The English Utopia. A L Morton 1952

Part III: Revolution and Counter-Revolution

Ireton: All the main thing that I speak for, is because I would have an eye to property. I hope we do not come here to contend for victory – but let every man consider with himself that he do not go that way to take away all property. For here is the most fundamental part of the constitution of the kingdom, which if you take away, you take away all by that...

Rainborough: Sir, I see that it is impossible to have liberty but all property must be taken away. If it be laid down for a rule, and you will say it, it must be so. But I would fain know what the soldier hath fought for all this while? He hath fought to enslave himself, to give power to men of riches. – Debate of the General Council of the Army, Putney, 29 October 1647

Chapter I: New Atlantis

At no other time is there such a wealth of Utopian speculation in England as in the seventeenth century. And at no time is this speculation at once so bold and practical and so dry and narrow. In this age of revolution Utopia comes closest to immediate politics and the everyday problems of government, and in doing so it loses as well as gains. More, as we have seen, was concerned with the relation of wealth and poverty, with the abolition of classes, and, ultimately, with the questions of human happiness and social justice. The typical Utopian writers of the seventeenth century are concerned with political questions in the narrow sense, with the framing of a model constitution and with its working machinery, with the formation and character of governments and the perfection of parliamentary representation. They are concerned, in short, not so much with justice as with power.

As a result, there is a complete change in temper and style. We find nothing to correspond to More’s breadth of vision, his pity and anger, his doubts and the wry humour with which these doubts are expressed. Everything now is dry, precise and lawyerlike. There is a cool confidence, a bright, hard certainty that here, in Macaria or Oceana, is the one true light, that here is a practical programme that need only be adopted to carry the revolution to its full perfection. And, to a very large extent, this confidence was justified, for the problem which had baffled and tormented More had been solved, the bourgeoisie had won power, had the means of making their desires effective. Hence, as this chapter will try to show, there was a close relationship between the Utopian writings and the active framing of constitutions which went on throughout the Commonwealth period.

This change in the climate of Utopia corresponds exactly to the change in the English political climate. We have seen something of the beginnings of the development of capitalism; of the growth and decline of classes, the transfer of wealth and the peculiar relations which existed between the bourgeoisie and the House of Tudor. The Tudor absolutism gave the men of the new wealth the necessary shelter and breathing space in which to grow strong: ample advantage was taken of this opportunity, till, by the end of the century, the protection had ceased to be a necessity and the protector had become a burden. In alliance with the crown the bourgeoisie had decimated the peasantry, humbled the church, crushed Spain, traversed oceans and explored new continents. Now, appearing for the first time in history as an independent force, they attacked the monarchy itself, deposed and beheaded a king and established a republic. For a brief space Utopia ceased to be a fiction but was felt by thousands to be just round the corner. If there were any limits to the power of this brave new class, they were not immediately apparent.

Before the confident morning of the revolution there was a rather bleak dawn period, the generation in which the alliance between crown and bourgeoisie was breaking, when the tension of events created bewilderment, weariness and disillusion. It was the period of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the age when the bounding extravagance of Tamburlaine had given place to the extravagant psychological horrors of Webster. To this period belongs Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, and in the history of the English Utopia Bacon is the link connecting More with the utopian writers of the revolutionary period.

Like More, Bacon was a member of a family which was prominent in the service of the crown, was trained as a lawyer but combined the profession of law with a continuing passion for philosophy, became Lord Chancellor of England, and, at the height of his fortune, was disgraced and driven from office. Here, however, the parallel ends, for few men have ever been more dissimilar in their interests or character. There is perhaps no great English writer whose personality is less attractive than Bacon’s, and all the elaborate apologias of his many admirers and the power and magnificence of his prose only increase the distaste we feel in the presence of the man. Never was such a subtle and splendid intellect employed to serve meaner or more trivial ends, and neither pride nor gratitude nor loyalty to friends were allowed to brake his climb to wealth and influence. Grasping timidity and profuse display seemed continually to deny the austere impersonality of the philosopher’s creed.

Yet this is only a part of the truth about Bacon: it would be quite wrong, I believe, to imagine that the philosophy was not both sincere and profoundly felt. Partly, it may be, the very subtlety of the intellect deceived itself, but more than that, Bacon’s character expresses in a new form the essential contradiction within Humanism, the contradiction that lies at the very heart of the bourgeois revolution. Humanism fought to liberate mankind from superstition and ignorance, but also to liberate capitalist production from the restraints of feudal economy: the bourgeois revolution was waged for the ultimate advantage of mankind as a whole but also to secure for a new exploiting class power to rob and to become rich, and in this revolution meanness and nobility, cruel oppression and generosity are inextricably tangled. The pursuit of truth and the pursuit of wealth often seemed the same thing, and, whatever Bacon’s faults may have been, about the pursuit of truth he was always passionately in earnest.

And truth for Bacon meant power, not indeed political power, since he was a loyal servant of the crown and well content with the existing order, but power over nature through the understanding of natural law. This is the core of all his work, and not least of the New Atlantis, which, under cover of describing a utopian commonwealth, is really a prospectus for a state-endowed college of experimental science. It was the work of his old age, written when, over sixty, he was dismissed and ruined, but still hoping against all reason that he might be restored to power. It was a fragment only, begun and laid aside unfinished, and never published in his lifetime. He began it in the hope that James I would adopt and subsidise his proposals: its incomplete state is the proof of the final abandonment of his hopes, and therefore of his interest in the work, since that interest was confined solely to its possible practical outcome.

