Arts Essay

Even Corbyn would find Thomas More’s Utopia too leftwing

2 January 2016

9:00 AM

2 January 2016

9:00 AM

As anniversaries go, the timing could hardly be more apt. As Europe braces itself for the next Islamist attack, the next assault on our civilisation, a season of events marks the 500th birthday of a book that outlined an enlightened vision of the ideal society. Utopia 2016 is a year-long celebration of Thomas More’s Utopia at London’s Somerset House, where the Royal Society and the Royal Academy used to meet. Somerset House is a building that encapsulates the free-thinking values of the Enlightenment, and More’s Utopia is a book that encapsulates the Renaissance sensibilities that built it.

We all know what sort of society Isis wants (the clue’s in the name), but what sort of society do we want? What rights are we defending? The right to have a good time all the time? Or do we believe in something deeper? Five hundred years since it was written, under a repressive theocracy that forbade free speech and beheaded its opponents, does Utopia hold any clues?

As every British schoolboy (and schoolgirl) used to know, in 1535 Sir Thomas More — or Saint Thomas, if you’re a Catholic — got his head chopped off for refusing to recognise Henry VIII’s newfangled divorce-friendly C of E. As Henry’s Chancellor (the first layman to hold this office), More had bumped off a fair few dissidents himself, though he didn’t much like beheading them — he preferred to burn them alive (both these methods of execution seem to be similarly popular in today’s Islamic State). In 1516, the same Thomas More wrote ‘a splendid little book, as entertaining as it is instructive’ (like modern authors, he got to write his own blurb) about a fantasy island called Utopia, a prosperous republic without kings or aristocrats, where divorce is allowed, priests are free to marry, women can take holy orders and freedom of religion (even atheism) is permitted. The book became a classic (rightly so — unlike a lot of modern books that make the same boast, it really IS both entertaining and instructive), and for 500 years ever since, anyone who’s ever read it has been trying to work out what on earth he meant.


The most shocking thing about Utopia is how left-wing it seems. Even Jeremy Corbyn might find More a bit too militant. There is no money or private property on Utopia, housing is nationalised and agriculture is collectivised. There is no unemployment. Medicine and education are free at the point of use. The welfare state reigns supreme. More rails against the rich, who corner markets and create monopolies, and noblemen who live off the labour of their tenants, bleeding them white by constantly raising rents. This could be Marx talking, 350 years before Das Kapital. ‘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,’ he says. ‘The one essential condition for a healthy society [is the] …equal distribution of goods, which I suspect is impossible under capitalism.’ Gosh.

Thankfully, there’s more to More’s Utopia than proto-socialist polemic. You don’t need to be a Marxist to think we might get a lot more done if we only worked a six hour day, or that it might be a good idea if laws were simplified, so people can understand (and practise) the law without constant recourse to lawyers. More can’t stand career politicians (any Utopian who tries to get elected is barred from public office — hurrah!) yet he doesn’t advocate outright anarchy. So long as they don’t really want the job, elected mayors are OK (good news for Boris). With its workers’ uniforms, communal dining rooms and labour camps for convicts, More’s planned economy may conjure up dark visions of the Soviet Union — but his idea of local government actually seems closer to the Swiss cantons. In Utopia modesty is a virtue, and status symbols are ridiculed. More lived in Chelsea, as anyone who’s seen A Man For All Seasons will recall. I wonder what he’d make of it today?

More’s political daydreams are fascinating (and frequently slightly barmy) but it’s his broadminded attitude to religion that makes this a textbook for our troubled times. Of course it’s richly ironic, given his penchant for persecuting Protestants, but what he wrote is what he wrote, and it’s still radical today. ‘God made different people believe different things, because He wanted to be worshipped in many different ways,’ he declares. ‘[It’s] stupid and arrogant to bully everyone else into adopting one’s own particular creed.’

