top of page

Can Utopias Exist? Why Achieving A "Perfect Society" Is Actually Impossible

Writers and philosophers alike have been theorizing about the idea of a perfect world for more than 500 years. But can this intoxicating concept ever exist in reality? As much as I'd like to believe otherwise, I don't think so.

The very first person to have written about utopia - or indeed, to have used that specific word - was Sir Thomas More, an English lawyer, writer, and statesman who lived between the late 1400s and early 1500s. His book, simply named "Utopia", was published in 1516, and described a perfect imaginary world existing in the form of an island state, wherein this idyll was achieved through a society based on rational thought. Property was shared and resources were communal, leading to high productivity (and presumably with that, satisfaction and the ability to still maintain a happy work-life balance), no distinctions between class (or race, although I'm not sure that was within the consideration at the time), no poverty, plenty of freedom with no judgment over the peoples' (few) differences, good and respectful behavior between all of the citizens, and little to no crime, immorality, or violence. It has been described as an enjoyable work of theoretical fiction as well as socio-political satire. And it describes a world that cannot ever actually exist.

The first clue is in the name. I've long been fascinated by etymology, and more often than not, looking at the origins of a word can tell you a lot about what it should signify, its use in history, and that oh-so-important nuances it can change in different contexts. It's also a really fun way for a writer to come up with names for places, be that a city, a magic spell, or some other type of name or device - I've certainly used it to come up with some of the words and names I've created, anyway. And that's what Thomas More did when he invented the word "utopia" in the first place. It is estimated that 60% of words in the English language have Latin, Greek, or French roots (and the majority follows that order, too) - and More's "utopia" was derived from Ancient Greek. The word(s) he had tweaked to create "utopia" were "ou-topos", translating to "no place", and it was a play on the word "eu-topos", meaning "a good place". So there you have it, folks: the guy who coined the word "utopia" to mean this place of absolute peace and happiness literally made it up to mean "nowhere", or a place that doesn't or cannot exist.

Plato's (Bananas) Republic

Thomas More wasn't the first person to ponder whether a perfect society could exist or not, however. The famous Ancient Greek philosopher, Plato - known as one of the founders of Western philosophy - also mused over this concept in what is arguably his most famous work: Republic. In it, his fictional city of Kallipolis is created upon the foundation of one major principle: justice. Everything is underpinned by it, and each member of this society is bound by one unified mission: to live by justice as a code, a guiding principle, and their chief purpose. And the idea of a world where everything is good and right, and its people always act good and right, and choose the good and right option - well, it sounds great, doesn't it? In theory, yes. But it's a very flawed theory - because the very concept of what constitutes justice, or at the very least, social justice, is subjective.

Run by philosopher-kings, Kallipolis's definitions of what is good and just, and what is bad and wrong, are set by these rulers selected for their wisdom. They are educated appropriately before taking up their posts - for a long period of time - and once they have graduated to a suitable level, they are deemed the absolute possessors of real knowledge, the only ones who state truth, and the only people who are truly moral and just. Anyone who questions this, or presents a different notion is a troublemaker spouting false truths, and contesting the greater good - including poets, who are, in Republic, banished from Kallipolis, along with any other creators and works of 'culture' that is not approved by the wiser, more just authorities. The city follows a caste system, and people's roles are clearly defined by either the social standing they are born into, or the skills that "nature" has presented them with from the outset, after which they must perform these tasks - and only these tasks, never straying otherwise - again in the pursuit of upholding the greater good.

If this is already giving you the heebie-jeebies - and that's before we even get into the parts involving forced communal living, a lack of any individual possessions, and the, *ahem*, removal of babies/children that do not fit appropriately into their designated line of society - you wouldn't be the first person to think of this so-called utopia as being more of a dystopian nightmare. Think of some other beloved stories about supposed utopias, or places that used to be a utopia and turned into a dystopia - Lois Lowry's The Giver, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, Scott Westerfield's Uglies, Ursula K Le Guin's The Disposessed... even Veronica Roth's Divergent series, or Neill Blomkamp's Elysium, or the Wachowski siblings' The Matrix. Along with that same creepy-crawly feeling (or at least one of moral ambiguity) and similar themes comes the question: "Are those really a 'utopia' though?"