Bacon, unlike More, was not concerned with social justice. He, too, was a Humanist, but by the beginning of the seventeenth century Humanism had run cold: the difference between Utopia and New Atlantis is not so much a difference of content as a difference of purpose, a shift of interest and a lowering of temperature. The earlier Humanists believed in reason and in the possibility of the attainment of happiness by the unfettered exercise of reason. Bacon and his contemporaries, while not denying the power of reason, had gradually shifted the weight of emphasis away from reason to experiment. As Bacon wrote:

Our method is continually to dwell among things soberly... to establish for ever a true and legitimate union between the experimental and rational faculty.

And elsewhere:

For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff and is limited thereby; but if it work upon itself, as the spider worketh its web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of the thread and work, but of no substance or profit.

Bacon stood at the beginning of the first period of materialism, in which it was confidently believed that the whole universe, from the solar system to the mind of man, was a vast and complex machine and could be mastered absolutely by a sufficient understanding of the laws of mechanics. He saw it as his task to use his prestige and his incomparable control over language to urge upon his contemporaries the undertaking of this final assault upon the mysteries of nature. As Basil Willey says in his admirable book, The Seventeenth Century Background:

Bacon’s role was to indicate with fine magniloquence the path by which alone ‘science’ could advance. This he did, while other men, such as Galileo, Harvey or Gilbert, in whom he took comparatively little interest, were achieving great discoveries on the principles which he taught. Bacon’s great service to ‘science’ was that he gave it an incomparable advertisement.

The information which we are given about the social and economic and political organisation of Bensalem, the utopian island of New Atlantis, is naturally, therefore, meagre and indirect, since Bacon only intends the fiction to provide an interesting background for the pamphlet. But one cannot but be struck with the remarkable decline from the standpoint reached in Utopia, and, since Bacon had obviously read More’s book, this may be taken as an implied criticism in the points where they differ. Bensalem is a monarchy of an orthodox type, with the inevitable fixed constitution handed down from the founder-king Salomona. It has private property and classes, as we have to infer from a passage which says that on certain ceremonial occasions ‘if any of the family be distressed or decayed, order is taken for their relief, and competent means to live’.

That is to say, that while the necessities of the poor are provided for, this is done as a charity and not as of right, and the need for such charity appears normally to arise. Correspondingly there are marked social gradations and inequalities, and the officials and leading citizens are distinguished by magnificent clothes and lavish display and have numbers of personal servants. [1] There is a strongly patriarchal family, quite unmarked by any trace of the communism with which More tempered family life, and great power is enjoyed by the heads of these families and by the old generally.

Chance voyagers, like the narrator of the story, were welcomed in Bensalem and received hospitably, but intercourse with foreign lands was discouraged because King Salomona:

... recalling into his memory the happy and flourishing estate wherein his land then was, so as it might be a thousand ways altered to the worse, but scarce any one way to the better; thought nothing wanted to his noble and heroical intentions, but only, as far as human foresight might reach, to give perpetuity to that which was in his time so happily established; therefore... he did ordain the interdicts and prohibitions which we have touching the entrance of strangers.

At the same time, as was fitting for a people given up to the search for knowledge, every effort was made to discover and import all that was known in other lands, and with this object secret missions were sent out at regular intervals to visit all civilised lands and bring back reports.

To Salomona, also, was credited the establishment of Salomon’s (or Solomon’s) House, whose ‘fellows’ were the object almost of veneration among the Bensalemites. Here we come to Bacon’s real point: New Atlantis, like Bensalem itself, exists only for the sake of it. And in nothing more than in his ideas about education does Bacon differ from More. For More, as we have seen, education was a social and cooperative pursuit, with its object the increasing of the happiness and the enrichment of the personalities of the whole people: for Bacon it was the affair of a body of specialists, lavishly endowed by the state and carrying on their work in complete isolation from the masses (we are told that the visit of one of the fathers of Salomon’s House to the capital city was the first for a dozen years). Its object was not happiness but power:

The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and secret motions of things and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.

There is a kind of holy simplicity in this unbounded belief in man’s powers that is the most attractive side of Bacon and which makes him the truly representative man of his time, but this same simplicity limits his objectives to the quantitative and the empirical. There is little in Bacon of the desire to pass beyond catalogue to synthesis, and he was a superb generaliser with a deep distrust of generalisation.

For this reason the methods of Salomon’s House were purely experimental, and to the cataloguing of experiments Bacon devotes the ten happiest pages of New Atlantis, describing a great variety of metallurgical, biological, astronomical and chemical marvels, as well as the practical application of science to the making of new substances and fabrics, to medicine and even to engineering:

We imitate also the flights of birds: for we have some degree of flying in the air: we have ships and boats for going under water. We have divers curious clocks and other like motions of return, and some perpetual motions. We imitate also the motions of living things by images of men, beasts, birds, fishes and serpents.

Bacon hoped to interest King James, who prided himself upon his virtuosity and delighted to be called the modern Solomon, in his scheme, and, no doubt, dreamed that the foundation of such a college of science might lead to his return to public life and favour. In this he was disappointed, for James had little interest in science for its own sake and already the political struggle was curtailing the resources of the crown. [2] It was not till 1645, under the rule of the Long Parliament, that Bacon’s scheme assumed a modest practical form as the ‘College of Philosophy’. Its founders, Samuel Hartlib, author of the utopian essay Macaria, and the Czech scholar Comenius, both admitted that their scheme was inspired by New Atlantis. Similarly, when the College of Philosophy developed into the Royal Society in 1662, Sprat, Boyle, Glanville and others declared that this was only the carrying into effect of Bacon’s outline of Salomon’s House. Later still, it was among the main influences which determined the form to be taken by the work of the French Encyclopaedists. Diderot, in the Prospectus, stated specifically:

If we have come at it successfully, we shall owe most to the Chancellor Bacon, who threw out the plan of an universal dictionary of sciences and arts, at a time when, so to say, neither arts nor sciences existed. That extraordinary genius, when it was impossible to write a history of what was known, wrote one of what it was necessary to learn.

