Utopia Study Guide

Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516. The work was written in Latin and it was published in Louvain (present-day Belgium). Utopia is a work of satire, indirectly criticizing Europe's political corruption and religious hypocrisy. More was a Catholic Humanist. Alongside his close friend, the philosopher and writer Erasmus, More saw Humanism as a way to combine faith and reason. In depicting Utopia, More steps outside the bounds of orthodox Catholicism, but More's ultimate goal is to indicate areas of improvement for Christian society. Is an ideal state possible? Utopia means "no place" but sounds like "good place." At the very least, Utopia exposes the absurdities and evils of More's society by depicting an alternative.

As a satirist, More continues the tradition of Ancient Roman writers like Juvenal and Horace. As a philosopher brave enough to tackle the idea of the "ideal state," More leans away from Aristotle and towards Plato, author of The Republic. Sustaining the arguments of The Republic, Utopia fashions a society whose rulers are scholars (not unlike Plato's philosopher-king). Though Aristotle was opposed to the idea of common property and the abolition of private property, Aristotle's ideas of aesthetics, justice and harmony are present in the Utopian's philosophy.

A devout Catholic, More was beheaded as a martyr in 1535, standing opposed to the principle of the Anglican Church and the King of England's role as the head of the Church (replacing the Pope in Rome). In the 1530s, More wrote polemical tracts and essays attacking Lutheranism as heresy. All the same, More's Utopia implies that Utopians are better than some Christians. St. Augustine's City of God established the theme of the earthly city of God, reiterating the image of New Jerusalem presented in the Biblical Book of Revelations. Utopia is a type of New Jerusalem, a perfect place on earth. The Puritan experiments of the 1600s (in Britain and in North America) exemplify the programming of Utopian New Jerusalem.

Certianly, we must remember the context of New World exploration. Raphael Hythloday gives us the story of Utopia because he once sailed with Amerigo Vespucci. The First Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci was published in Latin in 1507. Columbus, Vespucci, and others returned with stories of the New World but earlier works of Marco Polo and John Mandeville already developed a genre of travel writing‹stories of far-off lands that combined fact with a great deal of fiction. More uses the New World theme to get his philosophical points across. He is less interested in New World politics and more interested in offering Utopia as an indirect critique of the Catholic European societies (England mainly, but also France, the Italian city-states, and other areas to a lesser extent). More opposed the vast land enclosures of the wealthy English aristocracy, the monopolistic maneuvers of London's guilds and merchants, and the burdensome oppression of the work through the imposition of unjust laws.

More's work has left a lasting impact on subsequent political thought and literature. The Greek word Utopia translates as "no place" or "nowhere," but in modern parlance, a Utopia is a good place, an ideal place (eu-topia). The term "utopia" has gained more significance than More's original work. Utopia has inspired a diverse group of political thinkers. The utilitarian philosophy expounded in the late 1700s and early 1800s developed the idea of the ideal and perfect balance of happiness. Jeremy Bentham, a leading Utilitarian thinker, developed ideas of surveillance and the panopticon by which all can be seen. These reformatory practices, designed to quantify happiness, calculate moral goodness and produce the optimal balance, echo the anti-privacy measures inflicted upon the citizens of More's Utopia.

In the 1800s, the rise of urban industrialization triggered the proliferation of Utopian projects (agricultural communes), all of which failed. Utopia became the project of creating an ideal society apart from the demoralizing city. These Utopian projects were especially popular in Britain, France, and New England. The Utopian celebration of common property and dependence upon extensive state planning are the groundwork for communism and socialism as presented in Marx and Engels' written works. 1848, the year of Marx's Communist Manifesto is a year of urban revolutions. Utopia's criticisms of the nobility's perversion of law to subjugate the poor were applied to the suffering of industrial and factory workers. The abolition of money, private property, and class structure would undermine the power of the bourgeoisie. Socialists believed that agricultural economies with property held in common would cure the ills of industrial capitalization.

With the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the twentieth-century rise of communism, the ills of Utopia were made evident. The overbearing regulation and stifling of individualism were apparent in the communist Eastern Bloc and Soviet states. To be sure, More was neither a Communist nor a Socialist‹and it wouldn't necessarily be accurate to call More a Utopian either. All the same, More's work certainly propelled the philosophical development of these themes.

As a literary work, Utopia has retained its power to impact British and American writiers. From the Greek prefix dys- (i.e. bad, ill) comes the word "Dystopia," reflecting Utopia's negative qualities. Dickens' novels of industrialized Britain depict planned factory cities gone wrong‹like the city of Coketown in Hard Times. Utopia remains in the backdrop: a desirable alternative but an equally failing effort. Works like George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 are dystopic novels that warn of the false hope of heavily programmed utopias. In 1887, a New England socialist named Edward Bellamy wrote Looking Backward, a novel that glanced into the future, presenting a celebratory image of a Utopian America.

The word Utopia has a double meaning then. In the academic disciplines of architecture and urban planning, leading figures like Lewis Mumford, Le Corbusier, and Frederic Law Olmsted (creator of Central Park) all developed the idea of Utopia in a positive sense. In political theory, however, Utopia has often been interpreted as a most dangerous form of naiveté. The impulse to plan perfection leads to the tyranny of Orwell's "Big Brother."