500th Anniversary (Quincentennial) of Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia

Born in 1478 to an aristocratic and intellectual family, More was an enigmatic character. He served the King Henry VIII, but became beheaded for his persistent convictions in 1535. When he wrote ‘Utopia’ he was 38.


by Laksiri Fernando

( December 18, 2016, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) It was in December 1516 that Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ was first published in Latin. The publisher was Thierry Marten in Louvain, (now in) Belgium. We celebrate therefore the five hundredth anniversary of ‘Utopia’ this month.

Born in 1478 to an aristocratic and intellectual family, More was an enigmatic character. He served the King Henry VIII, but became beheaded for his persistent convictions in 1535. When he wrote ‘Utopia’ he was 38. It took just 14 months to complete this book between July 1515 and September 1516, among his official duties and family commitments, as he said. More is considered a Catholic Saint, a great Guru of the Theosophists, a Liberal and a Socialist, among other portrayals. As far as the vision and the principles of ‘Utopia’ are concerned, he is undoubtedly the first modern thinker of ‘Socialism,’ although that word does not appear in the book.

To celebrate this great book and the great writer, from a Sri Lankan perspective, from today onwards, the chapters of ‘Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka)’ by Laksiri Fernando (CreateSpace, 2014) would be published every Sunday. The publication link to the original for those who wish to obtain a printed copy is https://www.createspace.com/4688110

What is published today is the Preface to the book.

PREFACE

Our business here is to be Utopian, to make vivid and credible, if we can, first this fact and then that, of an imaginary whole and happy world. – H. G. Wells[1]

THOMAS More’s Utopia published first in December 1516, written in Latin, is one of the foremost discourses on socialism in the modern period. Socialism undoubtedly has a common appeal among the vast majority of the people in Sri Lanka irrespective of ethnicity or any other distinction and most political parties at least pay verbal homage to its principles whether they practice them or not. This is also the case in Australia, where I live now, and many other countries similar or dissimilar to Sri Lanka or Australia. Even Sri Lanka’s formal name is called the ‘Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.’ Many of the ‘Directive Principles of State Policy and Fundamental Duties’ in the Constitution are based on some form of socialist principles in the broadest meaning of the term. This could be the result of the profound impact that the left (socialist) parties initially made in people’s psyche; socialism as a higher system or value, since early 1930s or it could be the result of some other historical reasons.

The political impact of the left parties today, however, is almost insignificant and socio economic system of the country is far away from anything akin to socialism. No political party in power makes any effort to properly implement the ‘Directive Principles’ in the Constitution and those are not justiciable in law courts in any meaningful manner. Yet people talk about socialism or aspire for its principles perhaps as a way of expressing their dissatisfaction about the present state of affairs both in the economy and in the social system.

I was attracted to socialist views fairly early in my life. This was the heyday of the left movement in Sri Lanka in early 1960s. ‘Utopian socialism’ was a common term used in some leftist theoretical pamphlets, rather in a belittling manner, to make the point that ‘their socialism’ was scientific following the standard Marxist standpoint. I never had any qualms with that view those days although today I believe that even utopian ideas of socialism have much value sometimes more than the so-called scientific views. That time I didn’t have the opportunity to know about Thomas More who in fact had coined the term ‘Utopia’ for his ideal society or the island until I entered the University of Peradeniya and studied Social and Political Theory in my second year (1965/66) for the special degree in Economics, majoring in Government. I vividly remember our inspiring lecturer, Dr K. H. Jayasinghe, introducing Thomas More and his Utopia in an extremely impressive fashion elucidating different aspects of the new society that More was advocating. Although we were introduced to Socialist Tradition, Moses to Lenin by Alexander Gray (1946) as our main reading and a critical exploration of socialist views including Thomas More’s, our major focus was more on modern thinkers both of socialist and liberal strands and among those thinkers, theorists of Saint Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen who emerged after the French Revolution received major attention on the socialist strand. Thus, we had little time to go through More’s views in detail.

