New Name For an Ancient Concept

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In 1872, when Samuel Butler wrote a satirical novel about English society, he called it Erewhon, reversing most of the letters of the work "nowhere." In an attempt to force change, Butler ridiculed existing conditions.

Erewhone was a book in the utopian tradition. Another Englishman, Sir Thomas More, had coined the term utopia in 1516, using it as the title of his work about an ideal society. His coinage came from the Greek words ou (not), or eu (good) and topos (place).

There was a vaguesness about the word from the start. Was Utopia a good place or a nonexistent place? To complicate matters, Sir Thomas wrote in Latin. Had he chosen the equivalent negative Latin title, it probably would not have appealed. Nusquam (nowhere) just does not have the same ring to it as Utopia, so Utopia is was.

Of course, good or nonexistent, Utopia was not a real place. It was, as Butler later wrote, nowhere. Those who write about such imaginary societies usually recognize the unlikelihood of the radical changes they espouse. For this and other reasons utopia, utopian and utopianism have come to describe impossible idealized conditions.

The search for the perfect society has intrigued humanity from the beginning. The Bible records the ambitious efforts of the warrior king Nimrod to create the first cities on the earth. Like everyone with messianic pretensions, he no doubt tried to create the perfect conditions for human life.

Gathering folowers about him, the "Mighty hunter before the Lord" built the famous Mesopotamian city of Babylon, and three lesser known cities, Erech, Accad and Calneh. Then he traveled to Assyria, where he founded more cities-the capital, Nineveh, and Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen. At the dawn of recorded history these were major cities of the ancient world. We read about them in the 10th chapter of the biblical book of origins, Genesis.

Mankind has sought, but never attained, a perfect society ever since. Utopia is a dream that has never died. GN