The Listener: Utopian values

Nearly 500 years after Thomas More coined the word Utopia, his ideas continue to provoke debate and dissension. In this week's selection from the best of BBC radio we see how his radical thinking applies to the dawning of a new millennium
Click to follow


Journalist and writer


Actor, writer, theatre director


Academic and writer


Academic and writer. Editor of Faber Book of Utopias


Retired judge and former Chief Inspector of Prisons

JONATHAN FREEDLAND: I'm sitting at the feet of Thomas More, whose statue stands here on the Chelsea embankment. "Saint, Scholar, Statesman" - those are the words inscribed at the base of the statue, dedicated to the memory of a man who lived nearly half a millennium ago.

It's here because the nearby church was where Thomas More, later executed for his unshakeable faith, came to pray. But we're here because Thomas More was not just a respecter of the traditions of the past, he also looked to the future - to Utopia. And it's that longing for the ideal society that we're talking about on the brink of a new millennium.

I'm inside the Thomas More chapel now, and alongside me is Steven Berkoff. We learnt outside that More was a scholar, statesman and saint, but he was canonised only in 1935, and so we have an image of him as a very serious, pious person. Have we got the right impression of him?

STEPHEN BERKOFF: Anybody who has a particular bent towards a kind of gravity and depth and philosophical insight automatically has humour, because the irony that presents itself in life would invade his own mind. So I think he would have the house roaring and be a wonderful satirist. And I'd just like to quote something that reveals something of this.

JF: It's a description by Erasmus, who was More's best chum.

SB: He says: "In human affairs there is nothing from which he does not extract enjoyment, even from things that are most serious. If he converses with the learned and judicious, he delights in their talent; if with the ignorant and foolish, he enjoys their stupidity ... As a rule, in talking with women, even with his own wife, he is full of jokes and banter. No one is less led by the opinions of the crowd, yet no one departs less from common sense.

"One of his great delights is to consider the forms, the habits, and the instincts of different kinds of animals. There is hardly a species of bird that he does not keep in his house, and rare animals such as monkeys, foxes, ferrets, weasels and the like. If he meets with anything foreign, or in anyway remarkable, he eagerly buys it, so that his house is full of such things, and at every turn they attract the eye of the visitors, and his own pleasure is renewed whenever he sees others pleased."

JF: Now two more people are joining us in our search for Utopia: John Carey, the editor of the Faber Book of Utopias - of other Utopias - and Lisa Jardine, who's written on Erasmus. Lisa Jardine, is Utopia a funny book?

LISA JARDINE: It was certainly taken to be a funny book when it was published, except by Catholics. My favourite joke is when Hythloday was trying to explain why all the Greek books that he took to the Utopians got damaged. He says that the monkey on board the ship ate the pages of the book, and that's why we don't have the classics in their entirety. It might not seem funny to you but it's quite funny to classicists.

JF: John Carey, Utopia's one of those books people have heard of but often haven't read. Tell us about it.

JOHN CAREY: Utopia is an island of complete equality. It's Communist. Everyone works nine hours a day - six in the morning to three in the afternoon - everyone has to have a trade. You're not allowed to travel without a licence - if you do you're made a slave. The slaves are criminals. More hears this from a traveller called Raphael Hythloday, who says he's been there. It's beyond the horizon of Europe, and the word "Utopia" itself is a bit of a puzzle. More made it up, and it actually means "no place". But it's apparent that Hythloday, describing the island of Utopia, already thinks it's the best place, an ideal place. And that division has really tormented the history of Utopias right through: is it pure fantasy, impossible, or is it an ideal that we really could aim for? I don't know whether Utopia is a funny book. I find students laugh a lot at the idea in it that when you marry you should see your wife naked beforehand, in the presence of some grave matron. Well, it's not very different from trial marriages, from living together, which everyone accepts now.

JF: Lisa Jardine, beyond the specifics, what would be the preoccupations of More?

LJ: He's interested in how society can be structured for the good of as many people as possible. That seems to me quite a modern idea. I think his attitude towards women, highly satirical though it is, does give you this sense of wanting a world in which everybody gets an equal chance.

JF: In some ways, when reading Utopia, you actually feel he's very ahead of his time, he does anticipate discussion about euthanasia, he takes a sort of benign view of that, and he discusses fox hunting - an issue of our times.

Steven Berkoff, why is it that human beings are always longing for something perfect?

SB: I think there is an innate need for a transcendental life. Children have it - they're automatically gregarious, they're automatically communistic and giving and that's what's so brilliant about Utopia: baubles are unnecessary. Gold and diamonds are regarded as things for children, because children are fascinated with the meretricious, with things of no real value. More said, how do we need jewels when we have the stars? And so I think that Utopia speaks to our nature before it is corrupted.

JF: People often imagine Utopia as heaven on earth or as God's kingdom on earth. Is it possible to imagine a Utopia with God or without God?

LJ: Utopia always seems a little like a police state to me, and I'm not sure that it's a god figure - I think it's a Fuhrer figure - that presides over it.

JF: I'm not necessarily referring to More's Utopia, but can an ideal side be imagined without a god?

LJ: Personally I don't need one. I think human beings are quite capable of being compassionate, of thinking of others, of regulating society so that the least well-off - the least fortunate - is as well-off as the most fortunate, without requiring some godhead figure to preside over it.

JF: And is that urge as human as being alive - to imagine a life where you can just look to the stars and be happy?