Naturally, the question remains: did he really mean it? Was the whole thing a flight of fancy, a sort of Tudor sci-fi story? True, it’s presented as a traveller’s tale, told to More by a returning seafarer, yet it’s recounted with such lucid passion you feel sure he must be sincere. More may not have practised what is a sort of altruistic hedonism — a way of life that might best be described as Parisian. ‘The Utopians …regard the enjoyment of life — that is pleasure — as the natural object of all human efforts,’ he concludes. ‘We’re impelled by reason as well as instinct to enjoy ourselves in any natural way which doesn’t hurt other people.’ Five centuries on, in the long shadow of Isis, that’s still an ideal that unites us, and a creed we can all defend.

Utopia 2016: A Year of Imagination & Possibility is at Somerset House, London WC2, from 25 January.

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Show comments
  • Conway

    Naturally, the question remains: did he really mean it? Was the whole thing a flight of fancy, a sort of Tudor sci-fi story?” Given that the title translates as No Place, what do you think?

  • Chris

    Ctrl+F “monastic”. 0 results.

    More is known to have aspired to the monastic life at points in his life, and said vocation strongly resembles Utopian society: hierarchical, disciplined, orderly, peaceful. More himself (through the narrator of the book) says that the only benefit the Utopians didn’t enjoy when he met them was Christianity.

    • JabbaPapa

      More himself (through the narrator of the book) says that the only benefit the Utopians didn’t enjoy when he met them was Christianity

      Yep — it’s his depiction of what society would be like without God, Christ, and any meaningful Church ; no wonder the loony left have been using this vision of horror as a blueprint for Britain…

      • sidor

        Are you a pagan believer? Anything that exists is a creation of God. That means that there can be no society without God. Including the Communist Party of North Korea.

        • JabbaPapa

          Anything that exists is a creation of God

          Is that how you “explain” your hatred of Saint Thomas More ?

          • sidor

            I also hate Hitler who too was created by God. As well as snakes, crocodiles and ebola. And your point is?

          • JabbaPapa

            My point is that you are a bigoted protestant hypocrite.

          • sidor

            I do not belong to any Protestant denomination. Are you sure I am not a Jew? Or a Manichee?

          • JabbaPapa

            Your denial of being Protestant is just another lie.

          • njt55

            Gee, don’t you two go on..give it a rest.

  • JabbaPapa

    errrmmmmmm … the author of this (rather silly) piece **DID** realise that “Utopia” is a parody, right, and that the “ideal” society depicted therein is the worst sort of society Saint Thomas could imagine ?

    • sidor

      Do you call a man who tortured and killed those who dared to read the Bible a saint?

      • JabbaPapa

        Do you call yourself, with your lies and calumny, a Christian ?

        • sidor

          I take your answer as “yes”. Simultaneously you tell us that reading the Bible you regard as “apostasy, heresy, blasphemy”.

          Are you an admirer of Inquisition and Bloody Mary?

          • JabbaPapa

            Calvinism :

            The Minutes Book of the Geneva City Council, 1541-59 (translated by Stefan Zweig, Erasmus: The Right to Heresy):

            “During the ravages of the pestilence in 1545 more than twenty men and women were burnt alive for witchcraft.

            From 1542 to 1546 fifty-eight judgements of death and seventy-six decrees of banishment were passed.

            During the years 1558 and 1559 the cases of various punishments for all sorts of offences amounted to four hundred and fourteen.

            One burgher smiled while attending a baptism: three days imprisonment.

            Another, tired out on a hot summer day, went to sleep during a sermon: prison.

            Some workingmen ate pastry at breakfast: three days on bread and water.

            Two burghers played skittles: prison.

            Two others diced for a quarter bottle of wine: prison.

            A blind fiddler played a dance: expelled from the city.

            Another praised Castellio’s translation of the Bible: expelled from Geneva.

            A girl was caught skating, a widow threw herself on the grave of her husband, a burgher offered his neighbour a pinch of snuff during divine service: they were summoned before the Consistory, exhorted, and ordered to do penance.

            Some cheerful fellows at Epiphany stuck a bean into the cake: four-and-twenty hours on bread and water.

            A couple of peasants talked about business matters on coming out of church: prison.

            A man played cards: he was pilloried with the pack of cards hung around his neck.

            Another sang riotously in the street: was told ‘they could go and sing elsewhere,’ this meaning he was banished from the city.

            Two bargees had a brawl: executed.

            A man who publicly protested against the reformer’s doctrine of predestination was flogged at all the crossways of the city and then expelled.

