Five hundred years on, More's dream of another society remains valuable not as a blueprint of an ideal world, but as an unforgiving mirror—to expose all that's rotten in this oneby Joanne Paul plus other contributors / September 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
Joanne Paul’s contribution begins this article. Scroll below to see contributions on this subject from four more writers
Thomas More’s Utopia remains one of the most famous books ever written. Within decades of its publication in Latin in December 1516, Utopia had gone through several editions and was published in almost every European vernacular.
It is also one of history’s most enigmatic books. No one seems to be able to work out quite what More—an elusive man himself—was up to in writing it. These two aspects of the book—its popularity and its mystery—may be linked; after all, everyone likes a good puzzle.
And everyone likes a good debate. Utopia, the tale of a commonwealth united by common property, remains divisive. Is it a prescriptive programme for social reform? A dystopic portrait of totalitarian control? Or perhaps nothing more than the fanciful expression of an unstable mind? At stake is both our view of More himself and the very value of “utopian” thinking, a genre of writing and theorising which takes its name from More’s 500-year-old text—celebrated this year with a new edition and a series of exhibitions.
For centuries, Utopia has raised the question of how to reconcile the ideal and the real; what few have noticed, however, is that it also answers it. Utopia is a mirror in which readers observe how social convention shapes their society, and how they can work within those customs to effect positive change. In 2016 these questions remain as pertinent as ever, as politicians—whether Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn—still struggle to find the balance between idealised principles and realisable political ambitions in a corrupt and often contemptible political world.
But the ultimate lesson of Utopia is that the “realities” that have to be navigated in embarking on a political career—namely pride and corruption—in fact stem from “fantasies” of social construction: property ownership and inequality. These are customs, which take away from the natural realities of equality and community. Thus, to engage in “real-world politics” is in fact to participate in nothing more than a “stage play.” Once that is understood, one can stay true to eternal ideals of common…