Utopian Literature of the Renaissance
Utopian Literature of the Renaissance
The concept of Utopia as a literary form originated with Sir Thomas More's depiction of a fictional commonwealth in Utopia (1516), which inspired many imaginary societies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and influenced efforts at social reform extending into the twentieth century. Such ideals as equality between the sexes, religious toleration, and preventative medicine have their roots in Utopian literature; as do several important tenets of modern communism and socialism. Renaissance Utopian works are characterized by several common factors: a belief in the possibility of social reconstruction through an assertion of human willpower, a sense of pessimism concerning present social conditions balanced by a feeling of optimism about the future, a communal approach to the distribution of property, a pervasive concern with society as a whole rather than with the experience of individuals, and a belief in the utility of social institutions—among the most consistently emphasized of which is education.
While the principal structural elements of More's Utopia served as a stock formula for other Utopian works (for example, the location of the Utopian society at a distance from the familiar world, often with an ocean voyage leading to a shipwreck or chance landing on the shores of an ideal commonwealth); thematic sources for Utopian literature are found in prominent western cultural traditions, including the classical myth of a Golden Age, the ideal city-state of Plato's Republic, and the Christian conception of paradise. Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel comment: "The two ancient beliefs that molded and nurtured utopia—the Judeo-Christian faith in a paradise created with the world and destined to endure beyond it, and the Hellenic myth of an ideal, beautiful city built by men for men without the assistance and often in defiance of the gods—were deeply embedded in the consciousness of Europeans." Some critics have also suggested an inspiration for Utopian literature in the transition between the Medieval and Renaissance worlds, viewing the Utopian aspiration for a cohesive community as a reaction against the increasingly divisive and individualistic aspects of society during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—a nostalgic longing for the unified city community and Christian worldview of the Middle Ages. The changing conception of reality associated with New World exploration and scientific discovery during the Renaissance has also been cited as a possibe influence in the development of Utopian literature. While works of Renaissance Utopian literature share common structural and thematic origins, there is great variation in the specific solutions to societal problems proposed by different authors. Marie Louise Berneri commented: "Thomas More abolishes property but retains family institutions and slavery; Campanella, though a staunch Catholic, wants to abolish marriage and the family; Andreae borrows many of his ideas from More and Campanella but puts his faith in a new religious reformation which would go deeper than that inspired by Luther; Bacon wants to preserve private property and a monarchial government but believes that the happiness of mankind can be achieved through scientific progress."
In 1595, Sir Philip Sidney praised the new genre of Utopian literature in his Defense of Poesie, ranking Utopia, along with poetry, above philosophy and history as more persuasive than philosophical argument. In general, however, there was little critical discussion about Utopian literature during the Renaissance, and the form did not receive detailed academic consideration until the nineteenth century, when Utopian writings were becoming increasingly concerned with advocating realistic social reform and less focused on fictional conventions of the genre. The twentieth century has witnessed a surge of critical interest in Utopian thought, with scholars of diverse fields examining works of the Renaissance for their political, historical, scientific, and literary value. Many have observed the decline of Utopian fiction during the current century, noting the far more prevalent modern penchant for dystopia, or anti-utopia. Questioning the authenticity of a Utopian author's intent is a common characteristic of contemporary scholarship on Renaissance Utopian thought, with many critics emphasizing the satirical, as well as idealistic, implications of Utopian works. Finally, a common twentieth-century criticism of the viability of Utopian thought is that it tends to ignore the unpredictable, passionate, or irrational aspects of human nature, demonstrating a naive expectation that people will respond unselfishly to reason.
Alberti, Leone Battista
De re aedificatoria 1485
Andreae, Johann Valentin
Averlino, Antonio (also known as Filarete)
The New Atlantis 1627
Lo spaccio de la bestia trionfante [The Expul sion of the Triumphant Beast] 1584
La Città del Sole [City of the Sun] 1602
Comenius, Johann Amos
De Rerum Humanarum Emendatione Consul tatio Catholica [General Consultation on an Improvement of All Things Human] 1666
Contarini, Cardinal Gasparo
De Magistratibus et Republica Venetorum Libri Quinque 1543
Doni, Antonio Francesco
I Mondi celesti, terrestri, et infernali 1552
de Guevara, Antonio
Libro llamado Relox de los principes 1529
Commentario delle piu notabili, et mostruose cose d'ltalia 1548
Martini, Francesco di Giorgio
Trattato di architettura 1481
More, Sir Thomas
* Includes works completed or published between the years 1400 and 1700.
