“Utopia” is the name of a famous book, published in 1516, by St. Thomas More. More was Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII, and was a learned, able, good and noble man, and a leading light of the New Learning in the Renaissance period in England.
“Utopia” is described on the title page as “A fruteful and pleasant work of the beste state of a publique weale, and of the newly called Utopia” The book is a lively and realistic description of an imaginary commonwealth, sup-posed to have been discovered by an English sailor some-where in the Pacific. More pretends to have learnt all about this mythical place from that old sailor, whom he met in Amsterdam. But of course this is all fiction; for the Isle of Utopia existed only in More’s own imagination. The very name, “Utopia”, means nowhere.
In his description of this Kingdom of Nowhere, More gives his idea of a perfect and ideal state. He touches on the great modern problems which the world of his day was just beginning to face—the problems of labour, crime, conscience and government. His opinions on these questions are surprisingly modern and far ahead of his own times. In Utopia, he says, the aim of all legislation is to secure the welfare, social, industrial, intellectual, religious, of the community at large, and of the labour-class as the true basis of a well-ordered commonwealth. The end of its labour laws is simply the welfare of the labourer, who is as well-educated by a public system of education as anyone else.
With regard to crime and its punishment, More was the first to show that prevention of crime, by securing good economic and social conditions for all, is better than punishment; and that the aim of all punishment should be reformation. As to religion, he proclaimed the great principle of religious toleration; for in “Nowhere” every man could follow what religion he would, without let or hindrance.
In short, Utopia was an ideal state, in which all questions of labour, government, society and religion had been settled easily by simple justice and common sense. It was based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. In consequence the Utopians were happy, good, peaceful and prosperous.
More’s “Utopia” is a biting satire on the real state of affairs in England and the other European States of that day. He shows up their glaring defects, not by denunciation, but by holding before men’s eyes an ideal picture of what ought to be. He says, “Look on this picture, and on that!”
There have been other “utopias”, or pictures of ideal states. In ancient Greece, for example, Plato’s “Republic”; soon after More’s time, Bacon’s “New Atlantis”; and nearer our own times, Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward”, William Morris’ “News from Nowhere”, and H.G. Wells’ “New Worlds for Old”.