Analyzing Utopian and Dystopian Societies
Utopia is Dystopia
Since the dawn of time, people have been imagining a perfect world. Their desire for something better promoted progress. This drive advanced and evolved society until we arrive at the world as it is today. Yet, despite our advancements, the world is still filled with the "...slangs and arrows of outrageous fortune." Even with all the marvels of technology, travel, and science, the world leaves much to be wanted. I wonder if humans even know what they want. Could we create a perfect world, and what might it look like?
Many ideas of a perfect world are found in religious beliefs about Heaven. Love, peace, and streets paved in gold are just some of very human attributes we give to our ideal reality; a Golden Age for humanity. Unfortunately, most of these visions do not occur in the real world. They either happen before, after, or outside of time, in magical lands or some ethereal realm beyond human perception.
Since the Mesopotamian stories of the Garden of the Gods and the Old Testament translations of the Garden of Eden, people have been imagining what a perfect place might be like. The Greeks called this place a Utopia. It referred to any place of perfection, but literally meant "no place" (ou meaning 'not,' and topos meaning 'place'). They chose this word because utopias don't exist, at least not in the real world.
What's in your perfect world?
The definition of a utopian colony, according to Robert V. Hine, author of California's Utopian Colonies, "consists of a group of people who are attempting to establish a new social pattern based upon a vision of the ideal society and who have withdrawn themselves from the community at large to embody that vision in experimental form."
Unfortunately, the world isn't always what we want it to be. You know the old saying about wishing in one hand... It seems society leaves much to be wanted, which is why we are always trying to fix what is wrong in our lives and communities. I wish the world was full of peace and harmony, but the fact remains that some people don't get along. Is there a universal idea of perfection that humans can all agree on? Or is diversity a necessary element for the evolution of our species and societies?
It seems like there is no cure-all one-size-fits-all. We are the imperfect creatures in the "fall" of humanity, and anything we think or create will have its fallacies and flaws. If we look closely at our ideas of perfection, we find that what seems to be a utopia is actually a dystopia. Although utopias seem possible, we find that they fail every single time.
Protestant Reformation, Transcendentalism, and The Great Awakening
Attempts at creating sustainable utopian communities spread across North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Inspired by the Protestant Reformation, new religious doctrines were being practiced within the sect of Christianity. Drawing from and supported by biblical texts such as "Acts" 2:44 and 4:32, and excerpts from the Gospels, people believed that the perfect place could be founded, if only the members of said society participated in and promoted the idealistic views of utilitarianism and independence from modern society, and was usually Socialist by nature.
Acts 4:32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.
Along with these utopias came new ideas for marriage, celibacy, pacifism, self-reliance, and communal living. Many practitioners were self-proclaimed transcendentalists. They believed in the inherent good of people and nature. They disavowed modern society and its institutions, believing them to be corrupt and impure for the soul of an individual. Therefore, utopian experiments were perfect for transcendentalists, and the movement largely became known as the The Great Awakening.
However, due to disagreements across religious beliefs, socio-economic factors, and poor leadership, most of the attempts at creating a well-working utopia eventually failed. In their place are the memories of what some people believed would become perfect societies.
Failed Utopias in the West
The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming (USBCSA), later known as the Shaking Quakers, and finally the Shakers, originally started as a religious community in northwest England. Founded by "Mother Ann" Lee in 1758, the group was based on the beliefs of spiritualism and the idea that they received messages from God during their religious ceremonies, an ecstatic experience which awarded them the name the Shaking Quakers. The Shakers developed their own religious expression and believed in communal living, productive labor, celibacy, pacifism, and the equality of the sexes. Furthermore, they proclaimed the renunciation of sinful acts and believed that the end of the world was near.
On May 19, 1774, Mother Ann received a message from God which told her to move to colonial America. In her revelation she "...saw a large tree, every leaf of which shone with such brightness as made it appear like a burning torch, representing the Church of Christ, which will yet be established in [American] land." So, Ann and eight of her followers traveled from Liverpool, England to the United States to spread their religious beliefs about the "Second Coming" of Christ. Some Shakers even believed that Mother Ann was the Second Coming of Christ.
Mother Ann Lee died in 1784, but the Shaker communities continued to spread throughout the United States. Containing 6,000 members before the Civil War, the group was known for simple living, architecture, and hand-made furniture. Since the Shakers were pacifists, they were exempt from the Civil War by Abraham Lincoln, and cared for both the Union and Confederate soldiers when they found their way to the Shaker communities.
