Thomas More’s Utopia is a timeless masterpiece that has not only added a word to the dictionary of every language on earth, but also a genre to the repertoire of world literature. My audacity to even claim any sort of kinship between Uscolia and it would be unforgivable, were it not for several thousand other books that have already done so in course of the last five hundred years.
Why is the genre More invented so popular? And why did he invent it in the first place? One is tempted to say that More used the indirect narrative simply to save his skin. Certainly, people have gone to the scaffold for less, as indeed More himself did twenty years later, not for something he wrote but for something he refused to write. But I think that looking at Utopia as a defensive stratagem is simplistic. More could have used less elaborate allegoric means to put some distance between himself and his subversive message. In my opinion, the answer lies in the complexity of the issues More addressed and in the tools at his disposal to tackle them.
Like the rest of Europe, England in the 16th century was rife with social, political, and economic problems. From his position as a well-to-do commoner (a lawyer), on one hand in the service of the crown and on the other managing a large household of ordinary people, More witnessed these problems at all levels and from all perspectives. Inequality was epic. Injustice obscene. Inefficiency paralyzing. Incompetence colossal. Even if More had the luxury to publicize his views freely, there was no coherent political, social, legal, and economic theory that a devout humanist could have appealed to for a credible solution to the many problems the subjects of Henry VIII shared with other Europeans. More’s stroke of genius was to solve all these problems in one fell swoop in a remote land whose geographic coordinates were not entirely precise. On the island of Utopia there were no constraints imposed by the Catholic Church, no difficulty curtailing the power of the monarch, no consideration owed to a parasitical aristocracy, no obstacles to limiting the amassing of enormous wealth. It all could be accomplished in one compelling narrative, where all the parts fit together neatly. It is a brilliant device, and an infinitely versatile one, which can be replicated and adapted to solve any number of otherwise difficult to solve or unsolvable problems, like education.
The innovative utopian setting is only the beginning of the delights More’s book offers. More embeds his extraordinary story into a frame of real places, people, and events, mixing masterfully fact with fantasy, keeping a straight face through most of the narrative, while occasionally sending the knowledgeable reader a long, meaningful look. The eloquence, erudition, and elegance of More’s little book have been endlessly imitated but never surpassed.