What better way is there to end 2016 than by celebrating the 500th anniversary of a book like Thomas More’s Utopia? First published in the early winter of 1516, Utopia eventually became one of the most widely read and thought-about texts of the Western world. When More penned the classic, he was a young scholar whose aim was to become a court advisor to the king of England, Henry VIII. He’d been commissioned for a diplomatic visit to Flanders, but soon after he got there, the mission fell apart. Stuck in a foreign land, More began Utopia.
Although the work is divided into two books, to this day most scholarship focuses on Book Two. In it, the fictional character More meets another fictional character named Raphael Hythloday, who was purportedly one of the original 24 voyagers traveling to the Americas with Amerigo Vespucci. Raphael claims to have separated from Vespucci’s entourage somewhere after reaching Brazil, traveling farther south and discovering an island named Utopia. As media and culture professor Stephan Duncomb puts it, “In this island everything that is Europe is not, or everything that is not in Europe is in Utopia.” There is freedom of religion, there is no private property, everyone has access to education, everyone has meaningful jobs, and women can take on leadership roles. In short, Utopia is Europe turned upside down.
If Book Two was meant to hold up a mirror to European governments and societies, the often-neglected Book One explains why this had to be done through the use of a metaphorical island. In this part, the fictional More recounts how he met Raphael and goes on to describe Raphael’s idea of serving one’s government. Raphael argues that doing so is a waste of time because all European royal courts are infested with corrupt individuals who are not interested in changing the status quo. He describes a recent court appearance of his where he tried to explain to a group of judges the flaws of the English justice system and how, rather than noting his ideas, the judges collectively tried to ignore and silence him. Upon hearing this, More suggests that perhaps one should not talk directly about the obvious shortcomings of governments, especially to government representatives, and that one should instead construct attractive examples through metaphors to make the case. This is exactly what is done in the Book Two: Raphael builds a metaphor in the form of a utopian vision, which holds up a mirror to the European culture of government.
Some scholars maintain that Utopia was meant to be satirical. And More himself mocked the validity of his work from the very beginning by naming the island Utopia, which translates from Greek as “no place,” and giving Raphael the last name Hythloday, which means “distributor of nonsense.” Other scholars argue that Utopia reflects More’s personal disillusionment with his own career choice, especially at a moment when he was stuck with a failed mission in Flanders and had time to reflect upon his personal misgivings about the job. Either way, he adopted the ancient genre of paradoxography, which dates back to the age of Homer and early Hellenistic writers. Paradoxographies are stories about faraway, isolated places, most often islands, where authors envision contained environments within which they can construct exemplary societies, both good and bad. The history of this genre is firmly intertwined with that of the genre of utopian literature. Some classic examples include the islands of Magnesia in Plato’s Laws and Atlantis in his Timaeus, Iamboulos’s Island of the Sun, and Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. One could also add William Shakespeare’s Tempest and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to the list, although their stories could be seen as taking place in less-than-ideal settings. There are many other less-renowned examples, such as the 12th-century Andalusian Arab scholar Ibn Tufail’s Islamic utopian novel The History of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, which inspired Defoe to compose his masterpiece.
We must also note that not all utopian fantasies take place in remote locations. In fact, the most articulate imagination of one was devised by a very pragmatic thinker named Charles Fourier, who proposed that we should live in small autonomous societies called phalanxes. Fourier was an 18th-century French philosopher and a socialist thinker who became influential for all later utopian socialist thinkers after having devised sophisticated plans for his utopia. As critical theorist McKenzie Wark points out in a recent interview, Fourier was also a pragmatic planner. For example, he was the first utopian thinker who talked about garbage as a responsibility of the society and proposed ways how it should be dealt with. Fourier’s pragmatism, as well as his labor-oriented vision, resonated with the pillars of left-wing thinking like Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
Today, occupations of public spaces in the name of popular protest movements, the refugee crises, and climate change all seem to have exacerbated our need to discuss how and why we must imagine a better future, and renews our interest in the idea of utopia. At least among the current neoliberal order’s dissidents, we can safely state that More’s utopian imagination continue to inspire, 500 years after he shared it with the world.