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Did Thomas More’s Utopia really predict the future?

8 November 2016

As the Belgian city of Leuven celebrates five centuries since the publication of Utopia, WILLIAM COOK considers Thomas More’s prophecies for an ideal society, from free education to euthanasia. Did he get it right?

In search for Utopia at M-Museum Leuven Photo I Photo by Dirk Pauwels

Five hundred years ago a book was published here in Leuven which changed the way we think about the world, and to mark this anniversary this ancient city is throwing the biggest birthday party in its history.

There are events all over town, and the grandest spectacle of all is In Search of Utopia at Leuven’s M-Museum. It’s a fascinating exhibition, which sheds fresh light on our ideas of Utopia, and the book of the same name, by Thomas More.

In Britain, Thomas More is best known as the Tudor politician who refused to recognise Henry VIII’s new Church of England, and lost his head as a result.

However in Leuven he’s best known as the author of Utopia, a book which described an ideal society, where all men and women are equal. In Search of Utopia is a celebration of More’s book, and the world in which he wrote it – a world that has a lot in common with the world we live in today.

Readers were intrigued by More’s vision of an earthly idyll where happiness is the norm.

Leuven is the site of Belgium’s most illustrious university. In 1516, it was an intellectual powerhouse, home of the great humanist philosopher, Erasmus. Erasmus was good friends with More, and when More wrote Utopia, Erasmus persuaded him to publish it here in Leuven.

It was an instant hit. Then as now, Europe was riven with inequality. Then as now, readers were intrigued by More’s vision of an earthly idyll where happiness is the norm.

So, 500 years later, how many of More’s prophecies have come to pass?

1. Property is theft

In Utopia, private ownership has been abolished, rendering robbery obsolete. "I don’t see how you can ever have justice or prosperity so long as there’s private property and everything’s judged in terms of money," writes More. "The one essential condition for a healthy society is the equal distribution of goods, which I suspect is impossible under capitalism."

MISS. Various communist countries have tried to eradicate private property, with results generally ranging from economic ruin to mass starvation. More’s model was more monastic than Marxist, but even the most devoutly Christian countries have failed to extend More’s Christlike ideals beyond the monastery walls.

2. Bling is bad

In Utopia, extravagant clothes are frowned upon. Everyone dresses modestly, even kings and princes, and only chamberpots are made of gold.

HIT AND MISS. Modern princes like William and Harry may dress modestly, but showbiz celebrities are the new aristocrats, with displays of conspicuous consumption which would put a Tudor monarch to shame.

3. Look but don’t touch

In Utopia, husbands and wives are allowed to inspect each other’s naked bodies before they marry, though premarital sex is prohibited.

HIT AND MISS. One of More’s stranger ideas, possibly inspired by an unpleasant surprise on his own wedding night? A partial success, though surely not in the way he intended. In the age of the internet, the naked body is all too familiar, yet - in Western Europe, at least - premarital sex is rife.

4. Dying with dignity

In Utopia, euthanasia is allowed in certain circumstances. "If any have torturing, lingering pain, without hope of recovery," writes More, "they should no longer cherish a rooted disease, but choose to die."

HIT AND MISS. Euthanasia is now legal throughout the Benelux. Assisted suicide is permitted in Germany and Switzerland, but both euthanasia and assisted suicide are still currently illegal in the UK.

5. Worship how you want

In Utopia, freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. "God made different people believe different things because He wanted to be worshipped in many different ways," argues More. "It’s stupid and arrogant to bully everyone else into adopting one’s own particular creed."

HIT AND MISS. As Henry VIII’s Chancellor, More was a vicious persecutor of all those who dared to deviate from his fundamentalist Catholic worldview, happily condemning countless Protestants to death. Yet although he was a dreadful hypocrite, his plea for religious toleration was revolutionary. Today in Britain, it’s the norm – though in many countries beyond Western Europe, people are still persecuted for holding this point of view.

6. Open University

In Utopia, education is free and universal – for people of all ages, and every social class. "A great part of the nation, both men and women, are taught to spend those hours in which they are not obliged to work in reading," writes More. "A great many, both men and women of all ranks, go to hear lectures of one sort or another."

Utopia is a pun on two Greek words, Eutopos and Outopos. Eutopos means good place - Outopos means nowhere.

HIT. Education was one area in which More practiced what he preached. He educated his daughters as well as his sons – a radical concept in 1516. He’d be delighted to find that all boys and girls in his native Britain now enjoy free education, and that men and women from all sorts of backgrounds are able to study for degrees (though I wonder what he’d make of tuition fees…).

These are just a few of the issues raised by In Search of Utopia, and a parallel exhibition at Leuven’s University Library, entitled Utopia & More. If you can travel to Leuven to see these shows, you’ll find many more questions of your own.

And as for the answers? Well, I doubt even More knew those. Like Gulliver’s Travels, which was inspired by More’s Utopia, this book is an intellectual game, and the clue to its central riddle is in the title.

Utopia is a pun on two Greek words, Eutopos and Outopos. Eutopos means good place - Outopos means nowhere. As More knew when he wrote Utopia, as Plato knew when he wrote Atlantis, paradise is a place that’s forever out of reach.

In Search of Utopia at M-Museum, Leuven and Utopia & More at the University Library, Leuven are both on show until 17th January 2017.

Portrait of Thomas More, c1527 by Hans Holbein the Younger. National Portrait Gallery.
Park Sint-Janspoort in Leuven I Photo by Marco Mertens

More Utopia on the BBC

Installation view 'In search for Utopia' at M-Museum Leuven I Photo by Dirk Pauwels

Related Link

The first edition of Utopia, Leuven, Dirk Martens, 1516. Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium

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