William Morris

Foreword to Thomas More's Utopia

Ralph Robinson's translation of More's Utopia would not need any foreword if it were to be looked upon merely as a beautiful book embodying the curious fancies of a great writer and thinker of the period of the Renaissance. No doubt till within the last few years it has been considered by the moderns as nothing more serious than a charming literary exercise, spiced with the interest given to it by the allusions to the history of the time, and by our knowledge of the career of its author.

But the change of ideas concerning `the best state of a publique weale,' which, I will venture to say, is the great event of the end of this century, has thrown a fresh light upon the book; so that now to some it seems not so much a regret for days which might have been, as (in its essence) a prediction of a state of society which will be. In short this work of the scholar and Catholic, of the man who resisted what has seemed to most the progressive movement of his own time, has in our days become a Socialist tract familiar to the meetings and debating rooms of the political party which was but lately like `the cloud as big as a man's hand.' Doubtless the Utopia is a necessary part of a Socialist's library; yet it seems to me that its value as a book for the study of sociology is rather historic than prophetic, and that we Socialists should look upon it as a link between the surviving Communism of the Middle Ages (become hopeless in More's time, and doomed to be soon wholly effaced by the advancing wave of Commercial Bureaucracy), and the hopeful and practical progressive movement of to-day. In fact I think More must be looked upon rather as the last of the old than the first of the new.

Apart from what was yet alive in him of medieval Communist tradition, the spirit of association, which amongst other things produced the Gilds, and which was strong in the Medieval Catholic Church itself, other influences were at work to make him take up his parable against the new spirit of his Age. The action of the period of transition from Medieval to Commercial Society with all its brutalities, was before his eyes; and though he was not alone in his time in condemning the injustice and cruelty of the revolution which destroyed the peasant life of England, and turned it into a grazing farm for the moneyed gentry; creating withal at one stroke the propertyless wage-earner, and the master-less vagrant (hodie `pauper'), yet he saw deeper into its root-causes than any other man of his own day, and left us little to add to his views on this point except a reasonable hope that those `causes' will yield to a better form of society before long.

Moreover the spirit of the Renaissance, itself the intellectual side of the very movement which he strove against, was strong in him, and doubtless helped to create his Utopia, by means of the contrast which it put before his eyes of the ideal free nations of the ancients, and the sordid welter of the struggle for power in the days of dying feudalism, of which he himself was a witness. This Renaissance enthusiasm has supplanted in him the chivalry feeling of the age just passing away. To him war is no longer a delight of the well born, but rather an ugly necessity, to be carried on, if so it must be, by ugly means. Hunting and hawking are no longer the choice pleasures of Knight and Lady, but are jeered at by him as foolish and unreasonable pieces of butchery: his pleasures are in the main the reasonable ones of learning and music. With all this, his imaginations of the past he must needs read into his ideal vision, together with his own experiences of his time and people. Not only are there bondslaves and a king, and priests almost adored, and cruel punishments for the breach of the marriage contract, in that happy island, but there is throughout an atmosphere of asceticism, which has a curiously blended savour of Cato the Censor and a medieval monk.

On the subject of war; on capital punishment; the responsibility to the public of kings and other official personages and such-like matters, More speaks words that would not be out of place in the mouth of an eighteenth-century Jacobin; and at first sight this seems rather to show sympathy with what is now mere Whigism than with Communism; but it must be remembered that opinions which have become (in words) the mere commonplace of ordinary bourgeois politicians, were then looked on as pieces of startlingly new and advanced thought, and do not put him on the same plane with the mere radical of the last generation.

In More, then, are met together the man instinctively sympathetic with the Communistic side of Medieval society; the protestor against the ugly brutality of the earliest period of Commercialism; the enthusiast of the Renaissance, ever looking toward his idealised ancient society as the type and example of all really intelligent human life; the man tinged with the asceticism at once of the classical philosopher and of the monk: an asceticism indeed which he puts forward not so much as a duty, but rather as a kind of stern adornment of life.

These are we may say, the moods of the man who created Utopia for us; and all are tempered and harmonised by a sensitive clearness and delicate beauty of style, which make the book a living work of art.

But lastly we Socialists cannot forget that these qualities and excellencies meet to produce a steady expression of the longing for a society of equality of condition; a society in which the individual man can scarcely conceive of his existence apart from the Commonwealth of which he forms a portion. This, which is the essence of his book, is the essence also of the struggle in which we are engaged. Though doubtless it was the pressure of circumstances in his own days that made More what he was, yet that pressure forced him to give us, not a vision of the triumph of the new-born capitalistic society, the element in which lived the new learning and the new freedom of thought of his epoch; but a picture (his own indeed, not ours) of the real New Birth which many men before him had desired; and which now indeed we may well hope is drawing near to realization, though after such a long series of events which at the time of their happening seemed to nullify his hopes completely.