In Defense of Utopia

16 minutes to read
Merijn Oudenampsen


2016 marked the 500-year anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia. The book, describing a society on a fictitious island named Utopia, became the founding text of the utopian tradition. In the past century, More’s Utopia has acquired a bad reputation. Cold war critics have described the book as a prefiguration of modern totalitarianism, an example of the dangers of utopian thought. Any attempt to radically think society anew, these critics have told us, will result in violence and dictatorship.


The bad reputation of Utopia

At first sight, it is not astonishing that Utopia has been cast with the stain of totalitarianism. On the island described by More, private property had been abolished, and personal liberties were highly restricted. In the intellectual climate of the Cold War, this was seen by both sides as an early precursor to the communist ideal. Marx, Engels and Kautsky all considered More to be a communist hero. In the Year after the Russian Revolution, Lenin ordered the alteration of a monument to the Tsars, the Romanovs dynasty. It was modified to honour the thinkers who had contributed most to the liberation of mankind. More was among this select group. He belonged, so to say, to the hall of fame of communism.

The significance of More’s Utopia stretches far beyond the text itself. It functions as a platform to debate the merits of utopian thought and intellectual engagement as such

As a result, Utopia has been interpreted politically in two different directions. For the socialists and communists who took More’s novel as an inspiration for their movement, it was important to stress the realism of the utopian alternative and to underplay the book’s satirical and ironic subtext. This would show that another world was possible. For the other side, the cold war critics, it was also important to stress a literal interpretation of Utopia, this time to point towards the totalitarian aspects of the society sketched by More. The famous author Solzhenitsyn, for example, argued that More had already foreseen that communism required forced labour and enslavement. Now that the Soviet Union is gone, it is possible to reconsider More’s work in a less loaded context. Of symbolic significance here is that Vladimir Putin ordered the monument to the revolutionary thinkers to be destroyed some years ago, and installed a replica of the original eulogy to the Romanovs.

Of course, the significance of More’s Utopia stretches far beyond the text itself. It functions as a platform to debate the merits of utopian thought and intellectual engagement as such. Does utopianism necessarily lead to violence and totalitarianism? Do utopian ideas need to end ‘in a miserable fit of the blues’, as Marx once famously wrote? Is it possible to transform society on the basis of ideas? What role can intellectuals play in politics? Utopia is a rich, humurous and complex text, which still has a lot to teach us. After five hundred years, it is time to rehabilitate Utopia as one of the key texts of the Renaissance and a much needed inspiration for the radical democratic imagination.

The classic case against utopianism has been made by the conservative-liberal philosopher Karl Popper. As explained in his famous The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), and more at length in The Poverty of Historicism (1957/1944) and Utopia and Violence (1963), Karl Popper sees utopianism as an approach whereby one must first,

‘determine the ultimate political aim, or the Ideal State, before taking any practical action. Only when this ultimate aim is determined, in rough outline at least, only when we are in possession of something like a blueprint of the society at which we aim, only then can we begin to consider the best ways and means for its realization, and to draw up a plan for political action.’

Another defining characteristic of utopianism is its holism: ‘the desire to build a world which is not only a little better and more rational than ours, but which is free from all its ugliness: not a crazy quilt, and old garment badly patched, but an entirely new gown, a really beautiful world’. This approach, called ‘Utopian engineering’ by Popper, necessarily demands a ‘strong centralized rule of the few’ and is therefore ‘likely to lead to dictatorship’. Since there is no rational or scientific way to determine what the ideal is that society should move towards, the differences of opinion on these matters take on the character of religious disputes, on which no compromise is possible. ‘Any difference of opinion between Utopian engineers must therefore lead, in the absence of rational methods, to the use of power instead of reason, i.e. to violence.’ As an alternative, Popper proposed piecemeal engineering – small scale experiments, trial and error - into politics as a condition for the development of an ‘open society’. Unlike the Utopian engineer, the piecemeal engineer does not strive towards the establishment of a future ideal, his or her concerns lie wholly in the present.


