and to the nightmare. Dissatisfied with the world as it exists, people have always tried to imagine the world as it might become. Time, though, seems to have darkened out utopian visions in more ways than one….
For nearly two thousand years after Plato, utopia almost never appeared on the map. Christianity looked to the city of God. Throughout the long centuries until the Renaissance, humankind was taught not to yearn for heaven on earth; heaven itself seemed to close and too real. Only when the Christian vision of paradise began to lose its hold was it time once again to long for a secular paradise. It is surely no accident that Sir Thomas More’s Utopia is, fictionally, a by-product of the intoxicating age of discoveries; for its narrator professes to have been a sailing companion of Amerigo Vespucci and to have found his happy island in the New World.
Following the lead in the the Republic, More abolishes private property in Utopia. Since there is no property, there is no money. The citizens of Utopia just go to the nearest district storehouse and draw what they need. This material abundance More imagined as being created simply by the fact that everyone works: princes, rich men, would-be idlers. They toil but six hours a day and besides, More established a kind of circular economic law: since there is enough for everybody, no one hoards; and since no one hoards there is enough for everyone.
This is a bit of a naive method for doing away with greed, as it assumes greed is caused only by a fear of want. In the matter of what he termed “pomp and excess” More was also quite simple. Precious metals are despised in his Utopia. Gold is used to make chamber pots and the chains of slaves. Pear;s are play-things for children.
Unlike Plato, More was all for the family. It forms the basic social unit of Utopia, but it is subject to a good deal of regulation. Divorce is permitted for adultery, or insufferable perverseness, as well as by mutual consent for other causes, provided the government approves. While men and women were free to mate more or less as they please , care must be taken to prevent mistakes. The physical soundness of both parties must be ascertained and they must view each other naked before marriage.
Liberty was not the ideal in Utopia any more than in Plato’s Republic. The ideal was stability. And like Plato, More considered the institution of slavery indispensable, if only to get the meaner jobs in life done. And like most utopians after him, he had a touch of agoraphobia, particularly strange for a Renaissance man, in the sense that he yearned for the smallish, well-secluded corner of the world. In addition to this desire for seclusion, More set some other fashions for later Utopians. Like most of them, he was preoccupied with sanitation. Like most of them, he called for as few laws as possible, and banished lawyers from the state. And like most of them, he had a passion for ceremonial and housekeeping details.
But unlike many of his successors, More faced up to the matter of war and proposed that it should be waged by assassination of the enemy’s leaders. Why kill so many in battle when a few well-chosen deaths might settle the issue?
More was far easier than Plato on the arts, music and pleasure in general. He considered it to be man’s natural goal in life, but he distinguished between higher and lower, worthier and unworthier pleasures. While not spurning food or drink he ranke
ltivation of the mind as the highest pleasure. All meals are taken in common in a kind of super dining hall, on the dubious theory that no one would want to go to the trouble of preparing their own meal at home when it was so readily available. All meals are begun with “some lecture of morality that is read to them.” Whatever can be said for life in Utopia, one would scarcely want to dine there.
For a hundred years after More there was no sign of significant new utopias. Then, within a few years of each other in the 1620′s , three visions of ideal commonwealths appeared, and together they reflected some major new forces that were stirring the age. All three were to some extent preoccupied with science, invention and manufacture. The best known of the three is Francis Bacon’s fragmentary New Atlantis, offering a suitably exotic and isolated location, wise rulers and a regulated family life, and above all an almost vernal passion for the sciences… ( to be continued) ….