Books

Book Review: Three Early Modern Utopias (Thomas More: Utopia / Francis Bacon: New Atlantis / Henry Neville: The Isle of Pines)

three em utopiasTitle: Three Early Modern Utopias
Author(s): Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Henry Neville
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Date: 2000 (1516 / 1626 / 1668)
Genre: Classics / Utopian Fiction
Summary: With the publication of Utopia (1516), Thomas More provided a scathing analysis of the shortcomings of his own society, a realistic suggestion for an alternative mode of social organisation, and a satire on unrealistic idealism. Enormously influential, it remains a challenging as well as a playful text. This edition reprints Ralph Robinson’s 1556 translation from More’s original Latin together with letters and illustrations that accompanied early editions of Utopia.


This is a collection of utopian stories but they’re all very different so I’m going to give my thoughts on each story individually. I’ve provided links to where these stories can be read online for free.

Utopia by Thomas More (1516)

Utopia is a wonderfully satirical, yet odd, piece of prose. While it is not the first work of utopian fiction, it did give us the term ‘utopia’. More’s prose satirises unrelenting idealism by creating a utopia or ‘no place’, an ideal society which cannot exist in reality. Each utopian world reveals a lot about its author and about the society in which they live(d).

I really enjoyed reading Utopia but I did find a lot of the story rather puzzling. More, a devote Catholic who persecuted Protestants, seems to advocate for easy divorce, female priests, married priests, and euthanasia in his utopia. Utopia practices religious tolerance, especially of pagan religions, and even atheists are allowed to inhabit the island (even if they are despised). Of course, a traveller, Raphael Hythlodaeus, attempts to convert the Utopians to Christianity because that’s what European colonists did but religious tolerance is at the heart of Utopian society. There’s a welfare state with free healthcare, women have a more liberal role than in English society in the 16th century, and the Utopians attempt to avoid war where possible. This all sounds ideal but More also puts slavery in his utopian society, makes premarital sex punishable by life-long celibacy, and eradicates privacy altogether. More is clearly satirising the lifestyle and ideas of Early Modern Europeans, made obvious by the playful asides that run throughout the story, but so much of the piece seems to be at odds with More’s own views and actions that I just don’t know what to think.

New Atlantis by Francis Bacon (1626)

Bacon’s utopian novel is incomplete and was published by William Rawley after Bacon’s death in 1626. I found Bacon’s utopia to be really interesting because he was essentially just stating the importance of his own scientific method. Science and religion are at the heart of Bacon’s New Atlantis but he stresses the importance of science by showcasing an ‘ideal’ society which has a state-sponsored scientific institute, something which England definitely did not have in Bacon’s own time. All of the utopian nation’s experiments are conducted in the Baconian method as they attempt to understand and control nature.

There’s no real plot to speak of, maybe because the novel is unfinished, but you find out about the history of the island and its principles. It’s an interesting concept and I enjoyed reading it. I really liked the writing style too as it was simple, straightforward, and logical.

The Isle of Pines by Henry Neville (1668)

This was the shortest and weirdest story in the collection. I’m not even sure if Neville depicts a utopian or dystopian world in The Isle of Pines because it has elements of both genres. Although they have laws and Christianity (what a surprise), the society that the explorers find is based on a system of idleness and sexual freedom. Sounds like fun to me. The idyllic island allows the residents to live in comfort, never worrying about food or shelter. However, the society is also unproductive, uncreative, and rather violent which is what makes me think that this is definitely more of a dystopia rather than a utopia. Dutch explorers find the island lacking in industrial and technological advancement and discover that they can learn nothing from this isolated island.

I think that this was my favourite story of the three as I really enjoyed the epistolary framework and I thought that the narrative voice was the most interesting. Neville managed to create a unique story which artfully illustrated the tensions of his own time while skillfully combining two genres together to create an odd, but interesting, story.

***

Overall, this is a really interesting collection of early utopian fiction. I do wish it had included something written by a woman, like The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish or The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, but it is a very limited collection so I can’t expect too much. Each story is worth reading but the explanatory notes and introduction are a really nice addition so I’m glad I bought this particular edition.

Thomas More’s Utopia was read as part of the Classics Club Challenge. This post does not contain affiliate links.


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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Three Early Modern Utopias (Thomas More: Utopia / Francis Bacon: New Atlantis / Henry Neville: The Isle of Pines)

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