In 1957, after months of prayer, leaders of the Shaker community decided to close the Shaker Convent. Over the years, the Shakers had lost members due to the fact that they did not believe in procreation; they didn't have babies so there were few new members to replace the old. Also, as industrialization became more prominent in the U.S., the Shakers had a difficult time keeping up with the fast pace of manufacturing items such as chairs, tables, and other hand-made products. As of 2017, the remaining active Shaker community in the United States, Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine, has two members: Brother Arnold Hadd and Sister June Carpenter.
The "Shaker" Ceremony
Brook Farm, also known as the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, is one of America's best-known attempts at creating a utopian community. Brook Farm was founded in 1841 in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, by George and Sophia Ripley. The community was built on a 400-acre farm and focused on social reform and self-reliance.
The population of the farm fluctuated throughout the years. The farm had a rotating door policy, drawing in many transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. Brook Farm even had a school which was free of tuition if members worked on the farm 300 days out of the year. Brook Farmers believed that by sharing the workload, more time would be available for leisurely activities and educational pursuits. Each member would work on what they found most appealing, and all members were paid equally for their work (including women).
The end of times for the Brook Farm socialist movement began when leader and Unitarian minister George Ripley paralleled the structure of his society with the Fourierism movement, which required the younger members of the community to do all the dirty and difficult labor around the community--building roads, cleaning stables, and slaughtering animals--all for the sake of "honoring" the elders and older members of the farm.
Not long after, the community had an outbreak of smallpox, halting much of the movement's progress. The final blow came when the community began construction on a building called the Phalanstery. The building burnt down in 1847, devastating the community's finances and economy. Brook Farm was never able to recover and eventually gave its land to a Lutheran organization, which oversaw the land for the next 130 years, and used it for an orphanage, a treatment center, and a school.
The Rappites, also known as the Harmony Society, were similar to the Shakers in their religious beliefs. Totaling around 700 members, the community was named after their founder, Johann Georg Rapp, and was from Wurttemburg, Germany. They came to the United States in 1803 to escape religious persecution, and settled in Butler County, Pennsylvania.
The Rappites believed that the Bible was humanity’s ultimate authority. The group practiced a unique brand of piety that called for a complete turning away from sin, developing a personal connection with God, and the pursuit of human perfection. Unfortunately, the call for complete celibacy was too much for many members, causing the group’s population to decline throughout the years.
Life at the Harmony Society was very difficult for the members. Financial strains made Rapp consider merging with the Shakers, but the Rappite community eventually developed their agricultural economy by trading grain and whiskey.
Over time, Rapp started prophesizing about the apocalypse. He claimed that on September 15, 1829, “…the three and one half years of the Sun Woman would end and the Christ would begin his reign on the earth.” In an opportune coincidence, a German man named Bernard Mueller sent out letters to Rapp declaring himself the “Lion of Judah—the Second Coming of Christ.” Rapp invited Mueller to the Harmony Society, and preached that Mueller was the Second Coming of Christ and the Great Alchemist. However, once the community met Mueller, it quickly became clear that Mueller wasn’t the second coming of Christ.
After Rapp’s false prophecy, nearly a third of the Harmony Society’s members defected, leaving to start their own communes. Rapp continued believing in doomsday prophecies, again believing a man named William Miller (The Great Disappointment) that the end was near. In 1847, Johann Rapp died at the age of 89. The remaining members found nearly $500,000 in gold and silver hidden under his bed. The elders of the group decided to not take on any new members, most of whom were joining because of the recent economic success found after Rapp’s death. They decided to wait for the Second Coming of Christ or die. The latter happened and the Rappite movement dissolved in 1905.
Clothing in the Harmony Society
The Perfectionists of the Oneida Community
The Oneida Community was established by John Humphreys Noyes. Noyes was born in Vermont, but moved to New Haven, CT to study at the Yale Divinity School. There, he founded the New Haven Anti-Slavery society and the New Haven Free Church. He preached a doctrine of perfectionism, proclaiming that if people converted they would be free of all sin.
Noyes and the other members of the Oneida community practiced perfectionism. Noyes did not believe in monogamy. Rather, he advocated for the practice of “complex marriage.” Complex marriage is where everyone is married to the entire group of people—every woman was married to every man, and every man was married to every woman. Procreation was carefully monitored, though, and the group practiced stirpiculture, which was a loose form of eugenics. The children stayed with the mother until they could walk, and were then placed in a common nursery where they became the child of the entire group. This idea eventually ostracized Noyes from the Yale Community.
