The City of the Sun Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Tommaso Campanella composed The City of the Sun in Italian in 1602, as La Città del Sole. It was not published until after he translated it, with significant changes, into Latin, the language of the learned during his time. The Italian version is generally regarded as truer to Campanella’s thought.

The work is very much a product of its time and Campanella’s life. The scientific worldview—that nature can be known by observing the things of this world—was developing, but the medieval view was still powerful. A member of the Dominican order and a learned man, Campanella had been trained in the medieval view that truth was largely to be sought through traditional logic and revelation, but he had reacted against too absolute a version of that view. As a result, Campanella suffered greatly for his religious and political ideas; he was imprisoned by the Inquisition. In this work, he offers a kind of order in which people like himself would have a real function.

The Englishman Thomas More had published, in 1516, his De Optimo Reipublicae Statu, deque Nova Insula Utopia(Utopia, 1551), a Renaissance version of Plato’s Politeia, 388-366 b.c.e. (Republic, 1701). Their ideas of the perfect state underlie Campanella’s. Although Campanella’s subtitle is “a poetical dialogue,” the work is a prose dialogue, in which a Genoese traveler, supposedly a sailor with Columbus, is questioned by a knight of the Order of Hospitalers of Saint John. The Genoese describes his visit to the City of the Sun, a utopian state which Campanella locates in, probably, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The Hospitaler has little to say, his role being simply to feed questions to the Genoese. There are almost no critical responses to the traveler’s assertions of what this utopia is or what it values.

The Genoese begins by describing the city itself, an ordered city built on a hill. It is defended by a series of seven great circular walls. On these walls are paintings, an early visual aid for purposes of teaching. Each circle is named after one of the planets, for astrology plays an important part in this utopia. (Campanella, an astrologer himself, regarded astrology as a science.) On the top of the hill, in the center of the city, is a magnificent temple, also designed to teach. Everything in the city is intended to teach, even if delightfully. Most of what is taught is useful knowledge and the values of the City of the Sun.

After the physical description, the Genoese speaks of the city’s organization, in which everything is arranged so as to offer order, security, and companionship to all of its inhabitants. One can say that the impulse behind utopias is always the human need for community.

In both Campanella and Plato, the state absolutely controls the lives of all who live in it. To make the state more than just a tyranny, Plato developed the ideal of the philosopher-king, which was imitated by Campanella. That is, the man who is wise and knowledgeable should rule over, but in the interests of, those who are weaker and less able. There is an elite ruling class, but it is not hereditary, for a hereditary ruling class cannot guarantee ability and will soon decay.

The Genoese traveler admires the City of the Sun, where there is no poverty, almost no crime, and very little vice. Everyone serves the state and receives everything from the state. As there is no private ownership, no one can become rich, and no one is poor. Although some people receive honors for service to the community, including the right to wear better or distinctively marked clothing, they are not given private wealth. Most people dress alike. They live in dormitories; every six months, they are moved to new quarters. They eat communally; their food is simple and healthful. All the young, not just a few, must wait on the others. There is a slight inequality in that officials get better portions, but they can share these with other persons as a sign of honor. This healthy life enables the residents to live long lives, most to one hundred years of age, a few to two hundred.

Most of the people of the Sun, the Solarians, are presented as being happy with their existence, including the rules they must live by. They...

(The entire section is 1759 words.)