"Utopia" by Sir Thomas More (1516)
"Now I have described to you as accurately as I could the structure of that commonwealth which I consider not only the best but the only one that can rightfully claim that name. In other places men talk very liberally of the common wealth, but what they mean is simply their own wealth; in Utopia, where there is no private business, every man zealously pursues the public business."
"Utopia" was written on the eve of the Protestant Reformation, and also not long after the European discovery of the New World. It was written in a time when one could still refer to the Catholic faith in the original sense of "catholic," that is, "universal."
The England of Thomas More's time was one of the farther flung outposts of medieval Europe, and the world in which More moved was one in which kings continually plotted against one another, and in which none plotted more than the Church. This was very much the world that Machiavelli described in "The Prince," and More draws many of the same conclusions about it.
Through "Utopia," More explains his ideas on government, and lays forth his conception of a perfect society, in which neither private property or money stand in the way of a more enlightened society. He places this imaginary paradise in the newly discovered New World, and the book takes the form of a dialogue between More himself and Raphael, a mariner just returned from Utopia.
It's a very short book, and also an easy read. As a historical document it still holds a lot of interest, anticipating both religious and political innovations that would later redraw the map of Europe, and affect still more distant parts of the globe. More's conception of an enlightened republic is a bit naive and hampered by the understandings of his time, but it is interesting to draw comparisons between the world of his time, the world of Utopia, and our own time, in which we've already seen so many religious fads, communist experiments, and literary works explore similar ground.
I read the Norton Critical Edition of this work, which also includes letters between More and other prominent figures of his time, historical background, critical responses, and even other imaginings of Utopia, the best-known of which would probably be Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." In all of these writings, both More's "Utopia" and in the additional materials, there is a recognition of our present evils, but also the hope that one day things might just get better, that we might just come one step closer to that perfect society, and that all of us might find ourselves better used and more satisfied.
Here's hoping Utopia's around the corner. I'd like to think so.