Noyes moved the Oneida community to Madison County, NY in 1847. There, the group practiced “Bible Communism,” with everyone sharing everything. Artisan members supported the economy by making brooms, silverware, silk, shoes, flour, lumber, and animal traps. One member even invented a new steel trap, which was widely considered the best in all the land. In total, about 200-300 people worked together to support the Oneida society.
The community started falling apart for several reasons. Noyes and the other elders were getting old, and Noyes tried passing on his leadership role to his son. This was mostly unsuccessful, though, as Noyes’ son lacked his father’s leadership skills. Among other arguments, members struggled when deciding when to initiate the children into their complex marriage system. Also, younger members desired more traditional monogamous marriages. The communal experiment ended in January 1881. Noyes moved to Canada and the remaining members set up a joint stock company known as the Oneida Community, Ltd.
Oneida Community Mansion
The Hutterian Brethren
The Hutterian Brethren, also known as the Hutterites, were a group of small communities spread out across North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although the movement originally began in the 16th century, Hutterites eventually fled persecution from Austria and other countries because of their pacifistic beliefs. The Hutterian society eventually migrated to the United States between 1874 and 1879.
The communities usually consisted of about ten to twenty families, with a total of 60-250 members who worked together and shared all assets the community gained. This idea derived from the Bible, where community members believed God wanted everyone to share like Jesus and his disciples. They firmly believed in "loving thy neighbor as thyself," and shared all goods with the community as the highest form of love for each other.
The Hutterian Brethren were taught by a group of Russian Mennonites how to farm and sustain themselves through agriculture. Through agriculture and the manufacturing of various goods, Hutterite communities have sustained themselves throughout the years. However, with the rising cost of land and oil, along with the mainstreaming of automation in large farming industries, the Hutterites have become divided in their leadership and collective economy. Despite their divide, Hutterites are one of the few surviving "utopian" societies today.
Failed Utopias Summary
Years Existed / Population
Main Beliefs / Practices
Marriage / Family
Economy / Labor
Reason for Failure
1751-1957 / 6,000 members
Communal living, productive labor, celibacy, pacifism, equality of sexes
No marriage and no children
Made and sold artisan goods
Ran out of members, and couldn't keep up with industrialization
1841-1847 / Rotating Door Policy
Social reform, self-reliancy, Transcendentalism, Fourierism
No rules about marriage
Worked on the farm for free housing and education
Smallpox, younger members defected because of Fourierism, economy failed because of fire
1803-1847 / 700 members
The Bible, human perfection, complete celibacy, Second Coming of Christ, piety
Complete celibacy, no marriage, and no children
Sold wheat and whiskey
Leader believed in false prophecies and lost respect of members, poor leadership
The Oneida Community
1847-1881 / 200-300 members
Perfectionism, no monogamy, eugenics, Bible Communism
Made and sold artisan goods
Lack of leadership, younger members wanted monogamous marriages
The Hutterian Brethren
1874-Present / 60-250 members
Communal living, sharing, pacifism
10-20 families worked together in small communities
Agriculture, and made and sold artisan goods
Failed economy due to 21st century industrialization
Utopias in Literature
While real-life attempts at creating utopias often prove more dystopic than utopic, reality has never stopped people from dreaming. All throughout literature, authors have added their two-cents about what a perfect place might be like. However, even the greatest imaginations fail to find a universal idea of perfection. Flaws always emerge--usually human folly. Below are just a few of the well-known stories describing utopias in literature. For a full list of utopian literature, click here.
(Note: I am not going to discuss dystopian literature because there are far too many stories to cover for any real purpose. However, if you'd like to explore them for yourself, you can read a comprehensive list of dystopian literature here.)
"The Garden of Eden" in the Bible
The Garden of Eden from the Genesis story in the Old Testament, also known as the Garden of Paradise or the Garden of God, was a utopia where man ruled over animals and was in direct communion with God. The vision of perfection takes place within a monotheistic patriarchy, where the hierarchy goes God (YHWH), man, woman, and then animals.