Sir Thomas More


Karls Popper's critique of utopian thought and his reduction of politics to scientific rationalism in the here and now, provided the philosophical basis for the turn towards the technocracy of the post-political era after 1989. Coincidentally, this culminated in Fukuyama’s claim of the end of history. The rejection of utopian thought –inspired by Popper– was a key element in the shift of social democracy towards a centrist, technocratic and pragmatic politics. Traditional socialist ideology was now understood as a utopian desire for a radical transformation of society. Social democracy, we were told, had to become an enemy of utopia, to defend the open society against the closed society, an idea which the utopian thinkers aimed for. In my own country, the postpolitical era was inaugurated in 1989 by Wim Kok, the leader of the social democrat party (PvdA), who distanced himself from the ‘striving towards the Grand Aim’. In a remarkable similitude to Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum – There Is No Alternative (TINA) – Kok stated: ‘We no longer speak of a Vision or The Alternative of social democracy. […] There is no alternative for the societal constellation we have now and therefore it’s no use to aim for that’

Ironically enough the closed society, as it was defined by Karl Popper, was based on the notion of an endstage of history. ‘At this point a harmonious society would await us where all conflict had disappeared. Originally, it referred to Marx's notion of communism. But in fact, it is eerily similar to the end of history thesis as developed by Francis Fukuyama. The declared redundancy of socialist ideology has ushered in Fukuyama’s end of history. The argument is a discursive Möbius strip. What is more, I believe the argument to be false. Utopianism has not led to the closed society. In fact, there is much to be said for the opposite argument: the open society has been inaugurated by utopian thought. The democratic revolutions in the United States, France and the Netherlands were inspired by the republican ideals as articulated in the work of More and Rousseau.

Internationally, thinkers such as Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton and Russel Jacoby have proposed a reassessment of utopian thought. While utopia as a blueprint is generally seen as problematic by these authors, the reappraisal concerns the iconoclastic form of utopian thought that primarily functions as a critique of the status quo, rather than a master plan for the future. In the words of Eagleton: ‘Bad Utopia persuades us to desire the unfeasible, and so, like the neurotic, to fall ill of longing, whereas the only authentic image of the future is, in the end, the failure of the present’. Thomas More’s Utopia, was published in 1516. On closer examination, this foundational text turns out to be much more about keeping with the idea of utopia as critique, than that of utopia as a closed blueprint.


Utopia on Trial

Here it becomes necessary to present some basic information on the content of More’s Utopia. It consists of two parts. In Book I, More introduces himself and his friend Peter Giles (who really existed) and recounts his first acquaintance with the (fictitious) traveller Raphael Hythloday in the streets of Antwerpen. What follows is a description of the discussions they have on how society could best be governed and whether intellectuals (in this case, humanist scholars) can fruitfully engage with politics, as advisors to rulers. At the end of the discussions in Book I, Raphael proposes to tell More and his companion Giles of his experiences on the island, Utopia. The second book is the detailed exposition of the nature and customs of Utopian society, as told by Raphael to More and Giles. Naturally, the narrator Raphael Hythloday is a literary device, a fictitious figure employed by More to present certain ideas –which were deemed quite radical at the time– without having to take responsibility for them.

The island of Utopia that Hythloday describes in Book II is in some aspects a very desirable place, certainly when compared to 16th century Europe. In Utopia, socio-economic equality is the norm, since there is no private property. Nobody goes hungry and there is no homelessness. Utopians have a six-hour working day and everybody gets to do the job they like most. There are limited forms of democracy: if a tyrant takes control of political power, the Utopians can dispose of him. There is universal education and healthcare. Furthermore, a policy of religious tolerance exists . 

On the other hand, Utopian society is highly restrictive of personal freedom. Children can be transferred from one family to another, or one location to another, to maintain optimum population levels. Leisure is strictly regulated, and people are not allowed to amuse themselves in wine bars, alehouses or brothels. Utopia also features slaves, who take care of the dirty jobs no one is willing to do. Free citizens of Utopia can be condemned to slavery if they disobey the rules. What’s more, each family is led and controlled by an elderly patriarch, and women are supposed to serve their men. Also, Utopians feel entitled to colonize foreign lands that are not cultivated and to violently subdue its indigenous population if necessary.

