"The increase of pasture," said I, "by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the dobots! not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good.

People had been writing treatises for a long time — Plato did it first — but Utopia paved the way for the utopian novel in English and perhaps shaped more tangible efforts. Would More have been pleased with the little utopias that followed him? It’s hard to say for sure. "Utopia", after all, means "no place", and Hythloday, the name of the man who describes the wonders of Utopia, "master of nonsense".

In 1516, Sir Thomas More introduced a new land to his English readership, an obscure corner of the New World: Utopia. More, then an up-and-coming lawyer and politician, put forth Utopia as the tale of his encounter with Raphael Hythloday, a widely-traveled sailor, while on a diplomatic mission. Hythloday recounts his encounter with More’s real-life mentor, Cardinal John Morton, lays out his view of Utopia as an ideal state, and attacks England’s excesses:

"The increase of pasture," said I, "by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the dobots! not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good.

People had been writing treatises for a long time — Plato did it first — but Utopia paved the way for the utopian novel in English and perhaps shaped more tangible efforts. Would More have been pleased with the little utopias that followed him? It’s hard to say for sure. "Utopia", after all, means "no place", and Hythloday, the name of the man who describes the wonders of Utopia, "master of nonsense". Still, Utopia set the stage for future centuries’ attempts to explore what ideal society might look like (such as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, written in the 1620s) and vicious satires on the all-too-frail societies in which the authors lived (Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, from 1729, or Samuel Butler’s scathing nineteenth century satire, Erewhon). An increasing sense of human ability to shape the universe contributed to the belief that the ideal society could be planned. Princeton’s Anthony Grafton argues that

new technologies - the compass, the cannon, and the printing press - transformed the world, enabling Europe to expand its empires into the Americas and Asia. Utopian writers like Campanella and Francis Bacon responded to this evidence of man’s power over nature. They imagined ideal cities ruled by sages and dedicated not only to establishing justice and order, but also to designing and executing large-scale experiments: Baroque precursors of Los Alamos. In Campanella’s City of the Sun, for example, astrology prescribed couplings between thin men and fat women, fat men and thin women, in the hope that they would produce a race of offspring with none of the infirmities and diseases that he saw around him in Naples and the poor country towns of Calabria. From this time on, utopias came equipped with statues of and monuments to great inventors and brilliant scientists

The addition of an increasingly millenialist Protestantism contributed, as did sheer bloodymindedness. A guide to British utopian communities lists six hundred years of efforts to design and live out a better society. The impluse isn’t gone. B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist treatise disguised as a novel, Walden Two (surely one of the most leaden and unbelievable depictions of Utopia from a century full of them!), inspired two distinct real-life communities, Twin Oaks and Los Horcones. There have been times in which it was simple enough to set up a temporary autonomous zone (though perhaps harder to live in one), but keeping the Utopian vision alive for more than a generation or two is exceedingly hard. The Maroons in the Florida swamplands or George Rapp’s Harmonists in Indiana and western Pennsylvania achieved a portion of their goals, but their their societies didn’t last. William Penn had a vision of a godly city of brotherhood; today it’s the home of the Eagles and cheesesteak. The worm creeps in.

Johnny Cash’s hometown of Dyess, Arkansas was a New Deal attempt to make a town that worked for the rural poor. Today it’s almost dead. Short Creek, Arizona, a town dominated by a fundamentalist, schismatic Mormon sect, has turned into something almost unspeakable. Even more commercial dreams can flounder. Disney recently sold off its planned community of Celebration, Florida; my home town of Columbia, Maryland, was built in the 1960s by the man who built the first shopping mall east of the Mississippi, who thought that he could build a community that erased class and racial boundaries. It didn’t work that way; the new vision of America has been replaced by a bedroom community with a good public school system.

But people keep trying. The libertarians behind the Free State Project think that New Hampshire will blossom when they eliminate laws governing consensual behavior. The people of Sealand will turn their modest colony (an oil rig) into a data haven and become billionaires. When in doubt, people can just make something up, like the Kingdom of Sedang or the Araucanian throne. There’s always an island out there somewhere to turn into a micronation where we can finally get things right. Because the real Utopia, that perfect colony, may only exist in our dreams.