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Definition: Dystopia from Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable

A modern coinage signifying the opposite of Utopia, the imaginary island in Sir Thomas More's political romance of the same name (1516) where all is perfect. The word is often used to describe the nightmare futures depicted in such novels as Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four (see 1984).


Summary Article: dystopia
from Political Philosophy A-Z

The opposite of a Utopia – a dystopia is a model or vision of a world in which lives go badly. In political thought writers have conjured up dystopias in order to warn their readers of the dangers of certain particular social or political developments, or placed dystopia into their overarching model as a kind of hypothetical realisation of some aspect of human nature. Three different dystopic visions are Hobbes’s state of nature, Orwell’s totalitarian picture in 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Hobbes’s state of nature was a hypothetical construct – a stark picture of a war of all against all, in which life was poor, nasty, brutish and short. Without a common power to keep us in check, the basest elements of our nature would resurface, and neither property nor life would be secure. Hobbes’s dystopia is designed to give us a reason to defer to established authority.

Orwell’s is designed to do the opposite. Characterising the incipient tendencies towards total control of individual’s lives, Orwell imagines a society in which we are constantly watched by Big Brother, who directs our lives by way of a huge state bureaucratic machinery. There is some resistance to this domination, but the resistance is futile: Big Brother has the power to make us betray those we love and to believe that falsehoods are true.

Huxley’s picture is different again, portraying a hierarchically divided society in which drugs and virtual interaction have taken the place of real interaction with particular human beings.

Each dystopic vision tells us something about the world in which we actually live, and provides us with warnings about our predicament: in this way, we can construct critical dystopias, just as we can construct critical utopias, such as Rousseau’s egalitarian participative democracy – as measuring sticks by which to evaluate our own societies.

See state of nature

Further reading
  • Hobbes, Thomas [1651] (1996), Leviathan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Huxley, Aldous (1932), Brave New World, London: Chatto and Windus.
  • Orwell, George (1949), Nineteen Eighty-four, London: Secker and Warburg.
  • © Jon Pike, 2007

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