Nowhere Now: Thomas More’s “Utopia” at 500

By Julianne WerlinNovember 8, 2016

Nowhere Now: Thomas More’s “Utopia” at 500

Utopia by Thomas More

IN 1985, FORDHAM UNIVERSITY held a conference on Thomas More’s Utopia, on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of More’s death and the 50th anniversary of his canonization as a Catholic saint. The conference brought together three scholars of More, including the editor of the new Cambridge edition of Utopia and the founder of the journal Moreana. But the event’s keynote speaker was not a scholar at all: it was, rather, the then-governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, who had been invited because of his longstanding interest in More and had, rather surprisingly, accepted. In the early years of his career, as a young lawyer, Cuomo had taken More as a personal model; now a portrait of More hung on the wall of the governor’s office. “He was both man of action and Christian mystic,” Cuomo remarked, explaining More’s appeal. “What a nice and convenient combination.”

Fifteen years later, Cuomo’s reclamation of More for the world of contemporary politics was given a further sanction: in 2000, Pope John Paul II declared More the “Heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians.” More possessed two excellent qualifications for this posthumous office: he had worked in the government, and he had been executed by it. The fact that he was the author of an important work of political philosophy could perhaps have counted as a third qualification, but only with a certain amount of willful blindness on the Vatican’s part. For Utopia, that enigmatic and endlessly provocative book, has never been easy to reconcile with the mainstream political and religious view of More as a principled functionary or a Catholic saint.

It would be tempting to suppose that Utopia fits more comfortably within a radical anticapitalist tradition: after all, it imagines an egalitarian society free of money. In recognition of this fact, More’s name was inscribed on an obelisk commemorating revolutionary precursors in Moscow’s Red Square. Now Verso Books, the left-wing press known for a catalog of Marxist writers from Theodor Adorno to David Harvey, has given More yet another communist imprimatur by publishing a 500th anniversary edition of Utopia, bookended with essays by the science fiction writers China Miéville and Ursula K. Le Guin. Yet, as readers of the volume will discover, More’s text remains difficult for the radical left to assimilate as well. For readers who would diminish More’s radicalism, it is Utopia’s searing analysis of social problems that poses the greatest difficulty; for the latter-day radicals who admire it, the issue lies, rather, with the nature of its solution.

As it turns out, John Paul II’s designation of More as the “patron of statesmen” has an element of truth. For Utopia is not, as is sometimes claimed, a depiction of an ideal society. The community founded by King Utopus in 244 BC is nothing so vague, or voluntary, as a “society.” It is a state.

More’s imaginary island has slavery, forced labor, colonialism, executions, and quite a lot of warfare. Each of Utopia’s cities even has a prince, though it is true that, as the Marxist philosopher Karl Kautsky once pointed out, they have “nothing to do except to avoid coming under suspicion of striving for absolute power.” To be sure, the Utopia More imagined — with its social and economic equality, ample leisure time, beautiful cities, and daily philosophical lectures — scarcely resembles any real state, past or present. But it is still a state.

The key to the unique power of More’s vision is inseparable from Utopia’s statist political form, for More was one of the state’s most prescient observers and keenest theorists. By the time he wrote Utopia, at the age of 38, he was a rising lawyer, judge, MP, and occasional diplomat who was in the process of deciding whether to step into the enchanted but perilous circle of Henry VIII’s court. That regime, in keeping with the strange logic of absolutism, was at once the antithesis of a rationalized state and the best example of it around. With his dangerous whims and passionate cruelty, Henry VIII typified the chaotic arbitrariness of personal power, yet he moved at the center of a sophisticated bureaucratic administration that made the idea of an abstract, impersonal form of government seem increasingly possible.

In this respect, England was exemplary but not unique. At the beginning of the 16th century, the bureaucratic state was just emerging as the dominant form of political organization in Western Europe. True, there had been complex legal systems and arcane forms of administration throughout the Middle Ages. But the dispersed, localized, and highly personal sovereignty of the lords and kings of feudal Europe was very different from the new absolutist central administrations with unified, territorial jurisdictions that were beginning to take shape around 1500. It was this form, developing falteringly throughout the 16th century, that Europeans would use to manage and finance warfare, colonial conquest, and trade in the centuries to come. It was, as More perceived, the future.

At the moment when More was writing, this new political system had just received a name. In 1513, only three years before the publication of Utopia, Machiavelli secured the destiny of the term stato in its new meaning as a polity by using it in The Prince. More was writing before the term had caught on. But there is an echo of it in Utopia’s original title, which is not simply Utopia — it was More’s English translator who first chopped it down to a single word — but De optimo reipublicae statu deque nova insula Utopia. De optimo reipublicae statu: “On the best state of a commonwealth.”

More’s Utopia has a very small government and no lawyers at all. The sleekness of its regime, however, is the mark of its success. In sharp contrast to the haphazard mechanisms of official justice in 16th-century Europe, Utopia’s rules operate seamlessly, with a uniform predictability that extends across every inch of territory and to every citizen living within its borders. Numbers proliferate in More’s pages, circumscribing communal life within unerring limits. The 54 cities of Utopia each contain 6,000 households, governed by 200 lower magistrates, who are themselves supervised by 20 higher officials. Utopian citizens adhere to a fixed schedule: “dividing the day and night into twenty-four hours, appoint six of these for work, three of which are before dinner and three after; they then sup, and at eight o’clock, counting from noon, go to bed and sleep eight hours.” Outside the cities, utopians serve rotating two-year shifts working on farms, where they live in households of at least 40 men and women, plus two slaves.

The condition of this thoroughgoing enumeration is the absence of that rival engine of quantification: money. For Utopia’s rational political framework is not an end in itself. It is designed to govern the life of its citizens in the service of an equal prosperity, extending to all. Elsewhere the relationship between politics and economics, More’s character Hythloday informs the reader, is reversed: politics is simply a reflection of the inequality of wealth. Or as he puts it rather more memorably, “all other governments […] are a conspiracy of the rich.” Looking backward to the arbitrary power of the feudal lords, and forward to the arbitrary power of the enclosing landlords, More imagined a means of circumventing the exploitation and brutality that had defined human history. What else could that be, even in pure fantasy, but an ideal state?

Half a millennium later, many people live in states whose power extends as efficiently and minutely into their lives as anything More could have envisioned. Yet they hardly resemble the communist society of leisure and equality he proposed. Rather than serving as bulwarks against the tyrannical power of money, they work in tandem with it; the free and unrestricted plenty of Utopia is nowhere to be seen. Only in the elements of Utopia we would least wish to see fulfilled — warfare, colonialism, coercion — does More’s vision seem prophetic. More’s Nowhere — the literal translation of “Utopia,” as many critics have delighted in pointing out — is now nowhere to be found.


The literary genre More created continued to develop long after the precise political conditions that inspired it fell away. It flourished in the 19th century, only to wither in the hostile climate of the 20th, as the real experiment in state socialism touched off by the Russian Revolution gave writers on both sides of the Cold War reasons to avoid its literary equivalent. In the West, writers turned instead to that dark inversion of the original genre, the dystopia, and to literary analogues that retained an increasingly vague sense of social possibility while discarding Utopia’s state-based political structure entirely.

In the years following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, there have been few utopias. For those on the left, it has become commonplace to deplore their absence, which is taken to reflect the imaginative failure and political resignation of our historical era, and rightly so. But it is not just the radical politics of utopian texts that make them hard to write today. Their very form, which is both static (as in narratively inert) and statist, gives many creative writers pause. With its clear rules, strict delineation of space, and fixed institutions, it is not easy to detach the genre from its associations with government. And few contemporary writers believe in government enough to try to imagine a perfect one.

