Journey through Utopia
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Journey through Utopia

Marie Louise Berneri

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eBook - ePub

Journey through Utopia

Marie Louise Berneri

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About This Book

In this title, originally published in 1950, the author has set out to give a description and a critical assessment of the most important (not necessarily the most famous) Utopian writings since Plato first gave, in his Republic, a literary form to the dreams of a Golden Age and of ideal societies which had doubtless been haunting man since the beginning of the conscious discussion of social problems. It is more than a mere compilation and criticism of Utopias, it brings out in a striking way the close and fateful relationship between Utopian thought and social reality, and takes its place among the important books which had appeared in the previous few years, warning us, from various points of view, of the doom that awaits those who are foolish enough to put their trust in an ordered and regimented world.

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Utopias of the Renaissance

FROM the Greek ideal commonwealths we now pass to those of the Renaissance. This does not mean that during this gap of fifteen centuries the mind of man had ceased to be interested in building imaginary societies, and a complete survey of utopian thought should describe its manifestations during the Roman Empire and even more during the following period which is generally, and unjustly, called the Dark Ages. In many legends of that time one finds that the utopian dream assumes a primitive form as in the early Greek myths.
With the theological thought of the Middle Ages the ideal commonwealths are projected in the next world either, in the mystic and philosophic manner of St Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, or in the poetical and naive fashion of the narrative of the great Irish traveller St Brendan. This intrepid monk tells how, during one of his travels, his ship was driven towards the north, and how after fifteen days he and his companions reached a country where they saw cathedrals of crystal and where day followed day without night and they landed on an island which was the abode of the blessed. Though in this 6th century legend, Utopia is identified with Paradise, the combination of actual travels with the vision of an ideal island is a feature which will be found in many later utopias.
If the utopian writers of the Renaissance owe a great deal to Greek philosophy they are also indebted to the Christian Fathers and to later theologians. St Thomas Aquinas’s De Regimins Principum, written during the 13th century, contains some passages which are worth quoting because they express ideas common to almost all the utopias of the Renaissance. Firstly that human happiness is dependent on ethical principles as well as material comfort:
The self-sufficiency of the city and surrounding country is the ideal to be achieved:
St Thomas Aquinas perceived the disruptive effect of commerce upon the community:
It would have been impossible for the Renaissance writers to model their ideal commonwealth entirely upon those of the Greek thinkers, for the structure of the society they had before their eyes was fundamentally different from that of ancient Greece. The Athenian or Spartan city, with its watertight division between citizen and slaves, its primitive economy based almost exclusively on agriculture, could not be transplanted into the society of the sixteenth century without undergoing some radical changes.
The most important change was in regard to manual labour. For Plato manual work was merely a necessity of life and should be left to the slaves and artisans, while a special caste busied itself with the affairs of State. The experience of the mediaeval city had shown, on the contrary, that the whole community was capable of governing itself through its guilds and city councils, and this community was entirely composed of producers. Thus work had acquired an important and respected position which it did not altogether lose with the breaking up of communal institutions.
All the utopists of the Renaissance insist that work is a duty for all citizens and some of them, like Campanella and Andreae, maintain that all work, even the most menial, is honourable. Nor was this a mere statement of principle; it was reflected in the institutions which gave equal rights to the labourer as to the craftsman, to the peasant as to the school-master. These utopian institutions deprived work of its mercenary character by abolishing wages and trade, and they further endeavoured to make work pleasant by reducing the number of working hours. These institutions, which strike us as modern, had in fact existed in the mediaeval city where hired labour was practically non-existent and where manual labour was no token of inferiority, while the idea that work must be pleasant was a current one and was well expressed in this mediaeval Kuttenberg Ordinance which says: “Every one must be pleased with his work, and no one shall, while doing nothing, appropriate for himself what others have produced by application and work, because laws must be a shield for application and work.”1 The utopian idea of a short working day which to us, accustomed to think of the past in terms of the nineteenth century, seems a very radical one, does not appear such an innovation, if it is compared with an ordinance of Ferdinand the First relative to the Imperial coal mines, which settled the miner’s day at eight hours. And according to Thorold Rogers, in fifteenth century England men worked forty-eight hours a week.
During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the cities gradually lost their independence, their prosperity began to decline and soon the most abject poverty prevailed generally among working people. But the experience of the free cities was not lost and was consciously or unconsciously assimilated in the constitution of ideal states.
The utopias of the Renaissance introduced, however, some important innovations. The mediaeval city had not succeeded in allying itself with the peasantry and this had been one of the chief causes of its decay. The peasant had remained in a condition of slavery and, though in England serfdom had been abolished, in most European countries the peasants were enduring conditions not dissimilar from those of the Helots in Sparta. The utopian writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth century realised, as St Thomas Aquinas had done, that a stable society must integrate the town and the countryside, craftsmen and peasants, and that agricultural work should be given an honoured position equal to that of the other crafts.
