Utopian privacy

What has utopia to do with privacy?

Nothing at all, according to Raphael Hythloday, the narrator of Thomas More’s eponymous Utopia, first published in Latin in 1516. Hythloday reports what he observed when he travelled to the island of Utopia:

Every house has a front door to the street and a back door to the garden. The double doors, which open easily with a push of the hand and close again automatically, let anyone come in—so there is nothing private anywhere. Every ten years they exchange the houses themselves by lot.[1]

Utopia has neither private property nor privacy. If we take Hythoday at his word, utopian privacy should be an oxymoron. However, early modern travellers were widely regarded as liars, so we might be sceptical of Hythloday’s report. Readers who know Greek might recognize that his name means ‘nonsense peddler’.[2] So how seriously can we take More’s figure of the easily opening doors?

The passage is adapted from no lesser an authority than Plato. In the Republic, the Guardians are forbidden private property ‘beyond the barest essentials … none of them shall possess a dwelling-house or other property to which all have not the right of entry’.[3] More used humour and word games for the serious purpose of imagining what a society might look like with a different balance between private and public interests. His work was experimental, meant for contemplation by fellow humanists, and not to be taken literally as any kind of blueprint. His own views about the positive or negative values of privacy and communism have long been debated, but whatever he thought privately, his evocation of an egalitarian society without private property has been used by both communists and Christians to claim More as one of their own.[4]

Woodcut illustration to the 1516 edition of Thomas More’s Utopia (Public Domain).

Utopian literature is a self-referential, intertextual tradition, in which utopists frequently claim to offer a better vision of utopia than their predecessors. More coined the word ‘utopia’ from the Greek topos ‘place’. The prefix u- represents the two Greek prefixes eu– and ou-, so that utopia signifies both a good place and a no-place. Utopia’s poet laureate Anemolius explains the pun in a poem which strikes a competitive contrast with Plato’s Republic:

‘No-Place’ was once my name, I lay so far;
But now with Plato’s state I can compare,
Perhaps outdo her (for what he only drew
In empty words I have made live anew
In men and wealth, as well as splendid laws):
‘The Good Place’ they should call me, with good cause (123).

So did More think that privacy was incompatible with a good society? It is clear that he regarded private property as a social problem. His work was inspired in part by the negative effects of incipient capitalism, in which the enclosures of common lands were forcing many rural people to become vagrants, beggars and thieves. As Hythloday observes, England’s sheep ‘that commonly are so meek and eat so little; now … have become so greedy and fierce that they devour human beings themselves’ (19).

More goes beyond Plato with the concrete reference to ‘double doors, which open easily with a push of the hand’. The idea of the front door to the home being open for anyone to enter would have troubled More’s readers as much as it does us today. As Daniel Jütte argues, the door to the house in European societies has a long history of being locked and bolted in both the city and countryside.[5] Utopia then presents privacy and private property as a Gordian knot, anathema to social harmony.

What did later utopians make of More’s open doors? Could we trace a history of privacy through representations of doors in utopian literature? Let’s look at a couple of examples.

An interesting example comes from The History of the Sevarambians by Denis Vairasse (1675–79). When the narrator, Captain Siden, sees the viceregal palace in the centre of the utopian city for the first time, he makes an interesting observation about its transparency:

[W]e came to a spacious Square, in the midst of which stood this most magnificent Palace, built all with white Marble, and adorn’d with divers Pieces of Architecture and Sculpture. This Building, like all their others, is a Quadrangle, not less than five hundred Geometrick Paces in the Front, and two Miles round.—A prodigious Bigness for one House! It has twelve Doors in each side of it, which being exactly opposite to each other, one sees quite through the Palace at so many different Places.[6]

The twelve doors are a reference to the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21), signifying that the palace is a microcosm of the utopian society and the universe. That Siden can see into the interior of the building from outside complicates the easy conclusion that such utopian architectures are simple precursors of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. As Lise Leibacher-Ouvrard points out, the twelve doors not only allow the rulers to maintain surveillance over the citizenry, they also enable the citizens to return the gaze.[7] One illustrator’s idea of a Sevarambian palace is suggestive of the idea of their transparency:

Copperplate illustration showing palace with view through large windows, from the 1682 Dutch edition of History of the Sevarambians.

This two-way transparency is not limited to the impressive public buildings of the rulers. Residential buildings, called osmasies, mimic the palace on a smaller scale. They have four doors on each side, opposite each other, and are transected by corridors leading to a central courtyard with a fountain that reminds the narrator of a cloister. This opens up the possibility of space for privacy. Leibacher-Ouvrard remarks that the osmasies are ‘at the same time turned inward on themselves, protecting the intimacy of their green heart, and open to the exterior world’.[8] These architectures are exploited by characters who escape the gaze of the authorities to engage in forbidden sexual encounters, heretical worship or other illicit activities, in the many sub-narratives of Sevarambians.

