About the Author:
Sir Thomas More, later Saint Thomas More, was born in London, England in 1478. He studied at Oxford University, became a lawyer and later an MP. Becoming a privy concillor of King Henry VIII, More served as Speaker of the House of Commons and then Lord Chancellor of England. He fell out with the king when Henry broke away from the Catholic Church and, refusing to recognise the king's reforms, More was beheaded for high treason in 1535. He was canonised as a martyr in 1935 and in 2000 he was named as the patron saint of statemen and politicians.
AVERAGE REVIEW SCORE:
3 out of 5
A Portuguese sailor and scholar, returned from the New World, recounts the details of the society of the island of Utopia in this classical work of 16th Century socio-political satire.
Far more scholarly men than I have delved into the deeper meanings and historical significance of More's great work (and will continue to do so, I'm sure). So, as I do whenever I read and review a recognised pillar of English literature (although it should be pointed out that it was originally published in Latin), I shall concern myself primarily with two questions: Is this book still relevant to a modern reader and is it actually enjoyable to read?
In case you were at all unsure, this book is where we get the word Utopia from and is therefore the wellspring from which all subsequent utopian fiction descends, as well as, arguably, its counterpoint; dystopian fiction. But More wasn't trying to invent a new genre of fiction, but rather not only poke fun at the society he lived in but also extrapolate some of his own ideas for addressing the problems in that society. It would be easy for this to all feel irrelevant due to the changes in the world since 1516 but honestly our world is still plagued by things such as the wealth divide between the rich and the poor, religious intolerance and the struggles of capitalism versus socialism. For all that the absolute monarchy of More's day is thankfully a thing of the past, many of the same socio-political issues that More addresses will be entirely familiar to us. He uses his idealised society of Utopia to poke holes in the absurdities of things like people starving to death when there are others with enough wealth to feed everyone. He asks the questions that would go on to be asked by Karl Marx and the Communists, which still haven't been satisfactorily answered to this day. So whilst some of the context and prejudices that More accepts as universal have changed with time, many of the philosophical and sociological concepts he addresses are still very much relevant in the 21st Century.
It has to be said that the enjoyability of the book as a work of fiction is notably lesser than its value in tackling universally relevant issues. There's little in the way of narrative flow and nothing resembling a plot. It is simply a framing character laying out in detail how a fictional society operates and how much of that you can cope with is going to be an entirely individual choice. All that said, however, remember that this is a work of satire and at times More's wry sense of humour shines through so strongly that you can't help but be entertained. I'm personally very fond of the line '...how can anyone be silly enough to think himself better than other people, because his clothes are made of finer woollen thread than theirs. After all, those fine clothes were once worn by a sheep, and they never turned it into anything better than a sheep'.
3 out of 5