New Atlantis, therefore, belongs to the history of science as much as to the history of Utopia or to the history of politics. Nevertheless, the development of science and industrial technique was an essential part of the advance of the bourgeoisie, and, as I have said, Bacon’s preoccupation with applied science as a form of power links him with the extremely political utopian writers of the Commonwealth with whom the next section will have to deal.

Chapter II: The Real and the Ideal Commonwealth

The revolution in England was rich in heroic achievement: it was rich also in heroic illusion. This is a necessary feature of all bourgeois revolutions, since their promises are far removed from their results, and their real meaning is often obscured even from those most actively engaged in them. They promise freedom for all, and, more often than not, the promises are sincerely made, but the freedom they actually secure is always the freedom for a particular class to pursue its own ends, while for the masses, whose support is enlisted and whose hopes are aroused, the advantages are indirect and often dubious, and always fall far short of what was anticipated. In seventeenth-century England as in eighteenth-century France the wild expectations of universal brotherhood and prosperity were cruelly disappointed and the defeat and consequent widespread disillusionment of the unprivileged led in the end to a partial restoration of the old regime, to a compromise between the different sections of the exploiting classes which left many questions unsolved but left also the road clear for future advances.

In England especially the religious forms in which the revolution found expression caused the dreams of the masses to take the most extravagant shapes. The whole period is one of fantastic speculation, human power and divine power run side by side and become at times almost interchangeable. Men felt everywhere that they were doing God’s work and God theirs. The overthrow of the royal power was not merely a political change but the ushering in of the rule of the Saints and the sign of the coming Millennium in which Christ would appear in person to put the seal of his approval upon the work his people were doing. For a time the Fifth Monarchy Men became a powerful political force and the Kingdom of God on earth seemed a practical possibility.

As early as 1641, with the calling of the Long Parliament, such visions were abroad. Hanserd Knollys wrote in that year:

This is the work that is in hand. As soon as ever this is done, that Antichrist is down, Babylon fallen, then comes in Jesus Christ reigning gloriously; then comes in this Hallelujah, the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth... It is the work of the day to cry down Babylon, that it may fall more and more; and it is the work of the day to give God no rest till he sets up Jerusalem as the praise of the whole world... God uses the common people and the multitude to proclaim that the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. As when Christ came at first the poor received the Gospel – not many noble, not many rich, but the poor – so in the reformation of religion, after Antichrist began to be discovered, it was the common people that first came to look after Christ. [3]

Nor was it only the poor, nameless and ignorant enthusiasts who expected this Millennium. Their expectation was shared by many of the finest minds of the time. Milton, in the same year, was declaring his belief that England would be:

... found the soberest, wisest and most Christian people at that day, when Thou, the eternal and shortly expected King, shall open the clouds to judge the several Kingdoms of the world, and distributing national honours and rewards to religious and just commonwealths, shalt put an end to all earthly tyrannies, proclaiming Thy universal and mild monarchy through heaven and earth.

We might almost say that the Eden of Paradise Lost was Milton’s Utopia, a Utopia which contains many of the traditional features of the Earthly Paradise [4] described in Part I, and which, in the first enthusiasm of the revolution he had hoped to see realised on earth. Later, after the slow fading of hopes under the Commonwealth and the final blow of the Restoration, he transferred his Eden to the distant past and the distant future, but, ‘because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it’, there was a time when he had indeed thought that men might eat of the forbidden fruit and become as gods, knowing good and evil. For Milton the tragedy of the Fall was not that man was wrong to desire this knowledge of good and evil but that the promises of the serpent were false promises (like the promises of the bourgeois revolution itself) and that this knowledge and the power it could give were proved in the event to be something to which man was not able to attain. The paradise which Milton lost, then, was the early promise of the revolution.

If Milton was the supreme religious Utopian of the English Revolution, his Utopia was so concealed that he himself was probably unaware of it as such. There are, however, religious Utopias of this period of a more conventional pattern though on an incomparably lower level. One of these is Samuel Gott’s Nova Solyma, already referred to. This was published in Latin in 1648 and republished in 1649. It does not seem to have attracted much attention and was forgotten till it was discovered and translated in 1902 by the Reverend Walter Begley, who attributed it to Milton for no better reason than that he could think of no one else capable of creating so sublime a masterpiece. In fact, as I have said, it is a book of a dullness and ineptitude scarcely to be imagined.

The framework of fiction is of the usual type. Nova Solyma is discovered and visited by two young gentlemen from Cambridge, Eugenius and Politan, who are entertained and instructed in the customary hospitable manner. Its inhabitants, without exception, exhibit all the worst characteristics of the Puritan of hostile tradition, narrow-minded and hysterical piety, smugness and intolerance. A good deal of the book is taken up with descriptions of their educational arrangements, which have neither the humanist breadth of More nor the passionate scientific interest of Bacon. The book also discusses, to quote its editor:

... the master passion of love, which is considered philosophically, Platonically and realisticly... the Romance has also much to say on Religion, on Conversion, Salvation, the Beginning and End of the World, the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, of Almsgiving, of Self-Control, of Angels and the Fall of Man, and Man’s Eternal Fate.

It is perhaps hardly to be expected that in addition to all this Samuel Gott should have much to say about the economic and political organisation of the Nova Solymnians, and, in fact, these questions are virtually ignored. We are allowed to deduce that there are classes and private property, wealth and poverty side by side, very much as they were to be found in the non-utopian lands of the time.

