How did Thomas More influence modern society

Story of a misunderstanding

In 1516 a book was printed in the Flemish university town of Leuven that, like no other work, influenced the thinking of entire epochs. The novel "Utopia" by the English humanist, statesman and saint Thomas More, also known as More, who was executed under King Henry VIII in 1535, established a European tradition of thought that is still alive. At the same time, it was the birth of a new term that couldn't be more controversial. Today, a utopia is commonly understood to mean the idea of ​​a certain ideal social state, which in the eyes of its followers is not only desirable but also achievable. However, at the beginning there was a different approach. If you look back over the past five centuries, the checkered history of utopia reveals itself as the history of a great misunderstanding. So much in advance: Thomas More was - in today's sense - not a utopian.

The novel that started it all tells of how More and a friend met the well-traveled seafarer Raphael Hythlodeus in Antwerp. A conversation quickly ensues in which sharp criticism of the politics of the European princes, the clergy, the courtiers and the social conditions in England is made. Hythlodeus blames the English landowners for the massive impoverishment of the population and the rise in crime. On the other hand, things went very differently on the distant island of Utopia, which the seafarer tells of in the second part of the novel. Hythlodeus presents the island state he has traveled to as an ideal political entity in which all of the aforementioned European grievances are unknown. Utopia is described as a prosperous, seemingly communist republic in which there is no private property, general work and schooling is compulsory, gold and luxury are frowned upon and the power of the clergy is severely restricted - an island of the blissful whose state is based solely on reason and is committed to the common good.

"Even the first utopia was an impracticable idea"
(Lothar Bossle, sociologist)

This article is contained in Spectrum Compact, Stories - Excursion into Fictional Worlds

That an unknown country with completely different rules and laws could exist somewhere behind the horizon was by no means a fantastic idea in the age of great voyages of discovery. The map of the world was still littered with white spots, and accordingly the temptation to recognize a real or at least realizable order in the described state structure was great. A series of references woven into the work shows that this is exactly what the author did not want under any circumstances. The clear interpretation aids could not remain hidden from the humanistically educated reader, to whom the book was primarily aimed. "Utopia" is a Greek made-up word and means something like "no place" or "nowhere". The situation is similar with the other names in the text: The capital Amaurotum (Greek "fog city") was originally supposed to have the Latin name Mentirano (mentiri = to lie). The city prince is called Ademos (without people) and the river Anydros (waterless). The name of the protagonist is also very telling: Hythlodeus can be translated as "experienced in chatting". In addition, the work is peppered with numerous internal contradictions, ironic comments and critical doubts about the functionality of the utopia depicted.

Research is therefore largely in agreement that More was not about designing a realistic ideal society, but rather making his contemporaries aware of the weaknesses of their own social and political systems. Utopia was supposed to be a mirror and a yardstick against which states and societies could measure themselves. In this sense, the work must be understood primarily as a time and social criticism and not, as is often mistakenly assumed, as a serious attempt to define a perfect order. The sociologist Lothar Bossle even went so far, due to the many demonstrative references to the fictional character of the story, to see in More not only the founder of utopia, but also the first utopia critic: »Thomas More […] has his› Utopia, published in 1516 ‹Never conceived as a political program. He [...] actually wrote the first revelation of utopia as an impracticable idea. "

The archetype of utopia

With the appearance of "Utopia" the new word was in the world, but the thought behind it was actually a very old one. More and his successors made use of the fund of fantastic ancient literature, which often deals with travelers who end up on distant exotic islands. There you will find an earthly paradise, in whose rivers milk, honey or juice often flow instead of water. Even the motifs of the non-existent private property and the geometrically laid out city already appear in some stories from ancient Greece. In terms of content, however, Plato's pioneering work »Politeia« was of the greatest influence for the utopian authors of early modernism. In this work, which is often referred to as the "archetype of all utopias", the ancient thinker tries to outline the basic features of a just state. The result is a strictly hierarchical society in which the philosophers rule and the majority of the classes have to forego private property and family ties. That Plato also understood his work, written in dialogue form, as a pure thought experiment, becomes clear when he lets Socrates say about his just state: "It does not matter whether it really is or will be found somewhere." Above all, those are important Idea and its function as a compass and corrective. The utopia researcher Thomas Schölderle sums up: »The just state is presented as an exemplary, but largely unattainable model. The utopian state does not exist in reality, and it is not even conceived for them. "