to prosperity for all citizens, and it turns out that although the idea of everyone sharing everything sounds nice, actually getting it to work in practice is very difficult. Perhaps even impossible.

[00:14:57] It was also clear that ideas about a perfect society can end up being very dangerous and exclusive.

[00:15:05] The National Socialist German Workers' Party, for example, had a vision for a perfect Germany where all Germans could live happily and freely.

[00:15:16] If you don't immediately recognise the name, the National Socialist German Workers Party, well you’ve surely heard of its other name, The Nazi Party, and of its leader, Adolf Hitler. 

[00:15:29] Evidently, this utopian vision for a perfect Germany involved exterminating Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and anyone else who didn’t fit into his idea of a Utopian society. 

[00:15:43] Now, while successfully forming a completely utopian nation state has proved problematic, nigh impossible, and in many cases it only succeeds in creating a dystopian state, creating smaller utopias has proved slightly more achievable.

[00:16:03] One of the most fascinating of today’s utopia-like communities is Arcosanti, which is in the Arizona desert. The people who designed Arcosanti wanted a community where people could live in harmony with nature, and so they made Arcosanti energy-efficient. 

[00:16:22] It looks a bit like something a little bit out of a sci-fi novel, but it is in fact a real community: there are currently 70 full-time residents living there. You can also visit or even stay overnight. 

[00:16:37] There’s also Maharishi Vedic City in the state of Iowa, where residents practise something called transcendental meditation. 

[00:16:45] In the community of Auroville, in the South of India, around 3,000 residents from nearly 60 different countries live together. 

[00:16:54] Another example of a kind of modern-day utopia is the Israeli kibbutz — a type of communal farm founded on socialist ideals. On a kibbutz, residents share all work and responsibilities, and are given free room and board

[00:17:12] Of course, none of these communities is perfect; they have problems like anywhere else. But they were all built by people hoping to create their own version of a perfect society. 

[00:17:24] The reason that they have succeeded, or semi-succeeded, or at least they continue to exist, comes down primarily to their small size. 

[00:17:34] Everyone has slightly different visions of what a perfect society is. Yours is probably different to mine, and is probably slightly different to your partner’s, your parent’s, or your child’s.

[00:17:48] If you have a utopian society of 10 or 100 people, it’s perhaps manageable; you can do it, your differences are small, and there are sufficiently few people that any differences are easily resolved. 

[00:18:05] If you have a society with 10 million, 100 million or even a billion people, well, it becomes a whole lot more difficult.

[00:18:13] So, while Utopia is something that we can all strive towards, that we can all aim for, it’s important to remember that the clue is in the name. 

[00:18:23] Utopia is no place, a place that does not and cannot exist.

[00:18:29] In the original Utopia, More wrote “Things will never be perfect, until human beings are perfect - which I don't expect them to be for quite a number of years!”

[00:18:42] Well, he wrote the book over 500 years ago, and if he were alive today I’m sure he’d look around and think that there’s still a fair bit of waiting to be done.

[00:18:56] OK then, that is it for today's episode on visions of utopia. I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:19:06] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:19:10] What does utopia mean to you?

[00:19:13] What are some interesting attempts to recreate utopian communities that you know about? What are some that have gone right, and what are some that have gone terribly wrong?

[00:19:25] And how does the idea of a utopian society marry, how does it relate, to the practicalities of the real world?

[00:19:34] I would love to know what you think, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:19:39] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com, and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:49] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:54] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about the idea of utopia, the perfect, ideal society.

[00:00:31] We’ll start by finding out about the book that gave rise to the term, then move onto learning about some utopian ideas, what happened when people tried to put these into practice, we’ll touch on the relationship between utopia and political theory, and look at what has caused some utopian societies to succeed where others have failed.

[00:00:58] OK then, let’s talk about utopia. 

[00:01:01] So, when you hear the word ‘utopia,’ what, exactly, comes to mind?

[00:01:07] Try to close your eyes and imagine it for a minute. What does “utopia” mean to you? 

[00:01:15] If you look it up in the dictionary you’ll find the definition as something like “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.”

