Utopia: never achieved, never to be realised, but worth thinking about

This years is the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, and last night I listened to two historians and two politicians discuss what Utopia meant at the time and means now.

Utopia means “no place,” meaning perhaps that More recognised that it would never be achieved. He gave us the word Utopian, which is generally used negatively, and later we had dystopian. All attempts at Utopia—the French revolution, the Paris Communards, communism, the Khymer Rouge, the Nazis, and Mao-Tse Tung—have rapidly become dystopias; and dystopias (1984, Brave New World) are better read than Utopia. (I’ve never read Utopia but have read both the famous dystopias.) Hollywood does dystopias not utopias.

But walk into a bookshop today and you’ll find many editions of More’s Utopia. Few books survive 500 years, and Utopia clearly has something. It has survived perhaps because of its fine writing (Shakespearean, said one historian), humour, and nuance. Academics still argue over how to interpret the book. Was he serious? The book is in two parts, the first part a philosophical treatise (“Asking questions about how to ask questions”; “More saw two sides of everything”) and the second the highly detailed account of Utopia.

These are some of the characteristics of Utopia:

  • All is rational calm
  • Wise men rule
  • There is no private property
  • Private property and the urge to accumulate wealth lead to sin
  • There are strict rules
  • It is Greek (justice, equality, no private property) rather than Roman (authoritarian, individual, military)
  • It is primarily concerned with human happiness
  • Inequality is unacceptable: “a city of rich and poor will be two cities not one”
  • Bathrooms have no locks
  • Everybody must work—but not too much
  • Women do the cooking and the cleaning
  • There are slaves—criminals and foreigners who want to live in Utopia (think immigrants to Britain)
  • War is sometimes justified
  • All are dressed alike, fashions never change
  • All go to bed at 8 and sleep eight hours
  • Before marriage, bride and groom see each other naked: no one would buy a horse without first taking off the saddle and bridle
  • Those with a painful, incurable disease are encouraged to commit suicide
  • Religion is essential (in Utopia you must believe in the immortality of the soul, divine providence, and the afterlife—“if there was no afterlife why would you behave in this life?”)
  • It is perhaps best thought of as a “starting point for a conversation”

Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince was written shared (not published) three years before Utopia and is often regarded as the opposite of Utopia. “A job application to the Medici’s” it’s actually a different book, “a practical manual for those in power.”  “Treat men as they are [wicked] not as they would be,” said Machiavelli. Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP, said that “all politicians should have The Prince beside their bed,” and she conceded that the Tories were better at power than Labour. (I was explaining to a foreigner yesterday how the Tories, in contrast to Labour, are ruthless in decapitating a wounded leader).

There was no neat conclusion beyond Utopia and The Prince being well worth reading and discussing, and bewareThe discussion will broadcast on Radio 3 tonight and available on a podcast if you’re interested.

PS. Gisela Stuart made some interesting observations:

  • Continental Europeans believe that there is a right answer to questions. The British, a seafaring nation, think “you cannot controls the waves but only ride them.”
  • MPs are mediators between tyranny and mob rule.
  • There isn’t a right answer to human relations.
  • Europeans believe that upward progress will continue. The Chinese believe that what goes up must come down.
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