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Marie Louise Berneri (essay date 1950)
SOURCE: "Utopias of the Renaissance," in Journey Through Utopia, 1950. Reprint by The Beacon Press, 1951, pp. 52-58.
[In the following excerpt from her critical study of Utopian literature, Berneri argues that "though the Utopias of Thomas More, Campanella and Andreae embody to a great extent the spirit of the Renaissance, they are also a reaction against it. "]
From the Greek ideal commonwealths we now pass to those of the Renaissance. This does not mean that during this gap of fifteen centuries the mind of man had ceased to be interested in building imaginary societies, and a complete survey of Utopian thought should describe its manifestations during the Roman Empire and even more during the following period which is generally, and unjustly, called the Dark Ages. In many legends of that time one finds that the Utopian dream assumes a primitive form as in the early Greek myths.
With the theological thought of the Middle Ages the ideal commonwealths are projected in the next world either, in the mystic and philosophic manner of St Augustine's De Civitate Dei, or in the poetical and naive fashion of the narrative of the great Irish traveller St Brendan. This intrepid monk tells how, during one of his travels, his ship was driven towards the north, and how after fifteen days he and his companions reached a country...
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The Classical Background
Lewis Mumford (essay date 1922)
SOURCE: A chapter from The Story of Utopias, Boni and Liveright, 1922. Reprint by The Viking Press, 1962, pp. 29-55.
[In the following essay, Mumford discusses the origins of the concept of Utopia in ancient Greece, focusing on Plato's conception of the ideal city in the Republic.]
Before the great empires of Rome and Macedonia began to spread their camps through the length and breadth of the Mediterranean world, there was a time when the vision of an ideal city seems to have been uppermost in the minds of a good many men. Just as the wide expanse of unsettled territory in America caused the people of eighteenth century Europe to think of building a civilization in which the errors and vices and superstitions of the old world might be left behind, so the sparsely settled coasts of Italy, Sicily, and the Aegean Islands, and the shores of the Black Sea, must have given men the hope of being able to turn over a fresh page.
Those years between six hundred and three hundred B.C. were city-building years for the parent cities of Greece. The city of Miletus is supposed to have begotten some three hundred cities, and many of its fellows were possibly not less fruitful. Since new cities could be founded there was plenty of chance for variation and experiment; and those who dreamed of a more, generous social order could set their hands and...
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Northrop Frye (essay date 1965)
SOURCE: "Varieties of Literary Utopias," in Utopias and Utopian Thought, edited by Frank E. Manuel, Houghton Mifflin Company and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1965, pp. 25–49.
[In the following excerpt from an essay first published in the Spring, 1965 issue of Daedalus, Frye discusses common characteristics of utopian literature, emphasizing the importance of ritual, the Christian tradition, and education.]
There Are two social conceptions which can be expressed only in terms of myth. One is the social contract, which presents an account of the origins of society. The other is the utopia, which presents an imaginative vision of the telos or end at which social life aims. These two myths both begin in an analysis of the present, the society that confronts the mythmaker, and they project this analysis in time or space. The contract projects it into the past, the utopia into the future or some distant place. To Hobbes, a contemporary of the Puritan Revolution, the most important social principle was the maintenance of de facto power; hence he constructs a myth of contract turning on the conception of society's surrender of that power. To Locke, a contemporary of the Whig Revolution, the most important social principle was the relation of de facto power to legitimate or de jure authority; hence he...
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Origins In Mythology
Robert C. Elliott (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "Saturnalia, Satire, and Utopia," in The Shape of Utopia: Studies in a Literary Genre, The University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp. 3-24.
[In the following essay, Elliott presents argues that "utopia is the secularization of the myth of the Golden Age, " and that "utopia and satire are ancestrally linked in the celebration of Saturn."]