            A book printer who in his cups [columns] had railed at Calvin, was sentenced to have his tongue perforated with a red-hot iron before being expelled from the city.

            Jacques Gruent was racked and then executed for calling Calvin a hypocrite.

            Each offence, even the most paltry, was carefully entered in the record of the Consistory, so that the private life of every citizen could unfailingly be held up against him in evidence.”

            —————————-

            Any similarities between Calvinism and ISIS are none of my invention.

          • sidor

            Could you please explain your point: do you suggest that a man who killed Christians for reading Bible is a Christian saint? Yes/no would suffice for the answer.

          • JabbaPapa

            Do you suggest that a man who killed Christians for reading Bible is a Christian saint?

            Which part of “lies and calumny” did you fail to comprehend ?

          • sidor

            When you repeatedly refuse to answer yes or no to a straight and clear question I regard it as lying. Is it so embarrassing to tell your opinion?

          • JabbaPapa

            Saint Thomas More never “killed” anybody “for reading the Bible”, nor did he kill anybody else either, you dimwit.

          • sidor

            Eichmann too has never personally killed anyone. He just organised the killings, like More did.

          • JabbaPapa

            The killings that Saint Thomas is alleged to have “organised” were the work of lynch mobs that he BTW outright condemned.

            Here OTOH are the recorded words of Calvin, written by his own hand, concerning the man he had burnt at the stake for the crime of not reading the “right” Bible : “If he [Servetus] comes [to Geneva], I shall never let him go out alive if my authority has weight.”.

          • nicks40

            Henry VIII, whatever one thinks of him, was born, lived and died a Catholic.

          • JabbaPapa

            He died an excommunicate and apostate from the Church, and a bloody-handed mass murderer of the Catholic Faithful.

          • JabbaPapa

            I take your answer as “yes”

            That is because of your well-known refusal to realise that reality does not obey your delusions.

          • sidor

            Why are you so shy to admit your religious preferences by answering my direct question about Inquisition?

          • JabbaPapa

            Because your question itself is a lie, as you would know if you’d actually learned anything the previous 347 times you’ve tried peddling your lies and fabrications in these columns.

  • sidor

    A Catholic fanatic who organised tortures and burnings of Protestants is claimed to be a left-winger? Shall we assume that Vatican is a Communist organisation?

    • King Kibbutz

      There are ‘left-wingers’ posting here who would torture and murder for ‘the greater good’, without a second thought.

      • red2black

        Hence left-wing newspaper headlines like The Sun’s ‘Gotcha’?

        • King Kibbutz

          I have not the faintest idea which, if any, wing The Sun thinks it speaks for. This week or next.

          • red2black

            The psychiatric one? (tee hee)

      • sidor

        It is exactly the assumption of what is the “greater good” that classifies Catholic Counter-Reformation as Evil, their end rather their means. The same is true about Hitler.

        • JabbaPapa

          It is exactly the assumption of what is the “greater good” that classifies

          … sidor as a bigoted fanatic.

          • Kennybhoy

            Just noticed…? 🙂

        • King Kibbutz

          My contention was rather with your use of the term ‘left wing’.

          • sidor

            I pointed out that the author’s use the term “left wing” in classifying More is idiotic. Do you disagree?

          • King Kibbutz

            That’s not quite what you pointed out:”A Catholic fanatic who organised tortures and murders of Protestants is claimed to be a left-winger?

            In asking this question, you assume that the former category is exclusive of the latter. It is possible to be both one and the other.

          • sidor

            I don’t assume: I wonder if the possibility you mentioned is explicitly confirmed. You seem to have done it. Is that possibility an a priori postulate, or it is based on any empirical observation you can refer to? Did Vatican (or for that matter Inquisition) ever demonstrate any left-wing radicalism?

          • King Kibbutz

            It’s that question mark tagged onto ‘winger’. You set up a small framework of meaning to the effect that any claim that a Catholic fanatic who organised tortures and murders of Protestants, could be ‘a left winger’, is implausible.
            The followers of Christ do on occasion share the path with those who describe themselves as being of the left.
            And yes, this does include many left-footers.

