From the old world, for a new world: the power of Utopia

Words: Sam Radford

The politics of 2020 have been defined by an unexpectedly high and dramatic level of activism, with activity led by young people. Millennials and Gen Z, in incredible numbers, have come out to demand fundamental institutional change. Politics is reckoning with a new generation of activists, intent on transforming the society they inherited to create a world they believe would better benefit everyone. 

But some observers think the vision of these activists is too radical. From defunding the police to overhauling the curriculum, their plans can seem extreme and unrealistic. In that idealism, the protesters follow the legacy of one of the early modern world’s first true radicals. 

Sir Thomas More was an English lawyer, statesman and author. He’s best known for his 1516 work Utopia, in which he imagines a fictional and supposedly perfect society of that name. More invented the term ‘utopia’ as a name for his fictional world, but the book’s legacy is so famous that today ‘utopia’ refers to any imagining of a perfect society – and ‘dystopia’, of course, means its opposite. The book takes the form of a conversation between More, his real-life friend Peter Giles, and the fictional Captain Hythloday, who has visited Utopia, and describes it to the others.

The state of More’s Utopia was radically different from the European societies of the time, drawing inspiration from the fantastical-sounding stories of Native American cultures that were arriving back to the European continent via explorers like Amerigo Vespucci. These explorers were amazed to find societies without the wealth hoarding or private property they were used to. 

More was highly-placed in English society. He was educated at Oxford and friends with some of the most important figures in religion and scholarship, both in England and abroad. Just two years after Utopia, he would enter King Henry VIII’s service and eventually become the Chancellor. 

The principles of Utopia were so ahead of their time that More’s name would later feature on the Moscow ‘Stele of Freedom’ ordered by Lenin in 1918, officially designating him a ‘revolutionary thinker’ recognised by communist Russia.

Despite that, Hythloday’s recount of Utopia is enthusiastic. He praises communal property, the lack of class or greed, pacifism, religious tolerance and (a relative degree of) gender equality. The principles of Utopia were so ahead of their time that More’s name would later feature on the Moscow ‘Stele of Freedom’ ordered by Lenin in 1918, officially designating him a ‘revolutionary thinker’ recognised by communist Russia. 

European states in the 1500s were ruled by monarchs empowered by their ‘divine right’, and were structured stiffly between nobles and peasants. More condemned these hierarchies. Particularly, Utopia criticises a perceived decline in proper Christian values, and More accused Europeans of becoming self-interested and losing focus on the public good. He denounced the elites, calling out leaders for expecting their advisers to agree with them unconditionally and running the European societies so as ‘to increase their own wealth while the government they control claims to be […] concerned with the common welfare’. The same criticism is made of governments the world over today. 

The rest of More’s life proved his dedication to Utopia’s values. The character of More concludes the book by defending aspects of European society like private property, and dismissing Utopian pacifism and tolerance as absurd. The life of More the author, though, would abruptly end with his execution in 1535, after he refused to compromise his Catholic beliefs and recognise Henry VIII’s divorce. More chose death over a life as the king’s yes-man, staying true to what he had written. 

Utopia was a hit in its own time, published in five editions in quick succession. In the five centuries since, no generation has been without its own version of utopian thought, both in literature and in politics – which brings us to the present. More’s Utopia was by no means a perfect society by today’s standards: women, while equally educated, were expected to do jobs according to their gender; productivity was enforced by surveillance; things were highly puritanical. But it was radical for its time. Policies like equality in education, the abolition of capital punishment for minor crimes and even euthanasia all went far beyond the mainstream discussions of Renaissance Europe. 

That More was able to write on these ideas and retain his standing in high society, though, suggests the principles cannot have been entirely outside the imaginings of the intellectual elites and rulers of his own period. The passage of history has further vindicated his beliefs, as nations and institutions across the globe have embraced his ideas of equality, justice, and cooperation – at least theoretically. It’s this lesson from More’s life and work that offers the most importance for both the onlookers and activists in today’s political struggles. 

More’s alternative world would have been, as his character concedes, impossible to implement. But Utopia proved to be on the right side of history. More’s writing acknowledges that even the greatest of policies will seem unbelievable to those used to seeing the world in a certain way: ‘it is only natural, of course,’ he writes, ‘that each man should think his own opinions best.’ For those unsure about the vision proposed by young activists, the lesson of Utopia is not one of condemnation but of encouragement: to think beyond the limits of your own experience. The legacy of one of the first radical thinkers should serve as an inspiration.

Just as More’s principles seemed unthinkable but were justified by time and progress, so too may theirs, particularly as so many of them speak to the same intentions: equality, tolerance, justice. Utopia has proven the importance of fantasy as a tool for initiating change. Imagining, advocating for, and convincing others of the importance and possibility of transforming society into something better is the first – and often, hardest – step towards accomplishing it.

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Sam Radford is a British-Swedish student with interests in cultural and political history.