It's the five hundredth anniversary of the publication of Utopia.
I read Utopia (in English, not the original Latin) long ago. At the time the Holbein portraits of Thomas More and his family had made me rather fall in love with him, but I'm afraid reading Utopia put an end to that.
Utopia is...cold, emotionally, or so I thought at the time. I was dismayed by this society where the family is so little valued, and where everything is geared to the public good to such an extent that privacy is distrusted.
It was pretty much my idea of hell.
But then...More's island is Utopia, not Eutopia: it's Noplace, not Goodplace. And the book has jokes, too: More has fun with his banishment of unnecessary lawyers (More was a lawyer) and his opinion of rich people (More made some serious money in his time) as greedy, unscrupulous and ruthless.
More's Utopia, too, is constructed with care and great intelligence, right from the founding principle that 'wherever you have private property...then it is scarcely possible for a commonwealth to have justice and prosperity' to its religious tolerance (this from a man who later became passionate in his persecution of the unorthodox), to its obligatory work schedules, to its refusal to acknowledge symbols of wealth such as gold and jewellery, to its equality of the sexes (well, sort of), to its democracy.
What did More think he was about, writing such a book?
Well, I now think it was an exercise in humility. The society in which he lived wasn't working (he was later responsible for introducing a system of state-sponsored care for the poor) and Utopia was an example of a completely different system that wasn't going to work either. I think his self-mockery - perhaps you might call it wisdom - is a terrifically important part of the book.
Sadly, oh so sadly, More discovered (though surely he already knew) that wisdom and philosophy are tools too slow and blunt for practical government. Whatever was the truth of the matter, he was soon embroiled too deep in politics to escape.
He was executed on 6th July 1535.
Illustration from the first edition.
Word To Use Today: Utopia. This word comes from the Greek ou- meaning not, and topos, which means place.