Perfectly cared for in the Garden, the man and his wife had only one rule to follow: Do not eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Well, they ate the fruit, and both were subsequently cast out of the Garden, banished for life, and cursed to endure the harsh pangs of reality. Their exorcism from the Garden is often referred to as "the fall of man."
Plato was a Greek philosopher (427?-437) and a close student of "the wisest man on the earth," Socrates. When it comes to detailing utopias, Plato is one of the few ancient figures to mention a land called Atlantis (see below). Plato also envisions a perfect society in his Republic.
Plato believed that human beings were not self-sufficient, but rather needed to work together for survival. In the Republic, Plato separates society into three classes: rulers, soldiers, and the working class. The rulers would be philosopher kings who did everything for the sake of the State and those they ruled over. The soldiers were fearless warriors who gave their life for the State. And the working class did what they were best born to do--shoe makers would make shoes, tailors would make clothes, etc.
Even if Plato's class system was perfect, who decided who were the kings and who were workers? To satiate the desire for upward mobility, Plato fabricates a single noble lie. He tells all the citizens that when they are born, they are born with a certain precious metal in their soul. Each person must fulfill the duty of the metal they are born with: rulers are born with gold, soldiers with silver, and workers with bronze. Beyond that stipulation, Plato's society required every citizen to complete their duties to the best of their ability, without fail. Regardless of how people feel about his vision of a perfect society, his ideas hardly seem plausible in the real-world.
As mentioned, Plato describes the island of Atlantis in his unfinished work Timaeus and Critias. In the dialogue, Critias describes an island lost to time somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. However, details of this "utopia" pertain more to topographical features carved out by Poseidon than to matters of a perfect society. The Atlantians were a war-like people who conquered with the power of gods. Alas, disaster struck the island and it was swallowed by the ocean in a single night:
But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island" (Timaeus).
However, the idea of Atlantis has not been lost to time. Renowned psychic, Edgar Cayce, somewhat revived the topic when he started predicting a "new land" to appear off the east coast of North American in the late 1960s. He called this event "the Rising of Atlantis," and believed Atlantis was the "first" human civilization on the planet. With over 700 references to Atlantis, Cayce describes a technologically advanced society; one that used its power for war. Cayce said Atlantis was eventually engulfed by the ocean.
Utopia by Sir Thomas More
…two hundred miles across in the middle part, where it is widest, and nowhere much narrower than this except towards the two ends, where it gradually tapers. These ends, curved round as if completing a circle five hundred miles in circumference, make the island crescent-shaped, like a new moon" (More).
More's island has 54 cities, and in each city no more than 6,000 members; each household consisting of 10-16 adults. The citizens vote for a prince who then rules for life or until removed because of tyranny. The utopia has a socialist structure where nothing is owned and members may get anything they need from a common warehouse of goods. Every member has two jobs, one of their choice and the other working in agriculture (the most important occupation on the island). There are no locks on the houses, and houses are rotated between citizens every ten years. There is equality across all religions, but atheists are despised (although allowed) because they don't believe in punishment and reward in the afterlife.
Despite many other utopic ideals, many find More's society to be quite flawed. For example, slavery is encouraged and every household has two slaves. Furthermore, women are subject to their husbands and are restricted to mostly household chores. And for those people who desire precious metals, gems, and jewelry, they will find that only the children and criminals of More's society wear such items. The adults are beyond greed and see trinkets of gold as shameful rather than showy.
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula Le Guin
A final, and perhaps less well-known, utopian story is Ursula Le Guin's short story regarding utilitarianism in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." In her story, Le Guin imagines a blissful society filled with anything good you could possibly desire. Members of the community are communal and intelligent. The weather is wonderful, children play freely, and glorious parades fill the streets.
Omelas certainly seems like a perfect place, that is until the narrator shares one fatal flaw of the community. In order to have such bliss, there must be one person to counterbalance all the joy and happiness within the town. One person must experience the opposite of bliss--a small child who is locked away in a broom closet, ridiculed, and spat on for good measure. When citizens realize that the imprisonment of this child is a necessary evil for all the good in their lives, they are faced with a dilemma. Do they stay and pretend life is perfect? Or, do they become the ones who walk away from Omelas?
Modern Day "Utopias" in the West
Whether its for pleasure or practical purpose, it's clear that humans desire a better world. In our pursuit to create a perfect place, we've imagined what it might be like to live in a world full of paradise. While most utopian literature mirrors reality in the fact that every utopian society is ultimately dystopic and flawed, people, today, still try their hand at communal living. In fact, there are many communal and social experiments popping up all over the world. They are often socialistic and centered around views of religion or spirituality. They believe that perfection is within their grasp. And while some modern day utopias turn out to be dangerous cults, others are diligently working toward creating a perfect world.