Nova Solyma is, however, by no means the most extreme example of what the Puritan writer could do when he really let himself go. For this we must turn to John Sadler’s Olbia: The New Island Lately Discovered, first published in 1660 and never, so far as I can discover, republished. The title page promises a description of ‘Religion and Rites of Worship; Laws, Customs and Government; Character and Language’, and the book opens well enough with a pilgrim whose ship is driven out of its course by a storm. On page 3, however, he is wrecked on a rocky islet and rescued by a hermit whom he barely thanks before starting to complain that he is ‘the wretched object of the Creator’s wrath’. The hermit then consoles and exhorts him through 380 pages. Much of his discourse is devoted to an exposition of numerical mysticism, of which the last paragraph of the book is a fair sample:

And they lie dead (as we saw before) for 3 days and a half; or 84 hours: which end in hour 324; the Morning Sacrifice, of the 14th Day: whose Evening Minha beginneth in hour 333; which added to 1332 (the other two Moeds, or twice 666;) comes just to 1666; the Evening before the Feast of Tabernacles, when also, The Tabernacle of God shall be with men: if we have reckoned right. Which may yet be more cleared by our Tables and Characters, if God so please.

The book breaks off, obviously unfinished, but whether Sadler ever did complete it and describe the Laws, Customs and Government of the Olbians it is impossible to say. It is conceivable, though unlikely, that a utopian masterpiece lies awaiting discovery in some old library or cupboard. Probably the political atmosphere of 1660 was unfavourable for the publication of millennial speculations. The real interest of this curious book is as an example of the wild extravagance of such speculations at the close of the Commonwealth period and its illustration of the way in which such speculations tended to be linked up with the utopian form. The decadence of these speculations parallels exactly the political disintegration and bankruptcy of the left-wing political parties and movements in the last years of the Republic.

Besides divine power working through men there was also human power working directly upon events, and it would be as great a mistake to imagine that all the men of the English Revolution were religious fanatics as to underestimate the part played by religious fanaticism in this period. Along with the Fifth Monarchy Men and the millenary enthusiasts, and sometimes cooperating with them, were sober and secular-minded political theorists, men like Walwyn, Petty, Ireton and Vane, and, among the utopian writers, Samuel Hartlib and James Harrington. Their Utopias, Macaria and Oceana, are entirely matter of fact and political, and illustrate some of the fundamental tendencies of the period.

In both of them the element of fiction has been cut down to the barest framework. Where More, and to a much smaller extent Bacon, were interested not only in the formal structure of their imaginary commonwealths but also in the quality of the living of their peoples, Hartlib and Harrington only used the fictional form as a convenient peg upon which to hang model constitutions. There are no people in these Utopias, only institutions. Macaria and Oceana belong, as it were, halfway between Utopia and such essays in constitution-making as The Agreement of the People, and like The Agreement, were seriously advanced by their authors as practical schemes which could profitably and immediately be put into operation in England. This absence of the element of fiction is, perhaps, the main reason why these Utopias are now so seldom read, since, once the circumstances to which they were a response have ceased to exist, it must be confessed that they are somewhat devoid of life and colour.

It is only to be expected, of course, that at a time of revolution, when great changes were in the air, the Utopias would be more practical and less imaginative than at times when their authors saw little hope of their realisation. And the English Revolution, like all bourgeois revolutions, was specially marked by the endless elaboration of paper constitutions, some of which were actually adopted in practice. The reason for this elaborate constitution-making in the bourgeois revolution, which was also marked in America and France, is its double and ambiguous character. The bourgeois revolution is always the work of a combination of class forces, the bourgeoisie drawing into the struggle, under the banner of freedom from privilege, big sections of the lower classes. As a result, when once the first stage has been passed, a further struggle tends to develop between those sections which want to limit the revolution to the ending of feudal privilege and royal absolutism and those determined to proceed to destroy or limit the power of the men of property, without which, as is quickly discovered, the democracy for which the masses supposed themselves to have been fighting is unattainable.

The result is an attempt to strike a balance and stabilise the actual situation in a written and irrevocable constitution. Usually the constitution-making is done by the men of property, who see in it a barrier against further democratic inroads, though sometimes, as in the case of The Agreement of the People, it is the left wing who want to establish themselves at a point which they have reached but which it appears likely to be difficult to hold without such support. In the main, however, it is the right and centre parties who seek to establish an absolute and unchallenged law, preventing further changes from either direction. And in practice, as in England, a number of such balances are arrived at temporarily until one is reached which really reflects the actual relation of class forces.

The key question was that of property. The bourgeoisie fought to establish the absolute right to private property against royal claims and the less clear-cut but more restrictive conceptions of feudalism: in the first period of the revolution, therefore, the claim of the bourgeoisie to an absolute right to enjoy and use their property was objectively progressive. In the second stage, when the lower middle classes were pressing for a fuller democracy to complete the revolution, the rights of property became a barrier behind which the rich entrenched themselves to resist the demands of the Levellers. In the Putney Debates, quoted at the head of this chapter, Ireton, the most conscious theoretician of the men of property, argued:

The objection does not lie in that, the making of the representatives more equal, but in introducing of man into an equality of interest in this government who have no property in this kingdom... You may have such men chosen, or at least a major part of them, as have no local or permanent interest. Why may not these men vote against all property?

Against this argument Rainborough replied with a clear statement of human rights:

I do very well remember that the gentleman in the window said that if it were so, that there were no propriety to be had, because five parts of the nation, the poor people, are now excluded and would then come in. So one on the other side said that if it were otherwise, then rich men only shall be chosen. Then, I say, the one part shall make hewers of wood and drawers of water of the other five, and so the greatest part of the nation be enslaved.

And Sexby similarly:

There are many thousand of us soldiers that have ventured our lives; we have had little propriety in the kingdom as to our estates, yet we have had a birthright. But it seems now, except a man hath a fixed estate in this kingdom he hath no right in this kingdom. I wonder we were so much deceived.

It was this internal struggle which led to the degeneration of the Commonwealth and made the Restoration possible. It was to prevent such conflicts and to give the Republic a firm and permanent basis that Harrington wrote Oceana, and it is to such arguments and passions as these that we must look for the background of that least passionate of books. Before discussing it, however, something must be said of the earlier and less important Macaria.