[00:01:26] Perhaps you are imagining some sort of tropical paradise, filled with fruit trees and white-sand beaches. Perhaps it’s a wonderful forest. Perhaps it’s a beautiful garden.

[00:01:39] Although the word utopia is typically used in a general sense nowadays, it has a very specific origin. 

[00:01:50] The first recorded use of the word was in the year 1516, in a book called ‘Utopia.’ The book was written by an Englishman named Sir Thomas More, who, as well as being a writer, was a lawyer, member of parliament, and Lord Chancellor of England — a type of highly ranked government officer. 

[00:02:13] He was also executed by Henry VIII, but that’s a story for another day.

[00:02:19] In the book, More wrote about a fictional island community, whose geography and people he describes in great detail. 

[00:02:30] His utopia is a society governed by reason, one where no one is allowed to own private property, and is run by a system similar to what we would now call communism. 

[00:02:44] It is a place without indulgences like laziness, excessive drinking, and there is certainly no sex before marriage. 

[00:02:55] Citizens of Utopia could also choose their own religion — though, perhaps somewhat ironically, More himself is said to have had several men burnt alive for religious reasons, and he was certainly not too keen on Henry VIII choosing his own religion. 

[00:03:14] Whether we agree with More’s real-life practices or not, what we can agree on is that More coined the word utopia. 

[00:03:23] He created the word by combining parts of Greek: ‘ou,’ meaning not, and ‘topos,’ meaning place. 

[00:03:32] Put together, the word means: no place. 

[00:03:36] It’s a pun - More created this term to show that such a perfect place simply cannot exist. 

[00:03:43] A perfect society is impossible - the clue is in the name, no place.

[00:03:50] The entire book was meant as a satire: that is, a piece of fiction that is meant as an, often humorous, critique of some aspect of real life. It was a comment on the chaotic state of English society at the time, rather than an actual vision of a perfect society.

[00:04:12] Regardless of More’s intentions, the word utopia entered the English language and became a synonym, another word, for a perfect, ideal place. 

[00:04:24] Now, More may have coined the word utopia, but he was certainly not the first to write about this kind of place — this so-called perfect society – and certainly not the first person to imagine what a perfect society might look like.

[00:04:43] In Ireland, around the year 1330 — so nearly 200 years before the publication of Utopia — a collection of poems called the Kildare Poems describe a place called the Land of Cockaygne. 

[00:04:59] Cockaygne is a very different place to More’s Utopia. It is a land of ease and sensual pleasure, one where even monks and nuns are free to engage in things like sex and public nudity. No one works, but everyone eats and drinks to their heart’s content

[00:05:22] Rivers run with milk, honey, and wine, geese fly about already roasted, and monks hunt with hawks and dance with nuns.

[00:05:34] But the idea of utopia is still far, far older even than Cockaygne. 

[00:05:40] Around 380 BC, nearly two thousand years before the Kildare Poems were written, the Greek philosopher Plato dreamed up a very similar-sounding place in a piece of writing called The Republic. 

[00:05:54] The piece describes a place called Kallipolis, with a communist-style system of government — a type of political and economic ideology in which all social classes and private property are done away with, there are no social classes or private property, and all goods are distributed equally. 

[00:06:17] And, no doubt, before humans wrote down stories, prehistoric men and women would tell stories of wonderful utopian worlds completely uncorrupted by the problems they faced in their day-to-day lives.

[00:06:33] Utopian ideals are, of course, central to many world religions, either in the form of a utopian afterlife or a creation story. 

[00:06:44] In Christianity, the biblical Garden of Eden is a kind of utopia — a paradise on earth, free from suffering – that is until Adam and Eve decide to listen to the words of a snake rather than the words of God. 

[00:06:59] In Judaism, Israel is the true homeland of the Jews, a place where Jewish people can be happy and safe from persecution.

[00:07:09] But back to More, our original creator of the modern idea of “utopia”.

[00:07:16] When More’s book came out in 1516, it described a very specific version of utopia, from a very specific point of view. 

[00:07:26] Yet the book opened the floodgates for countless others to write their versions of utopia, and to explore their own ideas about what a perfect society might look like. 

