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Utopias

Utopias

In 1516 the English writer Thomas More published Utopia, his vision of an imaginary, ideal society. The book's title was a pun on Greek words meaning "no place" (ou topia) and "the good place" (eu topia). More's work became the first in a series of Renaissance texts that described various writers' ideas of the perfect society.

Utopias drew attention to the flaws of Renaissance states and offered visions of a better organized and more just society. Many Renaissance writers set their utopias in remote parts of the world, cut off from other societies. Their citizens tended to live highly ordered lives under the strict control of the government. Many utopias featured a communal lifestyle, with residents sharing all their property and raising their children as a group. Medieval* writers had also created portraits of ideal societies. These earlier visions depended either on a perfect world, in which nature provided everything humans could need, or on morally perfect human beings. More broke with these patterns and built his ideal state around institutions, such as law, government, and education, that would overcome the flaws of imperfect humans in an imperfect world. These institutions would control every aspect of life, keeping wealth, status, work, food, dress, leisure, marriage, and the household much the same for all citizens. The social structures of More's Utopia programmed its residents to be virtuous and dealt with those who strayed.

Two other major works about the idea of a utopia came in the 1600s. Italian writer Tommaso Campanella based his The City of the Sun (1623) on the idea that no one should own property. According to his views, private ownership damaged society by placing personal concerns above those of the group. Campanella's ideal city also rested on a perfect understanding of the natural world. All scientific knowledge was carved on the city's walls, eliminating the need for any further research. In Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis (1627), by contrast, science was an ongoing and powerful activity. Scientific research had the power to reshape the relationship between society and the natural environment, thus changing the nature of the utopia itself. The power of science in society was a major theme in utopian writings of the late Renaissance.

Some utopias had strong religious elements. For instance, Christianopolis (1619), by Lutheran pastor Johann Valentin Andreae, addressed the problem of building a godly community in a sinful world. His answer centered on education as the force that held society together. Other utopias focused on designing the ideal constitution and government. In Oceana (1656), one of the last great utopian texts of the Renaissance, author John Harrington defined military service as the path to citizenship. In his utopia, all men between the ages of 18 and 30 followed a detailed course of military service. Harrington's state also featured elaborate structures at every level of government.

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

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