Utopian Thought in the Sixteenth Century

In the 16th century, there were many writers who explored a new idea, called Utopianism. These writers described an ideal society, one in which everyone worked in harmony, with no concern for his or her personal gain, but only for the common good. The governments of these countries would be wise and understanding, but would also be absolute. These societies were not “free”, but were managed and guided in almost every way by a more or less omnipotent government.

The mindset of Western Civilization at this period in time was changing. During the Renaissance, philosophers, artists, writers, etc. were looking to the past glories of ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. As personified by the humanist Petrarch in the 14th century, the Renaissance was very critical of the present and extremely fond of the ancient past. This began to change in the 16th century, when writers became less and less enthused about their past and more and more obsessed with attaining perfection in the future. Some well-known writers of the 16th who explored Utopian societies were Tommaso Campanella, who wrote The City of the Sun and who believed that countries should not trade because it could lead to war; Francis Bacon, who wrote The New Atlantis; and Thomas More, who coined the word “Utopia” in his somewhat satirical book of the same name.

What was the cause of the shift from reflection on the past to perfection in the future? During the 16th century, people became more and more interested in travel to the “new world”. With all the adventures and conquests of land and gold came the realization that the way Western Civilization was organized was not the only way a society could be run. The famous writer and inventor of the essay, Michele Montaigne, wrote an essay, ‘On Cannibals’, in which he described his Utopia, the native civilizations of South America. He absolved cannibalism by contrasting the behavior of the natives in eating each other with some of the horrible things done to fellow humans during the French Wars of Religion, which were admittedly worse. He said their wars were not for land or power, but completely for honor and glory. This essay was a great example of the new mindset of the 16th century. It looked to new societies and to new systems, becoming increasingly more critical of the current system in Europe.

The conquest of the New World brought to Western Civilization self-evaluation and a realization that there were “other” societies that functioned as well. With these revelations, people started abandoning the glories of the past in favor of finding their perfect existence on earth, their Utopia.

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