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.
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.