Utopia, the literature classic that immortalized its author’s name
and shaped an entire subgenre of fiction, has been made fully available
and free to read at theopenutopia.org, a website dedicated to honor the
legacy of Thomas More’s opus magnum.
“Pride thinks its own happiness shines the brighter by comparing it to the misfortunes of other persons.”
Sir Thomas More was an exceptionally accomplished man in his lifetime: he enjoyed a successful career as a lawyer and a statesman, which culminated in his appointment to the position of Lord High Chancellor of England in 1529. He was also a Catholic philosopher and Renaissance humanist acquainted with some of the brightest minds of his time, including fellow humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam. Moreover, More’s faith in the Catholic doctrine led him to battle the English Reformation and subsequently reject the King’s supremacy over the church – an act of high treason that led to his execution as well as his canonization, as the Catholic Church revere Thomas More as a saint for his martyr’s death in defense of the Church’s unity.
Yet none of these feats can match his ground-braking satire Utopia. First published in 1516, the fictional work has gone on to form the backbone of utopian and dystopian literature and to inspire economic and political ideologies such as socialism and communism.
Heavily based on Plato’s Republic and the emergent humanist ideals of More’s time, Utopia depicts an idyllic nation and society which all other nations and societies should aspire to imitate, and its content remains the subject of much discussion more than five-hundred years after its publication.
Utopia is written as the transcription of a conversation involving Thomas More, his friend Peter Gilles, and a fictional character, Raphael Hythloday. It is this last character, portrayed as a Portuguese explorer and philosopher who sailed with Amerigo Vespucci, who does most of the talking in the book; Hythloday is the one who tells More and his friend about the sublime island of Utopia, where he claims to have spent five years in the gracious company of its natives. He goes on to describe Utopia with rigorous detail, from its geography and economy to the inner workings of its society and religion. Throughout his tale, Hythloday offers an extremely positive image of the island nation, praising the Utopians’ emphasis on the common good and public domain over personal property, their commitment to learning and to the virtues of Nature.
While confounded by some aspects of Utopian culture and policy, Hythloday realizes there is much wisdom at work in these same aspects. For example, Hythloday did not understand at first why the nation hired an excessive amount of mercenaries, as that would seem strange and ineffective in the Old World’s wars. This decision made perfect sense to him, however, once the Utopians told him how they had no need for gold and silver – the two things mercenaries kill and die for – though they had plenty of both, and how they would rather pay foreign free companies handsomely to fight for Utopia than sacrifice their own people in the battlefront; not to mention that, by doing this, Utopians guaranteed that their enemies could not hire these mercenaries for the same effect. A deeper understanding on how Utopians saw bloodshed in general helps Hythloday (and in turn, the reader) realize this was in fact the best course of action for the Utopian people. It is the wise ways of Utopia that often lead Hythloday to contrast the island nation, which he remarks as “the only commonwealth that truly deserves that name,” with the petty kingdoms of Europe and their oppressive laws, warmongering culture and prideful nature. He concludes there is much that these kingdoms can learn from Utopia’s example, but also that it’s not his place to bring about such improvements.
More’s role in the conversation largely dominated by Hythloday is that of a mere listener with remarkable etiquette; even in his conclusion to the fictional conversation, More remained quite reserved on his final thoughts, vaguely stating that he would like to see more of Utopia in England despite not agreeing with some of their policies and customs. This, however, should come as no surprise; More was an adamant Catholic and counter-reformer, so he would probably refuse to accept the Utopian principle of female priesthood or the nation’s views regarding divorce. What should come as a surprise, though, is that More, being the devout Catholic he was, would envision these things as part of a true and perfect commonwealth.
The matter of Utopia’s interpretation is indeed a tricky one, with the satire being so complex and believable, and yet bearing so many hints of ridicule, that its exact meaning and purpose become inscrutable. Whether More was being cynical in his work is, nevertheless, beside the point; Utopia and its concepts have been pivotal in shaping the political spectrum of the world and in raising awareness to the principles of common good and civic responsibility.
While Thomas More may have never expected to see an earthly Utopia in his lifetime, the reality still seeks to emulate the fiction; it is up to us to honor More’s legacy and strive to bring to fruition what only seemed like a hopeful dream in the sixteenth century – and it starts by reading this marvelous work.