Utopia vs. Dystopia, Collectivistic vs Individualistic, Right vs. Wrong... Reality vs. Fantasy?

We have come to associate the word 'utopia' with paradise, when that isn't actually what it is. It is a place that doesn't exist - 'nowhere', or 'no place'. Most of these "utopias" are actually totalitarian societies disguised as lands of peace and paradise in the first place. Because this one-way-pleases-all ideal can only work if every individual within that society is exactly the same - the way they look, think, eat, sleep, move, exist - without being conditioned to believe this against their true nature... and because it is quite impossible for societies as we know them to ever run in a way that is totally, completely, and utterly equal. What might seem like an utopian state to one person is a cruelly-biased elitist system to another. This is beautifully illustrated in the comedy-drama movie Downsizing, starring Matt Damon, and the sci-fi comedy-drama TV show Upload, starring a delightful Robbie Amell.

The way we construct societies typically requires the inclusion of some sort of ranking, level, or different role-based systems - and there are always going to be jobs that are less desirable than others. Sure, people's individual tastes will affect how much satisfaction people gain from their duties - some people might love mathematics or logic-based based jobs and loathe emotion-fueled artistic work, and vice versa - but you'd still be hard-pressed to find someone who truly loves scrubbing toilets as their first choice or ultimate dream. Yes, one person's trash could be another's treasure - but that is also the problem with the idea of a totalitarian 'utopian' society: the idea of a peaceful, glorious heaven for one person could describe a miserable hell for another. If you think about it, in stories like Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey, or Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, a world that is dystopic from one character's point of view could be utopian from another's. The factors that would constitute an idyllic world are, usually, simply too polarizing for an all-encompassing utopia to exist.

Whether you live in an individualistic or a collectivistic culture, this leaning towards certain behaviors and a more community-focused or a more individual-focused way of life doesn't change the fact that different people like different things. While these cultural leanings may swing you towards upholding certain values as more important than others, individual tastes, preferences, and desires are still going to vary from person to person. No matter how much our nurture may contribute to our tendency to focus on the needs of our community instead of focusing more on our own needs and concerns (or vice versa), part of human existence is the existence of two opposing truths: individualism is a part of human nature, and so is the fact that humans are a social species. It's part of our duality, that these things all coexist: we care about others, and we also want to put ourselves first. We want to contribute to our communities, but we also experience greed. We like to share, but we also don't like it when people claim what we feel is rightfully ours. We don't want to believe that we are better than other people, but we also want to believe that we are special. We live in the constant pursuit of a unified truth, but we also each have and need to honor our own individual truths. We want to live with a balance of altruism and selfishness in equal measure - but what defines what is equal and fair? How much of the way we are is our nature, and how much of it is nurture? Contemplating this is enough to make one's head hurt, because honestly, I don't think there are any clear-cut answers, and although it might sound like a cop-out, it's likely a bit of both.

Image by Hakim Graphy on Shutterstock

And this is precisely why stories about supposed utopias are so fascinating - and why they tend to just be cleverly-disguised dystopias. The concept of a totalitarian society - even one built on ideological frameworks - is so terrifying because the mass of individual humans who make up humankind are never going to all have the exact same ideals. The smaller a group is, the easier it is for that to happen - but the more you scale a group up, the higher your chances become that people are going to want, feel, and think differently. Even within those small groups, there's also the factor of time: as we grow, and become exposed to new things, ideas and perspectives, we change. A group of people may be perfectly happy sharing the same thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs for a period of time, but as members of the group evolve with time, that delicate set of conditions creating this sense of perfection will be disrupted.

And that is the other problem with these so-called utopian societies: that in order for them to work, they usually require their members to give up their freedom of thought, individualistic expression (if it is allowed, it will only be allowed within certain parameters), and their chance to ever challenge or break the status quo.

Throughout history, humans have depended on each other for survival. Individuals were less likely to survive, providing the basis for our primal instinct to be social creatures. Even introverts crave some kind of social connection, after all. Yet some level of selfishness is also a primal instinct tied to our innate sense of survival - it's how we preserve, strengthen, and maintain our continued existence. It is equally powerful what we, as humans, might do to save and help others, and what we'll do in our fight to survive. We are generally hard-wired to feel empathy, care, and compassion for others, and we are also typically born with an innate desire to survive at all costs. Our existence is composed of duality, and proponents of this concept believe that no matter how many internal wars might be waged within us, we can only achieve a real sense of wholeness by accepting both.

