The island of Utopia in a colourised excerpt from the first edition dating from 1516.
The island of Utopia in a colourised excerpt from the first edition dating from 1516. medium.com

The search for utopia

The search for utopia and the ideal society, a fairer world and a happy life is as old as humankind itself. Every era produces its own utopias; the concept, created by Thomas More, dates from 1516.

Marina Amstad

Marina Amstad

Marina Amstad is a historian and exhibition curator at the Swiss National Museum.

The English humanist Thomas More wasn’t the first to write a treatise on an ideal society in 1516. But with his account of a journey around the island of Utopia, he produced one of the most significant political works of the modern era, and created the literary genre of utopia. In literature, utopias are a hybrid of stories – the description of the utopian state is embedded in a narrative framework – and philosophical discussion. The made-up word ‘utopia’, coined by More, which literally means ‘no place’, is always used wherever an ideal world is described that is as radically different from reality as it could possibly be. Utopias are thought experiments, positive alternative concepts and critical reflections of historical reality. So utopias always reveal more about the time in which they are developed than about the depicted content of the utopia. In More’s book On the Best State of a Republic and on the New Island of Utopia, a sailor who is supposed to have spent five years with the inhabitants of Utopia gives an account of the ideal society he found on the island. On Utopia there is no private property, and there are no monetary transactions. Food is stored in warehouses and the inhabitants can take what they need. Hospital care is free for all, everyone wears the same type of clothing, and there are no tailors or dressmakers. More even provides a utopian alphabet and a poem in this artificial language. But the fact that More’s invention is a child of its time is reflected in the fact that slavery is also found on Utopia, and is even considered necessary. Slaves are either people from other countries, or criminals; there are no hereditary slaves. Other aspects of Utopia also seem somewhat less ‘utopian’ from a 21st-century perspective: in order to oblige all the inhabitants to behave well, there is no privacy, no taverns or ale-houses, and private gatherings are forbidden.
Illustrated two-page spread from More’s book "On the Best State of a Republic and on the New Island of Utopia", 1518.
Illustrated two-page spread from More’s book "On the Best State of a Republic and on the New Island of Utopia", 1518. Wikimedia / Folger Shakespeare Library
Utopias can be located in the past, the present or the future. Back when there were still blank spaces on the map, utopias were placed mainly on distant islands – much as Utopia itself was. In his book Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred (original title: L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fut jamais), published in 1771, French author Louis-Sébastien Mercier breaks with this tradition. The perfect state described in Mercier’s work is no longer located on a remote island, but in the future of Europe. With the relocation of the utopian visions into the future, the ‘no place’ becomes the ‘no place yet’, and utopias can be read as potential forecasts for the future. In the 19th century, utopian narratives enjoyed great popularity; Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000–1887 and Theodor Hertzka’s Freiland were bestsellers at the end of the 19th century. Around that time, however, a counter-genre under the term dystopia, coined by John Stuart Mill, was already emerging. A dystopia doesn’t sketch out an ideal state; instead, it presents the most appalling of all possible worlds. Contemporary phenomena that are already perceived as negative are escalated to their worst conceivable form.
From around 1960, Swiss artist Walter Jonas developed an urban utopia: the inward-facing city of INTRAPOLIS – a new, humane and environmentally friendly urbanism.
From around 1960, Swiss artist Walter Jonas developed an urban utopia: the inward-facing city of INTRAPOLIS – a new, humane and environmentally friendly urbanism. gta Archiv / ETH Zürich. Photo: Swiss National Museum
In view of two world wars and the failure of the great political utopias in the 20th century, promises of a ‘new humanity’ or a ‘better future’ make people suspicious. While the utopias of the 19th century were always linked to the infinite idea of progress, in the 20th century disillusionment crept in. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1948), for example, are still among the most famous dystopias. Both works depict highly exaggerated blueprints of the future, of societies that are characterised by bondage and total control. The 20th century seems to have been the epoch of dystopias.
Trailer for the movie "1984" from 1984 by Michael Radford. YouTube
And the 21st century? Dystopian stories are booming in the literature and film industries. Since classic utopias present themselves in a perfect and completed state, they lack a dramatic plot and are thus unsuitable for filming. In dystopian visions, however, a single hero or a rebel group is fighting against an inhuman system and the dystopian regime. In contemporary usage, moreover, the adjective ‘utopian’ is often inevitably equated with ‘unrealistic’. The fact that ‘utopian’ could also indicate something worth striving for, something ideal and perhaps not yet existent, is often overlooked.

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Virus– Crisis – Utopia

02.03.2021 27.06.2021 / National Museum Zurich
The idea of Utopia thrives particularly well in times of crises. A new exhibition at the National Museum Zurich explores this phenomenon – past and present. The coronavirus pandemic shows our world that usual normality pushes at its limits. The exhibition sheds light on present visions of the future, setting them in a historical context and linking them with current events.

Further posts

Address & contact
Swiss National Museum
Landesmuseum Zürich
Museumstrasse 2
P.O. Box
8021 Zurich
info@nationalmuseum.ch

Design: dreipol   |  Realisation: whatwedo
Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).