A work of philosophical fiction published 500 years ago, one that paints a portrait of an egalitarian republic that advocates the abolition of private ownership and tolerates all forms of religious worship; this is a country that can boast free health care, divorce, married priests of both sexes, and legal euthanasia; it has an exclusively rural economy without serfdom, elects its head of state and opposes gambling, lawyers, hunting, cosmetic adornment and war. Essentially classless, it nevertheless has a large slave population, though this one real concession to the times in which it was written shouldn’t overshadow the radical and revolutionary concept of society it promotes.
Seemingly anticipating Enlightenment thinking, as well as both Socialism and Communism, one would imagine the author to be a humanist visionary who despised the faults within his own era and looked to a more idealistic future. Yet, ‘Utopia’, first printed in 1516, came from the pen of Thomas More, a man whose later position as Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII saw him instigate a ruthless campaign against ‘heretical’ Protestants until his devotion to the Catholic Church cost him his head when refusing to recognise Henry’s religious supremacy following the break with Rome.
Originally written in Latin (as was the custom), ‘Utopia’ was hardly the ’50 Shades of Grey’ of its day in terms of sales, appearing when the majority of Europe was largely illiterate and not actually published in More’s homeland and native tongue until 16 years after his execution, 35 since it was first published on the Continent. Like most people reading this, I would imagine, I’ve never read it myself; but then I’ve never read the Bible or the Koran either; that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m ignorant of their content or unaware of their far-reaching influence.
As far as ‘Utopia’ is concerned, the title itself – derived from Ancient Greek – is perhaps now more famous than the book. The word and its opposite, Dystopia, has continued to permeate popular culture up to the present day; a recent Channel 4 drama borrowed the title, even though one feels this was ironic, as the society its cast of unpleasant characters inhabited was far-from Utopian. Utopian and Dystopian fiction have crossed all manners of literary genres, including horror and (mainly) science fiction, though ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ probably remains the most entertaining, not to mention satirical, interpretation of the Utopian idyll. The concept has also been prevalent in cinema for several decades. One only has to think of ‘Brave New World’, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘Zardoz’ and ‘Equilibrium’; TV has dabbled too, from various episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone’, through to ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Survivors’ and ‘The Walking Dead’.
As early as the aftermath of the English Civil War, with Puritan groups such as the Diggers, the ideas More espoused in ‘Utopia’ began to infect numerous political ideologies and have continued to do so in the centuries since its publication. The seismic societal shift of the Industrial Revolution and the increasing chase for profit at the expense of human wellbeing in the nineteenth century saw Socialist philosophies emerge in Britain, despite their brutal suppression across the Channel following the initial optimism of the French Revolution. The publication of Marx and Engels’ ‘The Communist Manifesto’, arriving just in time for the Revolutions of 1848, updated some of More’s theories and expanded them into a more cohesive manifesto for social change. Although Marx regarded some of More’s ideas as naive, the presence of slavery in the island of Utopia and the notion that privacy did not equate with freedom was cited as highly relevant to the Soviet model of Communism by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn after his time in Gulags. The claiming of More as a Communist Godfather by the nascent USSR was emphasised by his name’s presence on a list of similarly regarded figures carved into Moscow’s Obelisk of Revolutionary Thinkers, a monument that stood near the Kremlin for 95 years before being controversially (not to say symbolically) demolished without warning on the instructions of the autocratic President Putin in 2013.
Some have claimed More’s inspiration for the society depicted in ‘Utopia’ came from his experience of monastic communities as well as his time spent as an envoy in Europe, where he was exposed to Renaissance Humanism. The fact that Utopia is situated in the New World seems to suggest the author believed a better future for mankind lay away from the endlessly warring European kingdoms and the unequal societies they had evolved into over centuries. There is also an argument he was influenced by the ideas of Ancient Greek philosophers; the text is peppered with knowing references to Ancient Greek, mainly in the names of Utopia’s cities and in the central character of Raphael, whose surname translates as ‘Dispenser of nonsense’. It’s quite possible More may have had his tongue in his cheek whilst writing ‘Utopia’ as well as reflecting the idealism of youth before that idealism was corrupted by power and wealth.
Whatever the genesis and subsequent influence of ‘Utopia’, the fact that it was written so long ago and by a man one doesn’t instantly associate with the ideals the book depicts, is a fascinating example of thinking outside the conventions of the box as they stood when More conceived it. Unlike, say, Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, ‘Utopia’ was something of a slow-burner when it came to its cultural impact, though considering the severe reprisals dished out by religious and monarchical institutions to anyone who questioned or challenged their right to rule in the sixteenth century, perhaps that was just as well for More. Imagine living in a time when freedom of thought and the ability to express that in writing were condemned and crushed without mercy…
© The Editor