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Thomas More

Believing the Impossible as a Stimulus for Perfection


Thomas More’s emblematic “Utopia” shows us how believing that something is impossible could be the best encouragement to make it possible and real.

…and everywhere there are paths that lead to the gods.

Lucan, Pharsalia

A typical, inevitably human feature, is our ability to see what does not exist, finding ourselves before reality, and still, imagining something else. Imagination, that uncontrollable force of our thoughts, could be understood as an evolutionary resource, the ability that enabled us to survive because it allows us to discern the potential of a fact or circumstance, and suspecting how it could be improved.

This search for change, this imagining how something could be better than it is in its current form, is the will for perfection that culturally dates back to the most ancient spiritual and philosophic traditions, which found an extremely refined expression during the Renaissance, especially after our ancestors rescued some of the discussions held in Ancient Greece concerning mankind’s essential problems, both in individual and collective dimensions.

In this context, the utopian genre was preferred by philosophers and writers of the time, a movement of intellectual imagination that finds pleasure in mounting scenarios and characters, entire countries that, while inexistent, contain elevated societies so refined they have eradicated their defects or deficiencies. Following the example of Plato and his Republic, several thinkers embarked on the creation of places where civilization would show its foremost qualities, assuming that good —in all its manifestations— is possible and acquirable regardless of the initial conditions.

As we know, the most prominent representative of this type of literature is Utopia, by Thomas More, a book that since it was published in 1615 has been extremely influential, to the extent that its title began to signify fantasies where a situation is idealized by stripping it of all its possible problems.

Utopia is a profoundly humanist discourse in which the author makes use of metaphors to analyze the mechanisms required for society’s correct development. The so-called “discovery of America”, the sudden and meaningful appearance of “The New World” (an eloquent appellative that symbolizes the great importance of this event had in Europe), allowed More to present the tale of Raphael, Vespucci’s fellow explorer who had visited far and foreign lands, and who spent several years on the Island of Utopia. There, Raphael studied the natives’ admirable customs, their exceptional level of companionship that was mainly a result of a rigorous observation of local laws.

In his narrative, More promptly exposes the organization of the Utopian State, and it is by this that his novel is classified as political literature. In addition to some practical uses that can be observed throughout history, most of Utopia’s readings have been made from this perspective.

This is also why, especially after the second half of the 20th century and all the events that took place therein –particularly in Europe–, the idea of Utopia lost some of its humanistic prestige, and was attributed a totalitarian character. Towards the end of that century, a new wave of thought found an impulse which completely eliminated the possibility of utopias and established this world and this reality as the only desirable state.

Whether the latter is true or not, it can perhaps be clarified by explaining the etymological misunderstanding that the term utopia poses.

Originally, Thomas More baptized the fantastical land by joining the Greek words eu, “good” and topos, “place”, which he used to permeate Utopia with the idea of a special geographical location. However, the Latinizing of the term, as well as its English pronunciation, gave way to the loss of the initial “e”, so that it seemed that the initial chosen prefix was ou which means absence or denial.

The ambiguity is semantic, but it is also epistemic and extremely eloquent. As if it were a lapse, it suggests a contradiction: it speaks of an impulse of yearning for the best, and, at the same time believing it is unattainable. The void between a single point and another is the “no such place” of Quevedo’s translation.

But, as the history of Utopia and the impact it has had on human culture have proven, this contradiction is a false dilemma, or a dilemma that can be solved dialectically as we transform this last certainty into an incentive to seek perfection.

That something seems impossible is, potentially, the best stimulus to materialize it into a palpable reality.

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