Definitions: Dystopia, etc.


Sewall/Birzer; August 2014


Utopia: from the Greek, meaning “perfect place” and “no where.” Plato used it as a joke.


Republic: from the Latin, “res publica,” meaning “good thing” or “common good.” Based, in large part, on experimentation and adaptation, natural law, inherent struggle and conflict. Also demands something coherent to hold disparate communities together—usually (ideally) virtue.


Cacotopia or cacao-topia: first used in the English language in 1715, meaning a nightmare society in which morals mean nothing and the average citizen worships Mammon and proclaims atheism, but is obsessed with theological discussion. The worse in society—the unethical and depraved—rule. As far as is known, no one employed the word again until 1817 and 1818, when the Utilitarian English philosopher Jeremy Bentham used it in his Plan of Parliamentary Reform.


Dystopia or dys-topia: first used in the English language by Bentham’s most famous follower, John Stuart Mill in 1868. In his own writings, Mill used dys-topia as a synonym for “cacao-topia.” When Glenn Negley and J. Max Patrick used the term dystopia in their anthology of over thirty utopian visions (Quest for Utopia, 1952), they incorrectly assumed they were coining the term for the first time in recorded history. Since 1952, in no small part due to Negley’s and Patrick’s usage of it, dystopia has become an accepted and common part of the English language.


Cacotopia vs. Dystopia. Recent scholars, such as Matthew Beaumont and Eric D. Smith, have attempted to distinguish cacotopia and dystopia. The former, they claim, deals far more with the moral decline of a society while the latter deals with the increased intrusion of government in the lives of ordinary citizens. I (Brad—your prof) am less than convinced by this hairsplitting, but the argument as presented is certainly a viable one and one with the potential to make a permanent mark on dystopian studies.


Ustopia. One of the foremost scholars and writers of dystopian fiction, Canadian Margaret Atwood, claims that the separation of utopia and dystopia, itself, is a false one. All Utopias must contain dystopian elements, and all dystopians must possess utopian ones. “But scratch the surface a little, and—or so I think—you see something more like a yin and yang pattern; within each utopia, a concealed dystopia; within each dystopia, a hidden utopia, if only in the form of the world as it existed before the bad guys took over” (Atwood, In Other Worlds, 85) Why is this the case? Because utopians must always stop human progress and ingenuity, thus creating a false stability based on the notion of one person, group, or generation. “There is always provision made for the renegades those who don’t or won’t follow the rules: prison, enslavement, exile, exclusion, or execution,” Atwood continues (In Other Worlds, 86)

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