The City of the Sun

by Tommaso Campanella

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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537

Much of "The City of the Sun" consists of a detailed and obsessive description of the physical characteristics of the city. There are seven concentric rings or walls, each of which is painted with symbols of scientific and spiritual knowledge. The Genoese captain who has been to the city reports that

On the interior wall of the first circuit all the mathematical figures are conspicuously painted—figures more in number than Archimedes or Euclid discovered. . . .

This first quote I've chosen is expressive of the basic theme of the story, that the City has surpassed the "known" world in knowledge. But of the walls, the sixth one, I believe, shows even more significant depictions. Lawgivers, among other men in history, appear:

I saw Moses, Osiris, Jupiter, Mercury, Lycurgas, Pompilius, Pythagoras, Zamloxis, Solon, Charondas, Phoroneus, and very many others.

This description is especially important because it's an indication of the universalist mindset of the inhabitants of the city. Their religion partakes of the Judeo-Christian tradition but includes elements of other religions and philosophies. Given the name of the city, there is a form of sun-worship:

They hold great festivities when the sun enters the four cardinal points of the heavens, that is, when he enters Cancer, Libra, Capricorn and Aries.

But we are also told that

. . . they believe that the true Oracle of Jesus Christ is by the signs in the sun, the moon and the stars.

Since Tommaso Campanella was a Dominican friar, this mixture of Christianity with astrology and other forms of worship is surprising in a setting which he evidently intends as an ideal for humanity. This one point contrasts with Francis Bacon's similar utopian story, "The New Atlantis," in which the residents of the fabulous island of Bensalem are ordinary Christians, having received an ark from heaven containing the New Testament. Bacon's Bensalem is clearly a positive utopia in which scientific advances have been made which are his prophecy of the technology that actually has been achieved in the centuries since his death. Campanella's scenario, in my view, is much more open to interpretation. Does it really represents an ideal? The City of the Sun is a regimented society that almost appears a primitive anticipation of Huxley's Brave New World. The captain's glowing account of this miniature "paradise" seems at odds with the reality of what he describes. Children are raised by the state because the influence of their parents is considered pernicious:

. . . since individuals for the most part bring forth children wrongly and educate them wrongly . . . they commit the education of the children . . . to the care of magistrates.

The meaning of this is ambiguous because it can (possibly) be seen as a prediction of our modern system of public education, while the whole tone of the passage seems also to recommend a dehumanized upbringing for children. Campanella's tale brings up the classic question of what constitutes "perfection" in human society, and of whether perfection is even desirable. Probably none of us would wish to live in the City of the Sun, in spite of the fact that it's depicted as a place from which the ordinary travails of life have been eliminated.

(All quotations are from the translation appearing on the Project Gutenberg website.)

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