Sir Thomas More (Saint Thomas More in the Catholic tradition), Lord Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII and author of the book Utopia, was born on February 7, 1478. More was beheaded in 1535 for his opposition to Henry’s break with the Roman Catholic Church and the annulment of the King’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Arragon.
Aside from his role as a statesman and courtier More is best known for his satirical “novel” Utopia, published in Latin in 1516. (The book originally had the unwieldy title Libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, de optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia. In English, A Truly Golden Little Book, No Less Beneficial Than Entertaining, of a Republic’s Best State and of the New Island Utopia.“)
The word Utopia, which More coined, literally means “no-place” and is a pun on the Latin word Eutopia, “best-place.” More sets his island somewhere in the New World, the recently “discovered” South or Central America that fascinated Europeans at that time.
The island has no private property and inhabitants rotate between urban and rural life, sharing resources equally. Men and women are on equal terms and there is complete religious tolerance, even of atheists. Priests are able to marry and the island has women priests. There is universal health care and voluntary euthanasia.
There are however slaves (fettered in golden chains) but they are either foreigners or criminals.
There has been scholarly debate over the past 500 years about the meaning of the book and More’s original intentions. Much of what later generations of humanists, socialists and communists have praised about life in Utopia were the very things that More himself fought against and gave his life opposing.
Today, Utopia is treated as a satire of those who believed in a perfect world this side of Heaven. Most critics believe that More was urging solutions to societal and political problems that were founded on practicality rather than wishful thinking, solutions that could only work “nowhere”.
Utopia is a short and lively book that offers lots of food for thought whatever its original purpose may have been.