Hendrik Smeeks’s Description of the Mighty Kingdom of Krinke Kesmes recounts the observations of utopia by the merchant, Juan de Posos, whose ship is blown off course in a storm en route from Panama to the Philippines. Stranded on the island of Krinke Kesmes, he meets the supervisor of aliens, the Garbon, who informs him about the Kesmians’ political institutions, geography and history. There is no explicit abolition of privacy or private property in Krinke Kesmes, but we can glean something of attitudes to privacy from descriptions of their customs.

On his tour of the City Hall, de Posos is confronted with a custom that he had read ‘in More’s Utopia, yet believed … to have been a fiction’, in which potential marriage partners inspect each other’s naked bodies as a buyer would a horse. More borrowed this idea from Plato’s Laws.[9] In Utopia, the ritual’s aim is to prevent either party to the marriage from deceiving the other about bodily flaws:

Whether she be widow or virgin, the woman is shown naked to the suitor by a responsible and respectable matron; and similarly, some honourable man presents the suitor naked to the woman. … If some disfiguring accident takes place after marriage, each person must bear his own fate; but beforehand everyone should be legally protected from deception. (83–4)

It is not stated where the inspection takes place, but since utopian doors are unlocked, it must be assumed that, whether indoors or outdoors, it can be witnessed by anyone. In Krinke Kesmes, the ritual takes place in a special room of the City Hall called the ‘wedding chamber’. De Posos reports that a male relative of the groom and a female relative of the bride escort the prospective partners inside:

Having arrived in the chamber and closed the doors, these each undress their relation and display them to one another quite naked, who then scrutinize each other behind and in front, moving standing, stooping &c. … if both are well and sound, then the marriage is concluded and must proceed.[10]

De Posos’s visit to the wedding chamber is interrupted by four people who enter ‘covered in silk’ to perform the nuptial inspection, so that he ‘had to depart, the door was closed’ (88).

Copperplate illustration from the 1721 German edition of Krinke Kesmes, Deutsches Textarchiv (Creative Commons licence).

Smeeks’s adaptation is instructive of differences between his and More’s conception of the problem of privacy and its limits. In Krinke Kesmes, the public performance of the ritual is limited to a private room with locked doors, preserving some degree of the marriage partners’ modesty. The ritual’s relative privacy is emphasized in the narrative by allowing de Posos to view the wedding chamber, but making him leave it when the couple arrives, the door closing behind him. The reader’s desire to view the ritual has been titillated but denied. Nonetheless, de Posos says that the custom strikes him as ‘peculiar [and] at odds with honour and modesty’, which suggests that it would violate his sense of privacy. Where the doors to the houses of More’s Utopia can be opened by anyone at anytime, Kesmian doors have locks and someone controls access with a key, providing opportunities and space for some degree of privacy.

Many utopians have pondered the problem of how society might be remade to achieve a more harmonious and egalitatarian balance between public and private interests. More’s figure of the open doors links privacy with private property in an inextricable knot. While privacy is more limited in all of these utopias than we might accept today, in the later works, Vairasse and Smeeks nuance the absence of privacy that Hythloday claims prevails in Utopia, and open up spaces where private experience might be enjoyed. That suggests a marked shift in the conception of privacy between the early sixteenth and early eighteenth centuries that requires more investigation. These few examples offer evidence that utopias are excellent sources for the study of early modern privacy.


[1] Thomas More, Utopia, ed. George M. Logan, trans. by Robert M. Adams, 3rd edn. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 48.

[2] More, Utopia, p. xi.

[3] More, Utopia, p. 48, n. 18.

[4] Marie-Claire Phélippeau, ‘Controversial More and Puzzling Utopia: Five Hundred Years of History’, Utopian Studies, 27.3 (2016), 569–85 (575–6).

[5] Daniel Jütte, The Strait Gate: Thresholds and Power in Western History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), p. 86.

[6] Denis Veiras [Vairasse], The History of the Sevarambians: A Utopian Novel, ed. by John Christian Laursen and Cyrus Masroori (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006), p. 93.

[7] Leibacher-Ouvrard, Lise, Libertinage et utopies sous le règne de Louis XIV (Genève: Librairie Droz, 1989), pp. 99–100.

[8] Leibacher-Ouvrard, p. 100.

[9] More, Utopia, p. 83, n. 99.

[10] Smeeks, Hendrik, The Mighty Kingdom of Krinke Kesmes (1708), ed. David Fausett, trans. Robert H. Leek (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995), p. 88.

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