The importance given in utopian writings to the scientific cultivation of the land was probably inspired by the work done by the monasteries in this field. Other features of monastic life, such as the rigid time-tables, the meals taken in common, the uniformity and austerity of clothes, the considerable amount of time devoted to study and prayer were also included in the constitutions of ideal cities.
Of more importance than the experiences of the past, however, is the direct influence that the movements of the Renaissance and the Reformation have had on utopian thought. This influence is a complex one for, though the utopias of Thomas More, Campanella and Andreae embody to a great extent the spirit of the Renaissance, they are also a reaction against it.
The splendid artistic and scientific movement of the Renaissance was accompanied by a disintegration of society. The assertion of man’s individuality, the development of his critical faculties, and the widening of knowledge, had consolidated the destruction of the collective spirit of the Middle Ages and undermined the unity of the Christian world. The Renaissance furthermore had led to the formation of a class of “intellectuals” by creating a division between the worker and the technician, the craftsman and the artist, the mason and the architect. A new aristocracy was born; not, at first, based on wealth and power, but on intelligence and knowledge. Burckhardt, the brilliant apologist of the Renaissance, admits that this movement “was anti-popular, that through it Europe became for the first time sharply divided into the cultivated and the uncultivated classes.”
This division quickened the disintegration of society. The rising power of the nobles and the kings was no longer held in check by the Communes, and led to continuous and exhausting warfare. The old associations had been broken up and nothing had come to take their place. The condition of the people grew increasingly worse until it reached that abject poverty so powerfully described in More’s Utopia.
The utopias of the Renaissance represented a reaction against its extreme individualism and were an effort to create a new unity among nations. For this purpose they sacrificed the most cherished conquests of the Renaissance; Thomas More the scholar and humanist, the patron of painters and friend of Erasmus, produced an utopia where the lack of individuality is evident—from the uniformity of the houses and clothes to the adherence to a strict routine of work; where artistic manifestations are completely absent; where the “unique” man of the Renaissance is replaced by a “standard” man. Except for Rabelais, who is in a category of his own, all the other utopian writers are as parsimonious as More, in their allowance of personal freedom.
If these utopias represented a reaction against the movement of the Renaissance they also anticipate its logical outcome. The development of the individuality had taken place in a minority at the expense of the majority. A cathedral built according to the plan conceived by one artist, more clearly expresses his individuality than one built by the common efforts of an association, but the workmen who execute the plan have less chance to develop their personalities.
In the political sphere the initiative also passed from the people to a few individuals. The condottieri, the princes, kings and bishops, dispensed justice, waged wars, contracted alliances, regulated commerce and production: all tasks which had been previously undertaken by the communes, guilds or city councils. The Renaissance which had allowed the development of the individual also created the state which became the negation of the individual.
The utopias of the Renaissance try to offer a solution to the problems facing a society in the process of evolving a new form of organisation.
As has often been pointed out, the discovery of the New World gave a new impetus to utopian thought, but it played only a secondary role, and one can safely assume that had More never read Vespucci’s travels he would have imagined an ideal commonwealth in a different setting, like Campanella or Andreae who did not bother to consult travel books before they described their ideal cities. The main impetus came from the need to replace the associations, and the philosophical and religious systems of the Middle Ages, with new ones.
Next to the utopias we find, as we did in Greece under similar circumstances, the elaboration of ideal constitutions which sought a solution in political reforms rather than in the establishment of a completely new system of society. Among the creators of ideal constitutions of that period, Jean Bodin probably exerted the greatest influence. This French philosopher strongly resisted the temptation of wishing to build “a Republic in the imagination and without effect such as those which Plato and Thomas More, the chancellor of England, have imagined.” He believed, like Aristotle, that private property and family institutions should remain untouched, but that a strong state should be created which would be able to maintain the unity of the nation. At the time when Bodin wrote his Republic (1557), France was torn by religious wars, and there began to grow up a movement in favour of a monarchical state which would be strong enough to prevent religious struggles but which would at the same time allow political and religious freedom. Bodin’s theories on the state answered these preoccupations and his works were read with interest all over Europe. He himself translated La Republique into Latin in 1586, when it had already been translated into Italian, Spanish and German. His ideas seem to have met with similar interest in England, for when Bodin came to this country in 1579 private lectures were held both in London and Cambridge to explain his work.
We have only included in this section works which can be defined as ideal, imaginary commonwealths or communities, rather than those which, like Bodin’s Republic, are treatises on government or politics. Though the utopias which follow were all conceived by thinkers who had been profoundly influenced by the ideas of the Renaissance they are, in many respects, widely dissimilar. 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 monarchal government but believes that the happiness of mankind can be achieved through scientific progress.



