Utopias in the Renaissance
"The first use of the word “utopia” has been attributed to Sir/Saint Thomas More, who in 1516 used it in the title of his book – De optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia, which translates literally into English as, “Of a Republic’s Best State and of the New Island Utopia.” However, as the word at least became more common, the book has been entitled solely by the name, Utopia [More 2003]. In creating this term, More is said to have adapted the Greek word eutopia, meaning “good place”, into outopia or utopia, which means “no place” or “no land.” As the first of this utopic genre written in the midst of and as an expression of Renaissance Humanism, More’s book is what is called a social utopia conceived of being in space, as he situated his good, alternative society to that of Europe on an island in the South Sea of the so-called New World. More’s island Utopia was the place of the greatest realization of human freedom and happiness. Utopias of freedom in space were depicted as already existing in the present but in some remote part of the world. The utopia already existed; people were just not there yet. Due to the burgeoning exploration of the world via sea travel, made possible by the scientific discoveries of navigation, this already existing utopia of freedom in space gave expression to the longing of people to move from one place to another in search of a better life. This was expressed in More’s description of the main character of his utopia, Raphael Hythloday, who is described as having travelled with Amerigo Vespucci in his voyages of “discovering” the New World, and then through his own further travels arrives at the island of Utopia.
The content and the particular place of such utopian expression in space changed over the centuries according to the vision of the author that was grounded in the existing social situation and its possibilities of creating that which was deemed better and/or new. Thus, in the 17th century Tommaso Campenella’s The City of the Sun appeared as the first technological utopia; a theocratic, semi-socialistic city situated on a hillside with an ideal climate that was protected by seven circles of artistically painted walls in which everyone worked for the well-being of all and there was no private property. Unlike More’s focus on realizing the greatest human freedom, Campenella’s utopia was an expression of the greatest possible normative order for the achievement of a good society. This early scientific-technological utopia of space received its greatest expression in 1627 by Sir Francis Bacon’s Nova Atlantis; the story of an island in the South Pacific Ocean called Bensalem, at the center of which was the “Templum Salomonis” – the ideal, modern scientific research university. Within the paradigm of utopia in space, the utopic content changes but the temporal location of utopia thought – be it positively or negatively imaged – always remains the same.
These new expressions of Utopia in the Renaissance were a critical response to the collapsing conditions of the desperate classes, the peasants, farmers, and the serfs, who had to bear the crushing weight of the developing economic transition to early capitalism. As Max Horkheimer [1993:363] states, “the utopians realized that profit was becoming the driving force of history in the burgeoning trade economy.” In anticipation of Rousseau’s critique of capitalism, these early utopians understood what was creating the increasing misery of the newly created working class: the ownership of private property and the pursuit of ever-increasing levels of profit. As the utopians of the Enlightenment, these early utopians understood that it was [and still is] this competitive, class pursuit of capital over human well being that was crushing the masses of humanity into its service as well as setting the stage for wars between nations.
It was no coincidence that in the face of this early development of capitalism both More and Campanella, who were Catholics, remained true to the humanizing substance of the faith. For both, it was religion that kept alive the demand for justice and equity in the face of human suffering, and in the name of Christ they both advocated for a society in which such socially created suffering and oppression no longer existed. Their utopias gave expression to an early communist form of society based on a unified humanity in which there was no private property over and against a society governed by the laws of a free market. They envisioned the establishment of such a new, alternative society based completely on the appeal to their faith and human reason.
However, as Horkheimer [1993:367-368] states, “a utopia leaps over time” as it is “the dreamland of a historically bound fantasy.”
Utopianism wants to eliminate the suffering of the present and retain only what is good in it. However, it forgets that these moments of good and evil instances are in reality two sides of the same coin, for the same conditions equally give rise to each. In a utopia, the transformation of existing conditions is not made dependent on the arduous and devastating transformation of the foundations of society. Rather, it is displaced to the minds of the subjects.
The utopia of the Renaissance is the secularized expression of the old Medieval notion of heaven, without the arduous historical struggle for its creation. This utopian idealism ignores the objective, material productive conditions of the early capitalist society while it seeks its dream-like transformation in the subjective minds and good will of people, who are thereby supposed to eliminate the destructive power of private property. In its resistance against the increasing suffering and horror of the masses, such utopic critique is merely a reaction and thus, a continuance of the modern bourgeois logic of domination. In this modern divide between the powerful social totality and the weakness of the individual person, those that are suffering in this system of domination have little to rely on but their own subjective fight for survival and the utopic dream of redemption. Again, as Horkheimer [1993:369] reminds us, utopias have two expressions: one being the critique of what is, and the other, being the representation of what should be. For Horkheimer as for Adorno, the importance and truth of utopia is found in its critique. As we shall see, Horkheimer’s critique of utopia is the substance of Adorno’s critique of Bloch’s philosophy of utopia." (http://www.heathwoodpress.com/somethings-missing-study-dialectic-utopia-theories-theodor-w-adorno-ernst-bloch/)
- Article: Something’s Missing: A Study of the Dialectic of Utopia in the theories of Theodor W. Adorno and Ernst Bloch. By Michael R. Ott.