In A Nutshell
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away was the commonwealth of Utopia. Well, almost. Arguably one of the first books to invent an imaginary world, Thomas More's Utopia describes the travels of one man, Raphael Hythloday, to an undiscovered island that he considers to be the best country on earth.
Nope, he's not exaggerating. Fed up with the greed and corruption he sees in European countries, he goes around explaining (to whomever will listen) how amazing these Utopians are. What makes them so super-duper? Try zero-poverty, six-hour work days, and almost-no-wars-ever on for size. Yes, please.
But before you jump up and start packing, you might want to consider some other Utopian customs: slavery, government restricted travel, and 24/7 uniforms. Yikes, yikes, and huh? You thought we were talking about the best country...
Yep, Utopia has been confusing its readers since it was written in 1516, and not only because it was written in Latin (which was actually not that unusual). But also because a lot of what it describes was—and still is—pretty controversial and can seem incredibly modern: more rights for women, no private property... you get the idea. It was also written kind of "backward:" More wrote the first part after he wrote the second part. Go figure. But the trickiest part of Utopia is that it's never entirely clear whether what we're hearing about is supposed to sound awesome, horrible, or a little bit of both.
While we'll never know exactly what its author, Thomas More, intended, we do know that he was a major figure in the English Renaissance who cared deeply about the moral and political responsibilities of individuals (kind of a radical, new Renaissance concept itself). So, sure enough, he wrote a book that requires some serious individual responsibility to decide what it's saying.
And you know what? That kind of responsibility turns out to be hugely empowering, making Utopia an incredibly influential book that has been inspiring (and confusing) authors, philosophers, artists, leaders, teachers… okay, practically everyone, since it was published. But enough from us. To really understand the ground-breaking power of this one, little book, you have to go read it for yourself.
Why Should I Care?
When's the last time you read a book that was so influential, its title actually became an English word? We're guessing a while to never ago. Well, now you're in the right place. Utopia is where we get the English words "utopia" and "utopian," both of which describe an imaginary or unreal place very different from reality and having all the best qualities we'd like the real world to have.
You might be even more familiar with the utopian genre's evil twin brother, dystopian literature. Dystopias are just inverted utopias: instead of being (supposedly) great places, they are visions of obviously terrible places. So, that's right, The Giver, Fahrenheit 451, and, oh, The Hunger Games all owe a big whopping debt to our guy Thomas More.
Thomas More practically invented this dys/utopian genre (Plato, in his Republic, was an early model too) by mixing together a whole bunch of other ones: philosophical dialogue (hello again, Plato!), fantasy, travel stories, adventure. It's kind of like CSPAN meets the Discovery Channel.
So why did he do this? Well, that's part of the mystery.
In Greek, Utopia means either "no-place" or "good-place" so More might be claiming that good things are essentially impossible... not the world's biggest optimist. Or he might be suggesting that imagining a perfect place is a waste of time since perfect places don't actually exist. It's hard to say—but that's part of the fun. In fact, by being ambiguous, More is placing a lot of responsibility on his readers to think through these kinds of BIG QUESTIONS. After all, responsibility is what he's all about. Who is responsible for making the world better? How? Can just one person make a difference?
More knew a lot about these BIG QUESTIONS because he was a very close advisor and friend to the King of England, Henry VIII. Yeah, that king. The one with six wives who killed and/or divorced four of them. So, as you can imagine, thinking about how one person can influence the moral and political well-being of a country would have been a part of More's day-to-day job. And considering that after More wrote Utopia, Henry VIII ended up breaking with the Pope, starting his own Christian church, and executing poor Thomas More for his lack of support, you can really get the idea that this book explores questions that would have been—and still are—a matter of life and death.