In these days of Jeremy Corbyn and fellow idealists it’s timely to read an essay by Terry Eagleton on Thomas More’s Utopia, a book that will be 500 years old exacly next year and, according to Eagleton “is astonishingly radical stuff.”
Some of More’s views seem to justify this. He criticises the land-owing aristocracy of his day, and of their propensity to evicting tenants and thus expanding their own holdings. War is savagery, fit only for beasts. Of the extreme obsession of monarchs and other rich people to amass gold and silver for ornaments, they would be better to make chamber pots out of them. (Moore doesn’t explain how that might better the lot of the poor!) Above all, it would seem, people should work as short a week as possible so they have time to attend public lectures.
All this seems innocent enough but then there’s an altogether different side of the coin according to More. Before they marry, men and women should be able to view the naked bodies of their prospective partner, particularly during carnivals when there will be plenty of feasting, drinking and copulation. Of course, Moore wrote his book just towards the end of the Medieval Warm Period when it was a lot warmer than now.
But strangely, however, More’s Utopia would also contain slaves. In 1616 England, they still existed and More saw no reason while they should be given their freedom. Indeed, on some ‘festive’ days, adulterous wives would be made into additional ones. Needless to say in this context, religious heretics could be executed.
After a quick canter through various other Utopias that have been written in the last 500 years, Eagleton drops back into muddled thinking which, as I’ve already noted in my opening paragraph. More’s ideas are not so much ‘radical’ as a highly personal collection of prejudices which have no justification for today. Thankfully, we’re learning to eschew the utopias of religious organisations and political parties and. via genetics, gradually reconstruct what humans are really like.