A Description of the Famous Kingdom of Macaria was published in London in 1641, [5] when the Long Parliament had met and had already won its first important victories. It is to that Parliament that it is dedicated:

Whereas I am confident, that this honourable court will lay the corner-stone of the world’s happiness, before the first recess thereof, I have adventured to cast in my widow’s mite into the treasury; not as an instructor or councellor to this honourable assembly, but having delivered my conception in a fiction, as a more mannerly way; having as my pattern Sir Thomas More and Sir Francis Bacon, once Lord Chancellor of England.

It is in the form of a dialogue between a Scholar and a Traveller, and the latter begins:

In a kingdom called Macaria, the King and the governors do live in great honour and riches, and the people do live in great plenty, prosperity, peace and happiness.

Scholar: That seemeth to me impossible.

Macaria, as is suitable for a Utopia of the dawning bourgeois revolution, is organised on state capitalist rather than communist lines. ‘All traffick is lawful which may enrich the kingdom’, but all is controlled by a great Council, under which are Councils of Husbandry, Fishing, Trade by Land, Trade by Sea and New Plantations. The last of these organised state-aided emigration.

What is quite new in utopian literature is the method by which the institutions of Macaria are to be introduced into England. For the first time, this is not the work of a benevolent Prince but is the result of convincing the people of the benefits of such a change. To bring this about the Scholar promises that in his next sermon he:

... will make it manifest that those that are against this honourable design, are first enemies of God and goodness; secondly enemies to the Commonwealth; thirdly enemies to themselves and their posterity.

Traveller: Why should not all the inhabitants of England join with one consent to make this country to be like Macaria...

Scholar: None but fools or madmen will be against it.

So Utopia begins its second phase, that of belief in the power of persuasion and enlightened self-interest. The time is still far distant when the real nature of the problem of class power will be clearly understood.

Macaria belongs to the first stage of the revolution, the stage of easy confidence and hope. Oceana, which was not published till 1656, though much of it had probably been written considerably earlier, belongs to the closing years of doubt and exhaustion. Already a whole series of experimental constitutions had been tried and had failed. Harrington believed that he knew why, and hoped, not perhaps very confidently, that his plan would be adopted in time to save the Republic.

Harrington was a characteristic but isolated figure. Born in 1611, he was a member of a powerful landowning family. As a young man he showed a great interest in political problems, but, instead of taking part in the struggles of the time, he travelled abroad, studying the institutions of foreign states, especially those of the great aristocratic merchant republics of Holland and Venice. He had also a considerable knowledge of Greek and Roman history, and, as a result, became a convinced republican at a time when even the most advanced of the practical politicians had no thought of doing more than bringing the royal power under the control of Parliament. Yet, with this strong, academic republicanism, he had an equally strong personal attachment to King Charles, and, when Charles was in the hands of the Army, he became Groom of the Bedchamber, a post that required someone who possessed the confidence of both parties. John Aubrey, his close friend, writes that: ‘King Charles loved his company, only he could not endure to heare of a Commonwealth.’

In the actual struggle of the Civil War he took no part and he deeply deplored the king’s execution. Once the Commonwealth had been established, however, his republican convictions made him desire its success, and it was to Cromwell that his Oceana was dedicated.

In spite of this he had some difficulty in obtaining permission to publish it. Olphaeus Megalator, who stands for Cromwell in Oceana, is made to resign his office at the height of his power, setting up a free republic. Consequently the book remained for some time in the hands of the censor, and Toland, who edited Harrington’s works with a short biography, records Cromwell’s characteristic comment:

The Gentleman had like to trepan him out of his power, but what he got by the sword he would not quit for a little paper shot: adding in his usual cant, that he approv'd the Government by a single person as little as any of ‘em, but he was forced to take upon him the office of a High Constable, to preserve the Peace among the several Partys in the Nation, since he saw that being left to themselves they would never agree to any certain form of Government.

In this there is no reason to think Cromwell insincere. He understood to the full the weaknesses of the Commonwealth, if not their root cause, and, in his last years, wrote and spoke as a man without real hope.

And, indeed, the class contradiction at the root of the Commonwealth was so profound that no artificial constitution, however subtly contrived, could have prevented its fall. Nevertheless, Harrington’s scheme was based on the appreciation of a great truth, whose clear enunciation gives him an important place in the development of the conception of historical materialism. The character of a society will depend, he believed, upon the distribution of property among the classes within it. By property he meant landed property, but in the seventeenth century land was still the most important form of property, and he was ready to admit that in certain states, such as Holland and Venice, where this was not the position, his generalisation could bear a wider application. He crystallises it in the dictum:

As is the proportion or balance of Dominion or Property in Land, such is the nature of the Empire. If [he continues] one man be the sole Landlord of a territory, or overbalance the People... the Empire is absolute Monarchy.

If the Few, or a nobility with the Clergy be landlords or overbalance the People... the Empire is mix'd Monarchy, as that of Spain, Poland and late of Oceana [England].

If the whole people be Landlords, or hold the Lands so divided among them that no one Man or number of Men, within the compass of the Few or Aristocracy, overbalance them, the Empire (without the interposition of Force) is a Commonwealth.

The foundation stone of Oceana, therefore, was an Agrarian Law, dividing the land, not indeed among the whole people, since Harrington was by no means a believer in complete democracy, but among a large number. This was done by a decree that no one might hold land valued at more than £2000. This, he argued, would ensure that the number of landowners would never be less than 5000 and would in practice be far more, since it was unlikely that all would have the maximum holding. In order to break up estates still further he proposed to abolish primogeniture, so that all estates were to be divided equally between the sons of the owner. Such an Agrarian Law would give the Commonwealth a firm basis, in much the same way as the Reformation settlement in England was assured by the number of people who had an interest in retaining the lands taken from the church. It is worth noting in this connection the firm basis that the French Revolution did secure later by its wide division of the land among the peasantry. Political power in Oceana was not confined to the landowners but was so distributed that they had a decisive influence. What was proposed in effect was that England should become a country of small landlords and solid freeholders.

