Friday, June 5, 2015

Utopia by Sir Thomas More

Imagining the ideal society
Sir Thomas More’s book Utopia was originally published in Latin in 1516. This was during the reign of King Henry VIII, under whom More served as a councillor and diplomat. The book was first translated into English in 1551. This review is based on the English translation of 1684 by Gilbert Burnet. On a diplomatic mission to Flanders, More and his fellow officers of the King meet Raphael Hythloday (English spellings my differ in different editions), a learned raconteur who has traveled the world and explored many of its civilizations. After some heated debate over the policies of European governments, Hythloday tells his listeners of a perfect commonwealth which sets an example of good and virtuous governance that all nations should follow. This ideal nation, a crescent-shaped island in the South Atlantic, is named Utopia. 

Though this may be the book that named the genre, Utopia is not the first utopian narrative. That distinction would likely go to Plato’s Republic. More was obviously familiar with Plato’s work and in many ways used The Republic as a template for how he describes his ideal society. Nowadays, we expect our utopias to be accompanied by science fiction or adventure stories, like Aldous Huxley’s Island, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, or James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, but prior to the 20th century, utopian writing, though fictitious, had more in common with political or philosophical treatises. Hythloday’s discourse on Utopia is divided into categories such as Of Their Trades, and Manner of Life; Of Their Traffic (i.e. commerce); and Of the Religions of the Utopians. 

In Utopia, More critiques the disparity between the profligacy of wealthy aristocrats and the abysmal living conditions of the laboring poor that existed in Europe in general and England in particular at the time the book was written. The political and economic system in practice on the island of Utopia is essentially a simple form of socialism in which private property does not exist and all the productions of agriculture and industry are held communally and distributed equally. More’s description of the legal code, health care system, and a sort of primitive form of social security are remarkably modern for their time. One institution of Utopia that’s not so progressive, however, is slavery. The marriage customs of Utopia are particularly interesting. Though premarital sex is punished severely, the bride and groom are allowed to see each other naked before committing to the nuptials, just as if they were each buying a horse. The general moral code of the Utopians resembles that of the ancient Stoics or Epicureans. They live for beneficial pleasures like health and knowledge, but hold no store in frivolous pleasure like gold, luxurious clothes, gambling, or hunting for sport. The Utopians tolerate all monotheistic religions. As long as a faith is devoted to the one true God, whom they call Mithras, the means of worship is unimportant. 

Reading Utopia almost five hundred years after its publication, I wouldn’t call it a fun book, but for the most part it’s still quite interesting. The Burnet translation is a pretty smooth and effortless read, though More does get monotonous at times. One can’t help but admire how forward-thinking More was, by 16th century standards, and how brave, for literally risking his head to publish this book. There’s no nobler purpose to literature than calling for a better world. Guys like Plato, More, and Sir Francis Bacon (New Atlantis) blazed the trail for countless others to follow. Whether you consider Utopia a work of criticism, satire, or simply a glorious pipe dream, it’s an important work that still resonates to this day.
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