          • sidor

            If you look into the history of the Roman Catholic Church, you cannot fail to see that it was always exterminating those followers of Christ who tried to implement the latter’s left-wing social ideas. Like Savonarola and the Mennonites. I repeat my question: do you know any opposite example when Vatican encouraged these ideas?

          • King Kibbutz

            The Catholic Church is Christian and as such, follows the teachings of Jesus.
            Although a nebulous concept, the understanding I have of ‘left-wing’ is that it has at its centre, an awareness of, and interest in, the well-being of all people, rather than a select few.
            That same precept is an essential part of the Christian faith and as such, is at the heart of Catholicism.

          • sidor

            Your problem is that you discuss your assumptions instead of discussing the real facts that I pointed out. Your logical error is in associating Christianity with the Roman Catholic Church. The Bible is the most essential part of Christianity, and the Inquisition burned people for reading it.

            I repeat again the question you failed to answer: do you know a single case when the Roman Catholic Church defended the left-wing ideas (well-being of the majority)?

          • JabbaPapa

            Your logical error is in associating Christianity with the Roman Catholic Church

            It’s not an “error”, and certainly not a statement of “logic”, but of truth.

            The Bible is the most essential part of Christianity

            False. Christ in Trinity and Christians and the souls of mankind are the most essential part of Christianity.

            the Inquisition burned people for reading it

            This is a lie.

            do you know a single case when the Roman Catholic Church defended the left-wing ideas (well-being of the majority)?

            Your question includes a false premiss — it cannot be demonstrated that the notion of “well-being of the majority” is either particularly or exclusively “left-wing”.

            Otherwise, for starters in Gaudium et Spes, 24-29.

          • sidor

            Otherwise, for starters in Gaudium et Spes, 24-29.

            =====

            I am not interested in that Latin crap. It has as much to do with Christianity as Colosseum. Jesus didn’t speak Latin. It is the language of his executioners.

          • JabbaPapa

            Jesus didn’t speak Latin

            That is likely to be as accurate as the rest of the nonsense that you post in here — in other words, not at all.

          • JabbaPapa

            I am not interested in that Latin crap

            Cuilibet fatuo placet sua calva.

          • King Kibbutz

            Your fixation with and rabid hatred of the Catholic Church, has closed off your ability to see things clearly. Many Priests and ordinary Catholics have died in their struggle to create fairer societies in their respective regions.
            Catholics are Christians and read the Bible as they need to. And many of them would align themselves with left-leaning principles.

          • sidor

            Do you mean that More thought that the English Christians didn’t need to read the Bible, and, for that reason, ordered to execute those who did?

          • King Kibbutz

            What I meant was in what I said, and it’s not something you seem to be able to deal with.

          • sidor

            You still didn’t explain why the Roman Catholic Church burned Christians for reading the Bible.

          • JabbaPapa

            You still didn’t explain why the Roman Catholic Church burned Christians for reading the Bible

            You didn’t explain why you keep on repeating this insane and idiotic lie.

          • King Kibbutz

            I’m not sure at all that they did. I am aware that people were burned and tortured on account of their various objections to the actions of those who held power in the Church. I did not hear of Bible reading as being a punishable offence.

            Were that proven to be the case, then it has to be said, the Church would indeed have been in a parlous state whenever such deeds were carried out; and it would be a great credit to them if after sinking so low, they had regained their senses to became once again a force for goodness and justice and peace.

          • sidor

            You never heard of Tyndale and Hus?

          • JabbaPapa

            Tyndale : After a year and a half in prison, [Tyndale] was brought to trial for heresy — for believing, among other things, in the forgiveness of sins and that the mercy offered in the gospel was enough for salvation.

            Take note that these accusations do not include “reading the Bible”.

            Jan Hus : [Hus] was burned at the stake for heresy against the doctrines of the Catholic Church, including those on ecclesiology, the Eucharist, and other theological topics.

            Take note that these accusations do not include “reading the Bible”.

            (Not that I actually expect you to stop lying)

          • King Kibbutz

            Heard of Tyndale and vague recollections of his demise being as much to do with Henry VIII as with the Papist devils; and certainly not for reading Bibles.

            Hus, I now understand, was convicted of heresy. A dreadful misdeed his execution, but again, Bible reading was not his crime.

