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I think most people are familiar with the term utopia, and its use to describe "any real or imaginary state or place believed to be ideal, perfect, excellent" (Chambers dictionary). Probably far fewer are familiar with Sir Thomas More's tract of 1516, which first coined the term - which is a shame, because the society described therein is by no means obviously 'utopian' in the modern sense - our usage has come a long way from the original sense.
The very etymology of the word 'utopia' is fraught with ambiguity. It's derived from the Greek 'topos' [place], but the prefix 'u' could be a contraction of either 'eu-' [good] or 'ou-' [no] - thus a utopia is either 'good place' or 'no place' (maybe both). The contemporary usage seems to focus on the former, but it's not obvious that More's Utopia was wholly ideal. Further a number of other linguistic clues - such as, the tale being told by a traveller called Hythloday [peddler of nonsense], and the island's chief river called Anyder [no water] - suggest perhaps More had the latter meaning in mind.
Admittedly, this isn't a book that will have mass appeal. It's not an easy read. Remember, it's older than Shakespeare - though I found the language easier going. My edition (details below) includes a handy glossary, but it wasn't the words that so much caused the problem as the old-fashioned phrasing. Be ready for lots of 'quoth', 'taketh' and the
like though. As I said, it's not for a wide modern readership, but it is a work for those studying (or just interested in) history, literature, politics or philosophy.
More's work is presented as if a true, albeit second-hand, account of what a traveller Hythloday had seen. The first book (actually written later), however, serves as an introduction. Here More, along with his friend Peter Giles, Hythloday and a few others, discuss some political arrangements, and the faults with England. The death penalty for petty thieves, for example, is particularly condemned. For me though, the most enduring image was of sheep devouring men (p.22, my edition) - a commentary on the contemporary practice of 'enclosure', whereby common land was taken for profitable sheep-farming, for wool, but depriving peasants of their land, livelihood and food.
It's probably this first book that historians, or those interested in More's views on the society of his day, would be most interested in. Personally the bit I found most interesting was the brief discussion of Plato's ideas for political community. Nonetheless, this book isn't the real focus of the whole. Rather it leads into Hythloday describing (in the second book) the island of Utopia, where he claims to have spent five years.
Anyone interested simply in the origins of 'utopia' could probably read only the second book, losing relatively little from skipping the first. Here, a fictional island is described as if ideal, but in fact it's far from clear all is as well as initially presented. Certain freedoms are described and praised, but then gradually undermined by what's revealed in the later discussion - for example, the severe restrictions on freedom of movement (p.68). The approach to the island is such it is secure from strangers (p.49), while the 54 cities of the island are also friends and allied (p.50); yet, when Hythloday describes Amaurote (the capital), he alludes to fortifications protecting it from enemies (p.53-4). What enemies is never elaborated on, but the very suggestions hints at something sinister, far from the ideal at first sight.
As I said, you can find different points of interest in the text depending on where you're coming from. I first read it as part of a course in 'classical political thought, the Greeks-1800'. What struck me was More's obvious debt to Plato, in particular his Republic. Like Aristotle, Utopia follows Plato in many respects - for example, gender equality (p.56, 59), conceiving of the whole society as an extended household (p.69), and condemning gold (pp.70-1). It's instructive to find where it differs though - for example, whereas Plato emphasised a division of labour in which each (officially) stuck to his one appointed role, when Utopia refers to each enjoying his 'proper craft' (p.57), it makes clear each has at least TWO skills, and can learn more if they desire.
That's one thing I got out of the work, which obviously requires some prior knowledge of Plato. As I said though, there's a myriad of information to be gleaned - no doubt those who know more about history or religion than I do will find more interest in what's said here. Anyone should be able to find something of interest, if only reflecting on the ambiguous ideal of the Utopia described. More ends by saying "many things be in the Utopian weal-public which in our cities I may rather wish for than hope after" (p.123) - but whether this is to be taken at face value or as ironical is the question that runs throughout the work.
Purchasing advice: The edition I own (to which the above pages references refer) is the Oxford World's Classics 'Three Early Modern Utopias' (ISBN: 0192838857, PB, RRP £6.99 - currently £5.59 on Amazon). This comes with two other examples of the genre - Bacon's New Atlantis and Neville's Isle of Pines - plus glossary, notes and an informative albeit somewhat scholarly introduction with suggested reading.
If you just want to read the bare bones, the text is available in various places online or Dover thrift edition (text only, no notes) is currently priced just 80p on Amazon (ISBN: 0486295834, PB); while at the other end of the extreme Utopia is found in volume 4 of the Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St Thomas More (ISBN: 0300009828, HB, RRP £60).