Making an Enemy of Luxury

Imagining utopia—and condemning excess—during the Enlightenment.

By Gregory Claeys

Monday, September 12, 2022

The Land of Cockaigne, where working people are sent to a fortress-prison while others enjoy plenty.

Description of the Land of Cockaigne, Where Whoever Works the Least Earns the Most, Italy, seventeenth century. The Getty Research Institute.

Following the English Revolution and a puritanical cultural interlude, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 under Charles II commenced an age of excess. The new commercial wealth that began to be more widely dispersed by the century’s end set off a veritable explosion in the emulation of courtly and aristocratic styles. A much more indulgent attitude toward vice soon prevailed, and satirizing luxury thus became a leading theme in the literary utopias of this period. Memoirs Concerning the Life and Manners of Captain Mackheath (1728) comments on the epoch that:

There arose among us a general and uncommon desire of money, and after this an extraordinary appetite for power; the two great fundamentals of every evil. Avarice immediately overthrew all probity, and trust, and mutual confidence;…After this extraordinary change of property, virtue seemed to become vice, and vice, virtue; and all men inclined to think that if they had wealth, they had a right to everything;…and this poison having thus mixed with the blood and spirits of the people, they became weak and enervated: the desires of mankind after wealth being insatiable, were not to be diminished either by want or abundance. After this followed rapine, injustice, a general dissolution of morals; and in each man was found a desire after the goods of his neighbor, and the rich oppressed the poor without modesty or moderation.

Similarly, Memoirs of the Court of Lilliput (1727) laments that “wherever luxury and idleness presides, there will be room for pride, for vanity, and lust; and that led me to a reflection how much an elevated station is an enemy to virtue; and how greatly we deceive ourselves in believing that riches are the source of happiness.”

Another satire from 1744 contrasts the dissolute manners of Europe to those of Madagascar, and notes that “it is our own luxurious effeminacy that has stripped us out of our natural simplicity, and clothed us with the rags of dissimulation.” By contrast were the “happy people, unto whom the desire of gold hath not yet arrived,” for modern times “may be truly called the Age of Gold, / For it, both honor, love, and friends are sold.”

The literary utopia thus came frequently to symbolize resistance to, or at least contempt for, increasing inequality and luxury. It doubtless echoed nostalgia for a world being rapidly lost, a sense of guilt at the abundant selfishness of the age, as well as the appeal of new primitive worlds now being discovered and conquered. To focus on Britain briefly, four models of virtuous restraint dominate eighteenth- and nineteenth-century debates: the idea of an arcadian state of nature, often without private property, where luxury does not yet exist; the primitive Christian community, often with uniform dress and consumption and prohibitions on frivolity and luxury; the classical republican ideal, where property and often trade are limited; and a Tory or Country Party ideal, where corruption is associated with the growing predominance of a Whiggish commercial interest, and contrasted with a virtuous landed interest and patriot-king. Utopian texts thus echoed the wider debate of the period between opponents of commercial development, notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and its defenders, like David Hume and Adam Smith.

Both the “hard primitivism” of Spartan and puritan utopias and the “soft primitivism” of arcadian plenty are represented in Enlightenment utopias. The Golden Age or Cockaigne-like trope of discovering an unknown land, often in the South Seas or Australasia, where pursuing gain and riches is unknown, is adopted in, for instance, The Island of Content (1709). “Nature,” we are told, “is here so lavish of her plenty that we abound in variety of dainties, without human labor.” No meat is eaten “because we look upon it sinful to destroy one of God’s creatures for the preservation of another.” No need exists for “mercers and drapers, to dun and plague our quality.” All have

the liberty, without the least expense, of choosing such apparel as shall best humor their own fancy; for which reason our very women here are wholly innocent of pride, not at all regarding superficial ornaments, endeavoring only to excel each other in virtue, modesty, eloquence, music, and suchlike female graces that are ornaments to the mind, as well as to the body.

Similarly, in The Adventures and Surprizing Deliverances of James Dubourdieu (1719), a group called the “children of love” have been chosen by God for their innocence of sin. Among them:

indeed there was no occasion for magistrates, when there was no ground for contention; there being no property among them, but a perpetual and uninterrupted course of a perfect love of one another. What the earth produced was a sufficient stock plentifully to provide for their subsistence; and their cultivation of these products was so far from being laborious to them that it was only their exercise and diversion.

