Utopian Writers of the 17th Century Term Paper

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Utopian Writers of the 17th Century

The stereotypical concept of utopia in the minds of the average citizen in contemporary American society - who is likely uninformed as to the literature and diversity of forms that utopia has taken historically - is that of a lovely paradise where life flows freely, there's no work to do, the weather's always gorgeous, stress and pressure are non-existent, and happy days are endless. However, this description shows naivete because first of all, utopian philosophies in most cases are not about giving humans a free ride in some fantasy world; and secondly, there are myriad definitions of utopia and numerous social and moral reasons why writers and philosophers advanced ideas of utopia. Thirdly, even scholars and literary icons are in disagreement as to what utopia means and how utopia should be integrated into the literature and social studies paradigm.

In this paper, the utopian literature and ideas put forth with writers and philosophers in the 17th Century will be reviewed and analyzed from the perspective of literary critics and the writers who carve out utopian ideology and circumstance. It is a fact that is expressed in many styles by myriad scholars and authors that pinning down a definition for utopia is an exercise in opinion and not substantive fact.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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For example, Ruth Levitas has taught courses on utopia as a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bristol and helped launch the Utopian Studies Society in the UK. In her book, the Concept of Utopia (1990) which was reviewed in Science Fiction Studies by Tom Moylan of DePauw University, Levitas asserts that the "validity of utopia" is not "escapist nonsense but a significant part of human culture" (Moylan 1992). And while Levitas praises the "vitality of utopian studies" and admires the "rich diversity of recent work" she expresses concern that an expanded investigation into utopia (presumably done outside a thorough historical context), Moylan goes on, she fears this expansion could result in "creative disorder or debilitating confusion." Her concern is grounded in her believe that any general definition of utopia "needs to accommodate a wide variety of methods and objects," according to Moylan's article; she fears there will be (and perhaps already are) "rigid and narrow formulations" of utopia. To engage in a worthwhile intellectual discussion of utopia, she asserts, one cannot cast any definition in terms of "content, form, or even function," because "all three change with each historical context."

Indeed, what is utopia and what can be said in a general yet succinct way about utopia, in Levitas' view? Levitas has chosen to relate to utopia, Moylan explains as part of his critique of Levitas' book, "in terms of the central characteristic of desire: 'the desire for a better being' (p. 199 of the Concept of Utopia)." A more elaborate definition by Levitas (incorporating "desire" as a central theme) is that utopia "...arises not from a 'natural' impulse subject to social mediation, but as a socially constructed response to an equally constructed gap between the needs and wants generated by a particular society and the satisfactions available to and distributed by it" (Moylan 1992). In other words, the distance between what a culture needs and what it wants can be mitigated through the creation of a utopian bridge to be constructed between the two.


In James Holstun's book, a Rational Millennium: Puritan Utopias of Seventeenth-Century England & America, the author offers a historical review of utopia as a blend of philosophy and literature, beginning with Socrates in Book 6 of the Republic. Socrates suggests in Book 6 that Greece must institute a "carefully applied program of educational discipline" (Holstun 36) and that will allow philosophers to reform the entire state, one person at a time. But wait, before that reform can take place, Socrates went on, the "proper utopian raw materials" must be given to the populace. The utopian philosophers will then "take the city and characters of men, as if they were a tablet, and wipe them clean - no easy task." And Socrates' view of a Greek utopia would be that philosophers will constantly be "...rubbing out and correcting their image of the ideal character and state according to their divine pattern," Holstun writes, paraphrasing Socrates. However, Socrates' idea of a utopian Greek society failed to include "practical method[s] for erasing previous ideological contamination from the minds of his pupils," Holstun explains (36); hence, the great philosopher's plan for dramatic reform was "doomed," writes Holstun.


While More was not a 17th Century utopian writer, and this paper focuses on the 17th Century utopian writers and their narratives, More is given credit generally among scholars for launching the concept of utopia. Indeed he authored the word, from the Greek "no place" in his 1516 philosophical treatise Utopia. The key to initial understanding of More's utopian presentation is found in his description of three forces, which author J.C. Davis describes as "inducing men to behave in a socially acceptable way" - a way in which a "stable and healthy society" may emerge.

Those three are, one, "law and the sanctions behind it"; two, "informal social pressure" (i.e., public opinion regarding accepted norms of behavior); and three, "conscience, the small voice within, be it the voice of God or the voice of society internalized" (Davis 46). The bottom line in More's Utopia was, according to Davis, who has a tendency to elaborate beyond the immediate need to do so, that the utopians were not ideal men or even "eminently reasonable men" since they were capable of falling from good standing, and they prepared for war albeit they denounced war as solution. More's utopia (Davis paraphrases on page 56) was the development of a social order "in which harmony was ensured in such a way that law and social pressure confirmed the dictates of conscience."

Put another way by professor Daniel Bender (Dictionary of Literary Biography) (Bender 2003), More's Utopia embraces the idea of "practical wisdom" and blends that into a "bold, visionary social policy" (Bender 2003). Far from some dreamland paradise where everything is beautiful and perfect, More's Utopia is a society in which "rational solutions" are offered to "perennial social problems"; to wit, a) "fair taxation policy"; b) "prudent strategies for food storage"; c) premarital requirements "to ensure the stability of marriages"; d) a "studied tolerance of religious differences"; and e) socially engineered attitudes "to prevent avarice (by casting chamber pots from solid gold for instance)." Actually, upon further thought, More's utopia would be a good start for a new republic just starting out and seeking to draft a constitution that reflected good human and social values.


In his book Utopia and the Ideal Society, Davis first asks questions like, "Why did some people or groups in society abandon reality in order to engage in utopian dreaming?" (Davis 1981 p. 6). He also asked, "What sorts of social frustration, blockage, aspiration and dysfunction did their work represent?" He also wondered, "How did the evolution of these patterns correspond with social change?" And in the process of his research Davis became "uneasy" regarding the simplistic generalization that there was always in evidence the juxtaposition of "social realism" and "utopia dreaming" (7). He learned that the definition is not that easy, and that there was no "social consistency" in the various utopian presentations, nor were there an abundance of utopian thinkers whose lives "were devoted to a single vision" (7). Davis found it hard to justify giving a great deal of weight to "one aspect" of a writer's activities, and treat that aspect (a utopian vision or idea for a utopian society) as typical of that author's career or philosophical emphasis.

So, his dissatisfaction over the dearth of straightforward explanations and identifiable consistencies within the body of utopian writing notwithstanding, Davis titled Chapter 1 "In search of a Definition," and used 28 pages to make his point that there are no simple definitions of utopia. And that having been said, Davis did indeed cover the wide diversity of utopian writing and thought - in this chapter and in the entire text - with his unique philosophical and scholarly brush-strokes. For example, on page 38 he writes that while utopias are not always given the form of literary fiction, "they are always conceived as total schemes, which distinguishes them from other forms of political writing." The utopian schemes he says are preoccupied with "detail" and they attempt to "project a total social environment" (Davis 38).

On page 38 Davis offers that all utopian writings, whether literature or not, "stems from the urge not merely to improve, but to perfect." And within that context there are three "cardinal characteristics of the utopian form"; they are, "totality, order, perfection," and they are so totally interrelated, Davis continues, that they seem to be "aspects of the same phenomenon." It is worth mentioning that in closing his chapter on the definition, Davis asserts… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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