Thomas More’s Utopia painted a fantastical picture of a distant island where society is perfected and men live in harmony; yet its title means ‘no place’, and More’s hugely influential work was ultimately an attack on his own corrupt, dangerous times, and on the failings of humanity.
Thomas More (1478-1535) certainly lived in a far different world to our own. He was a lawyer, philosopher, and Renaissance humanist, as well as Lord High Chancellor under Henry VIII. More was also a devout, some say zealous, Catholic who vehemently opposed the Protestant Reformation and actively persecuted protestant “heretics.” However, More was ahead of his time in other ways. Contrary to the time, he insisted on educating his daughters in the same way as his sons, which led to other noble families following suit. After the separation from the Catholic Church, More found himself on the wrong side of Henry VIII, and was eventually convicted of treason and executed. In 1935 he was canonised by the Catholic Church as a martyr for the faith.
Utopia was originally written in Latin and was first published in 1516, but was not translated into English until some years after More’s death. The title is actually a play on two Greek words; ou-topos (no place) and eu-topos (good place), and there are other plays on words throughout the text, such as the character Raphael Nonsenso and places called Tallstoria, Happiland and Blindland.
Utopia is essentially a fictional conversation between More, Peter Gilles and Raphael Nonsenso, criticising the injustice, oppression and tyranny of the “civilised” world in contrast to the perfect harmony of the fictional Utopia. And there was certainly much to criticise in the 16th century…
- Kings who were more interested in war than good government
- Land closures which left many with no option but “to steal and be hanged”
- the “greedy, unscrupulous and totally useless” rich, who are rewarded for their laziness with a life of luxury…
- While the vast majority of essential workers live a life of poverty
Utopia, on the other hand, according to Raphael, is a society founded on communal ownership, equal prosperity and the recognition of merit. In Utopia private property is abolished, housing is allocated and all essential equipment is supplied at no cost. Everyone takes a turn in the production of food and the working day is limited to six hours, leaving much time for “congenial activity.” A shorter working day and the provision of the necessities of life may seem quite desirable, however there is a distinct lack of diversity and freedom. Everyone wears the same clothing, permission is required to travel, and if you don’t wish to practise the same trade as your parents, you need to be adopted into another family.
In Utopia, patriarchy, colonialism and slavery still exist. Women are still subordinate to their husbands and only a few gifted individuals are permitted to become scholars. Raphael claims that in Utopia, crime is virtually eradicated and the social problems of their day have all been solved. But what about the reality of human nature? According to Raphael, “no living creature is naturally greedy, except from fear of want…or vanity.” Sadly, I think that history and the world around us tell a different story.
The communist theme in Utopia is quite clear, however many critics believe More was being satirical and that the vision of a harmonious utopian society was an impracticable dream. While apparently the book was applauded by both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted how More had recognised that communism could only work through enslavement and forced labour. A peaceful, harmonious and perfect society will only ever be a utopian dream, but a more just, equitable and caring society is still worth striving for.