George, Prince of Wales, picking his teeth with a meat fork after a lavish meal.

Many Enlightenment literary utopias envisioned these scenarios occurring on a small or monastic scale. Some such projections were correspondingly austere. Two works evidently by the same author express this theme. An Essay Concerning Adepts (1698) asks, “Why could not all superfluous expenses be regulated, and all the occasions of them cut off,” including the “unnecessary arts, unnecessary ornaments in clothing and furniture, and unnecessary eating and drinking.” “To live luxuriously,” we are informed, “is but a custom: if it was broken off, nobody would miss it, and evidently it would be of infinite advantage to the society that it were so.” Meals might be made common by law, thought the author, and limited to an hour’s duration. Similarly, Annus Sophiae Jubilaeus: The Sophick Constitution; or, The Evil Customs of the World Reformed (1700) contends for equality and universal charity, and for imitating Lycurgan Sparta, with common living in “colleges.” Luxury is the great enemy. All current disorders come “from superinduced necessaries, from a custom of being used to them, and desiring them more inordinately than those things which are actually necessary.” Uniform attire for all of the same age is recommended, as well as plain but wholesome food. Alchemy would ensure that “everybody knows how to make easily infinite quantities of gold and silver,” such that “money must needs grow vile and good for nothing; nobody will slave for wages, and all will be rich alike.” Thence iron money alone would exist. In addition, “painting, engraving, weaving of ribbon or lace, or the like frivolous arts, are blotted out of the catalogue of our manufactures.” Indeed, “all those things therefore which are superfluous and cause unnecessary expenses should be forbidden by express laws. Even excess in cloths and apparel should be punishable.” Streets would be identical, with no lanes or alleys, and each house cleaning its respective section thereof. Four parishes would make up a “little town…like a kingdom or a little world, which may subsist of itself—and need not know what there is beyond its limits.” Equality is here proclaimed to be the law of God, which would have endured had Adam not sinned. “Adepts” are thus described as approving

best of simplicity of life. An adept will not have rich cloths, furniture, and equipage, nor will accept of titles or honor; those things and philosophy are inconsistent: he looks upon all men as being equal and brethren, and upon himself as no better than others; he would not have others respect him more than he would respect them. As for titles and dignities, he looks upon them as things very dangerous, and not easily reconcilable with Christian humility; he would have all men go plain, even plainer than the Quakers.

“Soft primitivist” texts in this period usually condemn the degeneracy of modern Europe. John Kirkby’s popular novel The Capacity and Extent of the Human Understanding; Exemplified in the Extraordinary Case of Automathes (1745), for example, juxtaposes “following nature” to the “life of luxury.” Here a shipwrecked couple discovers that while

they had not now the same advantages of society, which their former life afforded; but this was balanced to them, when they considered, that they had so much less of vanity and impertinence. In fine, they began to look upon this change as so far from being an evil that they blessed God for using such a means to bring them to a true knowledge of themselves.

As a result, they now had

a more true and solid felicity than what their former condition had ever afforded them…They now looked upon themselves to be as sufficiently supplied with all the real necessities of life as ever, though not in so splendid a manner. Their homely fare went down with as good a relish as when they were entertained with more costly dishes; and their sleep was as sweet upon their beds of moss as what they formerly enjoyed upon those of down: the reason was because they now eat and sleep only to satisfy nature and not luxury.

Some satires in this period cut in the other direction and mocked the whimsicality of the primitivists. Sometimes read literally, Edmund Burke’s well-contrived send-up of Bolingbroke’s deism A Vindication of Natural Society; or, A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind from Every Species of Artificial Society (1756) is a case in point. Here “a state of nature,” where it was “an invariable law that a man’s acquisitions are in proportion to his labors,” is contrasted to “a state of artificial society,” where it was “a law as constant and as invariable that those who labor most enjoy the fewest things; and that those who labor not at all have the greatest number of enjoyments.” The appeal of a state “founded in natural appetites and instincts, and not in any positive institution,” by contrast to “political society,” was obvious:

Here there are no wants which nature gives, and in this state men can be sensible of no other wants which are not to be supplied by a very moderate degree of labor; therefore there is no slavery. Neither is there any luxury, because no single man can supply the materials of it. Life is simple, and therefore it is happy.

