Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Counter-Utopian Tradition?

Utopias are primarily a literary traditionnot entirely divorced from but nonetheless distinct from the less literary world of actual politics, business, and economics.

For these other traditions, "utopian" is a term of dismissal or disparagement. This latter world has less of a literary "tradition" but occasionally responds--or is imagined responding--to the discourse of utopia.

From Book I of More's Utopia

[Raphael Hythloday speaks] "If, I say, I should talk of these or such like things [i.e., utopian societies], to men that had taken their bias [frames of mind] another way, how deaf would they be to all I could say?"

"No doubt, very deaf," answered I; "and no wonder, for one is never to offer at [introduce] propositions or advice that we are certain will not be entertained. Discourses so much out of the road could not avail anything, nor have any effect on men whose minds were prepossessed with different sentiments. This philosophical way of speculation is not unpleasant among friends in a free conversation, but there is no room for it in the courts of princes where great affairs are carried on by authority."

"That is what I was saying," replied he, "that there is no room for philosophy in the courts of princes."

"Yes, there is," said I, "but not for this speculative philosophy that makes everything to be alike fitting at all times: but there is another philosophy that is more pliable, that knows its proper scene, accommodates itself to it, and teaches a man with propriety and decency to act that part which has fallen to his share. . . . Therefore go through with the play that is acting, the best you can, and do not confound it because another that is pleasanter comes into your thoughts. It is even so in a commonwealth and in the councils of princes; if ill opinions cannot be quite rooted out, and you cannot cure some received vice according to your wishes, you must not therefore abandon the commonwealth; for the same reasons you should not forsake the ship in a storm because you cannot command the winds. You are not obliged to assault people with discourses that are out of their road, when you see that their received notions must prevent your making an impression upon them. You ought rather to cast about and to manage things with all the dexterity in your power, so that if you are not able to make them go well they may be as little ill as possible; for except all men were good everything cannot be right, and that is a blessing that I do not at present hope to see." . . .

[Peter Giles replies] " . . .But though these discourses may be uneasy and ungrateful to them, I do not see why they should seem foolish or extravagant: indeed if I should either propose such things as Plato has contrived in his commonwealth, or as the Utopians practise in theirs, though they might seem better, as certainly they are, yet they are so different from our establishment, which is founded on property, there being no such thing among them, that I could not expect that it would have any effect on them; but such discourses as mine, which only call past evils to mind and give warning of what may follow, have nothing in them that is so absurd that they may not be used at any time, for they can only be unpleasant to those who are resolved to run headlong the contrary way; and if we must let alone everything as absurd or extravagant which by reason of the wicked lives of many may seem uncouth, we must, even among Christians, give over pressing the greatest part of those things that Christ hath taught us, though He has commanded us not to conceal them, but to proclaim on the house-tops that which he taught in secret.

"The greatest parts of his precepts are more opposite to the lives of the men of this age than any part of my discourse has been; but the preachers seemed to have learned that craft to which you advise me, for they observing that the world would not willingly suit their lives to the rules that Christ has given, have fitted his doctrine as if it had been a leaden rule, to their lives, that so some way or other they might agree with one another. But I see no other effect of this compliance except it be that men become more secure in their wickedness by it. And this is all the success that I can have in a court, for I must always differ from the rest, and then I shall signify nothing; or if I agree with them, I shall then only help forward their madness." . . .

[Summary: Utopia is so unlikely or inconceivable that most people in power won't waste their time on it, nor should you. But the person who is impressed by utopian possibilities may temporize or strategize so that s/he doesn't give up the idea but rather practices it politically.]

from Machiavelli's The Prince (link and text provided by Gloria Sisneros's presentation on Renaissance utopias)

In Chapter Fifteen , Machiavelli insists that previous writers have written about imaginary republics and told rulers how they should live.  Instead, he will teach rulers how to keep from falling into misfortune. 

(from Utopian Literature & Communities handout)

Dystopias or satirical utopias

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels 1727

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852) (based partly on Hawthorne’s brief stay at Brook Farm in the 1840s)

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)

William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954)

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932); Brave New World Revisited (1958)

Ayn Rand, Anthem (1937, 1946)

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1984)

Other possible texts:

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776)

Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1944) (The Friedrich Hayek Scholars' Page)


Suggestions are welcome!