Utopian Fiction after Thomas More

From The Lecture Series: Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

Thomas More’s Utopia encourages readers to imagine a better society. At the same time, the book also shows the contradictions that are probably inherent in the very concept of utopia. What happened to literature after the appearance of Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516?

Utopia written on wooden cubes framed within a thought bubble.
The concept of utopia evolved in the 17th and 18th centuries. (Image: Cagkan Sayin/Shutterstock)

Many utopias were written in the early decades of the 17th century, right in the midst of the scientific revolution, which included an enormous optimism about the potentials of science right beside a deep anxiety about how science might challenge religion.

The 17th-century utopias tend to be very earnest. They sometimes acknowledge contradictions and often use distancing techniques that emphasize that they’re presenting philosophical musings rather than straight-up prescriptions for creating a perfect society. But overall, they’re heavy on details and light on satire, even lighter, in fact, than Thomas More himself was a century earlier.

This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

French and German Utopias

An anonymously published French utopia called An Account of the Great and Wonderful Kingdom of Antangil was published in 1616. It marks the 100-year anniversary of Utopia and is deeply indebted to More, covering topics like geography, political systems, military, education, and religion.

In the island of Antangil, religion never causes conflicts, instead it acts as a force for peace and prosperity. This makes the text an obvious critique of the religious and political strife of the day.

In 1619, we get the German utopia—Johann Valentin Andreae’s Christianopolis, which emphasizes on education—both scientific and artistic. As long as science and religion work together without conflict, Christianopolis completely works as a utopian space.

Italian and English Utopias

Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun, an Italian utopia written in 1602, but published in 1623, turns to astrology as a way to resolve the conflict between individual freedom and community good.

This city relies on a kind of eugenics to create a population of happy, well-adjusted citizens, since astrologers advise prospective parents to ensure that all are born under a favorable star.

Francis Bacon also wrote an unfinished utopia, New Atlantis, published posthumously in 1627. On Bensalem—Bacon’s utopian island—we see a conflict between the college and the state. There is the eventual revelation that some of the college’s discoveries are kept secret even from the state, thus suggesting that, for Bacon, research leaders are more qualified to make key ethical and social decisions than are those who govern.

Learn more about the origins of the utopian genre.

Anti-utopia: Why Do We Laugh?

We get the satirical utopia in the 18th century, which is sometimes called the anti-utopia. These satirical utopias parody More’s utopia and Bacon’s belief in a scientific academy and also the very idea of optimism itself. These utopias address the same big questions as did the major philosophers at the time; as do philosophers today: Are humans good or evil? Are we optimistic or pessimistic?

In understanding the satirical utopia as a genre, let us take a look at a general question and then apply it specifically to utopia: why do we laugh? It’s an old question, and the best answers are all somewhat imperfect, perhaps because laughter is by its very nature ephemeral, involuntary, and often difficult to interpret.

Let’s review the key theories of laughter so we can better grapple with a very important question: Why would we laugh about the noble enterprise of utopia?

The Incongruous Theory of Laughter

Akita Inu dog in a pilot suit.
Utopia always gives us an incongruous perspective on our own society, like a dog in a pilot suit. (Image: Free Belarus/Shutterstock)

As many psychologists have told us over the years, we laugh for a bunch of different reasons. We can consider four general explanations: incongruity, superiority, community, and disruption. Incongruity is probably the most familiar—laughter is often an instinctual response to seeing something in the wrong place, the wrong time, the wrong situation.

Imagine a child laughing at a dog dressed like a duck. What’s guaranteed to make children laugh? Being held upside down, seeing the world from a whole different perspective. And that’s what utopia often does, gives us a different land so we can take an incongruous perspective on our own society.

Laughter of Superiority

Superiority and community are much more deliberate forms of humor, since they have a rhetorical purpose in that they try to have an impact on the reader.

We’re all familiar with the laughter of superiority, the laugh whose purpose is to make someone else feel small, to demean another perspective. This is sometimes called, the laugh of the bully.

But it can also be the laugh of defense against the bully, the laugh of a potential victim refusing to accept victimhood by laughing back, by making the bully look ridiculous.

Laughter of Community

Likewise, the laugh of community is where shared laughter creates bonds between individuals, that doesn’t necessarily belong to the least powerful. A community might bond over shared laughter at a common frustration, an incongruity, a story with an unexpected ending.

Shared laughter provides social cohesion that can help groups bond for whatever task is at hand. At the same time, community humor can be closely linked with superiority, as when a community becomes an insider group that constructs others as outsiders.

Learn more about utopian and dystopian fiction.

Postmodern Work on Humor: Laughter of Disruption

Laughter of disruption comes out of a fairly new postmodern work on humor. Diane Davis, a scholar of rhetoric, puts a pretty cool postmodern spin on the disruptive potential of laughter and its subversive potentials to challenge and even change the way we set up our societies.

For Davis, laughter has the potential to destroy, to destroy an idea or a shared belief, forcing us to replace it with something else. Here’s something Davis says in the introduction to her book Breaking Up (at) Totality:

This book is an invitation to break up with the force that breaks us up, to laugh with the laughter that laughs language and technology and human beings, to explore another sensibility, another way of thinking (writing, reading), one that might steer clear of an/other Final Solution.

Even from this brief passage, we see the commonalities of utopian imaginings and this postmodern take on laughter, as both ask readers to think outside the box even while acknowledging that doing so is hard. It’s maybe even impossible.

The utopian project, like the postmodern analysis of laughter, is always doomed to failure, and always worth undertaking.

Common Questions about Utopian Fiction after Thomas More

Q: What is the conflict in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis?

In New Atlantis, Francis Bacon presents a conflict between the college and the state on a utopian island named, Bensalem.

Q: What are the features of the satirical utopia in the 18th century?

The satirical utopias parody Thomas More’s utopia and Bacon’s belief in a scientific academy and also the very idea of optimism itself. These utopias also address the big questions: Are humans good or evil? Are we optimistic or pessimistic?

Q: What is the incongruous theory of laughter?

The incongruous theory of laughter is based on an instinctual response to seeing something in the wrong place, the wrong time, the wrong situation.

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