Thomas More : Utopia

I’m pretty certain that, apart from Aldous Huxley’s Island, this was the first utopian novel I’d ever read, and that in spite of the fact that, according to Wikipedia, “More than 400 utopian works were published prior to the year 1900 in the English language alone, with more than a thousand others during the twentieth century.” They didn’t provide any statistics on dystopian literature, but when I read down the page devoted to it I came across lots of books I’ve read, including very well known works such as Brave New World and 1984. I’ve always been under the impression that dystopias are much more popular than utopias (just as people find bad news more interesting than good), so it would be interesting to know how many of those have been published!

(details below)

This book doesn’t really qualify as a novel, as the actual narrative is minimal in the extreme (the narrator meets someone who tells him various things about the laws and social systems of some far-away countries he’s visited, especially Utopia) but, like Gulliver’s Travels, it’s just an obvious and transparent vehicle for the author to expound his opinions on what’s wrong with his own society, and to offer ideas on how things could be improved. The prevailing customs and laws of Utopia, then, are a direct reflection of how Thomas More thought things ought to be, a description of his ideal society (even if the narrator states clearly at the very end of the book that he doesn’t necessarily agree with the Utopians on all points – a sort of disclaimer, undoubtedly included for good practical reasons!). This society might most easily be described as communism (all property and money having entirely disappeared), combined with many religiously inspired elements which would today be described as Calvinistic, the result having much in common with a monastic society.

There is much in the book which was revolutionary in 1516, but which now seems normal, if not primitive and barbaric. For instance, his opinion that thieves shouldn’t be hung was certainly progressive for its time, even if, as part of the humane alternative punishment meted out by the Polylerits (who live somewhere near Persia) “a piece of one of their ears is cut off”. Utopia has slaves, most of them having become so as a punishment for crime, and these are required to work hard for long hours and do all the dirty and unpleasant jobs which normal citizens wouldn’t want to do. One aspect which was certainly very progressive for the time is Utopia’s democracy. Not only are magistrates and priests (who have a certain amount of temporal power) elected, but also the prince himself, and the government is there to serve the people, rather than the other way round (“[the people] choose a king for their own sake, and not for his”), an idea which was still quite revolutionary when presented by Rousseau in his du Contrat social, two and a half centuries later.

The Utopian economic and social system is a fairly extreme form of communism, with neither money nor property:

[…] as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily […]

And More comes out with some (to me) very obvious truths which many today would describe as extremely left-wing:

I would gladly hear any man compare the justice that is among them with that of all other nations; among whom, may I perish, if I see anything that looks either like justice or equity; for what justice is there in this: that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, that either does nothing at all, or, at best, is employed in things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendour upon what is so ill acquired, and a mean man, a carter, a smith, or a ploughman, that works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labours so necessary, that no commonwealth could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs? For as the beasts do not work so constantly, so they feed almost as well, and with more pleasure, and have no anxiety about what is to come, whilst these men are depressed by a barren and fruitless employment, and tormented with the apprehensions of want in their old age; since that which they get by their daily labour does but maintain them at present, and is consumed as fast as it comes in, there is no overplus left to lay up for old age.
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, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; 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; […]

In their society, everyone is equally provided for, and those who can’t work, such as children, the sick and the old, have their livelihood guaranteed by the state. In return, everyone who can work is expected to do so. Providing well for everyone only requires about six hours work a day, which must have looked extremely luxurious to any working person in 1516 – and still does to most people in 2013! This is partly because the work is more evenly divided over the population (women work, whereas More considers that “women generally do little” in his own society, and there is no idle aristocratic elite), and partly because much unnecessary work has been done away with:

[…] consider how few of those that work are employed in labours that are of real service, for we, who measure all things by money, give rise to many trades that are both vain and superfluous.

But More’s is a very Christian (in fact a very Calvanist) sort of communism. Everyone lives primarily for the common good rather than for their personal benefit, and individual freedom isn’t highly valued. In fact there are many aspects of Utopian society which would seem dystopian to the average 21st-century European. For instance, travel outside of one’s own city and its surrounding area is restricted, being only permitted with an “easily obtained” passport “which both certifies the licence that is granted for travelling, and limits the time of their return.” Travelling without permission is severely punished, and one is expected to work, wherever one is. One isn’t free to do just anything one likes in one’s own free time either:

If any man has a mind to travel only over the precinct of his own city, he may freely do it, with his father’s permission and his wife’s consent; but when he comes into any of the country houses, if he expects to be entertained by them, he must labour with them and conform to their rules; and if he does this, he may freely go over the whole precinct, being then as useful to the city to which he belongs as if he were still within it. Thus you see that there are no idle persons among them, nor pretences of excusing any from labour. There are no taverns, no ale-houses, nor stews among them, nor any other occasions of corrupting each other, of getting into corners, or forming themselves into parties; all men live in full view, so that all are obliged both to perform their ordinary task and to employ themselves well in their spare hours; and it is certain that a people thus ordered must live in great abundance of all things, and these being equally distributed among them, no man can want or be obliged to beg.

