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The Tradition of Utopia
Whatever form the contemporary utopia may take, it is unlikely to depart radically from the types and forms of previous centuries. All writers of utopias are conscious that they work within a tradition of utopia. There are certain rules of the game, certain themes and devices that are indeed highly flexible but also impose a restraining discipline on the utopian imagination. That restraint is its strength; that is what has made utopia command the attention of a vast and varied readership over the past half a millennium.
When Sir Thomas More, in his book Utopia (1516), named the new literary genre, he was conscious that he was drawing upon an older tradition of both intellectual and popular culture. There were the speculations of the Greeks on the ideal city; there was the Christian idea of the millennium, expressed not just in written Biblical form but in a host of popular movements that drew their inspiration from Biblical prophecy. Going further back to the earliest productions of Western thought, there were accounts of Paradise or the Golden Age, a place and a time when the pain and privations of everyday life did not exist and all lived freely and without care. Drawing on the well-springs of popular culture, there were the variously described "Land of Cockaygne" and Schlaraffenland, places of joyously unrestrained wishes and more or less instant gratification, where--as in some of Brueghel's paintings--the roofs of houses are made of gingerbread and birds drop delicious morsels of food into the mouths of individuals strerched out luxuriously on the ground.
But these are not utopia--not even, as we shall see, the Greek and Christian forms, important as these have been as influences. Utopia, it is true, in More's punning coinage of the term, means the good place that is nowhere (eutopia as well as outopia). That might seem to lend itself to the most fantastic products of the imagination, unchecked by any considerations of reality or rationality. The wider reaches of science fiction, as well as the fantasies of the dream, might seem to belong to its province. But utopia has carved out a different domain, one with a different character and purpose.
Particularly important was the rejection of the popular fantasies. From the very begining, from More's own rational and restrained vision in his Utopia, utopia has displayed a certain sobriety, a certain wish to walk in step with current realities. It is as if it has wanted deliberately to distance itself from the wilder fancies of the popular imagination. Certainly it has wanted to go beyond its own even a perfect, society. But it has wanted to remain within the realm of the possible--possible according to the human and social materials at hand. If it accepts that human nature is plastic, if it thinks beyond the conventional limits of social and political thought, nevertheless it accepts the psychological and sociological realities of human society. Even H. G. Wells's marvels of social and technical engineering have deviants and failures; even William Morris's sunny News from Nowhere (1890) knows suffering, even tragedy. The realm of utopia is large, but it is not boundless. Utopia, while it liberates the imagination, also sets limits. This is perhaps the source of its fascination; it is also the source of its ability to stimulate actual schemes of reform or revolution, despite the facr that very few utopian writers saw themselves as offering social blueprints or political manifestos.
In any consideration of the possiblities of utopia today, therefore, it seems wise to consider the general forms and themas of utopia as these have evolved over time. Utopia has had a continuous history ever since the publication of More's Utopia in 1516 (and More's own book, remarkably, has been in print continuously, in one European language or another, since that date). Certain major utopian works--More's Utopia, Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun (1623), Johann Andreae's Christianopolis (1619), Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627)--achieved great fame among European men of letters, fit subjects for critical commentary and admiring imitation. All utopian writers were aware of these great exemplars, even when they sought, as in Bishop Hall's Mundus Alter et Idem (1605) or Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), to satirize or rebut them (thus adding the anti-utopia or dystopia to the Utopian tradition). Right down to the twentieth century, in the Utopias and anti-utopias of Edward Bellamy, Morris, Wells, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell, we can trace the continuing influence of the great, early modern utopias and their lineal descendants.
At the same time, while accepting the limits set by its own tradition, utopia opted out of the traditional restraints of conventional social and political theory. It was a fiction, a form of storytelling. It could draw upon all the powers of the imagination in its depiction of the good society. More wrote to his friend Peter Giles that his Utopia was "a fiction whereby the truth, as if smeared with honey, might a little more pleasantly slide into men's minds." (2) That tells us that utopia is a serious matter, however playfully presented, but it also indicates the enormous range of literary--or …