Monday, June 8, 2015

The City of the Sun by Tommaso Campanella

Fantasy island
The City of the Sun was written in 1602 by Tommaso Campanella, an Italian philosopher and Dominican brother. It is a utopian work, obviously influenced by its predecessors, Plato’s Republic and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. Compared to those earlier works, Campanella’s ideal society is more imaginative, less practical, and as a result more fun for the modern reader. Campanella structures his political and philosophical discourse in the form of a dialogue between “a Grandmaster of the Knights Hospitalier and a Genoese Sea-Captain, his guest.” The former says very little, while the latter regales him with details of a fascinating foreign land referred to only as the City of the Sun. This perfect metropolis is located either on or near the island of Taprobane, which is part of Sri Lanka.

The city is built upon a high hill in the form of seven walled concentric circles. Within the highest and innermost circle sits a temple where resides the city’s highest official Hoh, also referred to as Metaphysic. Beneath him rules three princes named Power, Wisdom, and Love, who act as cabinet ministers over their respective domains. Subordinate to them are a number of lesser “doctors” named after their areas of influence—e.g. Cosmographus, Arithmeticus, Poeta, Logicus, etc. The economic system at work is essentially socialistic, similar to More’s Utopia, but the political structure is rigidly hierarchical, with authority trickling down literally and figuratively from the top of the hill. Each official seems to have totalitarian rule over his underlings. The rulers of the City of the Sun are not just politicians, they are also priests, so their authority is reinforced by their altitudinal proximity to God himself. The religion practiced in this theocratic society is a form of Christianity, but one rendered almost unrecognizable by its obsession with astrology. The seven known planets, a frequent motif in their architecture and ceremonies, are in fact the inspiration for the seven-tiered city.

For today’s reader, two positive aspects of Campanella’s ideal city really stand out. One is the devotion to knowledge. Despite their isolated location, the inhabitants of the city are familiar with the scholarship of the world, and great philosophers and religious leaders are venerated. The seven walls of the city are painted with educational murals depicting the arts and sciences. The second remarkable characteristic of this society is its commitment to physical health, both through diet and exercise. Even among the women, strength is admired over delicate beauty. The citizens practice a sort of universal military discipline that’s reminiscent of ancient Sparta. In fact, much of life in the City of the Sun seems strictly regimented, which, despite the religious and poetic touches, leans unpleasantly towards fascism. Even in matters of love and sex, Campanella advocates a system that sounds a lot like eugenics.

The City of the Sun is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. The magistrates with all their illustrative titles, the astrological imagery, and the architectural grandiloquence create an experience equivalent to stepping into a beautiful allegorical painting. In the long run, however, one would likely chafe under this authoritarian hierarchy. This is one society that’s just begging for a rebellion. Such is the appeal of utopias, nevertheless. Regardless of its feasibility or practicality, The City of the Sun is a splendid, trippy dream. Over 400 years after its creation, it still stirs the imagination.
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