            Got any more of these? I’m learning loads here.

  • sidor

    Here is a political program written by a practical politician 2000 years before More:

    “If the poor are encouraged by rewards, they will become rich, and if penalties are applied to the rich, they will become poor. When in administrating a country one succeeds in making the poor rich and the rich poor, then the country will have much strength, and this being the case, it will attain supremacy.”

    Doesn’t it sound a bit more left-wing than More’s fantasy?

  • Dominic Stockford

    I believe that ‘utopia’ means ‘nowhere’ or ‘no place’. Interesting, what?!

  • Blindsideflanker

    Indeed it was pretty totalitarian, but the protestants he hunted down and had burnt at the stake would challenge your claim that he was broad-minded where the Catholic religion was concerned.

    • JabbaPapa

      the protestants he hunted down and had burnt at the stake would challenge your claim

      A pretty silent challenge then, because he did no such thing to anyone.

      I’d certainly challenge the view that he was “broad-minded” with the Catholicity though — as after all, while so many English clergy were supporting that bloodthirsty serial adulterer Henry VIII in his apostasy, Saint Thomas More stood firm and refused, in the face of gigantic pressure and immediate menace to his life, to renounce his Christian Faith.

      • Blindsideflanker

        “During More’s chancellorship six people were burned at the stake for heresy; they were Thomas Hitton, Thomas Bilney, Richard Bayfield, John Tewkesbery, ”

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_More

        • JabbaPapa

          He didn’t exactly *like* Hitton, but he was arrested and put on trial by Archbishop William Warham and by Bishop John Fisher. Warham followed Henry VIII into apostasy. More had nothing to do with the case, and we have only Tyndale’s accusations as “evidence” to the contrary.

          Bilney’s case has exactly NOTHING to do with Saint Thomas, it started in Norwich, where the bishop, Richard Nix, caused him to be arrested. Articles were drawn up against him by Convocation, he was tried, degraded from his orders and handed over to the civil authorities to be burned. The sentence was carried out at Lollards Pit, Norwich on 19 August 1531. A parliamentary inquiry was threatened into this case, not because Parliament approved of Bilney’s doctrine but because it was alleged that Bilney’s execution had been obtained by the ecclesiastics without the proper authorisation by the state (so no involvement by the Chancellor then, eh ?). In 1534 Bishop Nix was condemned on this charge to the confiscation of his property.

          Bayfield’s arrest was engineered by Stokesley, another apostate, and he was put on trial under the supervision of the prelates and the Earl of Essex, the Mayor of London, and the Sheriffs of London. More’s involvement appears to have been limited to the seizing of some books from him.

          The biggest lies of all pertain to Tewkesbury, whom More neither arrested nor tortured nor condemned, although he testified against Tewkesbury at trial, and he was briefly detained at More’s house after his arrest by others. He was condemned by the same Stokesley. There appears to be NO reliable evidence that Tewkesbury was subjected to torture before his trial, as the primary source describing his arrest and trial makes no mention of torture whatsoever.

          Fairly meagre accusations in the face of the 72,000 Catholics murdered under the rule of Henry VIII.

          • Blindsideflanker

            I very much doubt those figures, other pro Catholic sources put deaths as less than a 1,000. But we can swap figures all day, the fact is I think I have proved my case to say that Thomas More wasn’t open minded where religion was concerned as the author claimed.

          • JabbaPapa

            I think I have proved my case to say that Thomas More wasn’t open minded where religion was concerned as the author claimed

            I certainly agree with that, but not for the reasons you’ve alleged.

            As I pointed out before, “Utopia” is a parody [and] the “ideal” society depicted therein is the worst sort of society Saint Thomas could imagine. (I’d actually correct that from “parody” to “satire”.)

  • Leftism is a societal cancer

    Everyone should read “The Socialist Phenomenon” by Igor Shafarevich. He goes into great detail on the history of socialism going back to early history in a number of different civilisations and also examines the history of the ideology which is more recent. This examination of the ideology includes a discussion on Thomas More.

    The central conclusion of the book? That socialism is essentially a result of a natural drive towards death or nothingness. It is nihilism in its purest form.

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