During my own teaching, thereafter, I had the opportunity to read through different editions of Thomas More’s Utopia few times but for teaching purposes I was mainly using Book II of the publication which illustrates his ideas about a new society inter alia economy, society, polity, education and way of life. I always wondered, however, where this Utopia could be, if at all? Although looking for an actual location for a utopian society or land is not always a rational pursuit, the reading of More’s Utopia made me think otherwise.  I also thought that a real traveller perhaps was behind the Hythloday story, although this was disputed by many reviewers.

I only had the present serendipity recently, after retirement from university teaching and when I was carefully going through Book I where it explains the main protagonist, Raphael Hythloday’s visit to Ceylon, perhaps as a hidden indication. Thereafter, all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle started to form into its proper place. It is not the mere mentioning of the visit to Ceylon that made me think that More took information about Ceylon to work out his imaginary island of Utopia.[2] Many similarities exist between Utopia and Ceylon of that time in terms of the size, location, historical legend, family and social customs including some religious practices.

Of course, Hythloday is not a historical figure but a semi-fictitious character. Utopia itself is a semi-fiction, where More used that form of presentation to avoid censorship and probably persecution, as he was extremely critical and even sarcastic about the English society and politics of that time. But Utopia is mainly a social discourse. It is important to remember that More was finally beheaded in 1535 for the critical views that he held against the system and of course the King himself of that time, Henry VIII. It is my contention that although Utopia was written as a fiction, many of the ideas were taken from the actual world not necessarily as they are but by visualising critically its future possibilities within certain intellectual limitations. This is of course the nature of many fictions especially of the present genre where the author wanted to expound a particular social discourse. This view is shared by many reviewers and in fact some reviewers thought that information for the imaginary Island of Utopia came from an island in the south Atlantic or Americas. This is where I differ.

I am not at all a historian. Therefore, my view on the matter might not be conclusive. At least I put forward it as a hypothesis, in the sense a ‘rational guess,’ and perhaps future historical researchers might be able to prove or disprove it. My purpose is different. My purpose is to popularise the socialist dreams that More dreamt about a future society particularly to the Sri Lankan readers. The best way to do so is to bring the ideas of More closer to their social and country surroundings. There is much talk about ‘home grown’ things and solutions in Sri Lanka today. I normally don’t agree with this view. However, in respect of socialism, why not people believe that socialist views that evolved in Europe had some indigenous roots in Sri Lanka? To believe that the island’s capital, Amaurot, that More talked about perhaps was Kotte and the founder of the island’s civilisation, Utopus, was Vijaya, could be of some inspiration to some readers. Even if those are mere coincidences, some of the social practices including the family institution that More talked about are akin to the traditional systems and values in the Sri Lankan society, or any other Asian society for that matter, that have almost vanished or fast vanishing under the mad rush for wealth and social mobility at present neglecting environmental protection, social cohesion and more importantly social justice. Alexander Gray gave a major justification for this kind of a new interpretation and the following was what he said.

Sir Thomas More’s Utopia is one of the great books of all time. Reviving the tradition of Plato, it has itself established a tradition for subsequent generations. Yet, when all is said, the book remains and is likely to remain an enigma, which each reader may interpret as he will.[3]

Well, this book is my interpretation.

Sri Lankan readers are not the sole target group of this publication however. There are many people who would like to know about Sri Lanka as visitors or otherwise, who are also socialist minded in the past or even at present. Socialism is still an attractive inspiration for many in our world, of course in different forms and variety. This book presents a particular variety. Hopefully they might be interested in knowing about the connection between Thomas More’s Utopia and the island of Ceylon.

(To be continued next Sunday)

[1] H. G. Wells,  A Modern Utopia, The Floating Press, London, 1909, p. 14.

[2] More was not the only utopian thinker who visualised Ceylon to be his ‘dream island.’ Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639) also visualized Taprobane to be the location of his The City of the Sun published in 1602.

[3] Alexander Gray, Socialist Tradition, Moses to Lenin, Longmans, London, 1947, p. 62.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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