by Thomas More, edited by George M. Logan, translated by Robert M. Adams.
Cambridge, 141 pp., £9.99, August 2016, 978 1 107 56873 0
Show More
by Thomas More, translated by Gilbert Burnet.
Verso, 216 pp., £8.99, November 2016, 978 1 78478 760 8
Show More
Show More

‘A New Jerusalem​ cannot be built without an effective sewage system,’ Miriam Eliav-Feldon wrote in Realistic Utopias (1982). Indeed, the old Jerusalem relied in biblical times on a municipal waste-combustion site, Gehenna, identified by Hobbes as the real-world model for hell – where the fires would keep burning for as long as there were sinners for incineration. In William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), which unearths utopia in 21st-century Hammersmith, the Houses of Parliament have been repurposed as a store for dung, while in Utopia itself, Thomas More specifies that Utopians use gold, which is abundant, for chamber pots. Shit, like nothing, happens anywhere, these utopian writers seem to say, but what matters is keeping it localised.

Utopia is now five hundred years old. First published in Leuven in 1516, it stands at the confluence of three currents: Renaissance humanism, the print revolution, and what is sometimes still called ‘the age of discovery’ – notably of the Americas, though these lands probably hadn’t escaped the notice of the peoples who had lived there for 12,000 years before the Europeans showed up. Printers vied to slake the thirst of the reading public for tidings of points west. Utopia was duly mapped as an island somewhere in the west Atlantic. More did his best to give its physical being credibility: Ambrosius Holbein, Hans’s elder brother, furnished a woodcut of it for the 1518 Basel edition.

Unlike The Prince’s five hundredth anniversary four years ago, Utopia’s has received relatively little scholarly fanfare. Cambridge University Press has put out a new edition as one of its Texts in the History of Political Thought, but it’s a reworked version, based on a nearly unchanged translation, of the previous edition from 2002. Verso’s new edition reprints an out-of-copyright version from the 17th century. Little seems planned in the way of quincentennial junkets of the kind that often herald such anniversaries, though the Center for Thomas More Studies in Dallas ran a conference in November. Nor is More much celebrated outside academia and St Peter’s. The fate of the Romanov obelisk in Moscow’s Alexander Garden, first put up in 1914 to mark the tercentenary of the dynasty, is illustrative. Bolsheviks re-engraved the obelisk with More’s name and other mooted harbingers of communism. In 2013, 99 years after it was put up, the Russian Ministry of Culture dismantled and completely refurbished it; along with the others, More’s name was effaced. Now the monument stands dedicated again to the tsar, outside the Kremlin wall, under the gilded two-headed Romanov eagle.

One of the most striking contributions that Utopia made to political thought was in imagining the ideal state – if that’s what it is – as a place, rather than as a pallid aggregate of principles. Foucault was riffing on this notion with his hétérotopie, an elsewhere where the ‘else’ matters as much as the ‘where’, though for Foucault the point is that heterotopias are actual places, the realising of a caprice. The placeness of the non-place – think of the titles of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), or News from Nowhere – has been central to utopian thought, and has moved in lockstep with European attitudes towards colonisation. Mundus Novus, a pamphlet containing a letter supposedly written by the explorer Amerigo Vespucci to his patron Lorenzo Pietro di Medici, published in Latin in 1502 or 1503 and quickly translated into Italian, titillated Europeans with tales (and lurid engravings) of New World natives cavorting naked and chowing down on human-leg fricassée. Another letter from Vespucci, published a few years later, describes four voyages to the New World – the first of which may well have been invented – along with such further tokens of barbarism as Amerindians’ indulgence in sweat lodges and eating without tablecloths. More was reprising a genre in which tall tales were commonplace. Utopia, like Mundus Novus, describes American natives’ indifference to gold and other European gewgaws. In both books, the lurid detail is at once geographically specific, and quite possibly made up.

The preface to Utopia includes a real correspondence between More and his friend Peter Giles, the town clerk of Antwerp. Giles mentions Vespucci, whose accounts of his travels had been published by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in a volume that included a map christening the newly found continents ‘America’. More added detail to lend his fantasy substance, including the Utopians’ alphabet, a woodcut of their croissant-shaped island resembling maps in contemporary travel books, and an explanation of why the island’s latitude and longitude co-ordinates were unknown. The mock-up extends to idiom – then, as now, travel writing was purple, and More plays this game adeptly. Some of the details suggest that life in More’s Utopia, like many others inspired by it, isn’t much fun. As Ralph Robinson’s English version of 1551 puts it, Utopians enjoy ‘neither wine-taverns, nor ale-houses, nor stews, nor any occasion of vice or wickedness’. Utopia enforces a form of workfare, and generally its inhabitants have little leisure, which they spend on ‘honest and laudable pastimes’. It all sounds rather Calvinistic.

