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Five Hundred Years of Utopia

Since its publication in 1516, Thomas More's Utopia has helped us aspire to a just society.

Utopia turns five hundred this year. Thomas More — lawyer, author, theorist, radical, martyr, saint — gave us the word with his 1516 book Utopia. In many ways More merely described the contours of an imagined land that had always existed, from the coasts of Plato’s Republic to the hills of medieval Cockaigne. Yet in painting a picture of that aspirational place, More bequeathed to radicals one of our most potent concepts.

At the same time, a profound ambiguity has marked the word from its earliest days. In 1535, the Franciscan friar Vasco de Quiroga translated More’s Utopia into Spanish while working as a missionary in Mexico. De Quiroga sent the now-lost rendering to More, who was executed for opposing the king’s divorce (among other reasons) before he could read it.

Undaunted, De Quiroga began organizing the indigenous population into planned communities based on the political principles of his hero’s book. These were the first “intentional communities” — in the New World or elsewhere — that explicitly and consciously organized under the utopian banner.

But while the missionary’s program of emancipation, economic self-sufficiency, equality, and social services was undeniably progressive (if not radical), it was indelibly tainted by the sins of colonialism. The same kinds of contradictions have marked nearly every utopian community since. And perhaps that was only natural, for they marked the progenitor of the word himself.

Only a year after Utopia first ran off the English presses, a rude monk nailed a German pamphlet to the cathedral door in Wittenberg. The Protestant Reformation was born. A horrified More decamped to the Catholic side. He was zealous in his support, overseeing six executions and reportedly torturing Protestant agitators.

In fact, when copies of Utopia were discovered following the siege of the German city of Munster — where a brief communist theocracy was established before being violently subdued by a dual Catholic and Protestant military campaign — More announced his desire to consign all copies of his book to the flames, alongside the people he’d helped burn.

Thus, as many have noted, the first great utopian was also the first anti-utopian.

It is this later More, rather than the idealistic author of Utopia, who is most often celebrated today. Witness the Thomas More Society, a sort of right-wing American Civil Liberties Union, whose rallying cry of “Religious Liberty!” is associated with the man who torched heretics rather than the figure who envisioned true freedom of conscience as a basic principle of social organization.

Or consider the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who wore a replica of the hat depicted in a famous painting of More to President Obama’s second inauguration — a gift from the aforementioned society, and widely interpreted as a political statement against Obama’s health care mandate.

And yet, after the Russian Revolution the same More was memorialized alongside Marx, Engels, and others — in a collection personally approved by Lenin — as one of the “Prominent Thinkers and Leaders of the Struggle for the Liberation of the Working People.” Two decades later, More was canonized as a saint by Pope Pius XI.

This wide embrace can be disorienting. For those on the Left, what is to be done with Thomas More, the knighted communist, the canonized radical? To what More, and to what version of utopia, should we orient ourselves? Has “utopia” become at best an empty signifier, an outmoded concept in a time of legislative horse-trading? Or can it still be a universal homeland to which we set sail?

Satire or Template?

Utopia is a short text divided into two books. The first recounts a conversation between a roman a clef version of More and a sailor named Raphael Hytholday, who More meets while on a diplomatic trade mission in the Low Countries.

Hytholday (rough translation: “nonsense speaker”) has sailed with Amerigo Vespucci to the New World, where he visited Utopia — the exact location of which, he cheekily informs us, he does not remember.

The second book is Hytholday’s detailed account of Utopia and its economic, social, political, cultural, and religious structures. This latter book has become the more heavily quoted and popular of the two, and accounts for the proto-science-fiction feel of the overall text (it’s not for nothing that More included both maps and an alphabet for his fictional country, foreshadowing the intense world-building of later fantasy texts).

Utopia is also multivocal: competing discussions between More’s fictional surrogate and Hytholday (among others) make it difficult to ascertain a definitive point of view (or imply that more than one perspective is being endorsed).

As a result, some critics, particularly conservative ones, have argued the work is pure satire, an ironic portrait of an impossible society rather than a critique of early modern power structures or a concrete platform for reform.

As literary critic Susan Bruce writes, “For critics of the right it is irksome that one of the most canonical texts in English literature appears to express so profound and explicit a critique of the economic system underlying all Western societies.” They square the circle by simply arguing More didn’t believe what he wrote.

But while it is unlikely that More ever meant book two to be a genuine political proposal, there is no reason to think he didn’t endorse the sentiment that “the whole island is as it were one family or household.”

Moreover, the multivocal aspect of the text is not necessarily evidence of disingenuousness, nor does it prove Utopia is a straightforward satire (even if it shares some aspects of that mode). These qualities merely categorize Utopia as a precursor to the novel, and speak to its narrative complexity.

The politics of Utopia are also undeniably radical. More wastes no time in launching a scathing critique of the increasingly unequal distribution of economic power in England and the consolidation of state power in London.

His Utopia is in many ways a carnival mirror image of England — a foil to an unjust society that it reflects back. Utopia has fifty-four subdivisions, the same as England. And, Bruce points out, “like the British Isles, Utopia is an island; its main town and river resemble London and the Thames, as contemporary commentators were quick to note.”

More’s text can be characterized as conservative satire only if it’s removed from its specific historical context. Late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century England saw massive shifts both in societal power dynamics and the landscape of the country — shifts so deleterious to the average person that, as Utopia illustrates, it makes little sense to set off a supposedly rosy Renaissance from a medieval Dark Ages.

The process of enclosure epitomized this disruption: the common lands the medieval proletariat had freely shared for agriculture, lodging, livelihood, and recreation for half a millennium were rapidly privatized so the nobility could use them for sheep grazing, generating capital in the increasingly lucrative wool and textile export trade.

It is thus crucial that More and Hytholday’s meeting relates directly to the wool industry. As Hytholday says of England:

these noblemen and gentlemen . . . not contenting themselves with the yearly revenues and profits . . . leave no ground for tillage; they enclose all into pastures; they throw down houses; they pluck down towns, and leave nothing standing but only the church to be made a sheep house.

Carried out through the early modern period, enclosure (whose contemporary analog is arguably privatization) created a massive vagrant class that flooded into London. With traditional means of support wiped away, former peasants were forced into petty crime.

Elites responded by erecting a severely punitive police state. Theft, for instance, was punishable by death. And prisons like plague-ridden Newgate made the contemporary slur “medieval” appear much more applicable to the Renaissance.

In Utopia, Hytholday discusses the emergence of this criminal class and the general lawlessness that characterized the period. Yet what he finds more horrific are the methods of state punishment used to corral the hungry masses.

It is “not right nor justice,” he says, “that the loss of money should cause the loss of man’s life. For mine opinion is that all the goods in the world are not able to countervail man’s life.” He adds: “God commandeth us that we shall not kill. And be we then so hasty to kill a man for taking a little money?”

Hytholday contrasts this violence with the example of the Utopians, who “never lack work, and besides the gaining of their meat and drink, every one of them bringeth daily something into the common treasury.”

For the Utopians, the “only way to wealth is of a commonality” where “equality of all things” is maintained. Of the fifty-four polities that constitute the nation, “none of the cities desire to enlarge the bounds and limits of their shires, for they count themselves rather the good husbands than the owners of their lands.” And within the homes of Utopia, “there is nothing with the houses that is private or any man’s own.”

More anticipated one common critique of Utopia (and indeed, socialism): that it’s a boring, colorless, utilitarian society. But it’s quite the opposite, More claims.

The Utopians work just a nine-hour day (a considerable advancement for the period), and time not used for “work, sleep, and meat” is spent by “every man as he liketh best himself” — prefiguring the nineteenth-century radical motto “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!”

Far from erasing distinctions or creating a monochromatic world, Utopia is a place where every individual is able to fully fashion herself. Rather than being a dreary, boring place, it is a land where no “supper is passed without music”; in Utopia one has bread, but also roses. Because its inhabitants are liberated from economic deprivation, they alone are truly free.

The Utopians also have the right to play, a right that More would have associated with a rapidly disappearing “Merry Old England” — a common trope in radical English literature that saw pre-Norman England as a kind of pastoral Eden, an Anglo-Saxon Arcadia.

As historian Norman Cohn argues, this thread runs through working-class English discourse — from the mystical anarchists of the Middle Ages to the radical religious nonconformists of the seventeenth century to the Fabian socialists of the nineteenth century.

While it’s important not to romanticize “Merry Old England,” it’s also important not to simply cheer its demise as a victory for progress. For whatever (considerable) advances were made in historical terms, they came at the immediate expense of those in the English countryside.

Read in this light, More’s Utopia can be seen as a condemnation of particular injustices at a particular time. And the idea of utopianism, so often dismissed, can be re-grounded and resuscitated for different injustices at a different time.

The Utopian Compass

What is the state of utopianism today, a half-millennium after Thomas More’s landmark work?

Writing in 2005, the intellectual historian Russell Jacoby offered a bleak appraisal. “The utopian vision has flagged; it sparks little interest. At best, ‘utopian’ is tossed around as a term of abuse; it suggests that someone is not simply unrealistic but prone to violence.”

We should reject this turn toward disparagement.

As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism,

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.

Utopianism, then, is a means of holding in our mind’s eye the possibility of a world free of oppression and domination and charting an ever-closer course towards its shore.

Less a blueprint than a direction, Utopia is an ideal against which we can compare our own society — a fiction that can help us understand where we fall short and where we can go from here.