Book (1516)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am


by Thomas More

Nearly half a millennium after it was published, Thomas More's Utopia still stands as the perfect illustration of the limitations of our ability to imagine paradise, and to make that paradise come true.

On the surface, More's book is fairly straightforward. The Renaissance humanist lawyer and statesman himself appears as the narrator of its frame narrative. After a first half mostly consisting of philosophical and political discussions between More and Raphael Hythloday, a traveller he is introduced to in Antwerp, the rest of the book features Hythloday's description of the island of Utopia which is supposedly a country run along ideal lines.

What makes Utopia so confusing is that while about half of what More appears to advocate in the book is roughly what he advocated in real life, the other half is the opposite. It fizzes with ideas that seem radical even now, and certainly did then.

Utopia is tentatively democratic long before that became fashionable. The state is anti-war, only fighting when attacked. And it is, largely speaking, communist: there's no private property; there's a welfare state with public hospitals. The book is also fiercely critical of the existing social order, describing it as 'a conspiracy of the rich'.

Divorce, euthanasia, married priests and female clerics, all of which More opposed in real life, are the norm. The man who persecuted Protestants when he was English lord chancellor uses the book to advocate religious tolerance (except to atheists).

More's attitudes can look inconsistent: divorce is allowed, but pre-marital sex is punished by enforced celibacy, and adultery by enslavement. Social engineering extends to controlling the size of family units and relocating children where necessary; and everyone is forced to carry identification papers in order to travel. To us none of that looks utopian. In fact, the place looks like a police state.

Raphael's family name means 'nonsense-talker', so of course the whole thing could just be a big joke. But More was not exactly a wacky, knockabout kind of guy. Instead the book exhibits a subtle irony, showing what might theoretically be possible, but not for us.

The Utopians are cut from a different cloth: their society is possible because they're the sort of people who volunteer for extra work and early morning lectures, for example; they aren't interested in alcohol or gambling; have no desire for personal enrichment; and are suffused with altruism.

More shows us one idea of a perfect society, but also why such a society is never achievable in the real world. We can imagine paradise but can never make it happen - not without changing our nature.