For all the concrete detail, there’s no place like Utopia. More weaves that joke into the book’s title. Ou topos is ‘not a place’ (but compare eu topos, ‘good place’); in Republic Plato contrasted his utopia avant la lettre, ‘Kallipolis’, the beautiful or fine city, with a banausic ‘city of pigs’. More’s Latin text harps on the notness of the place, or non-place, with further in-gags for humanist cognoscenti. Utopia’s river is Anyder, or ‘no-water’. Its capital, Amaurotum, is named from the Greek amauros, ‘dim’ or ‘obscure’. More’s fictional traveller Raphael Hythloday (‘nonsense peddler’) expresses the opinion that if a ruler sought his counsel he would advise following the pacifism of the Utopians’ mainland counterparts the ‘Achorians’ (from chora, ‘place’, so ‘not-place’ again), who learned the hard way that overseas colonies bring ruin. It’s as if the more ‘ideal’ its prescriptions get, the more Utopia insists on its own nullity.

Verso’s new edition bookends a translation from 1684 by the Scottish Anglican divine Gilbert Burnet with an introduction by China Miéville and a series of concluding essays by Ursula Le Guin. Miéville decks More in punk garb while arguing, plausibly, that capitalism by its nature rules out effective curbs on anthropogenic environmental catastrophe and, less plausibly, that the latter has nothing to do with human overpopulation. The insular commonplace in utopian and dystopian writing – a world apart, for good or ill, as in Aldous Huxley’s Pala, George Orwell’s Airstrip One, the vivisectionist paradise of H.G. Wells’s Dr Moreau, Margaret Cavendish’s polymorphous freakshow in The Blazing World, or William Golding’s reworking of R.M. Ballantyne’s coral island as Beelzebub’s atoll – underscores locale as a metonym for transfigured norms. As Miéville points out, Utopia is a created rather than a natural island, severed by human hand from its continental landmass; compare Swift’s airborne Laputa, a satirical takedown of epistemic hubris that looks back to Francis Bacon’s Bensalem in New Atlantis. Early modern utopias are usually engineered, rather than being reversions to a dreamed Arcadian or prelapsarian archetype. Letting nature take its course can lead to a bad place. Henry Neville’s fiction The Isle of Pines (1668) shows English castaways on a south sea island rapidly reverting to primal barbarism: a Cockaigne-like land of plenty lulls civilised men into destitution.

As Miéville suggests, Utopia and its endurance typify the vagrancy of hope, its beggarly straying from the straitened way of the real. The Utopian regime, by contrast, strives to police movement and stifle the menace of the rural poor. The ideal is not emancipation but control, and its token is docility: after all, the beast that Christians usually hold up for humans to mimic is not the lion or the fox, but the sheep. While More does leave room for deviancy, his and other utopias brook little in the way of dissent, least of all in organised form. The warming fantasy of millennial utopians is that political power will one day have dribbled down history’s plughole. This is, of course, precisely a fantasy of power; Bentham’s panoptical penitentiary is the utopian site par excellence.

Le Guin’s first essay, ‘A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be’, refers to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who is portrayed as upending the arch-rationalist or ‘Euclidean’ Ivan Karamazov’s world-view. Dostoevsky may have been glancing at the invention (or discovery) of non-Euclidean geometries, notably by his compatriot Nikolai Lobachevsky; though hyperbolic geometry seems as much an outgrowth of human reason as the Elements. At any rate, Le Guin picks up the Promethean rationalism – ‘hot’, Eurocentric and phallocratic – behind much utopian thought, and offers in its place something more squidgy. It is interstitial, moist, dark, cyclical, ‘yinward’, a place in the sense that a hole is a place. Some people like entering holes and filling them – the problem being, as Le Guin points out, that a filled-up hole no longer is one. So with utopia. It’s a place that isn’t one, reached by a route that goes nowhere: as the old joke goes, if you want to get there, don’t start from here.

