Since 1515 the world and the human way of living have changed so much that people from the 16th century – if all of a sudden set into our time – would be entirely confused, and unable to believe what they would see and hear.
And yet Thomas More’s classic, Utopia, which was published exactly 500 years ago,still makes for a very interesting read. But why should it be interesting now in a completely different world, after five centuries of constant change? A possible explanation for this is perhaps the fact that Utopia deals with a paradoxical way of thinking. What does ‘paradox’ actually mean? The word seems to have entered the English language sometime in the 16th century, meaning something distinct from the generally accepted opinion. If something has a paradoxical character, it is different to the usual way of thinking and therefore intriguing or even provoking.
For example, we rarely consider that the birthplace of the idea of freedom has always been the dungeon. Perhaps only those who were put into a murky hole somewhere in the basement of a castle became fully aware of how infinitely precious freedom is. When free, people seldom think of what great privilege they are allowed to enjoy. It seems that only people deprived of their freedom can really know what freedom is, and dream about its inestimable beauty and value.
The same is true of our health: when we are healthy we take it for granted and are barely aware of the enormous wealth we possess. It is only when we fall ill that we become conscious of how wonderful it is to be healthy and feel well.
This trait of human nature is probably the source of all utopian conceptions. Longing for something better than what is available is the root of every utopia. That applies as equally to individual dreams as it does to collective wishes of whole societies. Unhappy individuals who feel disdained and unjustly treated dream about a world in which they would be respected, or loved. People who believe they deserve to be accepted as an equal member in their own homeland within the family of nations dream of their own utopia.
The word ‘utopia’ is a coinage of the Greek words for ‘no’ and ‘place’. Thus in fact, it means ‘nowhere’. It is an object of thought and imagination.
Plato and Thomas More created their famous utopias because the worlds in which they lived were rather brutal and full of grave deficiencies and tragedy. Their utopias are driven by the worlds they lived in. In Plato’s The Republic, Socrates uses the name Kallipolis for his utopia. Kallipolis means a good or beautiful city. By calling his imaginary city ‘a good city’ he effectively, if cautiously, criticizes the city he lives in. Thomas More calls his ideal city Utopia, a non-existent place, indirectly saying that the town in which he lives is not that place.
Both Plato and More suggest some improvements in economy, education, working conditions, defense and so on; however, all such enhancements are rather cosmetic in nature. The people in their imaginary worlds must undergo military training and always be ready to fight and kill. Inhabitants of More’s utopian island even engage mercenaries from neighboring nations when they do not have enough soldiers to defend themselves. They dig a 15 mile wide canal between the mainland and their island in order not to be influenced by the bad habits of the surrounding, morally inferior, societies. Digging a canal of such dimensions would be a huge task even for the most powerful nations nowadays. When these cities are under-populated, they bring in people from the mainland to maintain the number of inhabitants they consider ideal.
Plato, Cicero and More, to mention three of the most famous utopians, were highly learned people and considered the societies of their time wicked, vain and corrupt. This may be the explanation for why utopias have appealed to honest, intelligent and educated people throughout time. Although the three great authors very carefully steered clear of criticizing their potentates directly, they had every reason to fear for their own lives and in the end, indeed, all paid the highest price. Socrates, Plato’s favorite person and reportedly his teacher, was sentenced to death; the three mightiest men in Rome, Anthony, Lepidus and Augustus ordered Cicero’s killing; and More was beheaded because he refused to swear allegiance to the brutal king Henry VIII, who had declared himself supreme ruler of the world. He refused because he believed in only one God.