Enlightenment Utopias, Fall 2014

literary thought experiments of the 17th and 18th centuries

Article Analysis

by Brad Young

Wootton, David. “Friendship Portrayed: A New Account of Utopia.” History Workshop Journal 45 (Spring 1998). 29-47.

  1. I was immediately drawn to Wootton’s article in large part due to the title. It suggested to me that Wootton would argue that Utopia might be read as an attempt to think through what a large scale society of friends might look like.
  2. Wootton begins with a brief history of the publication of Utopia. He contextualizes it and outlines some of its themes in order to suggest how unique, oftentimes baffling, and incredibly forward-thinking the book was. He sets all this up over the course of three long paragraphs to get to his point, which is to claim that the “real puzzle of Utopia lies… in More’s decision to conceal its original subject, which is friendship” (30). 2 pages are given to the introduction, and just over a page for the conclusion
  3. Wootton looks in three places to support his claim, which he arrives at through a discussion of Erasmus’ Adages, arguing that Utopia is deeply inflected particularly by the adages about friendship.  First, he looks at whether contemporary readers of Utopia would have understood the connection between the Adages and Utopia. Second, that the Adages offer the kind of reading that would lead to Utopia. And third, he tries to prove that More knew this book was about friendship even while not making that explicit. Wootton digs deep and looks at markings made by readers of a 1515 edition of Utopia. Using underlinings and annotations as evidence is interesting, but I find it to be less convincing than using the text in relation other texts as well as the Renaissance humanists’ conceptions of friendship.
  4. The article is very well written. It moves purposefully from point to point and usually justifies all its claims thoroughly. And all the evidence is clearly connected to the main claim. A few times a claim is stated as evident and yet it’s not made clear why this must be the case. E.g. “Of necessity, one of his concerns was to explore the question of what it meant to lead a Christian way of life without being a Christian” (38). Although it speaks to an interesting question, (why aren’t the Utopians explicitly Christian when they seem to embody certain fundamental Christian practices (e.g. communal life, disinterest in money)?), it’s not clear to me why More necessarily had to present their purported ‘Christianity’ in this oblique way.
  5. The methodology blends a historical approach with an in-depth literary analysis.
  6. The article is quite interdisciplinary. History and English are its main fields; however, friendship is certainly also an important concept in philosophy and political theory. The article even touches upon religious studies.
  7. It draws on a comparative literary analysis of the Adages and Utopia. Wootton does a close reading of the passages of the text that connect with Erasmus’ adages about friendship and also shows how More deals with the aspects of social/national life that would contradict them (e.g. the issues of war and punishment). It also draws on history via an extensive understanding of the practice of friendship among Renaissance humanists as well as knowledge of the biographies of More, Erasmus, and Giles.
  8. The article positions itself in the so-called Hexter camp, who argue that Utopia is meant to be rooted in ideal Christian and Pythagorean principles. Thus, it is place to learn from and to consider possibly adopting of some of its practices. This is in contrast to those who argue that More’s intention was primarily ironic, and Hythloday should not be trusted.
  9. I would add that, although this work is greatly appreciated, Wootton writes an article, which I’m glad I didn’t have to. I wouldn’t want to be the one digging through letters, paintings, etc. in order to prove the point. His textual analysis is more along the lines of work I would want to do. What I find most useful about the article is how it clear the way and points out new directions for work to be done on Utopia. Wootton makes possible a different interpretation, and I hope to show why this interpretation is important, useful, and is one reason why the book is highly relevant today.

What remains of politics in utopia?

by Brad Young

In contrast to a certain popular conception that characterizes utopia as the fantasy of an harmonious space, where all evil and discord have disappeared, I would like to explore how many utopian constructions in fact make conflict a central concern.

Whether considering the Empress of the Blazing World’s outright forbidding of all dissent, or the generally agreeable disagreements among the Utopians, or the eternal question of whether to exterminate the Yahoos in the otherwise harmonious land of the Houyhnhnms, the utopian tradition is replete with moments where contest itself becomes contested. A central question seems to be, how are we to deal with conflict in an ideal society? Elimination? Institutionalization? Relegation to private life? And alongside this, what value ought to be placed on discord and dissent? Are they an essential part of freedom? Or rather too dangerous to security and order? Furthermore, as we’ve discussed in class, is it not precisely a function of utopian texts to engender (or quell) debate about large scale social and political issues?

Any feedback on the topic would be great (in particular how to keep the focus sufficiently narrow…), but also, I’m still debating which texts I want to focus on. More seems the obvious choice. There’s so much to work with there: Book 1 is itself a debate, which contains within it other debates, e.g. the exchange between the fool as the friar, as Wootton notes, which may even be a later addition in response to the debates generated by Utopia‘s first draft (28-31 in the Hackett edition).