Le Guin notes that few thinkers produce utopias these days: there is nothing to compare with the 19th-century boom in utopian socialist writing. Instead, dystopias come a dime a dozen and often serve frankly conservative ends. No doubt this partly reflects the unhappy 20th-century record of attempts to realise utopia. More himself has also taken a pasting of late. During the last century, he was canonised in one way or another by R.W. Chambers, Robert Bolt and the Catholic church. By contrast the More of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a historically more credible heretic-burner bent on martyrdom. More’s self-flagellation and habitual wearing of a hair shirt now look less like the pure tokens of virtue they did to his hagiolaters. To the charge that More had an unnatural fondness for torture (when John Tewkesbury, a London leather merchant and Protestant, was incinerated after torture in 1531, More – by then lord chancellor – imagined ‘a hot firebrand burning at his back, that all the water of the world will never be able to quench’), one recent Catholic apologia argues that his use of it was only intermittent, which seems a bit like saying that most days Ted Bundy didn’t kill anyone.

Why not greet Utopia as a bona fide political platform, an early modern Critique of the Gotha Programme? The late Jack Hexter saw the book as an immanent critique of Christian humanism, a root and branch rebuke to intellectuals who thought church and society susceptible of piecemeal rather than revolutionary reform. Hythloday’s ‘dialogue of counsel’ with Cardinal Morton in the first part of Utopia casts an eye over rural England and finds it unhappy. There’s too much enclosure, so too many sheep; the decay of husbandry fuels the perennial problem of ‘sturdy beggars’, 16th-century dole scroungers, and the spin-off ills of vagabondage and crime. Hythloday observes that the increased supply of sheep doesn’t drive down their price, as their owners simply withhold them from the market until the price rises. At the root of all this lies deadly sin – greed, obviously, but also envy and pride. It’s tempting to see Utopia’s two parts as diagnosis and cure respectively, with the Utopians’ virtue the remedy for old-world corruption.

Utopia’s full title is De optimo reipublicae statu deque nova insula Utopia – ‘on the best state of a republic’ etc. The phrase is echoed by Hythloday near the end of the book. Was More serious? Quentin Skinner, in The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1979), contended that in saying this More ‘meant exactly what he said’. It’s a curiously flat-footed reading for a scholar so alive to textual nuance. For one thing, More doesn’t say it, except in the sense that Shakespeare said: ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I.’ More pops up in the dialogue as a character, but doesn’t buy Hythloday’s proselytising. Make of that what you will: maybe Utopia’s first-person narrator was More’s insurance against the charge of sedition, or at least being sacked from public service. But there are other aspects of Utopia that seem hard to square with what can plausibly be believed of More himself. Like indigenous Americans when they discovered Columbus, the Utopians lack the blessing of Christianity: they don’t eat or sacrifice one another, but their religions form a New Age jamboree of sun and moon-cultists, assorted theists and ancestor-worshippers, as well as the odd just about tolerated atheist. This wasn’t exactly the Vatican position on religious diversity in 1516. As with Bernal Díaz’s later chronicles from Aztec Mexico, the plain facts, together with Christian theology, precluded seeing Americans as noble savages free of European corruption. When Iberians arrived in Mesoamerica they soon saw to it that indigenous peoples converted to the Roman faith – some rites, like Aztec theophagy, proved easy to integrate – or face the consequences. By the 17th century the Mexican inquisition was busy incinerating people, notably Jewish conversos suspected of relapsing into Judaism; mainland Spain had of course already booted out the Jews in 1492. There’s little to suggest that More would have disapproved.

Perhaps​ the urge to appropriate him, even by secularists, owes something to the hagiolatry that persisted until the later 20th century. Skinner points out the Platonic parallels. They are certainly there, most obviously in the dialogue form, though unlike in Plato’s dialogues there’s no elenchic resolution, where trounced interlocutors are reduced to burbling things like ‘How right you are, O Socrates’; the textual More is vehement that Utopian society is ‘very absurdly’ (perquam absurde) organised. Maybe, Utopia’s layered irony and onomastic play notwithstanding, More was, as Skinner says, engaging in a humanist debate over the political role of philosophical counsel, and was siding against the Ciceronians, who thought that sages should give rulers the benefit of their wisdom. The textual More, as Skinner shows, takes his stance directly from Cicero’s Offices, against Hythloday’s Platonic renunciation of negotium, or political engagement. The authorial More favours the Utopians’ honourable idleness over the mere indolence afforded by wealth. That might be thought to subvert the debate over philosophers’ public role, by recasting it as being about the conditions that promote idleness, for aristocrat and beggar alike. But, as with everything else in Utopia, how ‘seriously’ More means it is also subverted, in so far not only as the Platonic parallels are absent, but also as they are present. Counterposing a ‘Platonic’ authorial More to a Ciceronian line of thought poses its own puzzles, not least because Plato himself advised rulers such as Dionysius of Syracuse. Then there’s the question of who’s meant to read prescriptive political philosophy that eschews a prescriptive political role for philosophers.

