500 Years since Thomas More’s Utopia: Transformation of Utopian Ideas

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500 Years since Thomas More’s Utopia: Transformation of Utopian Ideas

500 Years since Thomas More’s Utopia: Transformation of Utopian Ideas

In 1516, Thomas More’s book entitled Utopia appeared. Although there were previously works that discussed the idea of creating a perfect society, of which Plato’s The Republic is probably the most famous example, the appearance of the utopian genre is connected with More, whose book actually gave the genre its name. One of the frequent questions that has been asked in the last two decades in regard to utopias is: have we come to the end of utopia? This question refers not only to the literary genre known under this name, but also to the political and social engagement of the intellectuals to strive for a better society. Both aspects are connected with ideas that dominated near the end of the last century, and whose best known example, or at least one of the best known, is Francis Fukuyama with his thesis about “the end of history” in his paper “The End of History?” (1989). Explaining his thesis, Fukuyama writes that we are facing “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” (Fukuyama 1989: 4). If the liberal democracy is considered to be the achieved end point in the efforts for creating a perfect society, then, as a logical consequence, the utopian visions, whether in philosophy or in literature, would end. This essay, however, through a brief historical overview, will attempt to show that this is not the case, and that the utopian genre is flexible and adjustable to historical changes. The contemporary utopian works point to a thesis that is precisely opposite to Fukuyama’s – namely, that the end of history has not yet arrived nor does it seem to be near, as there is still a lot of space for transformations and improvement of the human societies in the world and in the literary works.

More wrote Utopia in order to right the wrongs (Carey, 1999: 38) of the society in which he lived – the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century – which is obvious from the structure of the book; namely, the first part describes in details the poverty and difficult life in Europe in that time, whereas the second one is a description of a much more ideal community in which healthy and happy people live. Although there are numerous discussions in regard to whether More seriously promoted all ideas in his work, taking into consideration that in his life some of his attitudes seem to have been different from those expressed in the book, still Utopia certainly cannot be considered just a joke, considering the thoroughness and enthusiasm with which More describes his imaginary ideal society. If we have in mind the dominant worldview in More’s time, according to which the hierarchy with the king and the feudal masters at the top and the enormous number of utterly poor people at the bottom, More’s ideas for citizens who are equal, who work the same amount of hours without anyone being privileged, who have food and clothing provided are truly revolutionary.

How much do utopian works that were published in the centuries following More’s book retain the elements of Utopia? If they go too far from the basic elements that characterize this work – can we still consider them utopian works? In order to answer these questions, it is important to state Utopia’s main elements: the description of the ideal society is narrated by Raphael Hythloday, a fictional contemporary of More’s. According to his narration, during his stay on the island of Utopia, Hythloday spoke to some of the citizens who served as his guides and who explained to him the social order in Utopia. These are significant elements because in most of the utopian works all the way to the twentieth century, they remain unchanged: a person from the author’s present reaches somehow a country in which an ideal social order has been formed, and where he/she is kindly welcomed by the local citizens who describe their way of life. The narrator, in other words, is in most cases a traveler from our world, and not a resident of the utopian society. In Utopia, there is no private property, there are no robberies because the life standard is the same for all, and therefore all doors are unlocked, everyone works for six hours a day, there is no alcohol, people spend their free time listening to lectures or gardening, all eat together in large halls, there is no close relationship between parents and children, thus making favoritism non-existent and another consequence is that the children of the families with many children can be sent to live with families with no or with few children. Gold and silver is not appreciated, there is healthcare for the sick although the fatally ill people are encouraged to commit suicide so that they would not be a burden to society and would not live in pain.

One of the crucial questions asked by More, which is also an inevitable part of the utopias written in the following five centuries since Utopia’s appearance, is the question how to create people who will voluntarily accept mutual equality at the price of giving up their free will and accepting a uniformed manner of behavior. One of the ways in which More resolves this issue, according to J. C. Davis (2010), is by eliminating private property and overcoming the competitive spirit. “A large part of the transformation rests on the detailed removal of every occasion for emulative triumph. Most crucially, communal property eliminates all opportunities for displays of superfluous private wealth” (J. C. Davis, 2010: 42). The description given by Hythloday of Utopia on the basis of, as he narrates, his travel to this heretofore unknown island, is a social order that springs from the human desire for improvement of the world and strife for a better future.

The ills of the social order in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance have provoked the desire for finding a better social order, but at the same time they have also displayed the pessimism, that is, the doubt that society, the way it is structured, can be improved. This is indirectly visible in the utopias that appear in the first two centuries after the appearance of Utopia, in which a perfect society can only exist in another, imaginary place. In other words, in this period there is no visible belief among the authors in the possibility to improve life in their own environment, but they hope for a more ideal life that may exist in another geographical location. According to Nicole Pohl (2010), “although geographical utopias/voyage utopias of this period are akin to contemporary narratives of explorers, conqueror and merchants, they also projected archaic ideals of Paradise onto new worlds” (55). The paradise may be found in the middle of the Pacific, as in the case of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), who follows the familiar pattern of accidental discovery of a city in the ocean in which society is much better ordered than in the author’s motherland. New Atlantis is considered to be the first scientific utopia, which makes it a precursor to the close relationship between science fiction and utopia that is most conspicuous in the twentieth century. In the case of The Blazing World (1666) by Margaret Cavendish, the world the author admires is located in a place in some other dimension, mysteriously connected to our world somewhere in the vicinity of the North Pole. Probably one of the most famous works of this kind is Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift, in which during his last journey, Gulliver arrives in the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of rational horses, who live in peace, harmony and mutual respect, as the hosts tell Gulliver. This world is perfect because all negative aspects of the world in which Swift lived are eliminated: there are no wars, diseases, poverty, money or alcohol.

AuthorKalina Maleska
2019-05-14T10:20:31+00:00 November 10th, 2016|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 110|0 Comments