As someone captivated by the idea of utopia vs. dystopia, I've come to this conclusion: that utopia, or a perfect society, or even a state of absolute and perfect happiness, can exist - but that they cannot ever last. In order for a utopia of any kind to happen, there must be such a specific set of conditions to be met that it is extremely rare and even more fragile - and this can only be for a very brief moment in time. It's in those moments where an entire society is truly united in one common belief. Where we are all completely and absolutely present in this one shared value or goal, and for that one brief moment, we aren't pondering or questioning anything else, like who deserves what more, or what is right and wrong. Think of the scenes in films where every single person in a community looks up at the sky and believes something incredible together. Or where they are all under threat together - alien invasion, natural disaster, take your pick - and there is one unified thought: "What is happening? Please don't let me die." In that moment, none of that society's differences matter, and they are united with one common goal. Even if it's just for that split second, before the individuals' unique reactional behaviors begin.

When Utopia Goes Down The Drain Of The Behavioral Sink

This very idea - that any utopian ideal requires a limit, be that time or size, to exist - is also exhibited through the concept of Behavioral Sink. The term was coined in 1962 by John B. Calhoun, an ethologist and behavioral scientist. While studying the effects of population density and social pathology, he conducted a series of experiments involving the creation of "rat utopias". Putting aside the discomfort of the experimental use of animals in situations that could (and did) lead to dire circumstances that led many to their deaths, Calhoun's experiments allowed him to develop the theory that populations have a "peak", after which a collapse in behavior occurs. In the case of his experiments, it was from overcrowding or over-population - even when these rats were given unlimited resources (food, water, safety/protection) that were increased along with the growing population. The thing that didn't increase? The space. What started out as a "rat utopia" soon devolved into a dire situation with destructive consequences. Too used to the proximity of others, too easily just waiting around to be fed with no need to hone their survival instincts or sense of purpose, they began to lose the primal wiring that would dictate the way they'd behave in a natural environment. The success rate of births declined, and of the litters born, the parental functions of the birthing rats fell short. Social organization fell into tatters, the population began to fall into dangerous divides, and they began exhibiting disturbing behavior from increased violence and sexual deviancy, to severely decreased social skills, and even cannibalism, all of which was suggested to be leading them to extinction. Yikes. In later years, others pointed out that these learnings can't be directly applied to the human race since human behavior is different from that of rats - and that it's not quite as simple as saying 'overcrowding = makes people go crazy and extinct'. However, it is true that creating a dramatic change in our degrees of social interaction, or implanting huge shifts in the way humans operate as a society that will take away too many of our essential primal instincts, could lead to some pretty wild consequences.

Aside from the controversy surrounding the implications of Calhoun's work, the theories that sprung up from his observations actually inspired some stories showcasing the thin line between supposed utopias and dystopias. The award-winning book series The Rats of NIMH was specifically inspired by his research, and the ideas postulated through his work were echoed in the award-winning science-fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar, and the 1975 novel High-Rise, which in 2015 was turned into an award-nominated dystopian thriller film of the same name, with a star-studded cast. Side note: the "B" in John B. Calhoun's name stands for "Bumpass" - which apparently originates from French, meaning "good passage". Thanks to his research, it seems that he did have a good passage on Earth, with his work having had such widespread and lasting impact!

If I were to take a more sentimental view towards utopia - one where I am not beholden to it as a physical place, but rather, letting it exist as a concept or a feeling - then I might think of it like this: If utopia is presented as a paradise, a land of absolute peace and happiness, then we can each dip into our own utopias time and time again throughout life, even if our visits there are only ever fleeting. It's in those beautiful moments where we share a feeling of triumphant joy in a stadium full of people that are all captivated by the heart-rending notes of a song that moves us all. When we experience a stunning sunset, with every person looking at it caught under the spell of its shades of red, pink, and gold. When we are looking upon a breathtaking expanse of a grassy natural mountain, and every person within sight is enchanted by the rolling mountain heights and lush green fields, completely and utterly present and bewitched by the sheer beauty and power of nature. If these moments are not a gateway to utopia - even if they are just an instant that is frozen in time - then I don't know what is.


bottom of page