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Utopia, the famous book by the martyr Thomas More, is five hundred years old this year. The yearning for utopia has had an immense impact on history – sometimes for good, often for ill. But should we be so quick to dismiss More’s vision of a society free of violence and private property?
On October 31 of this year, Pope Francis and the Lutheran Archbishop of Sweden joined together in an ecumenical service to commemorate the start of the Reformation 499 years ago. As the international media coverage made clear, there is good reason to mark this date: what happened after Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 ended up transforming Europe and the world, triggering conflicts that tore apart church and society. The century of bloody religious warfare that followed laid the groundwork for the modern nation-state system and the rise of secularism.
While these geopolitical developments garner much attention, other aspects of the sixteenth century have largely disappeared from view. And yet these neglected histories cast light on questions that are just as urgent today as they were a half-millennium ago. For example, take the first question of all: How should we live? At the beginning of the sixteenth century, this question erupted throughout Europe. People began asking: How should we structure our society? How can we provide justice, peace, and equality for all?
When such questions are raised, it indicates that people’s thought-world has changed. All of a sudden they realize that customary practices, things that have always been done a certain way, might actually be improved or abandoned. People gain the ability to look at their own situation from the outside, to analyze their own way of life. Specifically, they become able to take a hard look at how the basic assumptions of their society measure up against the Christian gospel.
It was in this sense that sixteenth-century Europeans saw the basics of their faith with fresh eyes. They sought to identify what was essential to living as a Christian. In their writings and publications, they sparked a continent-wide conversation about fundamentals among educated readers and thinkers.
The sixteenth-century movement that grew out of this new ability to look critically at conventional ways of living is known as humanism. Among its most prominent champions was the English jurist Thomas More, whose masterwork Utopia was published five hundred years ago this year. (Now canonized as a Catholic saint, More may be most widely known thanks to the Academy Award–winning film A Man for All Seasons, which portrays his martyrdom in 1535 at the hands of King Henry VIII.)
Written in Latin, Utopia is a philosophical dialogue in the form of a short story that has been called “one of the most interesting pieces of political literature ever written.” footnote The book reflects the many conversations that More shared with his fellow humanists, especially his close friend Erasmus of Rotterdam.
While Utopia is the title under which the work is best known – More’s neologism would spawn a whole new literary genre of utopias – the book’s original title is considerably longer, and hints at More’s real interest: On the Best State of a Republic and the New Island Utopia. While containing abundant social satire, the book’s aim is ultimately to invite readers to reflect: How can society function better than it does now?
The narrative’s literary structure is sophisticated. Near the end of the first part of the book, the narrator, known to the reader as “Thomas More,” describes meeting a foreign sailor while on a business trip to Flanders on behalf of the king of England. The sailor’s name is Raphael Hythlodeus. The two new acquaintances begin a wide-ranging conversation about England’s and the Continent’s political situation. Raphael then remarks:
To speak plainly my real sentiments, I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily: not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable.footnote
Is it not remarkable how these sentences from the sixteenth century speak directly to today’s social and political debates? I only need remind the reader, for example, of French economist Thomas Piketty’s 2014 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century and the controversy it has sparked. These same concerns occupy More’s mysterious stranger, who continues:
When I reflect on the wise and good constitution of the Utopians, among whom all things are so well governed and with so few laws, where virtue hath its due reward, and yet there is such an equality that every man lives in plenty – when I compare with them so many other nations that are still making new laws, and yet can never bring their constitution to a right regulation … where, notwithstanding everyone has his property, yet all the laws that they can invent have not the power either to obtain or preserve it, or even to enable men certainly to distinguish what is their own from what is another’s, of which the many lawsuits that every day break out, and are eternally depending, give too plain a demonstration.
The historical Thomas More was a lawyer. From his professional life, he was all too familiar with the ways in which “many lawsuits” could be a symptom of deep problems in a country’s legal system. This minor observation highlights an ambiguity that runs throughout the book: it’s far from clear that the “Thomas More” whom we meet in the pages of Utopia is identical to the real Thomas More. After all, here it is the foreign sailor Raphael who is giving voice to the real More’s professional experiences. Yet in the book, the character “Thomas More” at times disagrees with Raphael’s opinion.
Why might the character “Thomas More” express views different from those of the real Thomas More? We must remember that the author was living in the dangerous political climate of sixteenth-century England, in which the risk of losing one’s head was all too real. Thus, it must have been highly expedient for him that his fictional namesake decisively rejected Raphael’s argument for total community of goods. This pattern repeats itself throughout the book. Whenever Utopia touches on politically sensitive subjects, the author sends the character “Thomas More” into the field to disavow anything that might seem subversive. It’s a device that allows him to safeguard both his creative and his physical liberty.
