Sunday, 29 April 2012

Renaissance Utopias

Writers on politics like Machiavelli and Bodin treated the study of government as a science, based on the study of human behaviour in history. Next to this empirical approach, another way of thinking about the organisation of states was offered by the genre of the utopia – the idealised perfect society. The Utopia, as a sustained exercise in thought, is a product of the Renaissance, though some important roots can be traced: first, the monastic tradition encouraged Christians to think of human individuals and communities as perfectible, capable of living in harmony and pursuing the common good. Secondly, the writings of antiquity, particularly The Republic of Plato, inspired humanists to consider society in ideal terms. This idealised society is also portrayed in the various versions of the Golden Age in Renaissance literature, though while these emphasise the perfect society as existing in the past, the utopia is generically distinct in describing a society notionally existing in the present or the future.

A third inducement to contemplation of the utopian society was the explorations and  discoveries of the early modern period, which revealed that forms of society and modes of living were not universal but contingent on location and history. There was, it seemed, nothing inevitable about the social and political arrangements of the West, and humans were evidently capable of organising themselves in societies in many different ways.  These various influences are visible in the most famous work in the genre, the Utopia of Thomas More.  About a century later, the New World is once more the setting for the New Atlantis of Francis Bacon, which is further informed by technological advances and the new scientific method. As well as being interesting texts in their own right, these two books illustrate important strands of thought in Renaissance thinking which are reflected in many different kinds of writing.

File:Isola di Utopia Moro.jpg
Illustration to More, Utopia, 1516. Image:Wikipedia
Thomas More (1478-1535) wrote his Utopia in Latin, for an educated audience: its original title is De optimo reipublicae statu, deque nova insula Utopia (On the best form of Republic, and the new island Utopia, published 1516). In the kind of Latin wordplay relished by More, Erasmus and their fellow humanists, More gave as the etymology of ‘utopia’ the Greek ou-topos, meaning ‘no place’, suggesting such a state of affairs was impossible; but the title may also be a pun on eu-topos, or ‘happy place’. More started by writing Book II, a description of the imaginary island of Utopia. This is a communist society, in the sense that all goods are held in common, and individual greed has been overcome by a general pursuit of the common good. Time is rationally organised, as is space. Utopia was made into an island by its first King, who dug a channel (using slave labour, accepted as inevitable by More) to separate it from the mainland. Hence the space of Utopia is a self-contained polis, demarcated geographically from the continent and cut off from contaminating external influence; its economy is self-sufficient, leaving it free from the interchange of goods and ideas.  In Utopia, gold is tuned into an object of scorn by being used for prisoners’ chains and chamber pots. Utopians are allowed freedom of religion, provided they do not proselytise violently, and it is expected that through the use of reason most will eventually be drawn to the worship of the Christian gods by the obvious merits of that creed. Inhabitants are defined by their function, with everyone being employed according to their aptitude. Public takes precedent over private, with common goods like education organized collectively, and private spheres which might threaten social harmony repressed. As supremely rational beings, the Utopians systematically avoid suffering, since it has no value, and labour for the common good.

Such is Utopia the ‘happy place’. But it is also an impossible ‘no-place’, and More underlines this point by adding a prefatory first book. Here he recounts how on a diplomatic trip (which really took place) he was introduced to the traveller Ralph Hythloday, who had visited Utopia and describes it to him (the recent voyages of Amerigo Vespucci to America, made famous in Vespucci’s account published in 1507, are mentioned). Hythloday’s name is another pun, constructed from Greek words meaning ‘a skilled conveyor of nonsense’. By putting the description of Utopia into the mouth of Hythloday, More achieves an ironical distancing effect, dialogically voicing praise of the ideal commonwealth and scepticism of its viability in the same work. (The choice of Latin creates another kind of distance, keeping the work in the safe hands of readers who enjoy Greek puns and are unlikely to be stirred to revolt by any of its sentiments.) In the persona of Hythloday, More is also able in the Conclusion of the work to make explicit criticisms of European society, and especially England. In an energetic polemic, he condemns private property and repressive laws which serve the ruling class, and asks why those who contribute most to the commonwealth, such as farmers, should suffer indigence. Returning to the voice of More the narrator, Utopia is objected to, yet in terms which lead us to suspect further irony:

... But my chief objection was to the basis of their whole system, that is, their communal living and their moneyless economy. This one thing alone takes away all the nobility, magnificence, splendour and majesty which (in the popular view) are the true ornaments and glory of any commonwealth.

