More’s Utopia: A 500th birthday celebration

Blogging Utopia 2016: Home

Thomas More’s Utopia, first published in Latin in 1516, is one of the world’s most famous books. It has given us the adjective ‘Utopian’, a mode of thought (‘Utopianism’), a literary genre. Yet, at some point in its 500 year history, the concept of ‘Utopia’ became detached from More’s book. It came to express an ideal, which has its own legacy in the shop names it inspires.

Shop: Utopia Travel

Shop: Utopia Coffee Lounge

Shop: Utopia Barbers

More strikingly, it also came to express what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as an ‘unrealistic belief in the perfectibility of society’: a belief that is ‘excessively idealistic’, ‘impracticable’, ‘illusory’—a meaning that is evident in its almost daily use to dismiss ideas and the possibility of change.

As a Guardian article  asked in March 2014, ‘are remarkable new proposals for floating urban communities merely utopian sci-fi?’ before concluding that such plans were actually ‘far from impractical utopias’.

Contrary to its popular reputation, however, More’s island of Utopia is not presented as the ‘ideal’. The title-page declares that the book will discuss ‘the best state of a commonweal and the new island of Utopia’. Not only is ‘best’ a more relative, contingent term than ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’, there is no suggestion—here at least—that Utopia is in fact the ‘best’ form of government that can be achieved. This ambivalence towards Utopia is also expressed in the name that More chose for his imagined island, which is a pun on the Greek ‘Outopia’ (no place) and ‘Eutopia’ (good place).

 

Title-page of 1516 Utopia
Title page of 1516 edition, © British Library, http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/thomas-mores-utopia


A truly golden little book, no
less beneficial than pleasing
about the best state of a commonweal and the new island of Utopia,
by the author, the very famous Thomas More,
citizen and sheriff of the renowned city of London,
very carefully published for the first time
with the help of Master Peter Giles of Antwerp and the skill
of Thierry Martens of Aalst, printer, of the fruitful university of Louvain

With grace and privilege

(English translation of 1516 title-page)


There are, in other words, many (mis)conceptions about Utopia. Running throughout the anniversary year of 2016, this blog returns to More’s work, looking in detail at specific passages, putting them in their historical context, and addressing some commonly held assumptions.

More about More
Portrait of Thomas More
Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger (1527) © The Frick Collection

Thomas More was in his late 30s when he wrote Utopia. He was born in 1478 to a prominent and wealthy London family: his father Sir John More was a judge; his maternal grandfather, Thomas Graunger, was sheriff of the city in 1505. Thomas followed his father into the law. By the time he wrote Utopia, he was known for his legal expertise in dealing with matters of international trade and was taking a prominent role in London affairs as one of the under-sheriffs of the city (a role to which he was appointed in 1510). He was also an intimate friend of leading scholars—men with reputations and contacts that extended across Europe—such as John Colet (founder of St Paul’s School), the royal physician Thomas Linacre, and the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus.

A copy of the full-text of Utopia, in English translation, from Henry Morley’s edition of 1901, can be found at:  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2130/2130-h/2130-h.htm

A copy of the first English translation of 1551, with the Latin original in parallel, can be found at: https://archive.org/details/utopiainlatinand00moreuoft

For queries about the blog, please contact c.shrank@shef.ac.uk

Cathy Shrank  is Professor of Tudor and Renaissance Literature at the University of Sheffield. She is currently working on a book about early modern dialogue (the form in which More’s Utopia is written).