So I’m wondering, would it be useful to bring in Swift, since he presents a clear counterpoint? For the reasons that the worlds he juxtaposes have little to recommend them, he has a largely negative view of conflict, and seemingly little hope that debate will solve anything or produce positive outcomes. He even seems to take a dimmer view than Cavendish by suggesting that civilized Europeans’ reason only makes them cleverer in committing various atrocities (see, e.g., Gulliver’s pride in Europe’s weapons). However, while trying to not bite off more than I can chew, I’m also very interested in working with Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed since this issue of discord and dissent within utopia is front and center there. Indeed, it drives her whole story since an unresolvable conflict between the protagonist, Shevek, and another jealous physicist is what precipitates his leaving the ambiguous, anarchist utopia of Annares. Additionally, many of the chapters focusing upon Shevek’s back story consist of fiery debates between him and his friends, not unlike the tabletalk in More’s Utopia. Also, as far as I can tell from my research so far, there hasn’t been much written specifically connecting these two texts on this subject, so it seems like it could be a useful new direction.

Though this may be enough, I figured I would throw out some other interesting and possibly useful points of connection between these three texts, including the division between reason and the passions (which figures importantly in so much Enlightenment thought) as well as the role played by friendship. After reading Wootton’s discussion of Erasmus again, I found myself wondering whether Utopia could be read as More’s attempt to present a society of friends. Or, to socialize friendship.


Gerrard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom, 1652

by Brad Young

Winstanely, Gerrard. Law of Freedom and Other Writings, ed. Christopher Hill (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

“I will confess,” said the prince, “an indulgence of fantastick delight more dangerous than yours. I have frequently endeavoured to image the possibility of a perfect government…” -Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas.

“True freedom lies in the community in spirit and community in the earthly treasury.” -Gerrard Winstanley, A Watch-Word to the City of London, 1649.

Taking us back in time for a moment, but for hopefully worthwhile and intriguing reasons, this reading is a pamphlet by Gerrard Winstanley published in 1652 during England’s parliamentary interregnum. The Law of Freedom in a Platform; or, True Magistracy Restored was written shortly following Winstanley’s involvement in the Digger, or True Leveller, commune that lasted from 1649-1650. Winstanley writes the pamphlet as a letter to His Excellency Oliver Cromwell. His primary concern is that, though the King is dead, “kingly government” may yet live on in the forms of “the kings’ old law” (280). Therefore, a total reformation is required is England is to have a true commonwealth. Otherwise, the parliamentary boss is the same as the kingly boss.

The prime target of Winstanley’s attack is “that cheating art of buying and selling” (306), by means of which kings, nobles, and the church enrich themselves at others’ expense. Furthermore, this ‘art’ sets people and nations against one another and is therefore not only the cause of oppression by a ruling class, but also of tearing apart communities and of foreign wars. According to Winstanley, this practice is not merely to be regulated; rather, the buying and selling of all things has to be abolished.  Winstanley text is, unlike More’s, an unambiguous argument for a kind of agrarian communism. This utopia is not meant to be debated; it is to be implemented immediately.

Without spending too much time on the details his argument, I think for our purposes it would be especially useful to focus on how this work fits in with and the broader trajectory of Enlightenment-era utopian texts.

Winstanley’s text has interesting parallels to both Bacon and More. Like Bacon, he regularly appeals to biblical authority to justify seemingly incongruous, radically secular ends. For example, in his discussion of the sabbath, which must be kept “according to one of the laws of Israel’s commonwealth made by Moses” (345), he argues that it must be kept so the people can spend the day learning of national and international affairs, and hear lectures on history, the various sciences, and moral philosophy. Furthermore, he argues that “because other nations are of several languages, therefore these speeches may be made sometimes in other languages, and sometimes in our mother tongue, that so the men of our English commonwealth may attain to all knowledges, arts, and languages” (347-8). And no mention is made of spending the sabbath in church or reading the Bible.

Also similar to Bacon, save for three references to “Machiavellian” pursuits of power, there are no references to any text other than the Bible. And with these, the text is shot through. This pervasive use of the Bible, and also his understanding of the rule of society being rooted in the patriarchal rule of the father in the household, also mirrors many contemporary and medieval political theorists. But he turns this strategy completely on its head. Rather than using this notion as a means to justify the rule of the king and use his text to advice on how to be a good father/ruler, he argues instead that because the father should love his children equally, so should there be real, material equality throughout society. There are no slaves or servants here, save for those who have been repeatedly convicted of a crime. For non-violent offenses, convicted criminals are initially reproached in private, then in public, and then if they persist in their criminal ways, they will be forced to work as a servant.

However, to keep everyone in line, and here is one of the similarities to More, there is a vast network of ‘overseers’ facilitating the administration and management of the society. Yet, what is perhaps a unique feature of Winstanley’s utopia, his primary concern is for the poor and oppressed: not some scientific aristocracy, not the artisans, and clearly not the nobility. Thus, even in this work, “to oversee [is]…to remove all grievances and to ease the people that are oppressed” (338). Furthermore, all of these positions are elected by the people and rotate every year so that all over 40-year old men have the opportunity to participate in the government.