It is for this reason, perhaps, that at the end of the first part of Utopia the character “Thomas More” criticizes Raphael’s suggestion that private property is the root of all evil:
“On the contrary,” answered I, “it seems to me that men cannot live conveniently where all things are common. How can there be any plenty where every man will excuse himself from labor? For as the hope of gain doth not excite him, so the confidence that he has in other men’s industry may make him slothful.”
The foreign sailor shows great understanding for the fictitious “Thomas More’s” objection, but responds confidently on the basis of his own experience:
“I do not wonder,” said Raphael, “that it appears so to you, since you have no notion, or at least no right one, of such a constitution; but if you had been in Utopia with me, and had seen their laws and rules, as I did, for the space of five years, in which I lived among them, and during which time I was so delighted with them that indeed I should never have left them if it had not been to make the discovery of that new world to the Europeans, you would then confess that you had never seen a people so well constituted as they.”
Are you slowly growing curious about the commonwealth of Utopia? If so, then the refined literary strategy of the author Thomas More has caught you in its grip. The function of the entire first part of the book is to use contemporary political and social problems to make the reader hungry for more information about this alternative society. The book’s second part then offers answers that have much to say not just to the sixteenth century, but to the twenty-first as well.
Here we find a portrait of a totally different and new society: a “no place” (Greek ou-topos in a literal sense) but certainly also a “good place” (eu-topos). This society is not a Christian one. (No doubt this point was politically helpful to the real Thomas More, allowing him to disavow his book as a mere fantasy.) Nevertheless, we are confronted with “the paradigmatic and congenial draft plan of a society of community of property, which will more or less have an impact on all other considerations.” footnote
Utopian society, we learn, is made up of communities of families who renounce money and private ownership. Markets do exist but are organized according to unfamiliar principles:
Every city is divided into four equal parts, and in the middle of each there is a market-place. What is brought thither, and manufactured by the several families, is carried from thence to houses appointed for that purpose, in which all things of a sort are laid by themselves; and thither every father goes, and takes whatsoever he or his family stand in need of, without either paying for it or leaving anything in exchange. There is no reason for giving a denial to any person, since there is such plenty of everything among them; and there is no danger of a man’s asking for more than he needs; they have no inducements to do this, since they are sure they shall always be supplied.… No man is poor, none in necessity, and though no man has anything, yet they are all rich.
Naturally, Utopia also boasts an elaborate system of hospitals and nursing care. In general, it is a society that defines wealth differently than we do:
What can make a man so rich as to lead a serene and cheerful life, free from anxieties; neither apprehending want himself, nor vexed with the endless complaints of his wife? He is not afraid of the misery of his children, nor is he contriving how to raise a portion for his daughters; but is secure in this, that both he and his wife, his children and grand-children, to as many generations as he can fancy, will all live both plentifully and happily.
Having sketched out this daring vision, how does the author Thomas More conclude his Utopia? Unsurprisingly in view of his literary approach, he leaves the book open-ended, forcing readers to make up their own minds. After Raphael finishes his narrative account, the character “Thomas More” offers this sphinx-like conclusion:
When Raphael had thus made an end of speaking, though many things occurred to me, both concerning the manners and laws of that people, that seemed very absurd, as well in their way of making war, as in their notions of religion and divine matters – together with several other particulars, but chiefly what seemed the foundation of all the rest, their living in common, without the use of money.… In the meanwhile, though it must be confessed that he is both a very learned man and a person who has obtained a great knowledge of the world, I cannot perfectly agree to everything he has related. However, there are many things in the commonwealth of Utopia that I rather wish, than hope, to see followed in our governments.
When Thomas More wrote these words in 1516, he could not have known how differently the sixteenth century would turn out from what he and his fellow humanists hoped. After 1517, as the phenomenon that would later be called the Reformation got underway, their high-minded discussions, anchored in a shared commitment to reason, gave way to bitter doctrinal disputes.
Yet the Reformation was by no means a monolithic or uniform movement – a fact that is often overlooked. It was, on the contrary, colorfully diverse. By 1525 at the latest, when the Anabaptist movement arose in Ulrich Zwingli’s Zurich, it would be more accurate to speak of Reformations in the plural. In an intriguing parallel to the humanist movement of Erasmus and More, the radical wings of the Reformation were far less concerned with doctrine than with how human life was to be lived.
Though subject to horrific persecution almost immediately after it emerged, the Anabaptist movement gave rise to a way of life remarkably close to the social vision described by Thomas More. Jakob Hutter, an Anabaptist from Tyrol, developed a communal church that rejected all private property. According to Grete Mecenseffy, an authority on Hutter and his movement, “the decisive issue for him was the organization of communal life, the establishment of production and consumer cooperatives known as Haushaben or Bruderhöfe.”footnote These communal groups found refuge in Moravia and grew rapidly, consisting of over ten thousand people in about forty-two Bruderhofs by 1600. These communities had “a comprehensive and diversified organization both in spiritual and in economic matters.” footnote
As prophesied in Utopia, according to the report of an eyewitness: “No one was idle, everyone was busy doing what he was told … just like the inner workings of a clock.” footnote During their golden years, the Hutterite communities were economically successful, demonstrating that the Utopian ideals of Raphael Hythlodeus (or of Thomas More?) were not merely “utopian” after all. After centuries of on-and-off persecution in Europe, the Hutterites immigrated to North America in 1877. They established three colonies then; today about 550 Hutterite communities exist in the United States and Canada, home to more than seventy thousand souls.
In addition to community of goods, the Hutterites are also characterized by an uncompromising commitment to peace. Based on their understanding of the gospel, they, like most Anabaptists, strictly reject any participation in violence. Notably, the rejection of violence seems to go hand in hand with the rejection of property. In Utopia too – though it never appeals to Christian scripture – the communitarian life, free of property, is linked to a strong commitment to peace. As Raphael Hythlodeus describes it:
They detest war as a very brutal thing, and which, to the reproach of human nature, is more practiced by men than by any sort of beasts. They, in opposition to the sentiments of almost all other nations, think that there is nothing more inglorious than that glory that is gained by war.… They reckon that a man acts suitably to his nature when he conquers his enemy in such a way as that no other creature but a man could be capable of, and that is by the strength of his understanding.
Could there have been a direct connection between Utopia and the ideas of Jakob Hutter? footnote We can only speculate. In any case, the tracks of Erasmus can be traced among the early Anabaptists, and education played a major role in the Hutterite communities, as was the case among the Utopians.
Some of the earliest descriptions of Hutterite life come from the pen of one Christoph Andreas Fischer, a Jesuit. To say that he was not a fan of theirs would be an understatement. One of his polemical tracts against the Hutterites, written in 1607, is titled “What the Anabaptists think of the community of goods: must all possessions be shared in common?” footnote He answers, of course, with a resounding negative.
Fischer’s sharp criticism of communal living is particularly interesting because at exactly this time, his fellow Jesuits were launching another “communistic” experiment in South America. Just as with Hutterite communities, this was a utopia that sprang out of troubled circumstances. footnote The indigenous Americans, for whom the Jesuit missionaries felt a pastoral responsibility, had been oppressed and enslaved by the Spanish conquistadors. In response, in 1600 the Jesuits began to organize them into large communities that, thanks to their status as Jesuit settlements, were promised freedom from persecution and slavery. These settlements were not individual estates, but large social structures that became known as “Jesuit Missions,” as memorably portrayed in Roland Joffé’s 1986 film The Mission. Like the Hutterite colonies, they were an explicitly “communistic-theocratic experiment,”footnote one that survived for more than one-and-a-half centuries until their suppression in 1768.
In a total of thirty-one villages, called reducciones, lived more than a hundred thousand indigenous people with around one hundred and fifty Jesuits. All non-Jesuit Europeans were prohibited entry. The head of every family received a piece of agricultural land on which he could work for two days a week to maintain himself and his family; the remainder of the time he worked on the communal fields, which provided produce for the elderly and widows. Hundreds of thousands of cattle and sheep grazed on the pasture lands and provided in abundance for all the households. The Jesuit authorities made sure all were cared for, and organized the education system, labor, the building of houses, church services, and celebrations. No one in the reducciones was ever sentenced to death or life imprisonment – something rare in human history.
When the Spanish government extinguished the Jesuits’ “holy experiment”footnote as a result of the envy, jealousy, and greed of the colonists, the desperate indigenous residents wrote letters appealing to be allowed to continue their communal way of life. A 1768 letter to Governor Bucareli reads: “We have to tell you that we are not slaves in any way, no more than were our ancestors. We do not like the way in which the Spaniards live without working themselves and without supporting each other.”footnote
The stories I have told of these historical utopias are from long ago, and the memory of them has largely been lost. But the questions raised then – as theory in More’s Utopia and as praxis among the Hutterites and in the Jesuit Missions – still beg for answers, perhaps now more urgently than ever.
At the end of 1933 in Berlin, two strange visitors appeared on the doorstep of Pastor Martin Niemöller, a leader in the Pastors’ Emergency League, a network of clergy organized to oppose the Nazification of church life. The two strangers introduced themselves to Niemöller as Hutterites and said that they lived a communistic lifestyle on a Bruderhof, in strict accordance with the Sermon on the Mount. They practiced absolute nonviolence as a basic tenet of their faith.
Niemöller, who had served as a submarine commander in the German imperial navy during World War I, had little sympathy for the two pacifists and ended the conversation quickly. But he reported about the visit to his friend and fellow pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had recently returned from America. Bonhoeffer was intrigued, and by the summer of 1934 had struck up a relationship with the Bruderhof, meeting with a representative and exchanging letters and manuscripts.footnoteThough he planned to visit the Bruderhof community in Germany, this visit never took place; shortly afterward, he assumed leadership of the Confessing Church’s illegal theological seminary in Finkenwalde. Here he began his own experiment with Christian community, an experience that would become the basis for his book Life Together. In it he described his goals as follows:
Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.footnote
Bonhoeffer’s words could well have been written by the founder of the German Bruderhof, Eberhard Arnold. Born a Lutheran, Arnold had started his Christian fellowship in 1920, partly inspired by the historical Anabaptist communities; in 1930, his community formally joined the Hutterian Church.
Five years after the founding of his community, Arnold set out to explain its new-old way of life in a seminal essay titled “Why We Live in Community.”footnote In the 1960s, this essay was discovered by a Trappist monk in North America who was fascinated to discover a kindred spirit in a German Anabaptist who had died three decades earlier. The Trappist’s name was Thomas Merton. When Merton, then at the height of his fame, was asked to hold retreats in monasteries in Alaska, he chose to present his lectures in the form of a conversation with Eberhard Arnold. His words, initially addressed to the Catholic religious communities of his day, remain relevant to anyone seeking a way of radical discipleship:
However we look at it, we have this obligation to build community; it isn’t just an obligation to one another but to all those who come to us. They need to find true community here, and that is the best thing we can give them.footnote
Is community really the best gift we can give to our fellow human beings? If it is, why don��t we get going? Some may object that private ownership is necessary for a happy life because communal life without property inevitably leads to a loss of freedom. But we might equally well ask: Is it possible to achieve genuine peace among humankind as long as claims of ownership and property continue to exist? After all, Francis of Assisi already pointed out eight centuries ago that as long as we have any possessions, we will also require weapons.
The first two decades of the twenty-first century have demonstrated the continuing relevance of these questions, and not only among Christians. Interest in intentional community has revived, and new communitarian movements are emerging. Take for example the network of people inspired by what they call “convivialism,” who explain their goals as follows:
In the face of climate change, financial crises, and mass poverty, a growing number of people agree that we need a fundamental social-ecological transformation that includes all areas of society. Fortunately, a huge variety of concepts and practices for such transformation already exists.footnote
These words point us back to the question with which we started, and which Thomas More raised in his Utopia: How then should we live? How do we combine social freedom with equality, solidarity, and justice? How can we achieve a peaceful world in which conflicts are no longer resolved through murderous violence and all people have enough?
These are the questions we must keep asking.
Translated by Emmy Barth Maendel and Andries Conradie.
- Gerhard Ritter, translator’s note, in Thomas More, Utopia (Eberhard Jäckel, 1977), 3–6.3.
- All quotations from Utopia are taken from Gilbert Burnet’s translation (Cassell, 1901).
- Thomas Gehrig, “Commons auf Utopia: Beiträge zur Rückeroberung einer Debatte,” in Express: Zeitung für sozialistische Betriebs- und Gewerkschaftsarbeit, May 2011.
- Grete Mecenseffy, Geschichte des Protestantismus in Österreich (Graz, 1956).
- Cited in Mecenseffy, Geschichte des Protestantismus in Österreich.
- On the reception history see Terence Cave, Thomas More’s “Utopia” in Early Modern Europe: Paratexts and Contexts (Manchester University Press, 2008).
- Christoph Andreas Fischer, Der Hutterischen Widertauffer Taubenkobel and Vier und funfftzig Erhebliche Ursachen, Warumb die Widertauffer nicht sein im Land zu leyden (Ingolstadt, 1607).
- Burchard Brentjes, Atlantis: Geschichte einer Utopie (DuMont, 1994), 92–95.
- Thomas Lange, “Soutanenkaserne oder heiliges Experiment? Die Jesuiten-Reduktionen in Paraguay im europäischen Urteil,” in Mythen der Neuen Welt, ed. Karl Heinz Kohl (Berlin, 1982), 210–223.
- Eberhard Arnold, “Bruderhof-Korrespondenz 1934,” in Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-Jahrbuch 2 (2005/2006), 75–87. For the episode related here see Emmy Barth, An Embassy Besieged: The Story of a Christian Community in Nazi Germany (Cascade, 2010).
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John Doberstein (Harper and Row, 1954), 30.
- Eberhard Arnold and Thomas Merton, Why We Live in Community (Plough, 1995).
- Ibid., 42.
- See the website www.convivialism.org.