Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.


by Henry S. Salt

Social Reformers are so often twitted with the “Utopia,” and assured that their schemes are mere “Utopian” dreams, that it is well we should all know the worst of the expression, and determine whether it should be regarded as a reproach or a compliment. When Sir Thomas More wrote his “Utopia,” early in the sixteenth century, he little imagined that, centuries after, the term “Utopian” would be the usual, often the only, answer which the “practical” defender of antiquated prejudices would cast in the teeth of those “unpractical” people who should venture to suggest any method of social reform. Utopia, the island of Nowhere, was discovered, according to Sir Thomas More’s delightful story, by a Portuguese navigator, a follower of Amerigo Vespucci, far away in the newly found hemisphere. The Utopians are described as a highly civilised people living in common, without the use of money, and in their general condition of society contrasting very favourably with the most advanced nations of Europe. The description of the social system, religion, occupation, and customs of this ideal people gave Sir Thomas More an excellent opportunity of severely satirizing the iniquities of actual English life, and the book is full of passages which strongly and unhesitatingly endorse all that Socialists are saying at the present day. Here is a specimen:

“In all other places it is visible that, while people talk of a commonwealth, every man only seeks his own wealth; but there (in Utopia) where no man has any property, all men zealously pursue the good of the public; and indeed it is no wonder to see men act so differently; for in other commonwealths every man knows that, unless he provides for himself, how flourishing soever the commonwealth may be, he must die of hunger; so that he sees the necessity of preferring his own concerns to those of the public; but in Utopia, where every man has a right to everything, they all know that, if care is taken to keep the public stores full, no private man can want for anything.” And again: “Therefore I must say that, as I hope for mercy, I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends; first that they may without danger preserve all that they have so ill acquired; and then that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please; yet these wicked men, after they have by a most insatiable covetousness divided that among themselves with which all the rest might have been well supplied, are far from that happiness which is enjoyed among the Utopians.”

This outspoken description of the relations existing between rich and poor must have been nearly as unwelcome to the well-to-do people of the sixteenth century as the principles of Socialism are to the millionaires of to-day. Since Sir Thomas More’s time, “Utopia” has become a proverbial expression for everything which is generally supposed to be visionary and out of the range of “practical politics,” and the teaching and lifework of most of our noblest thinkers have been branded as “Utopian.” The land of Nowhere is the region to which dull and selfish people invariably attempt to consign every thought and every aspiration which rises above the dead level of mediocrity. Yet because such people see it not, it does not follow that Utopia has no existence in fact; for that which is unseen to those who live only for the present, is often destined none the less to play an important part in the future. There are none so blind as those who refuse to see anything except the objects which are immediately before them; and the “practical politicians,” who contemptuously set aside any scheme of thorough reform as “Utopian,” inevitably remind one of the Eastern potentate described in “Don Juan.”

He saw with his own eyes the moon was round;
Was also certain that the earth was square,
Because he had journey’d fifty miles, and found
No sign that it was circular anywhere

Most of the schemes ridiculed as Utopian in one century are accepted as undeniable truths in the next, and therefore I think no Socialist need feel injured or aggrieved when he finds this expression cast in his teeth by his opponents in argument.

Published: Justice, May 23, 1885 - No. 71