Beside the stuff that pleases modern left secularists, such as Utopians’ communal property and their cautious attitude to war, there are some things they care for less, such as slaves – Utopia is a singular society, in which nothing is privately owned except for human beings. Does More mean readers to approve of this? Utopians practise euthanasia and let priests, who may be women, marry – advances, again, on Roman doctrine in 2016, never mind 1516. Hythloday lauds, or at least relays without demurring, Utopia’s ban on lawyers, whom he depicts as captious extortionists; More, of course, had made his name in the legal profession and would become the most senior lawyer in the land. Utopia uses its wealth from trading to hire overseas mercenaries to fight its wars, judging aliens more dispensable than its own citizens. Turning a foreigner’s cheek is an interesting reworking of the Sermon on the Mount.

To tease out a consistent authorial line from all this is a harder job than many pretend. Indeed, Utopia’s notness points up a perennial pitfall for exegetes: if one insists on coherence as a condition of intelligibility, textual contours get flattened. The book’s original standfirst describes Utopia as festivus as well as salutaris. It’s seriously ironic. More seems to shuffle constantly between ideal and subversion. It’s plausible to locate Utopia in an Augustinian intellectual setting where the notion of political idealism is close to self-contradictory, since for Augustine politics is a symptom of humans’ fallen condition. Augustine made clear in The City of God that the wise man should sit on the magistrate’s bench even though it will mean torturing the innocent and condemning some of them to death: following an ethic of public service leads inexorably to moral degradation. More gave lectures on The City of God at St Lawrence Jewry by Guildhall in 1501. If in this predicament there is no innocent work, that must go also for such outgrowths of the lapsed human brain as idealised communities. This goes a long way to explaining More’s irony. And that’s before asking what might constitute a utopia even in the abstract. Much dystopian literature describes utopias gone not wrong, but right – that is, as intended.

England under Henry VIII – Donald Trump with a codpiece – was never likely to conform to More’s aberrant Catholic vision, as underlined by his execution for failing to endorse the Henrician Brexit from Rome. But the idea of utopia has always been a very present comfort to fanatics of all stripes. Today, utopia’s most visible torch-bearers are the prophets of the caliphate on the one hand, and of a neoliberal Bluetopia on the other. In the West, one of the few namechecks for utopia in modern political theory is Robert Nozick’s ‘libertarian’ Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). Contrary to what Barbara Goodwin and Keith Taylor argue in The Politics of Utopia (1982), Friedrich Hayek’s ‘catallaxy’ or ‘spontaneous order’ is also a kind of utopia: one that dispenses even with the need for planning that the utopian socialists foresaw, or the absence of sin on which, per impossibile, More’s vision rests. Hayek’s snapshot of the promised land, by contrast, is one in which sin has been exorcised from humanity and consecrated in the state. It’s not that Hayek rejected utopianism, just the socialist versions of it. Something similar could be said of the fevered visions of Ayn Rand.

In large measure the turbo-capitalist vision of utopia has been achieved – a reminder that alongside visionary prognostics of another and better world, there are those utopians who think we’re already there. In one of her essays in the Verso edition, Le Guin relays a story told by the critic Kenneth Roemer, who taught a course on utopias at the University of Texas at Arlington. Roemer had asked students to write a paper on how Arlington might be transformed into a utopia, and was asked by a clearly troubled student: ‘What if I believe that Arlington, Texas is utopia?’ Irony is not generally the forte of this sort of utopian. For that one can look to the Aboriginal community Utopia, two hundred miles north of Alice Springs and often cited as among the most deprived in Australia. In 2013 John Pilger made a film about the place, whose name seems to be an anglicised corruption of uturupa, an aboriginal word for ‘sand hill’. Booze is banned in Utopia, which would have pleased More, but educational attainment is low, along with employment and, on Pilger’s evidence, hope. And, as his film also shows, the toilets are the stuff of nightmares.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences