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A vision for all seasons

Five hundred years on, Thomas More’s dream of another society remains valuable not as a blueprint for an ideal world, but as an unforgiving mirror—to expose all that’s rotten in this one

Thomas More’s Utopia remains one of the most famous books ever written. Within decades of its publication in Latin in December 1516, Utopia had gone through several editions and was published in almost every European vernacular.

It is also one of history’s most enigmatic books. No one seems to be able to work out quite what More—an elusive man him- self—was up to in writing it. These two aspects of the book—its popularity and its mystery—may be linked; after all, everyone likes a good puzzle.

And everyone likes a good debate. Utopia, the tale of a com- monwealth united by common property, remains divisive. Is it a prescriptive programme for social reform? A dystopic portrait of totalitarian control? Or perhaps nothing more than the fanci- ful expression of an unstable mind? At stake is both our view of More himself and the very value of “utopian” thinking, a genre of writing and theorising which takes its name from More’s 500-year-old text—celebrated this year with a new edition and a series of exhibitions.

For centuries, Utopia has raised the question of how to recon- cile the ideal and the real; what few have noticed, however, is that it also answers it. Utopia is a mirror in which readers observe how social convention shapes their society, and how they can work within those customs to effect positive change. In 2016 these questions remain as pertinent as ever, as politicians—whether Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn—still struggle to find the bal- ance between idealised principles and realisable political ambi- tions in a corrupt and often contemptible political world.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s October issue: Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz tells our new Editor Tom Clark why globalisation has made him more radical. Rachel Holmes asks whether more women leaders really help women. Five hundred years on, what does Thomas More’s “Utopia” tells us about political idealism. And Tristram Hunt on why Labour needs another Clement Attlee. Also in this issue: David Runciman on why more members isn’t always a good thing for a political party. Will Self on why we’re all turning into robots. Your handy graphic guide to Brexit. Plus: David Willetts on what Theresa May’s industrial strategy should look like. And Kenneth S Rogoff argues we should abolish cash.