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UTOPIA (1516) by Thomas More
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The Independent Culture
Plot: Utopia is a classical pun meaning either "good place" or "no place": ambiguity pervades the whole work. In Part I a fictional Thomas More argues with explorer Raphael Hythloday about contemporary social mores. Raphael claims that the rich are hooked on money, always wanting more to enhance self-esteem by impoverishing others. The poor become necessarily poorer and turn to crime. The rich respond by imposing draconian legislation. Raphael refuses to become a politician because philosophers don't crawl. More suggests that a humane presence can influence public affairs beneficially. In Part II Raphael describes the communist state of Utopia. Towns, houses and clothes are all the same. Utopians rotate urban and agricultural tasks. Brainy individuals can become scholars and MPs. Women share the men's work but also do the domestic chores. The filthy jobs are performed by slaves culled from criminals and prisoners of war. Utopians have an NHS and accept divorce, euthanasia and suicide. Pre-marital sex is out.. Diamonds are used for playthings, gold for chamberpots. Utopian religion is a species of rational theism. Conflicting beliefs are held in respect. The book ends with a sermonette on the deadliest of the seven sins, pride.

Theme: Early Christians "had all things in common". Heathen Utopia shows how the abolition of property and the adoption of pseudo-monastic rules can curb humanity's greed and envy.

Style: More's Latin avoids Ciceronian ornament and aims to be "homely, plain and simple." Even so, a battery of rhetorical tricks manages to tease and puzzle.

Chief strengths: More's opinion of the Utopians is buried under layers of knowingness. He presents them as heartless, reasonable, liberal and sinister.

Chief weakness: The construction is haphazard. Although More knows he wants to finish with a denunciation of pride, the details of Utopian life emerge arbitrarily.

What they thought of it then: Dim-witted readers scoured maps to locate Utopia's position. Erasmus and his bunch of Euro-humanists chuckled wisely and wrote appreciative letters to each other. Thomas Cromwell, More's arch-rival, preferred Machiavelli's The Prince.

What we think of it now: Conservative Catholics believe the text should be regarded as a ludibrium (Latin for jeu d'esprit). Post and neo-Marxists take it all in deadly earnest.

Responsible for: Bacon's New Atlantis, Swift's decision to put Gulliver among clever horses and ream after ream of William Morris's wallpaper socialism.

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