The Amish are perhaps one of the well-known surviving examples of communal living in North America. The Amish movement began, like many others, in the 18th-century reformation. Living in Pennsylvania, the Amish speak two languages--English and Pennsylvanian Dutch. A 2008 study suggests that there are nearly 250,000 Amish people living in the world today, with an overwhelming majority living in the United States and Canada.
Strictly Christian, the Amish lead a simple lifestyle, often refusing to use any modern-day conveniences or technologies (which are seen as tools promoting laziness). Amish communities are mostly self-reliant, drawing from an economy of agriculture and artisan goods. Although, the Amish do not ask for much. Bearing children, raising them, and socializing with neighbors and relatives are the greatest functions of the Amish family.
The Farm was established by a group of "free thinkers" in 1971, and is located in Summertown, TN. From 1971 to 1983, The Farm was a traditional communal economy like the Shakers or the Hutterites, but after 13 years, a financial crisis forced the reorganization of their economy. Now, the Farm is defined as a cooperative enterprise of families and friends practicing a social experiment of communal living for the greater good of humanity.
The Farm specializes in teaching residents how to live self-sustainably and in harmony with the natural ecosystems of the area. It is home to roughly 200 people living on 8-square miles of forested highland. About a third of the members have other jobs in the outside community, but all members are expected to work together for the betterment of The Farm as a whole. The other members work within The Farm community, at shops, schools, and other such organizations. Members are free to practice any religion they want, but The Farm is declared as a nondenominational church. Despite personal beliefs, all members agree on central principles of honor and respect for every individual within the community. You can see a list of their other tenants and beliefs here.
Slab City, California
Slab City, CA is one of the last places in the United States not controlled by a public government system. Located in the Sonoran Desert, a group of squatters have set-up camp on a abandoned slabs of concrete the government left behind from World War II. The site is completely unregulated and off-grid. Residents who want electricity must set up solar panels or generators. The nearest town is four miles away, which is where residents shop for food.
While this free-for-all may seem like a utopia, the lawless community is potentially dangerous. Most members carry firearms and take justice into their own hands. The residents are mostly artists or people who want to escape the confines of modern society. Slab City is, within itself, a constantly changing work of art. All aspects of the society are open to creativity and interpretation. There are no fees to live there.
The final model of communal living that I will discuss is that of many yogi communities throughout the world. Reminiscent of monasteries or all-inclusive resorts, most yogi communities cater to those practicing yoga, meditation, and other transcendental techniques. Polestar Yoga Community in Hawaii and Yogaville in Virginia are good examples of how these communities function. The communities are often centered around common beliefs of peace, working together for the common good of the community, and spiritualism. While some of these communities aren't strictly self-sufficient, many people do look to them as places of perfection. Alas, even these sorts of communities are not a universal model for all people of the world. While it would be nice to practice yoga and meditation all day, someone has to take out the trash.
Looking Toward the Future
There are many good and many bad aspects of humanity. While there is no one way to live, most people have a desire for something better than what currently exists. Whether this desire manifests itself in religious ideals of Heaven in the afterlife, imaginative narratives in literature, or practical attempts at communal living in the real-world, people are pushing for a more perfect way to live in and outside of society.
Even though most attempts at creating a utopia have proven to be flawed dystopias, there is always the possibility that a perfect place might one day exist. Will we create a one-size-fits-all heaven upon the earth, a utopia for all of humanity? Or, is striving for perfection a frivolous waste of time fated for destruction? History teaches us lessons, but the future is not set in stone. Therefore, only time will tell if humanity is able to right its wrongs, and walk back through the gates of the Garden of Eden.
Utopia is Dystopia
Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends"
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
and before the street begins,
and there the grass grows soft and white,
and there the sun burns crimson bright,
and there the moon-bird rests from his flight
to cool in the peppermint wind.
Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
and the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
we shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow
and watch where the chalk-white arrows go
to the place where the sidewalk ends.
Yes we'll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
and we'll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
for the children, they mark, and the children, they know,
the place where the sidewalk ends.
“Utopian Societies The Amana Colonies National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/nr/travel/amana/utopia.htm.
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