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How often do you reflect upon utopia?

Today is June 2 and the Navigate the Chaos question of the day to consider is “how often do you reflect upon utopia?” Before you answer spend time understanding the etymology of utopia. Do not assume you know the definition of this word as it is often misunderstood. Most people will define utopia as “the perfect place,” “where everyone is happy,” or “where no one has any worries.”

Variations on those themes are common when discussing utopia. For thousands of years human beings have dreamt of perfect worlds free of conflict, hunger, and unhappiness. Unfortunately, such conversations are based upon a false understanding of the word utopia. In 1516 the English statesman Sir Thomas More published a book that compared the condition of his England to that of a perfect and imaginary country, Utopia. Everything that was wrong in England was perfect in Utopia. More was trying to show how people could live together in peace and happiness if they only did what he thought was right.

But the name More gave his imaginary country showed that he did not really believe perfection could ever be reached. He coined the word 'utopia' from the Greek ou-topos meaning 'no place' or 'nowhere'. But this was a pun - the almost identical Greek word eu-topos means a good place. Some scholars would suggest the More implied the perfectly "good place" is really "no place." Lyman Tower Sargent, one of the foremost scholars in utopian studies, was the founding editor of Utopian Studies, serving in that post for the journal's first fifteen years, and recipient of the Distinguished Scholar Award from the Society for Utopian Studies.

According to Sargent: “there are socialist, capitalist, monarchical, democratic, anarchist, ecological, feminist, patriarchal, egalitarian, hierarchical, racist, left-wing, right-wing, reformist, Naturism / Nude Christians, free love, nuclear family, extended family, gay, lesbian and many more utopias [...] Utopianism, some argue, is essential for the improvement of the human condition. But if used wrongly, it becomes dangerous. Utopia has an inherent contradictory nature here.”

Sargent argues that utopia's nature is inherently contradictory because societies are not homogenous and have desires which conflict and therefore cannot simultaneously be satisfied. Such an interpretation realistically suggests advancements in human behavior are a necessity, but the perfection of such pursuits may be unrealistic. The concept of utopia has been examined, considered, and debated on for over 500 years. More than 400 utopian works were published prior to the year 1900 in the English language alone, with more than a thousand others appearing during the 20th century. Utopia has also found its way into popular culture.

For example, in the sixth episode of the first season of the critically acclaimed television series Mad Men entitled “Babylon” that aired August 23, 2007, Jewish store heiress Rachel Menken, played by Maggie Siff, is having lunch with Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm. The conversation turns away from advertising and to Menken’s Jewish background. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic called this scene "the most intelligent discussion of Zionism I have ever seen on cable, basic, or premium television." At the end of the conversation Draper referred to utopia. In her response Menken said, “They taught us at Barnard about that word, 'utopia'. The Greeks had two meanings for it: 'eu-topos', meaning the good place, and 'u-topos' meaning the place that cannot be.”

As you travel your path and navigate the chaos, are you searching for the ‘good place’ or do you accept that utopia is the ‘place that cannot be.’ If you are searching for the good place are you contributing to its creation or are you a bystander? Or do you accept utopia as the place that cannot be and do your best to make the world, or at least your corner of it, as good of a place as possible?

Czech-born British playwright and screenwriter Sir Tom Stoppard published The Coast of Utopia in 2007 and wrote: “Because children grow up, we think a child's purpose is to grow up. But a child's purpose is to be a child. Nature does not disdain what lives only for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment. We do not value the lily less for not being made of flint and built to last. Life's bounty is in its flow, later is too late. Where is the song when it has been sung? The dance when it has been danced? It is only we humans who want to own the future, too. We persuade ourselves that the universe is modestly employed in unfolding our destination. We note the haphazard chaos of history by the day, by the hour, but there is something wrong with the picture. Where is the unity, the meaning, of nature's highest creation? Surely those millions of little streams of accident and willfulness have their correction in the vast underground river which, without a doubt, is carrying us to the place where we are expected! But there is no such place, that's why it's called utopia.” As you go about your day, reflect upon how often do think about utopia and its two opposite definitions of the perfectly "good place" or "no place."

  • How often do you reflect upon the word utopia?

  • If you are clinging to the “good place” why do you think that is?

  • If you understand and accept the “no place” definition of utopia, what are you doing today to make the world a better pace knowing full well the world will never be perfect?

  • Does even thinking about the definition of utopia as “the place that cannot be” make you feel uncomfortable, frustrated, or sad?


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