The real utopia: This ancient civilisation thrived without war

PICTURE a peace-loving Atlantic island ruled by reason. Its 54 cities are governed by educated officials and an elected-for-life prince. Although war hasn’t been abolished, it is used only as a last resort. People see no glory in fighting, and capture enemies rather than kill them. This is the original Utopia – the pagan, communist and pacifist world sketched out exactly 500 years ago in Thomas More’s eponymous work of fiction.

More’s book has exerted a powerful pull on our imaginations – not least through utopian science fiction. But in a world of autocracy, fanaticism and terrorism, it seems as far from reality as ever. Indeed, arguments still rage about his true intention. His title, derived from the ancient Greek ou-topos – meaning “no place” – is a pun on eu-topos, “good place”. Was More proposing a blueprint of an ideal society or satirising the self-interest, greed and military exploits of the hereditary monarchies of his time?

On one thing nearly everyone agrees: no utopia has ever existed. Large human societies tend to be governed by coercion. The instinct for warfare has been a driving force in nearly every civilisation of the last five millennia, from ancient Mesopotamia to the British Empire.

Or has it? One mysterious, ancient society might give the lie to that. The civilisation of the Indus valley is the most enigmatic of the four great early civilisations. But while Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt and ancient China gloried in warfare, it seems absent from the Indus valley. Was this a real, functioning utopia? If so, how did it survive, and why did it eventually disappear?

 

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