One of six majors works of utopian writing collected in the book Famous Utopias (edited by Frederic R. White in 1946, when the world needed optimistic visions) is Thomas More’s Utopia itself (arguably not the first work of utopian literature if you count things such as Plato’s Republic, but a good place to start and influential enough to give the genre its name). The dismaying thing about Utopia, I think, is just how familiar it sounds, not in a way that makes one think it was ahead of its time but in a way that makes one think idealists haven’t really learned much in the intervening 500 years.
The sympathetic character who describes the land of Utopia to us is an apostate priest dissatisfied with the existing social order in Europe — which is interesting, given that Thomas More is remembered as a martyr fighting for Catholic orthodoxy against Henry VIII’s schismatic scheming, even if More’s greatest work is seen as a precursor to socially and politically revolutionary thinking. But then, sloppy and banal as it may sound to say so, a lot of seemingly contradictory zealous tendencies do start to blur together and overlap in practice.
The priest character, sounding a lot like a bitter left-wing grad student, sees the decadence of the Church, the aristocrats, monarchy — and arrives, with almost no intervening logical steps, at the conclusion that the key to fixing it all is: ABOLISH PRIVATE PROPERTY. Having done that, inhabitants of Western civilization, like the people of Utopia, would realize that all their interests — all! — were common interests and that everything can be done collectively without fanfare, excessive ornamentation, sexual jealousy, etc., etc.
Which is to say: Far from being innovative, progressive thinkers, the kind of people who come to these same conclusions today have been making the same argument for 500 years. There is nothing new about thinking that socialism will somehow fix everything and, by throwing us all in the same boat, make us forget our petty, selfish, individual desires. Problem solved. Except More understood nothing about human nature or economics and was completely wrong in his (implied) policy preferences, as was Fourier, as was Marx, and so on.
From works by Rabelais, Montaigne, and Shakespeare, we get a bit of nature-worship (though I’d call Shakespeare an admirably skeptical-yet-conservative fellow overall, perhaps not coincidentally the greatest writer in the language) and the all-too-easy idea, later trumpeted by Rousseau, that if we simply lived in accord with nature, all of society’s contradiction and conflicts would fall away like so many useless chains, leaving us content and free-spirited.
From Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, we get lots and lots of meandering monologues about how big the collective housing should be, what rituals should be performed at what time of year, assurances the fictional society described is still basically Christian — and in the end, in a genuinely shocking final revelation, a long description of his fictional society’s super-scientific powers, with mastery over nature so complete, so accurate in its forecasting of things to come in the four centuries since, and so smug, it’s almost enough to make one tremble and want to subscribe to the socially-conservative, anti-biotech twenty-first-century journal by the same name. But then you remember how short and difficult life was before those 400 years of progress and you decide to save your money and be grateful we live in the modern world.
We should also be grateful that utopian/totalitarian thinking is not something people fall into as guiltlessly as they did back when Tommaso Campanella (another apostate priest) wrote The City of the Sun, around the same time as Bacon’s work. If one imagines that all people naturally fall into a homogenous unanimity of preferences in the absence of social pressures, there’s no need to worry that the harsh legal prescriptions one imagines laying down will be ever be much objected to. And so, say what you will about the marvelous orderliness and symmetry of Campanella’s city state of concentric circular walls and constant learning — at the end of the day, he still has a pleasant, well-meaning visitor to that city state tell our narrator, with clear admiration:
For with them, deformity is unknown. When the women are exercised, they get a clear complexion, and become strong of limb, tall and agile, and with them beauty consists of tallness and strength. Therefore, if any woman dyes her face, so that it may become beautiful, or uses high-heeled boots so that she may appear tall, or garments with trains to cover her wooden shoes, she is condemned to capital punishment.
Behold the progressive, reformist tradition in all its liberationist, proto-feminist glory. Tomorrow, an anthology of somewhat more recent visions.