In some ways –slavery, patriarchy, and colonial violence– Utopia is not unlike 16th century Europe. In other aspects, Utopia anticipates some of the accomplishments of modern welfare states. However, in other manners, the highly organized and omnipresent nature of the state in Utopia reminds us of 20th century totalitarian regimes. Here the much-debated question arises whether More himself saw Utopia as an ideal society. All in all, More’s Utopia is a complex text whose meaning is not immediately transparent to the reader.

For instance, More distances himself at various points in the text from Raphael’s description of Utopia. First of all, he does this by using the word utopia itself: the term is an invention of Thomas More, a combination of the Greek ο (‘not’) and τόπος (‘place’) meaning ‘no place’. It’s a play on words, a pun on the word eutopia, derived from the Greek ε (‘good’ or ‘well’) and τόπος (‘place’), which means ‘good place’. The pronunciation of the two words is similar, leading to confusion, which was undoubtedly More’s intention. Secondly, the name More has chosen for his narrator is Raphael Hythloday. The surname is derived from the Greek word huthlos, used frequently by Plato, and the name translates as peddler of nonsense or idle talk. His Christian name, Raphael, stems from the Archangel Raphael who gives sight to the blind and guides the lost. Thomas More’s Utopia then, is the story of a non-existing place, told by a fictional narrator whose unreliability is implied by his name. Nonetheless, Utopia is not merely a refined prank nor a private joke shared amongst the 16th century humanist scholars familiar with the Greek language that More used to hide his jokes in. As the name Raphael suggests, the reader is guided somewhere, and vision is imparted to the blind.

What then, is More trying to tell us? The discussions in Book I are generally perceived as keys to understanding what More sought to achieve with Book II, Raphaels description of the nature and customs of Utopia. In this discussion, Raphael describes the violence of the enclosures of the commons, the forced privatization of the common farmer’s land in England that Marx would later describe as primitive accumulation: ‘the process in which the great masses are suddenly and violently torn from their means of existence and flung unto the labour market as proletarians’. And he describes a discussion with the English archbishop on how to prevent theft and crime. Raphael pleads against ever-harsher punishments, and proposes to do something about the root-causes of crime and eradicate poverty. Nevertheless, nobody listens.

An alternate reading interprets the advice of More as a plea for enveloping critique in literary or artistic form.

These discussions have taught him that involvement in politics is of no use, Europeans are resistant to new ideas. Princes are deaf to philosophy and more concerned with making war than hearing ideals for peace. And courts are filled with men who admire only their own ideas and who are envious of others. More concurs: ‘When your listeners are already prepossessed against you and firmly convinced of opposite opinions, how can you win over their minds with such out-of-the-way speeches?’ Since there is no room for ‘academic philosophy’ in the councils of kings, More proposes Raphael an alternative approach:

‘[T]here is another philosophy, better suited for the role of a citizen, that takes its cue, adapts itself to the drama in hand and acts its part neatly and appropriately. This is the philosophy for you to use. Otherwise, when a comedy of Plautus is being played, and the household slaves are cracking trivial jokes together, you come onstage in the garb of a philosopher and repeat Seneca's speech to Nero from the Octavia. Wouldn't it be better to take a silent role than to say something inappropriate and thus turn the play into a tragicomedy? You pervert a play and ruin it when you add irrelevant speeches, even if they are better than the play itself. So go through with the drama as best you can, and don't spoil it all just because you happen to think of a play by someone else that might be more elegant.’

In the Cambridge translation of More’s Utopia, Logan and Adams explain that the comedies of the Roman playwright Plautus involve ‘low intrigue’. The tragedy Octavia, in contrast, is ‘full of high seriousness’ and in the speech that More alludes to, the Roman philosopher ‘Seneca lectures Nero on the abuses of power’. In other words, if a play of politics is performed as a light comedy, why ruin it by playing one’s part as if it were a serious tragedy?