[00:07:40] In 1619, a German man named Johann Valentin Andreae wrote about a Christian utopia called Christianopolis. A few years later, in 1623, the Italian writer Tommasso Campanella published a piece of utopian writing called City of the Sun, which describes a theocratic society — or a society run by religious principles. 

[00:08:08] In this city, everything is shared, nobody owns private property, and poverty is nonexistent — quite similar to More’s version of utopia. 

[00:08:20] Now, many of these writers dreamt up utopias that were heavily based on religious ideas. But some also based their utopias on science and technology, such as the English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon.

[00:08:37] In 1627, Bacon wrote a book called ‘New Atlantis.’ In the book, Bacon imagines a world of human invention and discovery, where science plays a major role in society, and there are machines that sound very much like modern aeroplanes and submarines.

[00:08:58] But the idea of utopia wouldn’t be forever limited only to theory, only existing in people’s imaginations. 

[00:09:07] Many brave — and, perhaps, reckless — individuals went even further; they brought their versions and visions of utopia to life. 

[00:09:18] Indeed, from the Enlightenment onwards, as political theorists and philosophers started to question “why” society was the way it was, there was increasing room for alternative proposals.

[00:09:32] And how this relates to utopia is, of course, that utopia is something to aim for, it’s perfection, it is the perfect place.

[00:09:43] So, why not try to create it here on Earth?

[00:09:47] As you can imagine, and as I'm sure you know, these utopian visions didn’t always work out the way their architects planned. 

[00:09:57] But it is fascinating to see how they tried, so let’s take a look at some of them.

[00:10:03] One of the most successful utopian communities in history is a group called the Shakers. The Shakers was a Christian group founded in England in the mid-18th century, eventually leaving England and settling in America, in itself a new country built on semi-utopian ideals

[00:10:26] It was a celibate group: this meant that members of the group did not believe in either sex or marriage. Not exactly everyone’s idea of paradise–and it was certainly very different from the Land of Cockaygne–but it seemed to work for the Shakers.

[00:10:44] The group valued hard work, communal living, and gender equality. 

[00:10:49] It was one of the largest and longest-lived utopian societies in America, even though they couldn’t have children, they managed to sustain and grow their numbers entirely through recruitment, by encouraging people to join them. 

[00:11:05] And there are still Shakers today. 

[00:11:08] As of 2017, there were two living Shakers, who both live in Maine in the United States. 

[00:11:16] Another well-known utopian community was Oneida, founded in 1848 by a man named John Humphrey Noyes. The Oneidans lived on 65 hectares of land, just over half a km2 of land, in New York state, and, like the Shakers, were devout Christians, and believed in hard work and gender equality. 

[00:11:41] One thing that made Oneida quite different from the Shakers, however, was that members openly had sex with multiple partners, they were what we would now call “swingers”. 

[00:11:54] Though many utopian communities have been based on religious beliefs, quite a few have nothing at all to do with religion. Many are focussed on things like philosophy, science, and the environment, or simply on providing better working conditions. 

[00:12:12] Robert Owen, a Welsh mill-owner, was outraged by the long hours and terrible work conditions in 19th century Britain, particularly for children. So, he created a milling community in the town of New Lanark, in Scotland, that provided a relatively clean, and safe environment to workers escaping from cities like Edinburgh, which was crowded and dirty at the time. 

[00:12:40] Owen built a number of other communities that were similar to New Lanark, based on cooperation and unity. Families lived in apartments set around a large square, and children were raised communally after the age of three. 

[00:12:57] At the end of the 19th century, against a backdrop of increasing industrialisation and urbanisation, an Englishman named Ebenezer Howard came up with an idea for a type of city called a garden city, which was a place where the natural environment and the built environment could exist in harmony. 

[00:13:18] Howard built two of these cities, called Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, in Hertfordshire, in England, just north of London. 

[00:13:27] Howard’s ideas also inspired the creation of a number of other garden cities worldwide. 

