Who coined the word utopia?

Summary of Utopia

Age of Renaissance and Discovery

Thomas More was born into a time of upheaval: in the year of his birth (1478) the first book was printed in England, the time of the multiplication and dissemination of new ideas began, the church lost its monopoly on interpreting the meaning of the world. More belonged to the successful and respected bourgeoisie, which intervened in state affairs and enforced its ideas. He got to know the ideas of the Renaissance and humanism, which were borne by the bourgeoisie and had come from Italy via the Netherlands to England: return to antiquity, human detachment from medieval norms, search for human freedom, farewell to the rigid teachings of the Scholasticism. All of this led to a distant view of the existing and the possibility of thinking about alternatives. Then came the Reformation and with it a further upheaval in the certainties of faith and the institutions of the church. In England, too, many campaigned for a renewal of the Catholic Church from within; they strove for reform without wanting to break away from Rome. The deeply religious Morus was a representative of this movement. In addition, the new world entered the minds of Europeans: the news of distant islands populated with - depending on the interpretation - "good savages" or "bad pagans", and of countries full of natural abundance - news that sparked the imagination. All of this was a breeding ground for the search for an alternative, rationally guided social system beyond the existing.


Thomas More was a highly respected, established man who, however, internally distanced himself from his social position and was looking for the ideal of a better society. He was strongly influenced by his close contact with the humanist Erasmus von Rotterdam: In 1509 Erasmus lived with Morus and his wife for a long time, where he wrote his famous book Praise of Folly, to which his friend encouraged him and which Erasmus dedicated to him. In his masterpiece, Erasmus humorously and ironically showed contemporary structures of rule and power and stood up for peace, tolerance and humanity. Utopia owes much to More's conversations with Erasmus. The first book of the work was written in 1516, the second in Flanders as early as 1515, at a time when More was in close contact with Erasmus. So he described the history and constitution of Utopia before embedding this narrative in the framework plot with the embassy in Flanders and the meeting with Hythlodaeus. Before More began his steep career as a parliamentarian and royal advisor, this was where he demonstrated his optimistic belief in the victory of reason. In 1516 the Latin text appeared under the title Libellus vere aureus nec minus salutaris quam festivus de optimo reipublicae statu deque nova insula Utopia (A truly wonderful, no less wholesome than entertaining little book on the best constitution of the state and from the new island of Utopia); In 1551 the writing appeared in English.

Impact history

More created the made-up word "Utopia" from the Greek terms "ou" (= not) and "tópos" (= place) - it means something like "the non-place" - and thereby gave many languages ​​a new word: "Utopia" . In German, the expression became known from the 19th century as a term for a - mostly unattainable - social ideal. More's classic work has given the utopian thinking of the modern age and the genre of the utopian state novel a literary form and a name.

The first utopian draft of the state, however, is an ancient work by Plato, the Politeia (The State), to which More in Utopia also refers. During the Renaissance, "utopian socialism" flourished: the successor works to Utopia were The Sun State by Tommaso Campanella (1602) with similar communist approaches as the English model and New Atlantis by Francis Bacon (1626), which focused on natural research. In all of them there is a criticism of the existing conditions and the search for a better state of society, often a state of nature. Many more works followed; became famous e.g. B. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels of 1726, where the sharpest political satire and utopian ideas are mixed. In the 19th century the genre was partly transformed into science fiction (Jules Verne), and in the 20th century critical utopias followed, e.g. B. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Utopian elements also provided the French social philosophy of the 18th century, historical materialism and even anarchism. Positively formulated social utopias can be found in Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse.

Each of these utopias lives from the tension between ideal and reality: What is the world like - and how could it be? In his utopia, More touches on the fundamental issues: happiness and care for the individual, harmony in society, meaningful rule, private or common property. Utopia in particular makes it clear which different goals an author can pursue with a utopian text: Does More simply dream of a better society? Does he want to shake up the people in a revolutionary way? Or does he give advice to the princes, similar to what Niccolò Machiavelli did almost at the same time as Il Principe (The Prince), only less power-related? The different readings combine all facets of the utopian novel.