Once the foundations of the Commonwealth of Oceana had been secured by this division of the land, Megalator was able to introduce Harrington’s other proposals for the reform of the machinery of Government. These were the secret ballot, both in the election of representatives and in the Parliament itself, indirect election, a system of rotation by which one third of the members of Parliament and of all elected bodies resigned each year and so the whole membership was changed every three years, and a two-chamber Parliament in which the upper and smaller house, with a higher property qualification, debated but did not vote, while the lower house voted but did not debate. Harrington seems to have regarded this lower house as a kind of indirect referendum.

None of these proposals was absolutely new. Harrington’s method was historical rather than empirical and he adopted devices he knew to have been used in the ancient world and in modern states, especially in Venice, for which he had always the greatest admiration. What was new was their combination and the proposal to apply them to the government of a great nation state instead of to the cities and close corporations to which they had hitherto been confined. What he aimed at was a democracy that would avoid corruption and bureaucracy on the one side and, on the other, the irresponsibility of the common people, in whom, like most gentlemanly political thinkers, he had little confidence.

Under the Commonwealth corruption had by no means been destroyed. Winstanley, in a vivid passage in his Law of Freedom in a Platform, had remarked:

If water stands long it corrupts... Some officers of the Commonwealth have grown so mossy for want of moving that they will hardly speak to an old acquaintance. [6]

Harrington proposed to avoid this by allowing the greatest possible number of people to participate in the actual work of government. By the indirect ballot and the property qualification, as well as by his double chamber system, he hoped to avoid the ‘excesses’ of democracy.

Much of Oceana is taken up with speeches in the Senate and with a variety of detailed projects that are now of minor interest. Some of these are fantastic, as the, probably not very serious, proposal to plant Panopea (Ireland) with the Jews, to whom it could become a new national home. Others, like the scheme for a sort of People’s Army, were quite practical in the conditions then existing. Few Utopias have attracted more immediate attention. A gigantic pamphlet literature, for and against, sprang up around Oceana, while in the last years of the Commonwealth a definite Party developed, whose members were drawn chiefly from the more secular wing of the Republicans. Among Harrington’s followers or close associates can be reckoned Henry Nevile, Marten, Algernon Sidney and John Wildman, formerly a leader of the Levellers. In the Parliament that met in January 1659, there were ten or a dozen avowed Harringtonians who lost no opportunity of advancing his constitutional proposals.

In the same year Harrington founded the Rota Club, perhaps the first purely political debating society, whose business was conducted strictly according to Oceanic principles. It was a remarkable platform for completely free discussion and many of the most distinguished men of the day took part in its proceedings either as members or visitors. With the Restoration the Rota, like all other forms of republican activity, was proscribed, and Harrington, with Wildman and others, was imprisoned. He was afterwards released, his health broken by close confinement, and, Toland says, by overdoses of Guaiacum, prescribed to him as a cure for the scurvy. In his last years he was troubled with a ‘deep conceit and fancy that his perspiration turned into flies and sometimes into bees’, but apart from this obsession he was quite rational and lived quietly in the country till his death in 1677.

With the Restoration the political influence of Oceana came to an end in England, but in the American and French Revolutions, when attention was turned once more to the shaping of constitutions, its influence again became important. John Adams and James Otis, among others in America, were enthusiastic admirers of Harrington’s work, and the constitution of Massachusetts embodied so many of his ideas that it was actually formally proposed to change the name of the state to Oceana. The influence of Harrington’s ideas can also be seen in the original constitutions of Carolina, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and it was probably as a disciple of Harrington that Adams insisted so strongly upon a two-chamber Congress for the Union.

In France the Abbé Sieyès included in the constitution which he drafted, and which was adopted in 1800, some of Harrington’s most important proposals, notably indirect election and the division of the legislature into two chambers, one of which debated and the other made decisions. The scheme was a failure because the second chamber became a quite formal body ratifying decisions which in fact had been reached elsewhere, and because, as always, the inner logic of the bourgeois revolution was too powerful to be arrested by any constitutional expedients, however carefully worked out. Nevertheless, the fact that in both the American and the French Revolutions Harrington’s Utopia was the one to which the acutest political theorists turned, is a proof of its close relation to the actual problems of a revolutionary age.

Chapter III: Utopia and the Reaction

It might have been expected that the Restoration period would have little or nothing to show in the way of Utopian literature: that this is not the case is a strong proof of the popularity and unfailing appeal that books of this kind have had. The Restoration Utopias are of low quality and contribute little of positive value to the development of the Utopian conception. They are of considerable interest, however, because of the closeness with which they reflect the change in the regime and the new political atmosphere. In this connection it is highly significant that two of the four books to be considered here are continuations of Bacon’s unfinished New Atlantis, since of all the major Utopias this is the least radical and politically advanced.

The first of these continuations, New Atlantis. Begun by the Lord Verulam, Viscount St Albans: and Continued by R H Esquire. Wherein is Set Forth a Platform of Monarchical Government, was published in London in September 1660 in the first flush of royalist enthusiasm. It is dedicated, with unconscious irony to:

My most Sacred Sovereign Charles II. If in the ensuing character of a puissant and most accomplished Monarch all your Majestie’s Princely Vertues are not fully portraid (for I am sensible the picture may seem drawn with too much shadow) I shall humbly beg your gracious pardon; this being only the first draught of that immense beauty a more deliberate hand perhaps could have delineated in more lively colours.

