This fall marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia, a fanciful traveller’s tale of an imaginary society, that has intrigued, mystified and inspired generations. As is true for all enduring literature, Utopia can be read on various levels: as an entertaining fantasy of what an ideal society might look like; or, as an incisive social critique that ridicules bureaucratic pomposity, arbitrary laws and grossly inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity.
Either reading underlines Utopia’s striking contemporaneity: a 16th century tract portraying an alternative universe that speaks directly to the 21st century by challenging the pervasive notion that we are resigned to the persistent injustices of the world in which we find ourselves. More’s literary masterpiece suggests that nothing could be further from the truth. Typical of great saints whose lives and writings have confronted and confounded the powers and prevailing orthodoxies of their times, More’s wisdom in Utopia inspires the courage to know that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is.
Utopia is a prophetic voice across the ages. In ridiculing the arrogance of leaders, and “flatulentine diplomats” delighting in fancy dress, prestige and self-centred indifference to the plight of the people, More anticipates Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium: “I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor,” and the pope’s lamentation in his Lampedusa homily (July, 2013): “. . . we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others; it doesn’t concern us.”
Centuries before environmentalism became part of contemporary discourse, More’s Utopia identified its essence: “Mother nature has deliberately placed all her greatest blessings, earth, air and water, under our noses, and tucked away things that are of no use” such as gold and silver.
This resonates in an era that is witnessing global environmental devastation and climate change, the consequences of what Pope Francis describes as the “indiscriminate exploitation” of the earth, a clear failure of stewardship on the part of Christians who are “called to watch over and protect the fragile world in which we live.”
Utopia questions why “a totally useless substance like gold should . . . be considered far more important than human beings.” Catholic social teaching has long since emphasized a “preferential option for the poor,” the primacy of people over profit thereby challenging the dominant economic priority referenced by More.
This is reiterated by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium: the worship of money, a “dictatorship of an economy lacking a truly human purpose,” denies the pre-eminence of the human person; whatever “stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market.”
Utopia is highly critical of a legal system that treats private property on the same level as the sanctity of human life, and laws that sustain an economic system which enables inordinate concentration of wealth in the hands of a few while depriving workers of opportunities to provide for their families. In this, More walks with Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium who speaks of the dignity of human work and how “the laws of competition and survival of the fittest” means that many are “excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
This situation was described by Pope Francis in his address to Popular Movements (October, 2014) as harmful to our world: “Children are discarded, young people are discarded because they do not have work, and the elderly are discarded with the pretext to maintain a ‘balanced’ economic system.” By envisioning a different society, one where acts of mercy evoke admiration and equitable distribution of goods is celebrated, Utopia calls us, with Pope Francis, “to build with patience a different society, more hospitable, more humane, more inclusive.”
But St. Thomas More is a prophetic voice for the ages not simply by virtue of his prescience and remarkably perceptive insights into human nature and the natural world, but mainly because he showed by example in his own life that we must never be resigned to injustices.
Utopia was written at a time when there was no freedom of speech, not even freedom of thought, in Tudor England. And while Utopia was never published in England during his lifetime, its presence in print placed him in a perilous position as this was an era when rash expression could quickly land the perpetrator in the Tower of London.
More eventually ended up there, of course, and ultimately forfeited his life as a consequence of his principled refusal to publicly endorse the marriage of King Henry VIII. By so doing, More showed by prophetic example that our ultimate obligation as Christians is to transform the world, not the other way around.
Downey is president of St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan