What's in a Word? Utopia

by John Bemelmans Marciano

Photo: Leaders of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., posing in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln. Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives / Flickr.

utopia n. The perfect place, which as such can never exist.

Utopia is an island five hundred miles in circumference located in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Brazil. Its government is socialist, and there is no private property; although all houses are the same, they are rotated every ten years to make sure nobody feels like they are getting gypped. Similarly, everyone has to wear the exact same outfit. Unemployment stands at zero percent; work is compulsory, but the workday lasts only six hours. There are free hospitals and legalized euthanasia. Divorce is permitted, and advisable for anyone who wants to cheat on their spouse, as the penalty for adultery is enslavement and, for repeat offenders, death. Religious tolerance is complete and extended to all, except those with no religion. Atheism, though legal, is despised, as those who don't believe in an afterlife are thought to have no stake in right or wrong and are thus considered menaces to society.

This, at least, is what we are told by Thomas More, the title of whose 1516 Latin treatise was originally rendered in English as A Fruitful and Pleasant Book of the Best State of a Public Weal, and of the New Isle Called Utopia, nowadays usually shortened to the pithier Utopia. More wrote his work at a time when, as he put it, "countries are always being discovered which were not in the old geography books." It is difficult to tell exactly what More admired about his imagined country and what he was ridiculing, but these things happen with satire. In any event, it is ironic that utopia has come to mean an ideal place, as More himself clearly disagreed with at least one Utopian custom: legalized divorce. Years after he had written his landmark work and while serving as the King's Lord High Chancellor, the staunchly Catholic More took a principled stand against the dissolution of Henry VIII's marriage, which also dissolved England's official relationship with the church of Rome. More's silent opposition was immortalized in A Man for All Seasons, a play that ends-like More's life-with his beheading.

This entry is excerpted from Toponymity: An Atlas of Words, by John Bemelmans Marciano, and is reprinted here with permission.


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