Like Charles, Salomona was pleased to regard himself as the father of his people and was accustomed to call them his children, but we are told that:

His chastity was singular, he never being seen to converse with any woman but his Princely Spouse or some of his nearest relations.

He was equally abstemious, his usual drink being a little sugared water. However, he enjoyed watching horse-racing, which in Bensalem was managed without jockeys!

Many of the incidental details are plagiarised from More, but all More’s specifically progressive features are omitted. Most of the narrative is in the form of a dialogue between the imaginary narrator and a Bensalemite magistrate or Alcaldorem. The author obviously does not understand the real nature of the Restoration settlement, but naively imagines that England had now returned to the state of affairs which existed before the revolution. The Alcaldorem, asked how Bensalem can be governed without a Parliament, replies –

The people of Bensalem have it as a received maxim among them that their Salomona neither can nor will do them any injury, they being the members of the body whereof he is the head.

– and adds that in England it is to be doubted if Parliaments will long continue, at any rate in their present power. He goes on to expound the theoretical basis of the constitution:

We conceive Monarchy the nearest to perfection, that is, to God, the wise Governor of the Universe, and therefore best.

The nobility depend on the Monarch for their advancement and the people are loyal, peaceful and virtuous.

As befits a monarchy, the government and social structure throughout is entirely patriarchal, and many of their features look back to the Middle Ages. Every man must have a trade which he is forbidden to change, magistrates have the power to regulate industry and the quality of all goods produced, to keep the public granaries stocked and to enclose commons and wastes. Landlords are obliged to let land on long leases and at fixed and reasonable rents. The advance of technology and science in the seventeenth century is reflected, however, in the obligation of tenants to plant half their pastures with lucerne or one of the other artificial grass crops then coming into fashion in England, and in the great variety of manures used. In general, though, this Utopia is a simple-minded attempt to go back, not only to the period before the revolution, but beyond that to wipe away many of the economic and social changes which led up to it.

The second continuation of New Atlantis was the work of Joseph Glanvill, a much more considerable writer and public figure than the anonymous RH. Glanvill was closely associated with the Cambridge Platonists, the last offshoot in England of renaissance Humanism. The Cambridge Platonists, Henry More, Cudworth, John Smith and others, were a well-defined school who attempted to turn the tables both on the mechanical materialists and the enthusiasts of the Puritan sects by demonstrating the reasonableness of religion, and especially of the Anglican Church. In this way they met with considerable success in an age which was attaching more and more importance to reason but which still wished to reconcile reason with revealed religion. Glanvill himself was both an Anglican clergyman and a Fellow of the Royal Society. In his own day he was accused of atheism on account of his early book, The Vanity of Dogmatising and later has been regarded as a credulous fanatic for his Saducismus Triumphatus in which he tried to prove the reality of witchcraft. Neither of these accusations is really just, for what he was actually trying to do was to link the experimental materialism of Bacon with the rational mysticism of the Cambridge Platonists.

In his continuation of New Atlantis he describes Bensalem in the throes of revolution, although this revolution is looked at almost entirely from the standpoint of the theological struggle. He sees the revolution, therefore, as a conflict between right reason and irrational fanaticism. When the Bensalemites had deposed and murdered their ‘Pious Prince’, the way was opened for every form of extravagance and unreason. The Ataxites, the Puritan Party:

... all cried up their own class as the only Saints, and People of God: all vilified Reason as Carnal, and Incompetent, and an enemy to the things of the Spirit... All talk'd of their extraordinary Communion with God, their special Experience, Illuminations and Discoveries; and accordingly all demeaned themselves with much sawciness and irreverence towards God, and contempt of those that were not of the same phantastical Fashion.

Against them Glanvill set up a rival school, drawn from the Cambridge Platonists, who restore to religion reason, moderation, simplicity and dignity – in short, bring about an Anglican revival:

They told the Ataxites that though they talk'd much of Closing with Christ, Getting in to Christ, Rolling upon Christ, and having an interest in Christ; and made silly people believe there was something of Divine Mystery or extraordinary spirituality under the sound of these words; that yet, in good earnest, either they understood not what they said and mean'd nothing at all by them; or else the sense of them was but believing Christ’s Doctrines, obeying his laws, and depending upon his promises; plain and known things.

As a result of their efforts the Ataxite Party was discredited and overthrown and Bensalem returned to reasonable religion and monarchical government. Glanvill’s interests were not really political, but, so far as I can discover, his is certainly much the earliest Utopia in which an actual revolutionary struggle is described. The Revolution had brought with it the understanding that societies are constantly developing and being transformed through man’s conscious efforts. For this reason, in spite of his very slight interest in politics as such, Glanvill’s is an important contribution to the history of the English Utopia. It should be added that the work, as published in 1676, is itself incomplete. It is a part only of a much longer book in continuation of New Atlantis, known to have existed in manuscript but which has now been lost.

The third of our Restoration Utopias has, strictly speaking, possibly no place in this book, since it was probably the work of a French writer, Denis Vairasse d'Allais. But it was actually published in an English translation in London (1675-79) two years before the French edition appeared. In this English version it is attributed to an imaginary Captain Siden. It illustrates both the set of opinions we have noted already in the two continuations of New Atlantis and some other interests characteristic of the period both in England and France.

There is the same marked decline in political interest, and in its place there is a lively curiosity about the doings and manners of a strange people, an interest that can almost be described as anthropological and which is clearly the effect of the active exploration of the remoter parts of the earth and their opening to European intercourse and commerce.