JC: I think that Steven Berkoff is absolutely right to trace part of it to childhood. In the book I mentioned Thomas Traherne, the 17th-century mystic who says that you can get to Utopia just by being like you were when you were a child. You didn't know anything about property, everything was fresh and beautiful to you - he writes wonderfully about it. So that's one of the Utopian urges. I think the other Utopian urge is a bit less likeable: I think Utopians want to get rid of the sort of people who they don't like, or make sure they're punished very severely. After all, More is going to get rid of idle people - everyone has to work some of the time in the countryside, which is a very modern idea, a sort of Pol Pot idea. So it is a rigorous scheme.

JF: One thing Utopia gets to is the notion that for those people who don't agree there might be punishment and discomfort. That's something More experienced in his own life: that the act of dissent could result in punishment. I think that leads us to the next step in our journey, to the Tower of London, in fact to the very cell that for 15 months housed More. It's a very craggy, rocky place. John Carey, why did More come here? What had he done?

JC: What it comes down to is that he wouldn't openly express his approval of the King's divorce. I think he saw himself as not budging away from the line of the Catholic church. He died for his religion.

JF: Put very simply, he didn't accept the idea that Henry VIII could make himself the new head of the church. He thought he should be loyal to the Pope. Steven Berkoff, how would a creative individual like More have coped in this very cold, inhospitable place for 15 months?

SB: This is a man who already had a disposition towards asceticism. And I think he felt that a prison, a narrow confine, would in a way suit him. He wouldn't voluntarily go there, but having been put there he would use it. He said himself that God had seen to "straighten me out", and so he would have used this time to study, to think, to read, and his mind would be continually active. He was witty, he was social - but he would have used this for introspection.

JF: Sir Stephen Tumim is also joining our search for Utopia. It's appropriate to be here because Utopia does talk about crime and punishment, and when and where people's liberty should be taken from them. What were his views on punishment?

SIR STEPHEN TUMIN: I think he would have been judged in some ways as a liberal. What he wanted to do with criminals was make them work for the community - something between community service and slavery. But I think that if he'd lived now, community service replacing prison would have been something he'd have been rather enthusiastic about.

JF: Let's just hear some of his views, Stephen Berkoff.

SB: Well they have very few laws because with their social system very few laws are required. Indeed one of their great complaints against other countries is that although they've already got books and books and laws and interpretations of laws they never seem to have enough. For according to the Utopians it's quite unjust for anyone to be bound by a legal code which is too long for an ordinary person to read right through or too difficult for him to understand.

JF: We know then even from that observation that More isn't just looking ahead to some hypothetical future, he's making some satirical points about his own time. But, John Carey, one of the things that he and all the other Utopian writers - if we can use that word about the people who followed More - had to grapple with was: here's this ideal society they want to build, what do you do about people who don't want to go along with it?

JC: Yes, it is the great Utopian problem. And it seems to me there are two Utopian answers that really develop. On the one hand you had the people who said that criminals are not to blame for their crimes, it's their upbringing, the conditions in which they live, so it is wrong to punish them. On the other, you have the vindictive response that goes on to this day.

JF: John Carey, have any of the thinkers that you've surveyed who followed More actually imagined a Utopia where you don't get rid of crime and yet it remains an ideal society?

JC: No. What Utopias do is make for uniformity: they want people to behave in the same way, and of course you can't step out of line in More's Utopia.

ST: There are many people in prisons who should be in mental hospitals. I walk round prisons and nearly a third of the prisoners are slightly dotty and shouldn't be there, and for them education is impossible except under specialised conditions.

JF: The logic of what you're saying is that for most of them what's needed is education - literacy - and treatment, and punishment only for very few.

ST: Yes - for about 5 per cent, category A prisoners, the dangerous and potentially violent.

JF: Then some people would think education is a euphemism of our time for knocking out nonconformity. More would have known that, because he was refusing to conform.

JF: We're now directly above the cell where More spent those 15 months in what he called "tribulation". On 6 July 1535, he was brought to the scaffold to face the ultimate punishment.

More was living half a millennium ago, and here we all are facing a new millennium. John Carey, we can see the future stretching before us. Has there always been an obsession with the future?

JC: I think so. Utopians seem divided on the question of what the next millennium is going to be like. Some forecast a nightmarish vision of increasing inequality. The other thing is about greenness. There are two dreams: one is that we will spread out and inhabit the solar system; opposed to that is the idea of the world returning to something nearer to nature. For me, it will be more equality and a greener world.

JF: Stephen Tumim, how able are we to imagine the future, given that all we have to go on is the past?

ST: I don't think we can do it at all effectively. Utopia is not going to exist en masse. If you have my sort of Utopia, which is to turn prisons into schools, that could work quite easily, but it's not really a grand- style Utopia. I don't think I believe in a grand-style Utopia.

JF: Let's each of us have a go at imagining of our own Utopia - starting with you, John Carey.

JC: First of all, it won't be crowded. I think one thing we're going to look for more and more is solitude. It would have happiness, in that you wouldn't be desiring other things. In my Utopia you wouldn't be looking for it, you would feel you had it now.

LJ: Solitude doesn't come into my repertoire; I don't think of Utopia as being about myself. I imagine a world in which everyone has equal access to education, and a sense that gaining an education holds out some promise for a useful and fulfilling life.

ST: I want a place of less noise, as well as more space. I want to stop the helicopters flying over when I'm talking, so I'd have more peace and room for thinking. I want a useful, practical millennium.

SB: A perfect society to me would be one that is not absolutely committed to feeling that it has to acquire riches to give it a justification. The values of the mind should be all-important, and we shouldn't feel we have to work, because we could do all the things we need to with a third of the population. So we would just exist with what we need and with the smallest possible workforce, and the others will be spending their time learning. And then people will find their enlightenment through their own personal and creative powers.

`Shaping Things To Come' will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Friday at 10.30pm