If we consider this in relation to our readings as well as those it perhaps resembles more closely (e.g. Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s City of God, or late-Enlightenment utopias like Godwin’s Political Justice, or Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man), is the Law of Freedom part of a subgenre of utopian texts? The political utopia?

Additionally, though I hadn’t intended any tie in with Rasselas, reading the above-mentioned quote from Chapter XLIV on “The dangerous prevalence of imagination” (122), what is so dangerous about this kind of utopian imagining as opposed to Johnson’s?

A more enlightened paranoia

by Brad Young

Per our discussion of conspiracy theory, here’s a lengthy quote about the Enlightenment and the tendency to see historical events as products of conspiracy. From Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic (my apologies for not copying his footnotes):

“The notion of conspiracy was not new in Western history. From Sallust’s description of Catiline through Machiavelli’s lengthy discussion men were familiar with the use of conspiracy in politics. Yet the tendency to see events as a result of a calculated plot, especially events in times of public tumult, appears particularly strong in the eighteenth century, a product, it seems, not only of the political realities and assumptions of the age, but of its very enlightenment, a consequence of the popularization of politics and secularization of knowledge. Those Americans who continued to see themselves as a specially convenanted people could and did look beyond the earth to Providence for an explanation of the events in the years after 1763: a divinely favored people were being justly punished for their sins. But to those captivated by the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century the wonder-working ways of Providence were not satisfying enough. The explanation of human phenomena lay in the ways of man alone, in human purposes, in political and social science. Whatever happened in history was intended by men to have happened. Enlightened rationalists as well as Calvinist clergy were obsessed with the motives that lay hidden behind deceiving, even self-deceiving, statements, and they continually sought to penetrate beneath the surface of events in order to find their real significance in the inner hearts of men. Yet in replacing Providence with human motivation as a source of historical explanation, men still felt the need to discover the design, “the grand plan,” that lay beneath the otherwise incomprehensible jumble of events. Now it seemed possible to the men of the enlightened age that they would be able, as the scrutinizers of Providence had been unable, “to trace things into their various connections, or to look forward into all their remote and distant consequences,” to disclose at last what had always been in darker days “the hidden and…uncertain connection of events.” It was precisely this task of tracing, predicting, disclosing, and connecting motives and events that American Whig leaders had set for themselves in the debate with Great Britain. And thus their attributing what was happening to the relations between Britain and her colonies to the conspiratorial designs of a few men in high places became another example of their application of science to human affairs, a noble effort to make natural sense of the complexity of phenomena, a humanization of Providence, an impassioned attempt to explain the ways of man to man, the crude beginnings of what has come to be called the Whig interpretation of history (40-1).”

Discussion questions for Bacon’s New Atlantis

by Brad Young

“I reject all forms of fiction and imposture” (Novum Organum, 598).

1) As Hogan notes, one of the most striking differences between More’s Utopia and Bacon’s New Atlantis is the lack of intentional ambiguity in the latter (39). Nowhere does New Atlantis appear to question the truth of its narrator or his interlocutors. Nor does it seem to invite any critique of the virtue and harmony of Bensalem, “so chast a Nation….the Virgin of the World” (26). How should we account for this difference?

2) In spite of his desire to set aside all preconceptions in the pursuit of knowledge, Bacon is an unapologetic eurocentrist. This attitude is most succinctly put in the quote from Novum Organum, “man is a god to man” (599). Why does this (as well as his Christian faith) escape the rejection of received wisdom articulated so forcefully in Novum? And how does Bacon justify this attitude in New Atlantis?

3) There is one thing, however, that the Europeans are not so great at: marriage. Why does this provoke such a hostile and relatively lengthy critique? Is it significant that this critique comes from the Jewish merchant? And why is chastity such a central ‘virtue’ in Bensalem?

4) What begins overflowing with Christian symbolism, ends with a long list of all the ‘worldly’ wonders apparently derived thereof (via divinely-inspired scientific study).  Is Bacon attempting to reconcile science and faith, or does he genuinely see no contradiction between the two? Or is he disguising radical ideas in the acceptable language of Christianity? Related to this, I think it’s worth examining the strange statement, which ends the selections from the Novum Organum, “Only let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest, and let power be given it; the exercise thereof will be governed by sound reason and true religion” (600).

5) Considering the reception of the Bible in Bensalem via divine intervention, the island’s pacification of other nations without bloodshed (15), and expansion of knowledge through benevolent spies, is Bacon attempting to legitimize imperialism and the spread of Christianity by masking or effacing their ‘original sin’ (i.e. that they are inextricable from pervasive violence, exploitation, and domination)?

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