In those utopias which assumed that the function of satire was reforming manners, institutional regulation and the enforced restraint of consumption are often prescribed. In A Description of New Athens in Terra Australis Incognita (1720), one of the first English-language texts set in this location, wages and prices are fixed at a level “sufficient to maintain them, their families, and dependents,” and forced agreements for lower wages are prohibited. Oppressing the poor has been abolished, along with coaches, so that all except the sick and lame are obliged to walk. A Christian ideal of equality and brotherhood prevails, without sectarian division.

A skeleton drags away a seated old man as a young man and man hold bags of money over a strongbox.

Some utopias projected the love of wealth being converted into a zeal for public service. A widely read work, The Adventures of Sig. Gaudentio di Lucca (1737), recounts the discovery of a land hidden in the African deserts where grain, gold, fruits, and inventions permit even “the magnificence of life.” Its laws aim “to keep up the equality of brotherhood and dignity, as exact as they can,” and to this end patriarchal rulers distribute property for the benefit of the public. Here “they are all masters, and all servants, everyone has his employment; generally speaking, the younger sort wait on the elders, changing their offices as it is thought proper by their superiors, as in a well-regulated community.” Public employments are described as being “rather an honorary trouble than an advantage, but for the real good of the whole.” As a result:

They place their great ambition in the grandeur of their country, looking on those as narrow and mercenary spirits who can prefer a part to the whole; they pride themselves over other nations on that account, each man having a proportionable share in the public grandeur, the love of glory and praise seems to be their greatest passion. Besides, their wise governors have such ways of stirring up their emulation by public honors, harangues, and panegyrics in their assemblies, with a thousand other arts of show and pageantry, and this for the most minute arts, that were it not for that fraternal love ingrafted in them from their infancy, they would be in danger of raising their emulation to too great a height. Those who give indications of greater wisdom and prudence in their conduct than others are marked out for governors, and gradually raised according to their merit.

More often, however, it was degeneracy that utopian authors satirized. In Memoirs…Concerning Captain Mackheath (1728) the middle ranks are portrayed as enfeebled by luxury through aspiring to keep up with their betters, with the lower in turn imitating them. Private Letters from an American in England to His Friends in America (1769) describes Britain as beyond redemption, having suffered a “decay of virtue for near a century past.” Every twenty houses is a French hairdresser, and even servants learn Italian and fencing. Finally, Britain’s government passes to the American colonies. (Colonial Americans fondly contrasted their own frugality and virtue with the excessive luxury, corruption, and degeneration of Britain.) Like other satirists of the age, utopian writers agreed that national decline was chiefly occasioned by the lower orders emulating the upper. In one of the most illuminating utopias of the period, The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman (1778), the narrator visits countries at different levels of economic development. He recalls that under “Queen Tudorina” (Elizabeth I) the people were brave and virtuous, wine was drunk only in moderation, and lawyers and physicians returned their fees when they failed to protect their clients. In “Luxo-volupto,” however—contemporary Britain—“trade and manufactures having brought immense wealth into the country, luxury followed fast on their steps.” Now, inspired by the examples of imperial conquerors, clearly pointing to the vast wealth of India being used to corrupt British politics, “wealth is become the only object which all men aim at to support that luxury, and all crimes of course are perpetrated to attain it.” So the dire warning is issued that “your nation is following exactly the steps of all rich and powerful kingdoms; luxury has got in among you, and will soon destroy you,” as evidenced particularly in the manners and mores of women.

In such texts suppressing luxury was often linked with closer social bonds: simplicity and fellowship go hand in hand. A key problem, however, was that the further luxury advanced, the more the prospect of realizing any more primitive utopia seemed to recede.


Excerpted from Utopianism for a Dying Planet: Life after Consumerism by Gregory Claeys. Copyright © 2022 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.