by Emma Gilpin
When Thomas More wrote his Utopia in 1516, he described a society that was in many ways the polar opposite to his own, Tudor England. At the time, many critics believed he was writing an instructive text that could be read as a guideline for the improvement of European society. As we often are today, these critics were pessimistic and prepared to accept that their society was an irredeemably flawed one, one that would not improve gradually but that needed to become a funhouse mirror version of itself, inverted and twisted, in order to become the perfect society. If More’s “Utopia” was an opposite of the society he was living in, does that mean he saw his own society as a dystopia? I believe that he was trying to make a much more complex statement than that.
Today, in a world where 5th week blues have been exacerbated by cold, grey weather and the result of the Presidential election, our society may seem as distant from a Utopia as More seemed to suggest 16th century England was. The Utopia that More depicted was an isolated island without money and possessions, where nobody could be judged or shamed for their religion. The people of Utopia were portrayed as uncorrupted, living according to the laws of nature in a manner that contrasted to the decadent, individualistic and morally depraved lifestyle of Europeans. Critics who read this text believing that Europeans should indeed change their lifestyle to make it resemble that of the Utopians saw the problems in their society that still exist and affect so many people today: poverty, inequality, prejudice, injustice, war. Like many of us and like many of the people who voted in the Presidential Election and in the European referendum back in June, they were unsatisfied with their society and they wanted change.
Utopia offers us an enticing concept- the perfect world. But to believe in this concept and to read More’s Utopia as an instructive text for the reconstruction and the perfection of society is fallacious. With a close reading of the text it becomes clear that More himself doesn’t believe that the “absurd” society of Utopia is a perfect one. “Utopia” meaning “no place” in ancient Greek and “Eutopia” meaning “good place” co-exist within this text and remind us of the paradox at its heart; the perfect society does not, cannot, exist and this distorted mirror image of More’s own world is in many ways just as flawed; women are second-class citizens, people are punished with enslavement for crimes such as adultery and atheism is not tolerated at all despite the toleration of every form of religion. The Utopians may seem to be living a natural way of life but they in fact had these rules imposed on them by the colonising King Utopus. More’s narrator is therefore right to view this proclaimed utopia critically and he invites his readers to do the same.
Ideas about the rebuilding and perfecting of modern-day society are often spouted by politicians who wish to suggest that our society is in decline, in the same way that some of More’s admirers believed theirs was. And it’s true that we still face many of the same problems today that they did; oppression, prejudice, hunger and violence all exist in our community here in Oxford, in the UK and across the world. But as More seems to subtly suggest, the way to progress is not by destroying our own society and rebuilding a new, radicalised one but by taking aspects of our own world and aspects of that distant, impossible Utopia in order to combine them. Trump’s utopia seems to be the “Great” America of an ill-defined bygone era, a nostalgic, rose-tinted, cinematic remembrance of a society before the civil rights movement, when women stayed at home, when minority groups weren’t causing trouble and ruining the economy. Some people want to believe in that utopia but perhaps they need reminding that, like Thomas More’s, it will only ever be an illusion.