We read elsewhere that there are no dice games in Utopia either!

The Utopians have no use for luxury:

[…] fine clothes are in no esteem among them, […] silk is despised, and gold is a badge of infamy.
The Utopians wonder how any man should be so much taken with the glaring doubtful lustre of a jewel or a stone, that can look up to a star or to the sun himself; or how any should value himself because his cloth is made of a finer thread; for, how fine soever that thread may be, it was once no better than the fleece of a sheep, and that sheep, was a sheep still, for all its wearing it. They wonder much to hear that gold, which in itself is so useless a thing, should be everywhere so much esteemed that even man, for whom it was made, and by whom it has its value, should yet be thought of less value than this metal; that a man of lead, who has no more sense than a log of wood, and is as bad as he is foolish, should have many wise and good men to serve him, only because he has a great heap of that metal; and that if it should happen that by some accident or trick of law (which, sometimes produces as great changes as chance itself) all this wealth should pass from the master to the meanest varlet of his whole family, he himself would very soon become one of his servants, as if he were a thing that belonged to his wealth, and so were bound to follow its fortune!

One of the things I liked best about the Utopians’ philosophy is their viewpoint, similar to that of the Dalai Lama, that it is natural for each individual to want to be as happy as possible, that happiness and goodness are two sides of the same coin, in fact that the purpose of life is happiness: “as they define virtue to be living according to Nature, so they imagine that Nature prompts all people on to seek after pleasure as the end of all they do.” (or, as Father Zossima put it, in The Brothers Karamazov: “[…] men are made for happiness, and anyone who is completely happy has a right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.'”). As far as I’m concerned this has to be the one essential basis of any philosophy which is worth taking seriously, as it is the only one which emerges directly out of our own experience – which is the only thing of which we can ever really be certain. Unfortunately, however, there are very few thinkers and writers, even among those who mean well and whose ideas follow on from this basis, who take the trouble to state it (assuming they’ve actually thought about it, that is). I believe it’s extremely important to actually state this point, as any philosophy which doesn’t is like a house built on sand: sooner or later it’s likely to collapse. It’s nice to see that More was of the same opinion. Being a bit of a Calvinist (in the widest sense of the word!), however, More had his own ideas about what this happiness should consist of:

They account health the chief pleasure that belongs to the body; for they think that the pleasure of eating and drinking, and all the other delights of sense, are only so far desirable as they give or maintain health; but they are not pleasant in themselves otherwise than as they resist those impressions that our natural infirmities are still making upon us. For as a wise man desires rather to avoid diseases than to take physic, and to be freed from pain rather than to find ease by remedies, so it is more desirable not to need this sort of pleasure than to be obliged to indulge it. If any man imagines that there is a real happiness in these enjoyments, he must then confess that he would be the happiest of all men if he were to lead his life in perpetual hunger, thirst, and itching, and, by consequence, in perpetual eating, drinking, and scratching himself; which any one may easily see would be not only a base, but a miserable, state of a life. These are, indeed, the lowest of pleasures, and the least pure, for we can never relish them but when they are mixed with the contrary pains. The pain of hunger must give us the pleasure of eating, and here the pain out-balances the pleasure. And as the pain is more vehement, so it lasts much longer; for as it begins before the pleasure, so it does not cease but with the pleasure that extinguishes it, and both expire together. They think, therefore, none of those pleasures are to be valued any further than as they are necessary; yet they rejoice in them, and with due gratitude acknowledge the tenderness of the great Author of Nature, who has planted in us appetites, by which those things that are necessary for our preservation are likewise made pleasant to us. For how miserable a thing would life be if those daily diseases of hunger and thirst were to be carried off by such bitter drugs as we must use for those diseases that return seldomer upon us! And thus these pleasant, as well as proper, gifts of Nature maintain the strength and the sprightliness of our bodies.

As far as I’m concerned there’s a lot of sense in what he’s saying here, but I wonder what the average French reader would make of it. They’d probably put it down to the English cooking!

But, of all pleasures, they esteem those to be most valuable that lie in the mind, the chief of which arise out of true virtue and the witness of a good conscience.

Another thing I very much share with the Utopians is their strong belief in equality:

They also observe that in order to our supporting the pleasures of life, Nature inclines us to enter into society; for there is no man so much raised above the rest of mankind as to be the only favourite of Nature, who, on the contrary, seems to have placed on a level all those that belong to the same species. Upon this they infer that no man ought to seek his own conveniences so eagerly as to prejudice others […]

It is perhaps not surprising, considering that More ended up becoming a Catholic saint, that the world he created was just as thoroughly religious as the one he lived in – in other words, when it comes to religion the Utopians are just as messed up as everyone was in the 16th century, the religious world view being regarded as the only possible sane way of seeing things. The most ‘advanced’ of the Utopians are monotheists and believe in a God very similar to the Christian one, but when they hear about Catholicism from Raphael Hythloday and his friends they immediately become very enthusiastic converts! They find religious tolerance important, but it doesn’t quite stretch to people who don’t believe in God, the soul or an afterlife. Such people aren’t quite persecuted (well, not in the way Catholics and Protestants persecuted each other in More’s world, i.e. they are not killed and tortured!), but they’re certainly despised and looked upon as second class citizens, and they aren’t allowed to openly express their irreligious views. All this is at least partly because of the monopoly on goodness which religion invariably claims:

