Hello again my dear readers!
This time on Literary Wanderings I’m going to review Thomas More’s Utopia, which is a very curious little book originally published in 1516. Which is a heck of a long time ago. The reason I say this is a curious book is largely due to its premonitory and satirical content, and its exploration on what would later become known as Communism. It’s also very curious because of its author. Thomas More was known for jokes. On top of this, he seems to have had an enjoyment for hiding behind a smokescreen of humour, and he uses this to his advantage in the novel. Behind his screen, he can freely say whatever he likes and avoid being sent to the Tower of London for it. He’s known in some circles as a political thinker, too, which was an even rarer thing to be when politics was definitely not your business and you weren’t welcome to intervene. On the flip side, some have called More a devout Catholic, and as a result there are two camps which try to define Utopia as either a moral work or an inherently political one. Arguments between the two tend to focus on whether or not a devout Catholic in the 1500’s could have advocated such things as euthanasia, mutual divorce on common grounds, religious toleration, the marriage of priests and premarital sex; or whether a man who owned large property and was wealthy himself could condemn the rich men and women of society and claim to be a communist.
These questions are rather inconsequential here though, because ultimately a book is what it is, and readers interpret what they like from a book. It’s the very embodiment of the reader vs. author conundrum. Most analysts have said that Utopia is simply meant to be an example of ‘the perfect society’, but what strikes me as odd is that many of the things that are listed in Utopia are present here, in 2015, and yet which of us can say that this is perfect? It’s an improvement on the days of yore from whence we came, true, but everyone always strives for something better and really, what is perfection? I have always seen it as something that society gave us, an ideal towards which we constantly strive but one which we never achieve. All we have to do is look at the world around us and our answers can come from there.
But I digress, on with the review.
Utopia itself is a work written as a recorded conversation between three people. This isn’t a format that you see very often these days, as it tends to read as slightly clunky, overdrawn, and sometimes preachy. My edition – a 2003 reissue of the 1965 translation from Latin to New English – does suffer from the usual translation problems, which in some cases enhance the clunkiness of Utopia. More noticeable are the necessary changes to names between languages. The original names of the characters and places were written in Greek, and after so many translations they became a little mangled and the joke of them was lost. The editor has translated these names to New English, and noticeably some of the dialogue is more drawn out than is strictly necessary.
Besides the conversational format, part of Utopia’s charm is in its content. The plot revolves around a traveller, who has entered into town with news of a most miraculous discovery. His discovery is the island of Utopia, a place where the citizens are about as far removed from European society as possible and act in a completely different way as a result. The traveller meets with our Narrator and a colleague of his, who both go about recording what he has to say as best they can. What follows is a comprehensive and surprising account of a society where gold is worth as much as dirt, a modern-day penal system is in place, there is clear evidence of a communist farming setup with rotational land ownership and cultivation of plots, a communistic idea of living quarters, clothing and food, and most of all a communistic central government structure. The Utopians also enact a strange method of warfare when they are forced to do so – they prefer to avoid wars – and their trading system is a very unique method that does share some similarities with current import-export ideas. It would take too long for me to explain it here, so if you’re interested I would recommend getting a copy of the book itself.
In reference to my earlier section about preachiness, Utopia does have its fair share of that and it ends with the Traveller suggesting strongly that his account be taken as a good model for what should be done to fix the problems of the 1500s. Its positioned not just as a good tactical decision to listen to him, but also a good one morally, politically, and financially. Saying that, it’s not a forceful preachiness and More tackles the subject well given the time period and his bent for satire. If anything, Utopia is a book that makes you take a good, long look at society and the idea of perfection, and what it might really mean for you. It’s a useful tool to help fuel your thoughts rather than prod at new ideas, and anything that stokes a fire can usually be put to good use.
So, take what you will from it, but I do recommend this one.
Never stop reading!