December 2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s literary landmark, Utopia. Originally printed in Latin in 15161, Utopia recounts a conversation between More, a friend named Peter Giles, and a traveller named Raphael Hythloday (Hythlodaeus), who has recently returned to Europe after several years of sailing the globe. Discussion quickly evolves into a radical critique of contemporary European society in which Hythloday espouses the socio-economic and political culture of the island of Utopia — a name originally denoting No-Place in Greek — as the model for a civilised and happy society.
An incisive satire, in which field enclosure produces man-eating sheep which decimate the rural poor and convicted criminals become slaves shackled with fetters of gold, Utopia draws on and subverts classical models offered by Plato and Lucian to explore themes that have resonated across the centuries. Notably, the abolition of private property and rank, a communist-style social structure, religious toleration, education and employment for all women and men, and militaristic imperialist expansion are all features of the island lavishly praised by Hythloday.
Since its publication in Latin, and later in English (1551), scholars have debated the extent to which the historical More espoused the principles of Utopian life enthusiastically described by Hythloday. However, while supporting the introduction of some (unspecified) Utopian customs, the narratorial More mocks communal living and the absence of a moneyed economy, among other laws, as ‘perfectly ridiculous’2. Moreover, the very name of his protagonist, Hythloday, means purveyor of nonsense in Greek. We should therefore be wary of suggesting that More endorsed the Utopian model as one to be applied uncritically to European society. Instead, we should see in Utopia a humanist exercise in which contrasting values are juxtaposed to challenge contemporary idées reçues and the status quo.
However, in 2016, a year in which much of the Anglophone world has experienced social disruption, disaffection, and disillusionment, the narratorial More’s pragmatic approach to political life not only speaks to the historical thinker’s experience negotiating with self-interested rulers, such as Henry VIII, but also offers a constructive path forward in the world today. Acknowledging that political leaders will always be surrounded by corruption, More disputes Hythloday’s contention that attempting to provide wise counsel to such rulers is a pointless exercise. Rather, the historical More’s civic humanism prompts his narrator to urge participation in political life even when confronted with imperfect rule:
‘If you can’t completely eradicate wrong ideas, or deal with inveterate vices as effectively as you would wish, that’s no reason for turning your back on public life altogether. […] You must go to work indirectly. You must handle everything as tactfully as you can, and what you can’t put right you must try to make as little wrong as possible. For things will never be perfect, until human beings are perfect – which I don’t expect them to be for quite a number of years!’3.
Through its narrator, Utopia encourages us not to despair or turn away from a political life when that life becomes difficult or is dominated by values that may not be our own. Rather, in this literary tract, More prompted audiences to engage in political life for the betterment of the common good, one step at a time. More himself attempted to live up to his goal of constructive action, and his message is one which offers the modern world hope for the future in the years ahead.
Tania M. Colwell is a Visitor and casual lecturer in the School of History. In 2017 she will be teaching HIST2219/6509 Tudor-Stuart England, c. 1485–1714: Politics, Society, Culture in semester 1, and HIST2243/6243 Vikings, Crusades, Mongols: Shaping Medieval Europe, c. 850–1300 in semester 2.
1 Utopia was printed in the Flemish city of Leuven, which is hosting several months of celebratory activities between September 2016 and January 2017 to commemorate this anniversary. For more information, see http://www.utopialeuven.be/en .
2 Thomas More, Utopia, trans. Paul Turner (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965; repr. 1974), p. 132.
3 More, Utopia, trans. Turner, pp. 63–64.