Age of Utopia
In 1516, English humanist Thomas More published one of his most famous and controversial works, a novel called Utopia. In it, More described an independent, law-abiding community living on an island. His community was devoid of crime and disagreement, but it also barred freedom of expression in the form of rebellion. More went into painstaking detail describing the layout of the island, the professions of its citizens, the Magistrates they were ruled by, and the manner in which they lived. Of particular note is the way governance was established in More’s Utopia. A “Prince” still sat at the top of the hierarchy, but he was chosen via anonymous vote, with the basis of election resting on his merit as a leader (More). More also warned against the Prince and his immediate subordinates plotting against their people, and placed priority on the debate of issues in council prior to enactment.
Whether or not the book was written as satire, it provided commentary on European politics of More’s time (Wiesner-Hanks, 141). As Europe moved from Renaissance to reformation, class divisions were established and inflexible. In More’s native England, peasants farmed the land of noblemen, with their yields tapped into by the crown. In Utopia, the residents of the island farmed for subsistence, wore the same clothes no matter their “rank,” and did not assign nearly as much value to money (More). Yet, there is still irony to the fact that More’s invented world required slave labor to function.
Utopia was influential for two main reasons: one, it circulated as a veiled criticism of England’s, and by extension Europe’s, condition involving social class at the time of its writing; and two, it introduced the underpinnings of socialism/communism which would later take hold in European literature.