Utopia by Thomas More starts out as a true account of a diplomatic mission to Flanders. At the time More was serving as a Councillor to King Henry VIII. During some free time in Antwerp, More befriends a prominent young printer named Peter Giles (a real historical person with his own Wikipedia page). But the story soon enters the realm of fiction when Peter introduces More to a wise old sea traveler with philosophical bent by the name of Raphael Hythloday. Hythloday translates as “peddler of nonsense.”
Raphael has traveled widely, accompanying Amerigo Vespucci on three voyages to the new world. It was during one of these explorations that Raphael observed and studied the laws, customs, and population of a perfect society in a place called Utopia. Says More, “We asked him many questions concerning all these things, to which he answered very willingly; we made no inquiries after monsters, than which nothing is more common; for everywhere one may hear of ravenous dogs and wolves, and cruel men-eaters, but it is not so easy to find states that are well and wisely governed.”
The book is not a sincere attempt to offer a serious model for European society to imitate. There is some controversy around More’s real purpose for writing the book, but it was certainly not to sow seeds of revolution. It seems to me mostly a veiled criticism of the corrupt political system of his time. More is not an early version on Karl Marx laying the foundation for a new society, even though his Utopia is basically a communist arrangement. There’s just no serious implied proposal that Europe ought to abolish money, monarchies, and power politics and be like Utopia. My sense is that Utopia is a sharp satire of More’s own society disguised as an anthropological study of a bizarre culture in a faraway land.
Another thing you should know about Thomas More’s Utopia, is that this perfect society as described by Raphael includes slavery. In 2016 Ameria, that fact is enough for many people to trash the whole book at the outset. But because my policy is not to impose my era’s morality on literature of the past, I gave the book a chance. It is fascinating to observe that, in 1516, a society which included slavery could be considered ideal without so much as the raising of an eyebrow. It is just taken for granted as the way things are done, like eating animals or cultivating the earth.
You’d think that in a book that is all about visualizing an alternative way to run a society, someone would question the whole notion of owning other people. But no one does. It seems like up until a certain point in history, perhaps the 18th century, slavery as well as various forms of semi-permanent low-paid servitude were simply accepted as a necessary part of human life, as if for civilization to exist at all it was assumed there had to be slaves.
The fictional location of Utopia is somewhere in South America, just far enough north of the equator for the climate to be pleasant. It was originally attached to the mainland, but its founder had a channel cut to make it an island. The Greek words for Utopia mean something like “no place.” Here is a neatly phrased explanation from the British Library website: “In 1516 Sir Thomas More wrote the first ‘Utopia’. He coined the word ‘utopia’ from the Greek ou-topos meaning ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’. But this was a pun – the almost identical Greek word eu-topos means a good place. So at the very heart of the word is a vital question: can a perfect world ever be realised?”
Even though this book was written nearly a century before Shakespeare, I found the English surprisingly modern. This is because More originally wrote the book in Latin and I read a 1901 edition of a 17th-century translation by Gilbert Burnet. I have not been able to find out the exact date of this translation, but since Burnet lived from 1643 to 1715 I am guessing he published it the latter part of that century. You can get free from the Gutenberg Project.
Coming soon: The juicy details of how the Utopians achieve the best possible human society for its citizens: peace, security, plentiful food, shelter, and clothing, maximum health, meaningful work, and wholesome entertainment.