Sir Thomas More

(1516 England)

In 1516, Renaissance humanist, lawyer, politician, Catholic and author Sir Thomas More introduced a new word: Utopia. The word was created by unifying the Greek adverb ou (‘not’) and the noun topos (‘place’), meaning ‘no-place’. Learned readers of his will here be able to recognise More’s witty word play: The pronunciation of Utopia makes one think of another Greek word combination, namely Eutopia, which means ‘good place’. This is how the Utopia term has been interpreted since More – the anticipation of a perfect yet non-existing land, in contrast to the existing, and thus, its critical contrast.

More’s Latin fiction Utopia, a portrait of the promised but imaginary island of Utopia, is a complex piece of work. Inspired by Platon, Utopia depicts a society sans property, where everything is split between equal individuals. Simultaneously, the island of Utopia, which More places in ‘The New World’, a republic in which its citizens, in an Epicurean manner, are expected to give in to happiness. The entire society’s raison d’être is to enable its citizens to lead content lives. However, happiness is not purely a physical issue – but, rather stoically, associated with leading a virtuous, just and decent life. Last, but not least, Utopia expresses a series of Christian ideals, such as love thy neighbour and a belief in the immortal soul. One of the book’s characteristics is the author’s decision to distance himself from the community which is being described. Rather than unambiguously criticising his native England by constructing its direct opposite, Utopia is instead a sort of metafictional novel which juxtaposes several narrative levels.

Sir Tomas More’s Utopia

Collective perfection. More’s island is akin to a modern welfare society. The society is supposed to look after the individual. Everyone is to have a roof over their heads. Nobody is to go hungry. All material goods are to be divided, and though the family is portrayed as patriarchal and leaders appointed, society is consistently egalitarian. There are few but concise laws, made possible due to the distinct lack of property. Crimes hardly exist as the citizens have all they need. Authorities are responsible for education, and for health in particular, which is considered the foundation of all human righteousness. Everyone must work, but no more than six hours a day, with time is set aside for meaningful activities, in particular studies. The Utopians try to avoid war, at any cost, which they consider inhuman. More’s ideal society is organised, practical and good – and, it could be said, more than just a little sensible.

The no-nonsense occurs where Utopia, perhaps inspired by Platon, appears the least open to freedom. On the whole, personal freedom is hardly considered a good. Society, it is claimed, is like a large family, and, as in a household, one has to fit in with everyone’s routines. No alcohol is allowed, very little entertainment, one has to ask superiors for permission to go for a walk, and travelling is strictly regulated. In other words, one can sense how More is in danger of committing what will later become the cardinal sin of a benevolent society creator: he seeks collective perfection at the expense of a healthy sense of individuality and life’s general diversity (despite the fact that he, along with Augustin, do not believe in the perfectibility of the earthly individual!). The Utopian is in charge of the plan! Hence, there is scarcely any space left for what Immanuel Kant almost three hundred years later was to call the ‘the crooked timber of humanity.’

Dream and anticipation. More is, as aforementioned, multi-faceted. Although the steps he takes seem obvious, it is easy to lose sight of the common thread in this plethora of ideas and descriptions. In his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011), US literary historian Stephen Greenblatt suggests that what more than anything makes Utopia important within the nascent modernity it was authored, is the dream of a fearless life.

More’s ideal society is organised, practical and good – and, it could be said to be, more than just a little sensible.

The notion of fearless living as a central component of a good life, harks back to Greek philosopher Epicurus and his Roman successor Lucretius. To the Epicureans, a life sans fear was a life without gods and alien forces – an existence dedicated to life itself and simple pleasures in sober recognition of its possibilities as well as its constraints. (With Freud, one could possibly speak of an acceptance of the reality principle.) According to Greenblatt, Lucretius makes a forceful Renaissance comeback, following the rediscovery of his didactic poem On the Nature of Things. To the American scientist, Lucretius becomes a starting point for the entire humanistic vision on human possibilities in a consistently physical, yet comprehensible and controllable world.

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