Paradise for Pagans

“Who doesn’t want to stand in paradise on earth? The first time I saw the likes of it, it was in its Mexican village remains of Paracho and Tzintzuntzán, where Bishop Vasco de Quiroga’s utopian experiment played out in the sixteenth century.”

Dagoberto Gilb, author of The Magic of Blood

In 1516, Sir Thomas More published Utopia, a work that is every bit as inscrutable as it is influential. The best guess at More’s true intention says that he meant it as a piece of wit; Utopia attempted to shame England with a portrait of an orderly but godless society. Look! Even pagans can govern better than you! More was dismayed, however, when his joke seemed to fall flat. He soon distanced himself from his work, and when Thomas Müntzer cited Utopia in support of an argument for communal property, More said the book should be burned. Given the influence of utopian thought since then, it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia.

Even in the twentieth century, city planners hearken back to More. Lewis Mumford’s little known early book The Story of Utopias (1922) effectively served as the rough draft for his seminal The City in History (1961), and the two books call on the same sources, utopians all: Plato, Andreae, Mercier, Bellamy, Engels, Fourier, Owen, Wells, Soria Y Mata—and Thomas More. Mumford didn’t particularly care whether utopias were earnest or ironic; utopian novels and blueprints were as valid an avenue of inquiry as realized societies in considering the history of how people lived in close proximity. The City in History describes Utopia’s capital, Amaroute (“city of shadows”), in great detail. Amaroute, Mumford said, offered a possible outline for the “social city of the future.”

But Mumford wasn’t the first to spy possibility in Amaroute’s ironic perfection. About a decade and a half after Utopia was published a Spanish priest in Oran, serving the crown by rooting out corruption, received an intriguing offer. The occupation of New Spain was not going well. The plan to bring about a new reign of Christ by converting indigenous peoples had gone terribly wrong. Plopping one culture down on top of another had made for chaos, and the first attempt to restore law and order was led by a man later likened to Himmler. There was further death and plunder. Vasco de Quiroga, a priest with a degree in canon law, was a perfect choice for the second team that would be sent to salvage Spain’s colonial adventure.

Buy the book!

Quiroga took some time to ponder the offer. One day, he happened to overhear a group of monks reciting a psalm that promised good things in return for sacrifice. It was the natives of New Spain calling, he believed. He accepted.

Quiroga had been born in the same year as More and, like More, was known for legal rigidity, humanist tendencies, political savvy, and occasional ruthlessness. Had More taken his interest in monasteries a bit more seriously (or had he taken his sexuality a bit less seriously), he might have been Quiroga. Quiroga had almost certainly heard of More before he went to New Spain—the empire was in the grip of a fascination with More’s friend Erasmus—but when he met Mexico’s first bishop, Juan de Zumarraga, Quiroga was introduced formally. Zumarraga gave him a copy of Utopia.

As Utopia had been set in the New World, Quiroga can be forgiven for his deafness to its satire. He claimed he was “inspired by the Holy Spirit” when he read the book. He devised a plan to create cities for the natives based on More. Quiroga was hardly the only Spaniard to attempt city planning in the New World—starting with the fortress Columbus built from the wrecked timbers of the Santa Maria, the Spanish built five hundred cities—but he was the only master-planner to hear God’s voice in More’s treatise. He saw Utopia, as one biographer put it, as “the only possible cure for a tragic situation.”

In his first visit to Michoacán, where in a few years he would become bishop, he appointed local town officials and registered twenty-five citizens for a village to be called Granada. The town’s application was dismissed as “poorly planned.” Writing to higher authorities in Spain, Quiroga called for Utopia-scale cities of six thousand families. He extolled More’s virtues (“ingenious man, more than human”), and suggested ordinances also drawn from Utopia. The letter went ignored.

Quiroga refused to give up. He crafted another proposal that borrowed from More’s and Erasmus’s translation of Luican’s proto-utopia Saturnalia. Quiroga proved impervious to the humor of Lucian as well. The New Spain natives were unfinished people, he wrote, but they were also closer to their golden age. By contrast, Europe had already become a world filled with “iron and steel and worse.” Utopia offered the opportunity of elevating the natives, reshaping their behavior. Quiroga’s critics called his plan an attempt to create “a new kind of human being.”

Two days after he sent his second proposal to Spain, More was beheaded in England.

If Quiroga was aware of the execution, it only steeled his resolve. After his second proposal was dismissed, he ascended to the bishopric and, defying orders, founded a number of mid-sized villages equipped with hospitals, churches, and schools. A proto-democracy using Utopian laws left much power with the natives, and communities shared profits from local crafts that are still being practiced today. Quiroga instituted a six-hour work day, a system of free education, and a policy of rotating responsibility for communal meals.

Utopia worked, and Quiroga fussed with its ordinances for the rest of his life. He lived to ninety-five. Half a century after he died, a visitor to the region noted that the remaining natives were still “imitating the monks, living together in communities and devoting themselves to prayer and the pursuit of a more perfect life.”

Adapted from In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise, just published by St. Martin’s Press.

J. C. Hallman was raised on a street called Utopia Road in a master-planned community in Southern California. Nevertheless, he is the author of several books, including In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise.