Book Review: Utopia by Thomas More

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The book which is more than just its text…

Utopia, Thomas More (Penguin Great Ideas, RRP£4.99, 160pp)

Utopia is a revolutionary text; and I do not use that term lightly. It challenged the contemporary society, questioning those conventions which allowed a minority to dominate while the majority were subjugated. In an age of suppression, censorship and inequality it made a plain and unequivocal attack on those elements which made life unfair for the poor. It also invented a new form of literature, adapting a form already prevalent and incredibly popular, but did so with imagination and scope, spawning a million imitators. The range of this influence can be traced right up to the modern day and generates billions in revenue through various creative media. And thirdly, more importantly, it revolutionised the manner by which we read, demonstrating a form of philosophy through its execution. It developed literature beyond a simple means of signs and signification, forcing the reader to think things and question the text in a way which wasn’t formally demonstrated until Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida in the 20th Century. These three revolutionary elements are still with us today, either as an ongoing political debate, or as literary movements or techniques which are now so common we unfortunately take them for granted.

Utopia challenged the political world. It held up an idealistic mirror to the greedy, corpulent face of aristocracy and feudal wealth and declared it corrupt and offensive. Book I cites injustice after injustice, circulating mainly around the idea that the poor were forced to steal because they were poor, and in response the state locked them up, depriving them of a chance to earn money and so putting them back to square one when released. More wrote much of Utopia while in Holland arranging a trade deal with Dutch wool weavers. This trip brought home to More the disparity between those that looked after the sheep which produced English wool and the landlords who earned the money. The inequality he saw in England is listed, bringing a palpable sense of anger to the text. More uses the fictional personae of Raphael Hythloday to describe all this, leaving his own representation, and that of Peter Giles, to offer feeble protestations. The use of the fictional speaker diverted readers from considering the criticism to be More’s.

After damning in Book I, More offers solutions in Book II. This is the description of the island of Utopia, a communistic state which is situated somewhere off the coast of South America. More attempts to show that there is a way for a nation to organise itself to avoid the extreme inequality shown in Book One; that social barriers can be removed, levelling all members and operating on a commune basis with the removal of all financial transactions and privately held goods. This is the only logical way to remove the massive social divide and make sure it never arises again.

Modern readers will of course see this society through the filter of 20th Century communist bloc countries: the vicious and bloody totalitarianism of Stalin is something that we readers bring to Utopia, rather than Utopia invoking. More’s influence for such a society comes from being a lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn from 1496- 1502 and an apprentice to the London Charterhouse monastery from 1503-4. Both institutions had a strong work ethic and a meritocracy. Gardens are also a common feature and the communal meal times in Lincoln’s Inn bear an uncanny resemblance to those in Utopia; right down to the use of questions raised for debate around the table by juniors.

A worthy criticism of Utopian social order is from the fact that it is based on these small societies, made up of willing, voluntary participants who have an attraction to that way of life. Their size is important; Lincoln’s Inn had around 200 members at the time More was there; and the London charterhouse was considered large for having 24 monks and a prior. It seems unlikely that the equanimity could stay the same when scaled up to the size of Utopia. Control seems to be based on the idea that the citizens are willing to go along with it. This, we know from human nature, is as likely as pigs developing wings.

Utopia can be called a political work in that it takes a real world situation and develops a possible solution to it. As such it also becomes the first example of European science fiction in the modern form. Some claim that The Odyssey is SF, or The Epic of Gilgamesh, but these are fanciful and strained definitions of what science fiction truly is. SF takes an existing social or technical development and tackles it either through antithesis or exaggeration. It develops real-world political and social forces in allegorical form. In short, it is a reaction to the real world, born out in means which are not possible in the same world in which the situation exists. Look at the 1950’s era golden age sci-fi, with its invasions from Mars – the red planet – and the concurrent McCarthy anti-American trials. Utopia expends 70% of its energy in describing a fictional place, a society dreamt up to be an alternative to the one already discussed in Book One.

The description moves in from the sea, the reader travelling in with Raphael as he moves inland, eventually reaching the central city; the hub of legislation and administration. The city contains advanced building techniques for the 16th C: glazed windows and fire-proof roofs. It is utilitarian and also beautiful: they bridges are ornate stone and the gardens are described as being a principle outlay of creativity for the Utopians. This is a detailed and developed evocation of what is, essentially, an alien land. Utopia certainly influenced Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as well as Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and countless others. Although More was mimicking the travel writing of the voyages of Amerigo Vespucii, he was also inventing a new form of literature and popular entertainment, one which now dominates film and television. Every time Star Trek, Dr Who, Stargate, et al, describe a new planet, they are silently evoking More and Utopia. The urge to dream up and share fictional civilisations starts with Utopia and the intricacy and believability which More achieves.

The third and most important revolution which Utopia heralds is the verisimilitude it works hard to set up. More creates a fictional world which is then made as believable as possible, intermingling fact and fiction, requiring the reader to engage with the text on an ontological level. This ties it in with an important point of Humanist thinking: that of engaging with a text and a debate. Utopia comes with a lot of prefatory material, a paratext which seeks to validate the account given in the main text. Letters are printed from More to Giles which refer to Raphael as though he were a real person. Erasmus and other leading humanists join in, each new printing including additional letters. This has lead many commentators to assume that Utopia is a piece of whimsy, a joke between friends. But it isn’t. One of the main humanist principles was their attention to language, specifically to the way language can shape perception and ideas of existence. Rhetoric and grammar were the two highest of the studia humanitatis, hence the schools they set up were known as ‘Grammar’ schools. They believed that the ability to argue, along with a clear critical engagement with the text, was the way to an enlightened populace. Utopia is an exercise in this: they go out of their way to make the account valid and yet the name of the place is translatable as ‘No-place’. The 16th Century reader upon opening Utopia entered into an interactive text, one which demanded an engagement with the veracity of the text. Along with this is the engagement with the political ideas within the text itself. Print was still a relatively new medium for information dissemination. The humanists were arguing that the individual reader should aim for a  more strident evaluation of a text’s veracity, rather than just an acceptance.

Many editions of Utopia annoyingly miss out the letters, or if they do print them then many people, myself included, skip straight to the main text. Don’t do this: read all of the text, starting from the very beginning. And remember, in 1516 when it was printed, there was no google maps and the new continent had many surprises, one of which could have been Utopia. Read it with this in mind and you won’t be disappointed.

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