Engels once spoke of Charles Fourier, the nineteenth century's complete utopian, as one of the greatest satirists of all time. The conjunction may seem odd; we normally think of utopia as associated with the ideal, satire with the actual, which (man and his institutions being what they are) usually proves to be the sordid, the foolish, the vicious. In fact, however, the two modes—utopia and satire—are linked in a complex network of genetic, historical, and formal relationships. Some of these I propose to trace.
First, a tangle of genetic lines which, in the way of these matters, lead to unexpected places. "All Utopias,"
writes Arthur Koestler, "are fed from the sources of mythology; the social engineer's blueprints are merely revised editions of the ancient text." Insofar as utopia incorporates man's longings for the good life, it is part of a complex of ideas that includes the Golden Age, the Earthly Paradise, the Fortunate Isles, the Islands of the Blest, the Happy...
(The entire section is 6066 words.)
Utopian Ideals: The Renaissance Country House
Lewis Mumford (essay date 1922)
SOURCE: An excerpt from The Story of Utopias, 1922. Reprint by The Viking Press, 1962, pp. 196-211.
[In the following excerpt from his survey of Utopian thought, Mumford discusses the place of social myth in utopianism, focusing on the Renaissance ideal of the Country House: "the chief pattern by means of which the mediaeval order was transformed into the modern order. "]
To understand the utopia of the Country House we must jump back a few centuries in history.
Anyone who has ranged through the European castles that were built before the fourteenth century will realize that they were no more built for comfort than is a modern battleship. They were essentially garrisons of armed men whose main occupation was theft, violence, and murder; and every feature of their environment reflected the necessities of their life. These castles would be found beetling a cliff or a steep hill; their walls and their buttresses would be made of huge, rough hewn stones; their living arrangements would resemble those of a barracks with an almost complete lack of what we now regard as the normal decencies and privacies, except possibly for the lord and his lady; and the life of these feudal bands was necessarily a crude and limited one.
Up to the fourteenth century in Western Europe the little fortified town, or the unfortified town...
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Utopia And Millenarianism
Keith Thomas (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: "The Utopian Impulse in Seventeenth-Century England," in Between Dream and Nature: Essays on Utopia and Dystopia, edited by Dominic Baker-Smith and C. C. Barfoot, Rodopi, 1987, pp. 20-46.
[In the following essay, Thomas discusses the Utopian impulse in literature in relation to millenarianism during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.]
At the beginning of the seventeenth century the prevailing orthodoxy in England was profoundly anti-utopian. Official religious teaching was that life was necessarily imperfect. Absolute felicity had been enjoyed by Adam and Eve and would be regained by some of their descendants in Heaven. In the meantime man was fallen, nature was harsh and this life could offer only a secondbest.
But the ideal of what constituted perfection was clear enough. Generations of Biblical commentators had built up an accepted picture of Eden as a place of pastoral innocence. Adam and Eve had lived among flowers, fruits and trees, naked and unashamed. They had enjoyed beauty, immortality and eternal youth. Nature had been fertile and temperate. There was work to do, for Adam had been set in the garden to dress it and keep it. But the work was "delightful" (Paradise Lost IV. 437). Adam and Eve had lived in an earthly paradise: a place of beauty, comfort and, in Milton's view at any rate, sexual...
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Hertzler, Joyce Oramel. The History of Utopian Thought. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1923, 321 p.
In her preface, Oramel describes her book as "a study in the history of social thought … [that] attempts to give an hisorical cross-section of representative Utopian thought. But it is also a study in social idealism."
Kaufmann, M. Utopias; or, Schemes of Social Improvement. 1879. Reprint. Folcroft Library Editions, 1972, 267 p.
Examines the history of socialism and includes discussion of the leaders of Renaissance utopian thought. Aims to "present the several schemes for social improvement in the light of contemporary history, to show how far they reflect the spirit of the times, and what were the causes in the condition of the people which gave rise to the Utopian speculations they contain."
Lasky, Melvin J. Utopia and Revolution: On the Origins of a Metaphor, or Some Illustrations of the Problem of Political Temperament and Intellectual Climate and How Ideas, Ideals, and Ideologies Have Been Historically Related. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976, 726 p.
Includes the following chapters: "The Utopian Longing," "The Revolutionary Commitment," "The Heretic's True Cause," "Martyrs of Reason and Passion," "The Birth of a Metaphor," "The...
(The entire section is 371 words.)