[00:13:34] Although I would perhaps warn you that if you go to Letchworth or Welwyn Garden City now in search of utopia, you will probably be somewhat disappointed - they are simply slightly sad suburbs of London, and I don’t think any resident of Welwyn Garden City would describe living in utopia.

[00:13:55] Now, moving on to more modern utopias, the heyday of utopia creation, or should I say attempted utopia creation, came in the 20th century.

[00:14:07] While Thomas More might have got rid of private property in a theoretical, fictional, utopia, in the 16th century, the 20th century saw countries actually get rid of private property in practice.

[00:14:22] From the Soviet Union to China, Cuba to even Spain, the 20th century saw areas of countries, and entire large nation states experiment with various forms of socialism and communism.

[00:14:38] To state the obvious, these didn’t always lead to prosperity for all citizens, and it turns out that although the idea of everyone sharing everything sounds nice, actually getting it to work in practice is very difficult. Perhaps even impossible.

[00:14:57] It was also clear that ideas about a perfect society can end up being very dangerous and exclusive.

[00:15:05] The National Socialist German Workers' Party, for example, had a vision for a perfect Germany where all Germans could live happily and freely.

[00:15:16] If you don't immediately recognise the name, the National Socialist German Workers Party, well you’ve surely heard of its other name, The Nazi Party, and of its leader, Adolf Hitler. 

[00:15:29] Evidently, this utopian vision for a perfect Germany involved exterminating Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and anyone else who didn’t fit into his idea of a Utopian society. 

[00:15:43] Now, while successfully forming a completely utopian nation state has proved problematic, nigh impossible, and in many cases it only succeeds in creating a dystopian state, creating smaller utopias has proved slightly more achievable.

[00:16:03] One of the most fascinating of today’s utopia-like communities is Arcosanti, which is in the Arizona desert. The people who designed Arcosanti wanted a community where people could live in harmony with nature, and so they made Arcosanti energy-efficient. 

[00:16:22] It looks a bit like something a little bit out of a sci-fi novel, but it is in fact a real community: there are currently 70 full-time residents living there. You can also visit or even stay overnight. 

[00:16:37] There’s also Maharishi Vedic City in the state of Iowa, where residents practise something called transcendental meditation. 

[00:16:45] In the community of Auroville, in the South of India, around 3,000 residents from nearly 60 different countries live together. 

[00:16:54] Another example of a kind of modern-day utopia is the Israeli kibbutz — a type of communal farm founded on socialist ideals. On a kibbutz, residents share all work and responsibilities, and are given free room and board

[00:17:12] Of course, none of these communities is perfect; they have problems like anywhere else. But they were all built by people hoping to create their own version of a perfect society. 

[00:17:24] The reason that they have succeeded, or semi-succeeded, or at least they continue to exist, comes down primarily to their small size. 

[00:17:34] Everyone has slightly different visions of what a perfect society is. Yours is probably different to mine, and is probably slightly different to your partner’s, your parent’s, or your child’s.

[00:17:48] If you have a utopian society of 10 or 100 people, it’s perhaps manageable; you can do it, your differences are small, and there are sufficiently few people that any differences are easily resolved. 

[00:18:05] If you have a society with 10 million, 100 million or even a billion people, well, it becomes a whole lot more difficult.

[00:18:13] So, while Utopia is something that we can all strive towards, that we can all aim for, it’s important to remember that the clue is in the name. 

[00:18:23] Utopia is no place, a place that does not and cannot exist.

[00:18:29] In the original Utopia, More wrote “Things will never be perfect, until human beings are perfect - which I don't expect them to be for quite a number of years!”

[00:18:42] Well, he wrote the book over 500 years ago, and if he were alive today I’m sure he’d look around and think that there’s still a fair bit of waiting to be done.

[00:18:56] OK then, that is it for today's episode on visions of utopia. I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:19:06] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:19:10] What does utopia mean to you?

[00:19:13] What are some interesting attempts to recreate utopian communities that you know about? What are some that have gone right, and what are some that have gone terribly wrong?

[00:19:25] And how does the idea of a utopian society marry, how does it relate, to the practicalities of the real world?

[00:19:34] I would love to know what you think, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:19:39] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com, and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:49] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:54] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.