Paths to Utopiaruns until 2 October, curated by King’s College London at Somerset House
ON AN island off the coast of the New World – then still a place remote and enticing – sat an ideal city state called Utopia, the fictional creation of English statesman and philosopher Thomas More in 1516.
Inspired by Plato’sRepublic(c.380 BC), More was interested in devising the perfect state: one without conflict, corruption or hardship. His Utopia is a highly structured society with mayors, councils, district controllers and slaves. Its citizens work six hours a day, and spend most of their free time on self-improvement.
As a quasi-socialist system (apart from the slavery), it won accolades from Marx, Engels and Lenin. By then, however, utopia had come to mean different things for different people. The 19th-century Russian radical Mikhail Bakunin – central to Tom Stoppard’s 2002 play trilogyThe Coast of Utopia– appropriated utopian imagery to express his vision of collective anarchism.
Revolutionary libertarianism would scarcely have appealed to More’s hierarchical Tudor society – Reformation radicals in Münster tried something like it in the 1530s, and it ended badly. All the same, a sense of optimistic freedom characterises the way most of us think about utopia today, and certainly informs the Paths to Utopia exhibition now running in London. Part of a year-long programme of events called Utopia 2016, it marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of More’s foundational account.