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WORDBIRTH, a column by Jack Karasch
Coined by the Englishman Sir Thomas More, the word UTOPIA referred to an imaginary island in a work of fiction from the year 1516. Utopia symbolized a perfect civilization where government, the economy and social systems worked harmoniously.
More was a humanist and he hoped his book of fiction could set man on the right track toward vastly improving civilization. The book was also a slap in the face against sixteenth century English institutions and values.
While the word Utopia first saw print in 1516, More wrote in Latin, the literary language of his times, so the first English language spelling didn't occur until 1551 when his book was translated into our tongue.
Sixteen years later by then Lord Chancellor of England, More was executed by his sovereigns King Henry the VIII. (Remember A Man For All Seasons; play and movie?). More's work has been a major influence on readers for over three hundred years.
The word he coined has come to mean a place of pure play or fantasy though clearly that wasn't More's intention.
There have been many attempts at Utopias or alternate and more enlightened societies.
One such attempt was made by George Rapp a Lutheran minister. Rapp brought followers to Pennsylvania from Germany in 1804 and called his settlement Harmony. After ten years of increased membership and financial security, Rapp moved his Utopia to Indiana and experienced another successful decade there before returning to Pennsylvania. Rapp died in 1847, though remarkably, Harmony continued to exist after his passing. The commune had a run of almost one hundred years.
Rapp claimed to be so tight with God that the angel Gabriel communicated directly between the two. Marks in limestone at the site of their commune were even said to be old Gabe's footprints. Rapp and his followers believed firmly in the Second Coming. Their goal was to accumulate a great fortune which could be given to the Lord so that they might rule with him.
Why was the glow finally extinguished? Harmony's folks probably got tired of waiting for their Savior. Also, sex was out. Members practiced strict celibacy. Their women were purposely made to appear as unattractive as possible. Outsiders said the commune was so successful in this particular objectives, that foregoing "pleasures of the flesh" was no big problem.
George Rapp's son, John, seems to have disagreed. Rumor has it the senior Rapp personally castrated the product of his loins for his repeated sexual indulgences. Presumably baby John was conceived prior to the Lord whispering those details regarding celibacy into George's ear. John Rapp is said to have died from the attempted surgery.
The first Utopia, described by Plato around 370 B.C., was known as The Republic. The population for this perfect society Plato set at 5,040 individuals, because he felt that was the number of citizens that could be addressed conveniently by an orator. Plate must have had a great set of pipes.
Another notable society, on paper at least, was the Abbey of Theleme, created by the French writer Francois Rabelais in 1534. A man with encyclopedic knowledge, Rabelais hated the restrictions polite society set on its people. His writings are still truly funny well over four hundred years after his death. In his Utopia, a rich patron would ideally supply everything desired by the members of the abbey, and the members, who were friars and nuns, could marry if they wished. In fact, everybody could do whatever they wished. Rabelais suggested a calendar of eating, drinking, singing . . . and working, only if one wished to. He insisted there be no time-keeping pieces of any kind, because clocks only forced people to count the hours.
In the real world, a woman named Francis Wright began a Utopia named Nashoba, in 1826. Her planned society hoped to effectively deal with the problems of slavery. Slaves settled in villages where they learned skills for earning money, part of which was set aside to pay for their freedom and passage to Africa.
Nashoba began with fifteen blacks and several whites on 2,000 acres near Memphis, Tennessee. The whites were definitely in charge at Nashoba though, since Wright felt all slaves required a good deal of education before they could make responsible decisions regarding their lives. She also believed that the nuclear family was passe. Blacks and whites slept together, as long as there was mutual desire between the parties. Wright, in fact, viewed all marriages as master-slave relationships. She believed that after taking vows a woman became "part of the property of her husband." In all other respects, although, women at Nashoba were said to be considered equal to men.
The experiment was successful for four years. Its end came when people in the area heard what was going on at Nashoba and raised a stink. Also, there were problems with money. Not enough was being generated. Though Nashoba failed, Wright saw to it that all the blacks who had lived there were taken to Haiti and given their freedom.
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