There have, of course, been attempts to write utopia without the state. Already in the 19th century, writing under the influence of Marx, William Morris was reimagining the form in new terms. “I must now shock you,” his interlocutor informs the protagonist of News from Nowhere, “by telling you that we have no longer anything which you, a native of another planet, would call a government.” More recently, the science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin has made her own anarchist experiments with the genre, most notably in The Dispossessed (1974), subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia.” In that novel, Le Guin depicts a world locked in a fictionalized Cold War, with the addition of a third, anarchist alternative on a nearby planet. Though the anarchist society lacks the violent tendencies of its neighbors, it is decidedly imperfect; by the end of the novel, it is shown to be in a state of subtle, but not irreversible, decline. Tying social experiment to narrative development, Le Guin’s work has helped influence a generation of SF and fantasy writers to produce books that are utopian in ambition without quite being utopias in form.

So far as both utopian thought and American publishing are concerned, this is Le Guin’s moment, not More’s, and it will probably be her name rather than his that will draw most readers to Verso’s new edition of Utopia. For those who simply want to read More’s text, there are already plenty of translations of his Latin original, ranging widely in style and accuracy. Verso uses a 1684 version by Gilbert Burnet, the Anglican bishop and Whig stalwart, also available (for free) via Project Gutenberg. For the most part, Burnet’s brisk, readable prose holds up well. Though it contains the occasional archaism and at times deviates slightly from More’s original — as in the odd decision to merge Books I and II into a single, continuous text — it is easy to see why his was the standard translation for more than 200 years, until it was superseded in the 20th century.

But Verso’s volume is more than just a new edition of Utopia. It is also, by virtue of the essays with which it begins and ends, a reassessment. Two introductory essays by China Miéville, the Marxist writer of speculative fiction, begin the volume with a note of wariness. Utopia, he notes in the first essay, is an artificial island, a swathe of ground separated from the mainland at the behest of its conqueror, “[w]rought by brutality, coerced from above.” In Miéville’s reading, utopia is as much a threat as a goal. In a second essay, entitled “The Limits of Utopia,” he takes aim at latter-day utopians, criticizing glib visions of an ideal world, including those offered by the environmental movement. For Miéville, “if we take utopia seriously, as a total reshaping, its scale means we can’t think it from this side. It’s the process of making it that will allow us to do so.”

At the volume’s end, four collected essays by Le Guin echo Miéville’s skepticism. “The rationalist utopia,” she writes, “is a power trip.” The daughter of the influential anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, she shares anthropology’s sense of culture as malleable and fluid, emerging from communal practices rather than bureaucratic rules. For Le Guin, the idea that there could be a single, rigid, fully articulated template for something as organically complex and living as a human community is irrevocably tied to the Western history of domination, coercion, and colonialism — tied, that is, to the legacy of imperialism. “It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population,” Le Guin writes, “in a one-way future consisting only of growth.”

Cautious in their appreciation, passionate in their criticism, Le Guin’s and Miéville’s essays may seem like surprising choices for a 500th anniversary edition of a canonical masterpiece. But they are revealing choices: by subjecting More’s ideas to critique, they force us to acknowledge that, for all his prescience, More wrote for his own era, not ours. Utopia begins, and in some ways ends, with the social problems of the 16th century. It is only after a discussion of landlords’ enclosure of commons for pasturage that Hythloday makes the claim that “as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily.” His solution comes still later.

This is no failing. On the contrary, it is Utopia’s greatest strength and the source of its enduring power. For Thomas More’s fiction still makes us feel, half a millennium later, what it means to live within history and what it means to try to think one’s way out of it. There are not many texts that do either of these things, much less both, with comparable brilliance. We should learn from More’s example and try to follow it, while understanding that doing so might not lead us to the same kind of solutions the Heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians devised 500 years ago. Our own deteriorating capitalist infrastructure poses different problems than the rapidly modernizing but still partially feudal society More surveyed back in 1516. Imagining equality for our world, as More did for his, might lead us away from his genre entirely and toward the political ideas and literary forms of a new historical moment.


Julianne Werlin teaches at Duke University, where she is completing a book on early modern bureaucracy and literature.

LARB Contributor

Julianne Werlin teaches at Duke University, where she is completing a book on early modern bureaucracy and literature.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!