By: Katrina Brown
“Good and evill we know in the field of this World grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is… involv’d and interwoven with the knowledge of evill”
-John Milton, Areopagitica
Dystopias and utopias have remained a point of fascination because of both their extreme nature and their ability to imagine the grand and grotesque. Recently, dystopias in particular have seemed to capture the public’s attention, with their portrayal of all the ways society can go wrong—one needs only to think about examples from pop culture such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Good Place, Handmaid’s Tale, and The Maze Runner. This is perhaps an indicator that society’s fears, rather than its hopes, are at the forefront of its collective minds. But what is it that keeps dystopias and utopias so fashionable, so perpetually intriguing, and most of all, so diverse? How is it that we keep coming up with infinitely many ways for the world to go so perfectly right or horribly wrong?
The truth is that, at their core, utopias and dystopias are a reflection of human nature itself, and the potential within that nature. It is this potential that enables humans to build cities and destroy wildlife, to dramatically increase human lifespans and happiness but also to create (and use) the atomic bomb. It is an undeniable fact that for better or worse, humans have changed and shaped the world to their liking– in a way that could lead to our demise or to a yet unprecedented level of prosperity. Indeed, in many people’s conceptualization of the future, extreme prosperity is followed by extreme destruction. However, like human nature, dystopias and utopias, the good and the bad, are intricately wound up in each other. As John Milton argued in Areopagitica, a speech decrying the censorship of books, one cannot know good without also knowing evil. He says that it is only through confrontation with evil, through temptation, that true good can be expressed, as a “good” choice is meaningless without an alternative.
The reason why utopias and dystopias ultimately stand the test of time and keep society’s fascination is because they reflect the polarity of human nature—extreme violence and destruction; extreme healing and unity. Utopias and dystopias then are an exploration of those poles; a journey through which society better understands its limits and potential downfalls. Utopias hold perpetual interest because, like a cockatoo with a mirror, humans are fascinated by this vision of themselves that behaves like them yet remains apart from them. In the same way, dystopias hold within them the power of the abject, the ability to show society what it is it fears most about itself.
Utopias have always existed in the imagination as what society could look like if human nature was purely good, and many religions have painted the picture. In Christianity’s Garden of Eden as well as in Heaven, humans are imagined without evil, purified by God. Religion has imagined the evil of human nature as well in the purest form of dystopia: Hell.
The dramatization of humanity’s good and evil, and the exploration of what that would look like, has taken form in more contemporary ways as well. The Handmaid’s Tale explores the potential of human nature to oppress, as well as the potential to survive adversity. The Hunger Games, explores the same, and evokes the question, “what are we capable of?” Within both of these works, the good of human nature is illustrated as well, a tiny flame that cannot be suffocated no matter how great the darkness. Another contemporary example is The Giver, which instead of exploring what we are capable of, explores the idea that it is the range of emotion, of good and evil, that makes us human. Were society ever to try to change or limit human nature to create utopia, the resulting lives and society would be less meaningful, for what is happiness without sadness? What is good without evil? Milton would argue that we cannot know one without knowing the other. These facts of life, like the light and the dark, must operate in tandem to create the dimensionality of human experience, and the meaning found in it.
Ultimately, utopias and dystopias are so compelling because they reflect human potential exaggerated on a grand scale. The potential of a single human who is actively good, multiplied by a million humans who are actively good, results in a utopia. The way in which this delicate balance swings ultimately rests with the author of such societies, and their belief in whether human nature is good or evil—as well as how “good” and “evil” is best expressed. In fact, this conflicted duality of human nature itself is what relegates both utopia and dystopia to the realm of fiction and prevents them from being achievable in reality. Such is the reason why utopias and dystopias become so prickly to write about and analyze; to reconcile the pure good of utopia with the duality of human nature is impossible. To truly have utopia, human nature itself would have to change to allow for an elevated state of being.
Humans are all mixtures of good and evil, of right and wrong, of negative outcomes born of the best good intentions. Humans are both the terrorism of 9/11 and the heroism of its first responders. Because of this duality, pure utopia will never exist, and neither will pure dystopia. Instead, society will always be a mix, and must not only come to terms with, but also celebrate the real world ramifications of this fact.