Scholars have long been divided over the question how to explain the metaphor of the play. A first reading is that More’s advice to Raphael is a justification for appeasing rather than confronting power and for working within the system. This is the common theme of the totalitarian interpretation: they applaud More’s appeal for ‘patience and gradualism’, and criticize the ‘hot-headed activism’ of Raphael, ‘who wants to eradicate evil down to its very roots’. More stands for sober reformism; Raphael embodies the revolutionary spirit. Raphael’s answer to More is proof that the island of Utopia is a realizable blueprint. Raphael is the literary variant of a monster of Frankenstein: a construct that, once given life, rebels against its creator (More) and takes control over the utopian discourse, leaving a trace of violent destruction in the world.

The critic-turned-artist invents a radically new world where the coordinates of right and wrong are rearranged

An alternate reading, which has been gaining in popularity in the last few decades, interprets the advice of More as a plea for enveloping critique in literary or artistic form. Drama creates a space and place which looks and feels like reality, where marginal ideas can suddenly become the norm. More’s ‘alternative philosophy’ is an artistic strategy which involves the creation of an imaginary ‘lifeworld that operates according to different axioms’, leading the spectator to experience reality in a radically different way. The critic is no longer an outsider, trying to convince people that what they hold to be true –the dominant narrative– is actually wrong. The critic-turned-artist invents a radically new world where the coordinates of right and wrong are rearranged, a world that can be experienced by the audience as a convincing, and therefore detailed and holistic reality. Of course, such an approach also implies a limitation: as the work is fictional, it loses part of its authoritative power. It is not to be taken literally. Instead, it opens itself up to the interpretation and imagination of the audience.

Important here is what scholars have identified as the ‘seriocomic mode of Utopia’. More and his close friend Erasmus, with whom he discussed and conceived Utopia, were both admirers of the Greek/Syrian ironist known as Lucian of Samosata. Lucian’s writings took the form of dialogues and short pieces of prose, in which he would make serious political points, covered in satire. In 1506, a decade before the publication of Utopia, More published a translation of four works of Lucian, together with some additional translations by Erasmus. As part of this tradition, Logan and Adams mention also The Golden Ass of Apuleius, The Praise of Folly by Erasmus (written while residing in More’s house in 1509 and published in 1511, five years before Utopia) and the later works of Rabelais and Swift. Logan and Adams refer to this tradition as serio ludere, ‘to play seriously’. As More wrote in the preface to his translations of Lucian, the quality of this tradition is that it obeys the classical requirement of literature, to combine delight with instruction. Not coincidentally, the (ironical) subtitle of More’s Utopia reads as follows: ‘A Truly Golden Handbook, No less Beneficial than Entertaining.’ According to Logan and Adams ‘More was also attracted to the tradition of serio ludere for a deeper reason. The divided, complex mind, capable of seeing more than one side of a question and reluctant to make a definite commitment to any single position, has a proclivity for ironic discourse; and serio ludere - in which the play can serve to qualify or undercut any statement - is one of the great vehicles of irony.’

A lot of the fun for the humanist scholars in the circle around More and Erasmus consisted of the fact that some contemporaries were actually tricked into believing that Hythloday and Utopia really existed. For example, in More’s first letter to Giles, originally published as the preface of Utopia, he subtly informs his readers that none of the information provided can be relied upon. More writes to Giles that he is uncertain whether he rightly remembers the length of the bridge over the river Anyder at Amaurot. He also forgot to ask Raphael about the coordinates of the island itself, the whereabouts of Utopia. Not an unimportant piece of information. He implores Giles: ‘Therefore I beg you, my dear Peter, to get in touch with Hythloday - in person if you can, or by letters if he's gone - and make sure that my work contains nothing false and omits nothing true.’ Of course, Raphael will never contradict anything that More says, let alone correct his errors, since he is a fictional character. In a second published letter to Giles, More suggests that those that doubt the existence of Utopia, should go and speak with Raphael themselves, for he is supposed to be alive somewhere in Portugal. More ends by saying: ‘I only want them to understand I answer only for my own work, not for anyone else’s credibility.’

