Babylon Is Everywhere: The City as Man's Fate

By Wolf Schneider; Ingeborg Sammet et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
THE SO-CALLED CITY OF TOMORROW

IN 1516 Sir Thomas More wrote, in Latin, the famous novel with the formidable title De optimo rei publicae statu, sive de nova insula Utopia ("Of the Ideal State, or About the New Island of Nowhere"). On the borderline between jesting and being serious, he describes an island state whose inhabitants live happily under perfect communistic conditions. The island has fifty-four "spacious and splendid cities" which all look alike. The capital Amaurotum is surrounded by a wall and a kind of barbed-wire fence made of brambles. The houses, which are mostly three storeys high, cannot be locked, because private possessions are not tolerated. The owners change every ten years and are selected by drawing lots.

By now the novel has been almost completely forgotten except for the name of the imaginary island, Utopia. In Greek literature there are already examples of utopian thought, drawing the picture of a presumably ideal state. In his Republic, Plato himself, who as a Greek made no distinction between state and city, placed his imaginary city on an island and demanded of its inhabitants a frugal and constrained life with a number of communistic characteristics. In 1602 the Dominican monk Thomas Campanella revealed himself as a rabid communist in his book The City of the Sun, where private property was not to exist and even the begetting of children was to be regulated by the state.

One utopian-state idea that has greatly changed the world was evolved by Karl Marx. As unrealistic and truly utopian as the prediction may have sounded -- namely, that a classless society was finally to replace the state and that thus a paradise on earth should be created -- it happens that today a thousand million people are engaged in pursuing this utopia, under the guidance or the scourge of the Kremlin. This experience should prevent us from dismissing the city utopias of former and present days with a smile, unless they are identified from the outset as satires or fairy tales.

In 414 B.C., when the Peloponnesian War was in its eighteenth year, Aristophanes tried to comfort himself and his fellow Athenians with his utopian comedy The Birds, in which two Athenians who no longer can bear to be in their city suggest to the birds that they found a city between heaven and earth:

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