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The future as the yardstick of all things

Thomas More's book Utopia turns 500 years old this year. Ny Tid uses the opportunity to celebrate this still radical masterpiece. 


In 1516, the Renaissance humanist, lawyer, politician, Catholic and author Thomas More introduced a new word: Utopia. The word was formed through the union of Greek adverbs ou ("Not") with the noun topos ("Place"), ie "non-place". His learned readers may also have been able to recognize Moore's witty wordplay: the pronunciation of the word utopia brings to mind another Greek word composition, viz Eutopia, which means "good place". This is how the concept of utopia has been understood since More – as the anticipation of a perfect, but alas non-existent realm, contrasted with existing, and thus as its critical opposite.

Moore's Latin Fiction Story Utopia, which describes the forgotten but non-existent island of Utopia, is a very diverse work. With inspiration from Plato describes Utopia a community without property, where everything is shared between equal individuals. At the same time, the island of Utopia, which More attributes to "the new world," is a republic in which epicurean citizens are expected to devote themselves to happiness. The whole of society purpose is to enable citizens to live a happy life. Happiness, however, is not a purely bodily matter – rather, it is stoically associated with living a virtuous, just and decent life. Last but not least express Utopia a number of Christian ideals, including the message of charity and a belief in the immortality of the soul.

Picture from the movie Back to Utopia.

A characteristic feature of the book is that the author himself chooses to distance himself from the society depicted. Rather than directing a singular moral criticism of the home country of England through the construction of its opposition, Utopia a kind of metaphic novel where multiple narrative levels contrast with each other.

Thomas More, 1527. Painting by Hans Holbein dy,

Collective perfection. More Island is reminiscent of a modern welfare state. Society must take care of the individual. Everyone should have a roof over their heads. No one should have to go hungry. All material goods must be shared, and even if the family is portrayed as patriarchal and leaders must be appointed, society must generally be egalitarian. The laws should be few but clear, which becomes possible as there is no property. Profit crimes will hardly exist, as citizens have everything they need. The public sector must take responsibility for education and not least health, which is considered to be the basis for all human righteousness. Everyone should work, but no more than six hours every day, and time should be set aside for meaningful activities, especially studies. Utopians seek to avoid war at all costs, which they see as bestial. More's ideal society is orderly, sensible and good – and, one might say, not so little snuff sensible.

The sanity comes out there Utopia, perhaps inspired by Plato, appears at least freedom-friendly. On the whole, personal freedom is hardly considered a good thing. Society, it is claimed, should be like one big family, and in the family it is important to submit to the family routines. There should be no alcohol, very little entertainment, one should obtain permission from their superiors to go for a walk, and travel should be carefully regulated. In other words, one senses how More is in danger of committing what will later become the benevolent social designer's cardinal sin: he seeks collective perfection at the expense of a healthy sense of the individual's individuality and the general diversity of life (despite the fact that he and Augustin not believe that the earthly individual can be perfected!).

The utopian sits with to plan! Thus there is hardly any room left for what Immanuel Kant almost three hundred years later would call "the crooked tree trunk of humanity."

Dream and anticipation. More is, as I said, ambiguous. Although the moves he makes seem clear, it is easy to lose the common thread in the wealth of ideas and descriptions he gives. In his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern from 2011, the American researcher Stephen Greenblatt suggests that what above all does Utopia important in the nascent modernity within which it is written is the dream of a life without fear.

More's ideal society is orderly, sensible and good – and not a little snuff-sensible.

The idea that living without fear is a central component of a good life dates back to the Greek philosopher Epicurus and his Roman successor Lucretus. For the Epicureans, a life without fear was a life without gods and foreign powers – a way of life devoted to life itself and its simple pleasures in sober recognition of its possibilities as well as limitations. (With Freud one could perhaps speak of acceptance of the principle of reality.)

According to Greeenblatt, Lukrets makes a tremendous comeback in the Renaissance, then his doctrinal poem About the nature of things was rediscovered. For the American historian, Lukrets becomes a focal point for the whole of modernist humanistic vision of human possibilities in a pervasive material, but at the same time comprehensible and controllable world.

If More belongs to this neo-lucrative, modern world, it may be useful to compare him with another contemporary philosopher and politician, namely Niccolo Machiavelli. In the work Prince, written just three years before Mores Utopia, we also find a recipe for how a society must be set up so that citizens can dedicate themselves to the good and to virtue. Machiavelli's neo-Lucretian way of thinking makes him sharply distinguish between religion and politics, and to issue a kind of instrumentally oriented science about the psychological and social anchoring of politics in human passions such as envy, hatred and not least fear. One of the most cunning things the prince can do, Machiavelli claims, is to create fear – because without fear no one will obey, and without obedience it can never be acted collectively.

More rejects the premises of this argument. According to him, people do not act well when they are full of fear, but when the framework around their lives creates welfare and predictability. Although he probably doubts Aristotle's idea of ​​purposeful processes, he thinks that the good life is a life in which the full potential of man is exploited. However, living this way presupposes a meaningful and enabling life context – not based on superstition and fear, but created with the knowledge and will of sensible people. In the end, More believed that one must also believe in the immortality of the soul. The earthly conditions, no matter how well-arranged, can not guarantee a good life.

A forward-thinking being. A line goes from here to Hegel, who wanted to situate the free individual in orderly social contexts, but also to the young Marx, who, like More, argued that human alienation can only be overcome in an egalitarian society of self-realizing individuals, produced and controlled through human sense.

Can utopian thinking be re-actualized after its failure in the technocratic nightmare of totalitarianism? One answer to this might be that we have never lived completely without utopia. To be human, claimed the German philosopher Ernst Bloch, is to be an anticipatory being. We can not help but turn forward. Modernity is the culture where this becomes aware of us, and where the future – for better or worse – becomes the standard for all projects. In this sense, More's little book is a milestone in European history.

See leather, as well as criticism of American utopia.

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