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November Books 19) Utopia, by Thomas More

This was an unexpected pleasure. It's a very short book, with the framing narrative actually set in Belgium, concerning the wonderful society of Utopia which the main narrator claims to have visited in the coat-tails of Amerigo Vespucci's explorations of the continent which now bears his name. The Penguin editor, writing in 1965, is much exercised with More's advocacy of what he calls communism, and whether or not it can be taken as a serious reflection of More's own views given his rather non-communist record when actually running the government of England. I was much more struck by two other points. First, on religion, where Utopia is actually contradictory: in one passage, he describes freedom of religion, and indeed the success of Christian proselytism undertaken by his narrator among the Utopians, but later on he describes the Utopians as being fairly rigidly divided into two sects; from which I deduce that 1) More thought that religious tolerance was at the very least an idea worth discussing but 2) that Utopia is intended more as a thought-provoking piece than as a political manifesto. Second, his description of the way in which the Utopians have imposed peace on their neighbourhood, in a combination of military supremacy and also acculturation of the elites of neighbouring states into the Utopian way of doing things, is in fact eerily similar to the approach of the USA today. the Utopians have a stronger military position, and a more coherent ideology, than the Roman Empire (which no doubt More was really thinking of). Anyway, a surprisingly good read.

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