This year marks the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. Despite its advanced age, More’s compelling vision of a perfect society remains a quintessentially modern aspiration. Utopia is hailed as ‘astonishingly radical’ by contemporary political thinkers, and the text continues to offer inspiration and renewal for writers, artists, and filmmakers.
The perfect island of Utopia is a dream of societal harmony and order, not unlike the Biblical garden paradise or Plato’s Republic. More’s early modern work is considered a canonical text of Western literature and culture, providing a template to which we might one day aspire. But Utopia is also a perplexing and troubling text. More’s explorer protagonist, Raphael Hythloday, is presented as a companion of Vespucci on his voyage to the New World, which binds the utopian dream to the European invasion and colonization of America. It is no coincidence that there are slaves on the island of Utopia. Despite its associations with liberal thought and communal happiness, the island of Utopia has a rigid societal hierarchy and strictly-regulated communal laws.
“It is difficult to be certain where Utopia belongs on the bookshelf. Is it literature of the imagination? Or is it a manifesto for political action?”
It is difficult to be certain where Utopia belongs on the bookshelf. Is it literature of the imagination? Or is it a manifesto for political action? The title, playfully coined by More, doesn’t help us in either case: the word can mean ‘good place’, suggesting a kind of prescriptive political idealism, but at the same time can mean ‘no place’, which draws attention to its invented, impossible status. Perhaps the protagonist can offer us a clue, whose name ‘Hythloday’ translates as ‘spreader of nonsense’. Of course, the key to understanding ‘utopia’ is acknowledging that it is not a case of either/or, but both: More’s text is as much at home on a shelf of political philosophy as it is imaginative fiction.
To celebrate its anniversary, Somerset House has arranged a series of events entitled Utopia 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility, which actively embraces the text’s plurality of possible meanings. In collaboration with Verso, the radical political publishing house, a new edition of Thomas More’s Utopia has been beautifully assembled. Released in paperback, the Verso Utopia includes contributions by fantasy and science fiction writers China Miéville and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Miéville and Le Guin tease out the implications of More’s vision for a 21st century readership, exploring the possibilities of utopian thinking alongside the dystopian shadows it casts. Among other things, their analysis touches on critical theory and philosophy, histories of political struggle, environmental concerns, and the rise of neoliberal capitalism. Following the template set by More, the contributions by China Miéville and Ursula K. Le Guin deliver urgent political commentary through the voice of the creative writer. Verso’s new edition of Utopia allows readers to return to More’s idyllic island, while warning of the rocks that lay hidden near the shore.
Thomas More’s Utopia is published by Verso.