Thomas More - Utopia

In a second letter to Giles, he responds to the criticism of a ‘very sharp fellow’ who has ‘noted some absurdities in the institutions of the Utopians, or caught me putting forth some not sufficiently practical ideas about the constitution of a republic.’ More’s answer is telling: ‘Aren't there any absurdities elsewhere in the world? And did any of all of the philosophers who have offered a pattern for society, a ruler, or a private household set down everything so well that nothing ought to be changed?’.

The enigmatic quality of More’s Utopia stems from this double character: serious and satirical at the same time. As the book’s title, On the Best State of a Commonwealth and on the New Island of Utopia, makes clear, it is inspired from the classical tradition of political writing on the ideal state of the commonwealth, such as Plato’s Republic and Laws, and Aristotles’ Politics. Here the conjunction ‘and’ in the title is telling, instilling doubt as to whether the island of Utopia can be considered an ideal commonwealth: it is, after all, a fiction.


Utopia as an open space

Utopia is not a closed blueprint. It is meant as an open space for imagination and reflection on possible changes to society. This much is confirmed by a poem attached to the early editions, printed in the Utopian language and in the voice of the island itself: ‘I alone of all nations, without philosophy, have portrayed for mortals the philosophical city. Freely I impart my benefits; not unwillingly I accept whatever is better.’ As Stephen Duncombe argues in his book, Open Utopia:

‘Utopia does not have, nor provide to the reader, a wholly satisfactory philosophy; its systems of logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology are constantly undercut by More. But it is because the reader cannot satisfy themselves within the confines of Utopia that it can become a ‘philosophical city,’ a place to ponder and space within which to think.’

Seen in this light, utopian thought becomes a force that promotes many of the qualities that Karl Popper attributed to his ‘open society’: a spirit of criticism, reason and reform. Popper argued that the dream of perfection, what he calls aesthetic enthusiasm, ‘becomes valuable only if it is bridled by reason, by a feeling of responsibility, and by a humanitarian urge to help.’. But what if it’s bridled by irony, by metaphor, by the explicit recognition that we are dealing with fiction?

‘The problem with many social imaginaries is that they present themselves as a realizable possibility. Their authors imagine a future or an alternative and present it as THE future or THE alternative’. More’s Utopia manages to circumvent that problem, by undermining and thus opening up his utopian ideal to the interpretation of his readers. Utopianism and ‘the reformism that seeks to improve certain elements or apply loose ideas’ can thus be made to coincide, in democratic ways. This particular vision of Utopia –as an unattainable ideal– has been present from the very beginning. It is articulated by Rousseau when he describes his much desired natural state of man, as a state that no longer exists, maybe never has existed, and probably never will exist. The present defenders of utopian iconoclasm, such as Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, are in line with More’s original spirit, when stating that ‘the only authentic image of the future is, in the end, the failure of the present’.


Achterhuis, H. (1998) De erfenis van de utopie. Amsterdam: Ambo

Duncombe, S. (2012) Open Utopia. London: Minor Compositions.

Eagleton, T. (2000) ‘Utopia and its Opposites.’ In: Socialist Register, 36, 31-40

Galeano, E. (1997) Walking words. New York: WW Norton & co.

Kok, W. (1995) We laten niemand los. Den Uyl-lezing gehouden op 11 december 1995.

Logan, G. and R. Adams (1989) (eds.) Thomas More: Utopia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marx, K. (2015/1847) Het Communistisch Manifest, Nijmegen: Van Tilt.

Popper, K. (2006 [1947]) The Open Society and its Enemies. Volume one: the spell of Plato. London: Routledge.

Popper, K. (1957) The Poverty of Historicism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Rousseau, J.J. (1976) Emile: or on education. Basic Books, 1976.