In Belgium, Thomas More, a restless English lawyer serving on a diplomatic team negotiating a commercial treaty, began a philosophical inquiry about a community that owns property in common, renounces war for non-defensive purposes and has no use for attorneys at all. Influenced by Plato’s Republic and The Travels of Marco Polo, Utopia—published in Latin in December 1516 in Louvain, Belgium—in turn created a literary genre entirely its own: the fantasy novel of an ideal society.
An ardent Christian humanist, More clearly found inspiration in the dialogue form used by Plato. But the travelogue—not to mention the European community’s ambivalence about the genre—may have been even more consequential for creatimg this touchstone of the early English Renaissance.
Utopia had its greatest impact far from the Western Europe that inspired it. On the North American continent, where Revolutionary War pamphleteer Thomas Paine wrote that mankind had the power “to begin the world over again,” communities organized loosely around the ideas outlined by More were set up in the 19th century in New Harmony, Ind., and Brook Farm, Mass., as well as in the communes of the 1960s and 1970s. In Russia in 1917, a revolution based on Marxist notions of a classless society seized control. Such was the power of its vision that the Soviet Union continued to attract apologists long after it had become clear that the regime was engaging in human-rights abuses.
Such a spectrum of extreme responses underscores the distinct possibility that More was not, in fact, proposing an unalloyed vision of good. “Utopia is an ambivalent and ambiguous work in which various absurdities, for example, are paraded in the most apparently innocent and unsatirical manner,” notes Peter Ackroyd, in his astute 1999 biography, The Life of Thomas More. “But it also harbours various contradictions which render the account.. very suspect indeed. The counter-argument, the case against Utopia, in effect, is internalized within the narrative itself.”
More’s study in ambiguity is likely to be lost on modern readers, for reasons starting with its original audience: readers of Latin, the official language of the Church and the government. That allowed the book to be read by an international community that was spurring the growth of the Renaissance—scholars looking beyond the recent past to ancient Greece and Rome, while increasingly curious about the world beyond their borders.
The Age of Exploration begun in the 14th and 15th centuries had opened up new lands and a new manner of considering them. For some, tales of different inhabitants fed dreams of personal fortune in newly discovered gold, spices or other valuables—or, for the spiritually inclined, a mass of people, with minds as blank as slate and equally as open to converting to Christianity.
Strange tales of these far-off lands drifted back. At the start of the modern era, artists as varied as Shakespeare, Montaigne and Swift would consider in what ways what they were hearing might affect their own societies.
Yet, while some of these wild tales were true, others were exaggerated or even wholly fictional. If the latter did not originate with natives’ desire to tell the explorers what they wanted to hear, they sprang from adventurers’ need to promote their achievement so that they might stay in the good graces of the mercantile companies that funded them.
The tale that launched a thousand ships, Venetian merchant Marco Polo’s account of his 24-year trek to the Far East, was so stunning that many dismissed it as fabricated. Only a decade before More wrote Utopia, another Italian traveler, Amerigo Vespucci, produced accounts of his voyages to the New World that also aroused skepticism.
When More discloses, then, that the Portuguese traveler Raphael Hythloday has journeyed with Vespucci, that is not necessarily meant to add to the credibility of his tale. Moreover, the Englishman's contemporaries understood—far more quickly than modern readers—that many of the names of people and places in the book had a fictional quality (e.g., Utopia, “no-place”; Hythloday, Greek for a cunning purveyor of nonsense or gossip; Anydros, “river without water”: Amaurotum, from the Greek for dark or dimly seen; Ademus, the governor, or one who has no people).
In other words, More is engaging in an early experiment in meta-fiction, or a tale in which a narrator winks to the reader about the artificiality of what’s about to unfold. Engaging in play himself, he wants readers to stretch their brains, too, by asking whether a crucial participant in his dialogue is intelligent or even reliable. (A century later, the astronomer Galileo would resort to a similar method in undermining a participant in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by calling him “Simplicio.” But Galileo’s lack of ambiguity on this point exposed him to his enemies, including within the Vatican.)
If Utopia is, quite literally, nowhere, then the next question becomes: Is it nowhere now, impossible to imagine, or so bad that it should never come to fruition—i.e., what has been called more recently a dystopia? Again, More does not make it easy for readers to discern his intentions.
The book’s discussion of punishment, for instance, exudes both common sense and humanity. (“For by suffering your youth wantonly and viciously to be brought up, and to be infected, even from their tender age, by little and little with vice, then, a God's name, to be punished when they commit the same faults after being come to man's state, which from their youth they were ever like to do—in this point, I pray you, what other thing do you than make thieves and punish them?”) Yet on other points, such as euthanasia, the Utopians not only advocate positions contrary to More’s Roman Catholic faith but to his publicly stated beliefs.
Ultimately, More’s work is an extended display of reason, couched in an imaginative exercise. It is an enigma, a paradox, and, therefore, a statement on the public good that has appealed across regions and ages, especially when it is understood--as today--that societies are a far way from it.