The History of the Sevarites or Severambi tells how after the Flood the Earthly Paradise was transported to a region South-East of the Cape of Good Hope and peopled with a new creation, resembling men but not identical with them. It has many of the characteristics of the Earthly Paradise of Cokaygne described in Part I, such as limitless abundance and a complete absence of poverty. On the other hand, Severambè, being a seventeenth-century Utopia, has a society based on reason and natural law, and, inevitably, is ruled by a hereditary, despotic and quasi-divine king. In this respect, and like the other Utopias of the time, its organisation has a close likeness to that outlined by Hobbes in his Leviathan, though it is not possible to say whether this was due to a direct influence or to the general effect of the absolutism existing in France and the struggle of Charles II to re-establish absolutism in England.

There is no indication that the writer was very interested in such political questions, once he had paid his tribute of flattery to the prevailing orthodoxy. This done, he proceeds to deal in detail and real animation with all sorts of sexual and miscellaneous customs of Severambè, and with the various marvels to be found there. There was, for example, a special kind of temporary marriage for travellers:

Because many among us are sometimes obliged to travel and leave their wives at home, we keep in all cities a number of women slaves appointed to their use, so that we do not only give to every traveller Meat, Drink and Lodging, but also a Woman to lye with as openly and lawfully as if she were his wife.

This was doubtless a reflection of some Eastern modes of hospitality, news of which was becoming current in Europe.

The treatment of crime also receives some attention, and among criminals the Severambi seem to have reckoned lawyers. This is partly the normal hostile reaction of simple people to the law, but the passage suggests that it may also be the result of the considerable part that lawyers in England had played during the Civil War:

On both sides were the lawyers’ Cells or little Closets. These are a certain number of men, who are locked up as Prisoners in their place, and not suffered to range up and down the city, for fear they should infect the rest of men with their idle notions and Quirks. They are all kept, the Judges only excepted, as our mal and craftie men in Europe, are confined to Bedlams, and as the wild beasts to their dens; for by this policy they preserve the city in quiet.

In spite of the stress placed upon reason in Severambè, this Utopia shows none of Bacon’s enthusiasm for science. Its place is taken by a great variety of magical talismans, by which wonders are worked, especially the unnatural changing and distortion of the shapes of animals, in which the people appear to have taken a peculiar delight.

It is indeed, the political and cultural innocence of the author of this Utopia which gives it its main interest, showing how much the prevailing political atmosphere could affect what is really only meant to be read as a wonder tale. As a wonder tale it has close connections with the type of Utopian romance which became more widely current in the next century. It is a forerunner of the Rousseauesque glorification of the simple aborigine and of Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s ‘Voyage’ in France, and, in England, of the work of such different though related writers as Swift, Defoe, Berington and Paltock.

A similar innocence marks a tale that deserves at least a mention here both for its authorship and its remarkable anticipation of Robinson Crusoe. The Isle of Pines (1668) was the work of Henry Nevile, wit, republican and closest associate of Harrington. Nevile was widely credited with a share in the production of Oceana, though nothing could less resemble that ponderous book than his own acknowledged work. Nevile’s hero, George Pine, like Crusoe, was wrecked on an island which:

... being a large island, and disjoined and out of sight of any other land, was wholly uninhabited by any people, neither was there any hurtful beast to annoy us. But on the contrary, the country was so very pleasant, being always clothed in green, and full of pleasant fruits, and variety of birds, ever warm, and never colder than in England in September; so that this place, had it the culture that skilful people might bestow on it, would prove a paradise.

In this paradise Pine, like Crusoe, had the blessing of securing all the stores of the wrecked ship, and, unlike Crusoe, of the company of four women saved from the wreck with him. Such use did he make of all this that he and they lived in the greatest ease, prosperity and happiness, and, when eighty years old, and after fifty-nine years upon the island, he was able to count his descendants to the number of one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine. It is the secular and amoral character of this little Utopia that is most striking. Nevile, like Harrington and Marten, was an outstanding representative of the rationalist element in the English Revolution: in the Parliament of 1659, in which he was the leader of the Harringtonian group, an attempt was made to unseat him on the ground of his alleged atheism. And on their island Pine and his women-folk live according to their natural inclinations without the slightest regard to moral laws or any external prohibitions, with results that appear satisfactory to all concerned. It is the triumph of natural human goodness left to assert itself. If the setting here anticipates that of Crusoe’s island the spirit is rather that of Diderot and the French Enlightenment.


1. We are reminded that Aubrey says of Bacon: ‘None of his servants durst appeare before him without Spanish leather boots; for he would smelle the neates leather, which offended him.’

2. James is said to have remarked, upon the publication of the Novum Organum, that ‘it is like the peace of God – it passes all understanding’.

3. It is interesting to see how Jerusalem and Babylon develop from mainly religious into social and political symbols. Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy, Part III, Section I (1621) quotes Augustine: ‘Two cities make two loves, Jerusalem and Babylon, the love of God the one, the love of the world the other; of these two cities we all are citizens, as, by examination of Ourselves, we may soon find, and of which.’ An army hymn of the Civil War period has the lines: ‘The Lord begins to honour us, / The Saints are marching on; / The sword is sharp, the arrows swift / To destroy Babylon.’ Blake carries the process much further, for which see Part V, Chapter I below.

4. It may be argued that it is rather the case that Cokaygne contains many of the features of the Biblical Eden. Perhaps this is then the case: the important thing is that Eden and Cokaygne both contain a number of traditional features common to a number of mythologies in various parts of the world. And the thing that has to be explained is not really the diffusion of these myths but their abiding popularity in the minds of the people.

5. Macaria means ‘blessed’ and according to More was a country not far from Utopia.

6. Quoted from HFR Smith’s Harrington and His Oceana. Smith points out that Harrington must have been acquainted with the writings and activities of Winstanley and the Diggers, who also made a redivision of the land essential to the establishment of a true Commonwealth. The Diggers, who were mainly proletarian, proposed a much more radical and communist redivision than did Harrington. Winstanley’s Law of Freedom, though it is direct propaganda and not in the form of fiction, might well be reckoned among the Utopias of the seventeenth century.