Thomas More was by no means the first person to write about an imagined ideal society (that was probably Plato in "The Republic"), but his "Utopia" was so influential that the title has passed into the English language (and a number of other languages) to designate such a society. The book is an account of a (fictional) meeting between More and a traveller named Raphael Hythloday, and is divided into two parts, the first being a discussion of some of the social problems of contemporary Europe, especially England and the second Hythloday's account of his travels in Utopia (supposedly somewhere in the New World), concentrating on the social and political institutions of that country.
There is much about Utopia which we would today consider progressive. Utopian society is democratic, with elected rulers and officials; it is also what we would call socialist, with no private property and all possessions communally owned. (The word "socialist" did not exist in More's day, but he clearly anticipated the concept). The inhabitants live simple lives and disdain luxury. Utopia is a welfare state with free education and healthcare. Euthanasia and divorce are permitted. Gambling is discouraged, as is hunting (on animal welfare grounds). All religions are tolerated; there is no single state religion. Some features of Utopian life would, from a twenty-first century perspective, seem less attractive, such as the penal system which permits slavery as a punishment for various offences including adultery. It should be borne in mind, however, that the system More describes here is less harsh than the one which prevailed in sixteenth-century England, where the death penalty could be imposed for relatively trivial offences against property.
More tells us that Utopia was named after a King Utopus, but he in fact derived the name from the Greek for "no place". In English (if not in Greek), however, the name would have the same pronunciation as "Eutopia", meaning "good place". This is doubtless the reason why a "utopia" has come to mean both an ideal society and a non-existent one. When the word "utopian" is used in political discourse it is normally to describe not one's own policies but those of one's opponents, the implication being not that those policies are idealistic or optimistic but that they are impractical or unobtainable. More himself was fully aware of this double meaning, and made a pun on it. Some have seen his book as a blueprint for achieving the ideal society, while others have seen it a satire on unreasonable idealism. Although More has been seen as a predecessor of Marxism, Marx himself used the phrase "utopian socialism" to denigrate those socialist theories, such as those of Proudhon or Fourier, which he regarded as unrealistic.
The implication of More's double meaning may well be that the perfect society ("Eutopia") is unobtainable and therefore can exist nowhere on Earth ("Utopia"). Hythloday's surname means "peddler of nonsense" and various other names in the text hint at the unreality of the society being described. The capital of Utopia, for example, is called Amaurote ("shadowy") and the main river the Anyder ("without water"). Certainly, some of the customs and institutions of the Utopians seem to be at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church, of which More was a devout member and which now regards him as a saint and martyr, such as their permitting divorce and euthanasia, then as now anathema to orthodox Catholic thinking. More's own active role in the persecution of Protestants, whom he considered heretics, does not sit well with his apparent advocacy of religious toleration. These discrepancies might also suggest that More did not necessarily see his imaginary country as representing an ideal society in all respects. It is noteworthy that in the first part of the book it is Hythloday who defends the socialism of the Utopians and More who advances the classic conservative argument that common ownership of goods will do away with the profit motive and therefore deprive men of the incentive to work harder.
The two parts of "Utopia", however, need to be read together. Hythloday's criticisms of early sixteenth century Europe have a very modern ring to them. He bewails the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the resulting poverty of the many. He criticises the readiness of European rulers to resort to war. He also criticises the rigours of the judicial system, pointing out that many people are forced into crime by poverty and unemployment, so it is unfair to judge them harshly. Despite the antique language- the translation printed here is Ralph Robinson's from 1551- these arguments could be those of a modern Labour politician, perhaps Tony Blair in his "tough on the causes of crime" mode. There is nothing to suggest that Hythloday's criticisms of Tudor society are not also More's. Utopia itself may be an unreal fantasy, but there is nothing unreal about social problems. There may be no blueprint for a perfect world, but that does not mean that nothing need be done about the real one.
Bacon's "New Atlantis" also deals with the supposed discovery of a hitherto unknown island-country, Bensalem, said to be located in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Peru. Unlike the pagan Utopia, Bensalem is a Christian nation, having been miraculously converted not long after the death of Christ. Bacon's description of the island and its customs is much briefer than More's description of Utopia, but he does praise the Bensalemites for their high moral character, honesty, piety and chastity.
Bacon was not only a writer, but also a politician, philosopher and scientist, who believed strongly in the importance of encouraging scientific research and discovery. This is perhaps the most important theme of "New Atlantis", much of which is taken up with his account of "Salomon's House", a scientific college in Bensalem funded and sponsored by the state. Bacon's account of this fictitious institution is said to have inspired the founding of the real-life Royal Society more than thirty years after his death.
Written in 1668, Henry Neville's "The Isle of Pines" is set in the Indian Ocean and has no connection with the real Isle of Pines off the coast of Cuba. It is a tale of castaways on a desert island which in some respects anticipates "Robinson Crusoe". A British sailor named George Pine and four young women land on the island as the only survivors of a shipwreck. The island has a mild climate and produces food abundantly. Pine fathers numerous children by all four women and by the end of his long life is the ancestor of a new nation of people, divided into four tribes according to which of the women was their ancestor.
Although this collection is entitled "Three Early Modern Utopias", "The Isle of Pines" is not really a utopian work at all. Whereas More and Bacon described the discovery of advanced. highly civilised societies from which the travellers can learn, Neville's story is essentially that of a reversion from civilisation to barbarism. (In this respect it also anticipates Golding's "Lord of the Flies" by nearly three hundred years). The story is written the viewpoint of Van Sloetten, a Dutch explorer who arrives in the island a few generations later. He finds that the natural abundance of the island enables the islanders to live a life of idleness, and as a result they have abandoned technology and the trappings of civilisation, reverting to a primitive mode of existence. Their lifestyle is not, however, a peaceful one; when Van Sloetten arrives the island is on the verge of civil war. The story reflects European views of "primitive" peoples during the early colonial period. Although the eighteenth century, under the influence of Rousseau, was to romanticise the idea of the "noble savage", Neville's view seems closer to Hobbes's that man's life in his natural state is "nasty, short and brutish". (Most of the trouble on the island is caused by a tribe called the Phills, descendents of a black slave girl. This detail might trouble us today as a racist implication, but I doubt if Neville's contemporaries were worried).
I bought this volume primarily for More's text, but chose this particular edition to compare it with the other two works included, both of which are much shorter and also much less well-known. (I must admit that I had never previously heard of "The Isle of Pines" or its author). I am glad that I did, because comparisons between the three are illuminating. If More's imagined society is a political utopia, and Bacon's a religious and scientific one, Neville's seems more like what today we would call a dystopia. On a concluding note, I was also impressed by the thought-provoking introduction by Susan Bruce and her helpful textual notes.