WHEN Sir Thomas More wrote his Utopia he took great delight in trying to mystify his readers, and he seems to have succeeded beyond his expectations, for even to-day, over four hundred years after its publication and in spite of all the learned commentaries written around it, this book is still considered, by some, as an enigma. Is it to be taken merely as an amusing satirical work, or can More’s ideas be identified with those of his Utopians? These questions have a purely academic interest, but it might help the understanding of Utopia to remember that it was written in a transitory period of history when the movement of the Renaissance was giving birth to that of the Reformation with its profound social and political upheavals.
At that moment it was still possible to hope that the much needed economic and religious reforms could be carried out in a peaceful manner. A few years later this hope had to be abandoned, and it became obvious that reforms would be carried out only through violence and schisms, and the Chancellor of England, who condemned heretics to the stake and was himself to die for his religious beliefs, could no longer have conceived a society where the greatest religious tolerance was observed.
Although More wrote during the lull which preceded the storm, he was acutely aware of the social and political problems that demanded a solution. But he was no practical reformer, and the solution he offered was completely divorced from realities. It was an escapist dream and at the same time a means to satirise the institutions and governments under which he lived.
Utopia is the work of a scholar and reflects More’s wide reading; consequently the sources to which it can be attributed are innumerable. The most obvious influence is that of the works of Plato and Plutarch, and of St Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, on which More had delivered public lectures, and from which the conception of penal and corrective slavery as a substitute for capital punishment, is believed to be derived.
As for the setting of More’s Utopia, commentators are more divided. It is generally assumed that it was inspired by the account of Amerigo Vespucci’s travels which had been published in 1507. This clue was furnished by More himself, for his hero, the Portuguese Hythlodaye, who is given the task of describing the commonwealth of Utopia, is alleged to be one of the twenty-four men whom Vespucci left behind at Cape Frio on his fourth voyage. The island of Utopia was supposed to have been discovered somewhere between Brazil and India. G. C. Richards, in the introduction to his translation of Utopia into modern English, also suggests that More met some mariner at Antwerp who gave him an account of Japan and he points out the similarities which exist between the position and shape of More’s imaginary island and that of Japan, and between the physical appearance of the Japanese and the Utopians. In recent years a new theory has been put forward according to which More may have been acquainted with the Inca civilisation and used it as a model for his own commonwealth.1

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Citation styles for Journey through Utopia
APA 6 Citation
Berneri, M. L. (2019). Journey through Utopia (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Berneri, Marie Louise. (2019) 2019. Journey through Utopia. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Berneri, M. L. (2019) Journey through Utopia. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Berneri, Marie Louise. Journey through Utopia. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.