Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More (07 February 1478–06 July 1535)

Today is the 544th anniversary of the birth of Sir Thomas More (07 February 1478–06 July 1535), was born on this date in 1478. When More refused to acknowledge Henry VIII as the supreme head of the English church, he was convicted of treason and executed by beheading. While in prison awaiting execution, More wrote A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation.

Sir Thomas More gave a name to a powerful idea that has played a significant role in western conceptions of history. Arguably, the idea of Utopia existed before More’s work of that title. Sometimes Plato’s Republic is called a Utopia; Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, Harrington’s Oceania, and Campanella’s City of the Sun, inter alia, represent a tradition of imagining counterfactual societies in a wealth of fictional detail, and which works we could call the Utopian tradition, even if not all of the literary examples follow More’s idea of Utopia.

Utopia (derived from the Greek ou and topos, meaning no-place, i.e., nowhere) is sometimes contrasted to Eutopia (derived from and topos, meaning good-place). And while most utopian tales are set in an undefined and indefinite time, the parallel temporal conceptions — Utempora or Eutempora — have not been made explicit. The temporal equivalent of Utopia is hinted at in the “once upon a time” opening of fairy tales, or even the opening of Star Wars, which we are told takes place “Long, Long ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.” But the idea of fairy tales brings in an element of different temporality — time stands still in the fairy world — that is not necessarily present in the idea of utopia (or its temporal equivalent).

In the contemporary world, in which the future plays a far larger role in our conception of the world than the past, the idea of Utopia becomes a regulative idea that appears and reappears in every aspect of life. It is often remarked that the idea of progress is the most powerful idea of the modern period, but what is progress progressing toward? What answer to this question is that progress is ultimately to issue in Utopia. Thus utopianism becomes the goal of the Enlightenment, though the idea of utopianism was conceived by More before the Enlightenment had even begun to dawn.

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