This year, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia marks its 500th anniversary. Modern Times takes this opportunity to celebrate this, still radical, great piece of work.

Espen Hammer
Hammer is professor of Philosophy at Temple University, USA. He works in the post-kantian tradition of European philosophy.

Utopia,

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.

If Sir Thomas More belongs to this Nouveau-Lucretian, modern world, it would be handy to compare him with another contemporary philosopher and politician, a certain Niccolo Machiavelli. His work The Prince, written only three years prior to More’s Utopia, also features a recipe on how a society must be aligned in order for its citizens to dedicate themselves to the good and to virtue.

Machiavelli’s Nouveau-Lucretian way of thinking makes him distinguish sharply between religion and politics, and create a kind of instrumentally-orientated science on politics’ psychological and social anchoring within human passions such as envy, hatred and, not least, fear. According to Machiavelli, some of the most clever a Prince can do is to create fear – nobody will obey unless fear is involved, and sans obedience collective actions will not happen. More refutes the premises of this argument. According to him, people do not act in a good way when filled with fear, but rather when the frames around their lives create welfare and predictability. Though probably doubtful of Aristotle’s notion about object-orientated processes, he believes that a good life is a life which embraces humans’ full potential. However, living this way presupposes a meaningful and enabling life context – not based on superstition and fear, but one knowingly created by sensible people. Ultimately, More felt that one also has to believe in the soul’s immortality. Earthly conditions, no matter how well adapted, cannot guarantee a good life.

Niccolo_Machiavelli

A being looking to the future. A line runs from here to Hegel, who placed the free individual in organised contexts, but also to the young Marx, who, akin to More, claimed that human alienation can only be conquered in an egalitarian society consisting of self-actualising individuals, produced and controlled by human reason.

Can utopian thinking be re-actualised after having been a casualty in a totalitarian technocratic nightmare? One answer here could be that we have never lived entirely Utopian-free. To be human, claimed German philosopher Ernst Bloch, is to be an anticipating being. We are unable to not face forward. Modernity is the culture which makes us conscious of this, and where the future – for better or worse – becomes the benchmark for all projects. In this respect, More’s little book is a milestone in European history.

See also the comment A Return to Utopia
about the film Back to Utopia (main image).


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