To mark the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s book Utopia we invited anthropologist Margarita Serje, sociologist Jane Hindley and the literary and cultural critic Erna von der Walde to undertake a residency at the Chocó Base. Erna von der Walde’s contribution addresses several themes around the book Utopia, in its literary, philosophical and political dimensions.

By Erna Von Der Walde


Thomas More’s Utopia was frst published in 1516, 24 years after the socalled discovery of the New World, a moment that signals the beginning of modern capitalism and European imperial expansion. Thus, it can be understood as a threshold text, written at a time of turmoil and momentous change.

More was a Catholic and a humanist. His work was meant both as a powerful critique of present political conditions and also as a projection of a better society, for which he drew from classical sources, such as Plato’s Republic, as well as from contemporary travel accounts from explorers, especially regarding the New World. As acknowledged in the work itself, the travels of Amerigo Vespucci were a source and an inspiration, and some present-day commentators have suggested that some of the elements of the ideal society were drawn from Vespucci’s ethnographic observations.

Utopia is a text that combines the humanist turn to classical antiquity and the imaginations triggered by the new geographical discoveries into a projection that is set both within the medieval imagination of Paradise Lost and the dawning modern imagination that conceives the possibility of change and transformation by human agency.

Thomas More used these different resources to create a complex work in which ideal societies are presented both as desirable and undesirable, advice to the king as necessary and futile, the need to solve social ailments as urgent, and the work of identifying the causes for much sorrow and misery as the central role of the thinker, the philosopher, the intellectual.


More’s Utopia introduces a series of arguments which have become part and parcel of radical political thought, such as the critique of private property and of tyranny, as well as the vision that a just and fair social order as the way to guarantee the best possible conditions to the whole of society.

However, many aspects of the island of Utopia are rather unsettling. Take, for example, the insularity of its location, its lack of contact with others, which is what makes it possible to sustain this perfect order. Or the fact that the number of inhabitants has to be limited and when the island exceeds a certain number, they have to be expelled. Or the notion that foreigners who desire to live there have to work as slaves. A possible interpretation of this is that More also introduces a warning against the attempt to create such “paradises on earth”.

But if we assume that for More this society was almost perfect in all senses, only one thing was lacking: true religion. As a devout Catholic in a historical moment when many elements of the Catholic doctrine were being questioned, More included in his Utopia an argumentation on the need to evangelise those new worlds that Europe was encountering and to bring them into the fold of the Catholic Church.

In this sense, More’s work has a strong affnity with another text written in 1515-16: Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas’ Memorial of Remedies for the Indies, a text which serendipitously ended in the hands some of his closest friends in Flanders.

Las Casas had spent several years in the Indies, where he had witnessed the violence that the Spaniards exerted over the local population. In 1515, he returned to Spain to seek an audience with the King to submit a proposal to remedy the situation. He was granted an audience with King Ferdinand on the 24th of December; a second one was arranged, but could not take place, because the king was ill and died soon after. Charles V, the heir to the throne, was living in Flanders and Las Casas planned an audience to submit the Memorial he was writing. Instead, he visited Charles’s regents in Madrid, Cardinal Cisneros and Adrian of Utrecht, who received it and sent it to Charles; by then Erasmus had been appointed councillor to the King. Whether More had any access to the Memorial is impossible to determine, but certainly the ideas espoused by Las Casas were known by members of his close circle of friends.

The main objective in Las Casas’ text was to devise a method to control hostile populations by peaceful means. He rejected the violent methods of the conquerors and even the very notion of conquest, which he deemed contrary to the true purpose of the Spanish presence, namely winning over the souls of the natives for the Catholic faith. In 1517, Charles V appointed him Protector of the Indians, and he was granted permission to apply some of the methods he suggested in the Spanish possessions.

Unlike More, who was a philosopher and a man of the court, Las Casas actually put his “utopian” projections into practice. In 1518, he started to implement a frst project, consisting of a programme to take Spanish farmers to the islands in the Caribbean. The idea was to allocate natives to these peasant families, who would then civilise and evangelise them, but he was not able to recruit enough farmers willing to face the uncertainties of those unchartered territories. The second project, the creation of a perfect community in Cumana, Venezuela, a concession he was granted in 1522, failed miserably. A third one, in Antigua, Guatemala, which started in 1537, was more successful. Some friars were already settled there, and Las Casas used native trade networks to attract rebellious indigenous groups.

Overall, the so-called New World was a feld of social experiments and of destruction of the existing forms of social organization. It involved the relocation of populations, their subjugation or enslavement and a radical transformation of landscapes to adjust them to the modes of production that the Europeans introduced. It entailed the eradication of languages and cultures, of cosmogonies and traditions.

But perhaps nothing represents more clearly the way space was transformed to create a new social order than the cities that were founded by the Spaniards. These cities followed a rational design, which was implemented identically in all locations, ignoring both the topography and the local forms of existence. It imposed a new form of control and administration, a new religion, and a new hierarchy.

In the end, early modern European imaginations of better worlds, more often than not projected to that New World they conceived as open to their intervention, were violent impositions. They reflected and reproduced the logic of the world they pretended to improve on. Today we still see this kind of projection in ideas of progress and development. After all, for Las Casas, indigenous peoples were to be defended not for who they were, but to guarantee that they ceased to be who they were. Only as subjects to the King and
souls for the faith were they seen as human. Just as the populations that are to be developed are expected to cease being who they are to become someone else’s projection of who they should become.

None of the texts -whether More’s or Las Casas’- ever questions the right of Europeans to impose their religion on these populations, although Las Casas actually acknowledges their right to repel the invader and defend themselves against the violent assault. More’s Utopia, on the other hand, cannot be read only from the colonial dimension, even though it is present in many ways. Its complex structure, the oscillation between a philosophical treatise and a political satire, the critique of English society, are features that require another kind of reading.

Amigos de Más Arte
Amigos de Más Arte