Since Thomas More coined the term in 1516, “utopia” has meant both a “good” place (eu-topos) and “no” place (ou-topos)--an impossible place. Explored in his narrative Utopia, this imagined world has been influential, inspiring, and troubling. It contains the roots not only of monumental visionary thinking but also of totalitarian control and conformity.
More’s world is an isolated island with no money--a small community governed by rational, egalitarian principles, a fluid division of labor, and an emphasis on collective association over and above the traditional family. We encounter this world, moreover, in a complicated and cagey text. Utopia is not a monologue but a satirical dialogue, set amid court and trade intrigue.
In many ways, Utopia remains a product of its time. Wives must bow down in obeisance to their husbands; freedom of religion means freedom to have a religion. But this work also comments--bracingly--upon still-urgent questions of labor, life, love, faith, community, corruption, government, and greed. Where else do we find the critique of corrosive materialism captured in the image of a golden chamberpot?
My students and I have grappled with this strange world in our writing class at Beloit College. “How well,” we have asked, “has More’s Utopia aged after 500 years? Is Utopia still relevant to our world today? If not, what would we replace it with? What sorts of utopian or dystopian worlds should we write about, and why?” More himself ends his book with a peculiarly abrupt dismissal of Utopia: “The laws and customs of that country,” he argues, are “perfectly ridiculous.” What say you? I welcome responses to these questions--from my class and from others.
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