Thomas Morus, On the Best State of a Republic and on the New Island of Utopia
Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 2004
It is the year 1516: Leonardo da Vinci is already at an advanced age, Bavaria issues an early version of the purity law, and in the Netherlands Thomas More’s “Utopia” is published. At this point in time, no one can foresee that the book will influence world history and literature for the next 500 years.
In More’s text, "Utopia" is the name of an island, where the sailor Raphael Hythlodeus claims to have been. He describes the island to More in a kind of philosophical dialogue. In the first part of the book, the author reflects on the social and political problems in Europe. The second part consists of Hythlodeus’ description of the living conditions in the mysterious place Utopia. In many aspects, Utopia seems more advanced than the real Europe at the time. For instance, the inhabitants of Utopia live together without private possession in joint families. Religion and state are strictly separated, men and women can choose their own crafts, meaning their own occupations, and the entire republic lives in complete harmony without money.
At first, this might all seem somewhat dry, especially to a young reader. But in truth, “Utopia” is actually not the deadly serious, idealistic world image of an aging humanist. Thomas More did not intend to show his readers, how easy human life could be if everyone participated. Instead, his novel constitutes a clever satire. Facing the problems in Europe, More tried to make them graspable with “Utopia”. He presented an alternative draft of a world where everything is really simple. The reader thus becomes aware of his or her own behaviour. But the model “Utopia” is not a perspective for the future, it is not meant to be put into action.
This is already indicated by the name “Utopia”, which is a combination of the ancient Greek words “outopia”, which translates to “no-place” and “eutopia”, meaning good place. It is a hint that such an ideal world will probably never exist. And the term should be used accordingly. It describes the dream of a society where all those things work that don’t work in our world.
One example for this is the fact that it is so shocking for us to see the inhabitants of Utopia living without money. We have to wonder: Are our use of money and our monetary system really the best system in the long run, after all? Is it too late to at least consider a world that could work without money? This is just one instance of the kind of impulses and moral issues raised by “Utopia”.
The trend of utopias and dystopias has stayed since More – for half a millennium – and it still continues. We still create alternative worlds in order to discuss our own. Nevertheless, every reader will actually benefit from tackling More’s original work. After all, no other utopia forces its reader to reflect so critically on his or her own world. More was the master of balancing realistic and absurd content. As a result, every new aspect about Utopia will make the reader realise how dubious our own society is organised – how things have developed. And in the year 2017, this kind of thinking is more than necessary.