How is our interpretation of this affected by the parenthetical ‘in the popular view’? This seems to imply that, from the point of view of the learned narrator and his audience, admiration of ‘splendour’ is a vulgar concern. And what are we to make of the fact that More was himself for many years tempted to forego public life and pursue the ‘communal living and ... moneyless economy’ of a monastic vocation? The ending finely balances scepticism and admiration, idealism and realism:

Meanwhile, while I can hardly agree with everything he said (though he is a man of unquestionable learning and enormous experience of human affairs), yet I freely confess that in the Utopian commonwealth there are many features that in our own societies I would like rather than expect to see.

Like More’s Utopia, Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) is set in the newly discovered world. His Atlantis is an island called Bensalem in the North Pacific, settled by Europeans.  The elite of the island are educated at a scientific academy, ‘the House of Salomon, which is described to the traveller by one of its Fathers. The purpose of the House of Salomon is succinctly explained: ‘The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible’. The discovery of causes and first principles is here linked to the technical imperative of man reinforcing his dominion over nature – ‘the enlarging of the bounds of human empire’. The description of the House of Salomon is a clear and engaging account of the conception of the new, experimental science. Much of its activity is concerned with the study of natural phenomena and their artificial reproduction: for example, meteorological effects, light and life itself are all generated by human means. The division of labour among the Fellows of the House embraces all stages of science: knowledge is gathered from travel, from books and experiment; it is then tabulated and applied. ‘Lastly, we have those that raise the former discoveries by experiments into greater observations, axioms, and aphorism. These we call Interpreters of Nature’. This is what we would call the establishment of first principles. Scientific knowledge is gathered progressively and cumulatively and leads to greater and greater technical dominance by man over his environment. In its emphasis on fabrication, on using artificial means to imitate and improve on raw nature, the New Atlantis looks back to Elizabethan aesthetics; at the same time, its pursuit of knowledge through experiment and hypothesis describes the methodology that would later be institutionalised by the Royal Society, founded in 1660.

The utopias of More and Bacon show a continuing faith in the humanist model of man: properly educated, man can exercise his reason to construct a just and reasonable world; by using his knowledge, he can control his natural environment. The vision is implicitly godless: by their own means, humans can control their own destiny, and need not look to divine salvation to be freed from their limitations. The different visions of More and Bacon are also political statements, in presenting a contrast to real English society and institutions; at the same time, the genre has a built-in scepticism: utopias present some ideal scheme, at the same time reminding us that these exist ‘nowhere’. The possibilities of a brave new world, perfectly organized, and the undermining of this vision by the recognition of human fallibility, is explored dramatically by Shakespeare in The Tempest: here it is Prospero’s magic rather than Baconian science which acts upon the external world, but its motives and results are ambiguous, and the human vices leading to conflict are not clearly reformed. The European vision of utopia is put in the mouth of the counsellor Gonzalo and made to seem both intoxicating and impossible – a theatrical version of the ironic distancing effects achieved by More:

GON:  I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries

Execute all things. For no kind of traffic

Would I admit; no name of magistrate;

Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,

And use of service, none; contract, succession,

Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;

No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;

No occupation, all men idle, all;

And women too - but innocent and pure;

No sovereignty -

SEB:    Yet he would be king on’t.

ANT: The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.

GON:  All things in common nature should produce

Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,

Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,

Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,

Of its own kind all foison, all abundance,

To feed my innocent people.

SEB:  No marrying ‘mong his subjects?

ANT:  None, man; all idle: whores and knaves. (II.i. 153-72)

The cross-currents of golden vision and worldly scepticism return us to one of the central tensions in Renaissance thought. Endowed with the faculty of reason and imagination, man can apprehend perfection; yet fallen from grace into vice, humans are ‘whores and knaves’, drawn towards dissension and destruction, their dreams of communist or technical paradises existing only in the mind.