Utopian Literature of the Renaissance Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.