This law [the one prescribing religious tolerance] was made by Utopus, not only for preserving the public peace, which he saw suffered much by daily contentions and irreconcilable heats, but because he thought the interest of religion itself required it. He judged it not fit to determine anything rashly; and seemed to doubt whether those different forms of religion might not all come from God, who might inspire man in a different manner, and be pleased with this variety; he therefore thought it indecent and foolish for any man to threaten and terrify another to make him believe what did not appear to him to be true. And supposing that only one religion was really true, and the rest false, he imagined that the native force of truth would at last break forth and shine bright, if supported only by the strength of argument, and attended to with a gentle and unprejudiced mind; while, on the other hand, if such debates were carried on with violence and tumults, as the most wicked are always the most obstinate, so the best and most holy religion might be choked with superstition, as corn is with briars and thorns; he therefore left men wholly to their liberty, that they might be free to believe as they should see cause; only he made a solemn and severe law against such as should so far degenerate from the dignity of human nature, as to think that our souls died with our bodies, or that the world was governed by chance, without a wise overruling Providence: for they all formerly believed that there was a state of rewards and punishments to the good and bad after this life; and they now look on those that think otherwise as scarce fit to be counted men, since they degrade so noble a being as the soul, and reckon it no better than a beast’s: thus they are far from looking on such men as fit for human society, or to be citizens of a well-ordered commonwealth; since a man of such principles must needs, as oft as he dares do it, despise all their laws and customs: for there is no doubt to be made, that a man who is afraid of nothing but the law, and apprehends nothing after death, will not scruple to break through all the laws of his country, either by fraud or force, when by this means he may satisfy his appetites. They never raise any that hold these maxims, either to honours or offices, nor employ them in any public trust, but despise them, as men of base and sordid minds. Yet they do not punish them, because they lay this down as a maxim, that a man cannot make himself believe anything he pleases; nor do they drive any to dissemble their thoughts by threatenings, so that men are not tempted to lie or disguise their opinions; which being a sort of fraud, is abhorred by the Utopians: they take care indeed to prevent their disputing in defence of these opinions, especially before the common people: but they suffer, and even encourage them to dispute concerning them in private with their priest, and other grave men, being confident that they will be cured of those mad opinions by having reason laid before them.

Interestingly enough this is a very similar viewpoint to that of Islam on the same subject: you should be tolerant of other people’s religious views – as long as they believe in the one true God, that is!

Also similar to Islam in its more extreme forms, and reminiscent of Ivan’s speech on the legal powers of the church (and his apparent opposition to the separation of church and state) in The Brothers Karamazov, is the significant role which priests play in the policing of society:

Their priests […] are chosen by the people as the other magistrates are, by suffrages given in secret, for preventing of factions: and when they are chosen, they are consecrated by the college of priests. The care of all sacred things, the worship of God, and an inspection into the manners of the people, are committed to them. It is a reproach to a man to be sent for by any of them, or for them to speak to him in secret, for that always gives some suspicion: all that is incumbent on them is only to exhort and admonish the people; for the power of correcting and punishing ill men belongs wholly to the Prince, and to the other magistrates: the severest thing that the priest does is the excluding those that are desperately wicked from joining in their worship: there is not any sort of punishment more dreaded by them than this, for as it loads them with infamy, so it fills them with secret horrors, such is their reverence to their religion; nor will their bodies be long exempted from their share of trouble; for if they do not very quickly satisfy the priests of the truth of their repentance, they are seized on by the Senate, and punished for their impiety.

Unsurprisingly, sex is totally taboo anywhere outside the matrimonial bed. Perhaps more surprising is the reason given for this, which is basically that if people were allowed to have sex outside of marriage, very few people would actually want to enter the state of matrimony, with “all its inconveniences”. In other words, marriage is good for society but isn’t pleasant for those concerned, and so people have to be forced into it! I’m not sure how that relates to the Utopians’ views on happiness being the purpose of life…:

Their women are not married before eighteen nor their men before two-and-twenty, and if any of them run into forbidden embraces before marriage they are severely punished, and the privilege of marriage is denied them unless they can obtain a special warrant from the Prince. Such disorders cast a great reproach upon the master and mistress of the family in which they happen, for it is supposed that they have failed in their duty. The reason of punishing this so severely is, because they think that if they were not strictly restrained from all vagrant appetites, very few would engage in a state in which they venture the quiet of their whole lives, by being confined to one person, and are obliged to endure all the inconveniences with which it is accompanied.
They punish severely those that defile the marriage bed; if both parties are married they are divorced, and the injured persons may marry one another, or whom they please, but the adulterer and the adulteress are condemned to slavery […]

The Utopians have an interesting marriage custom, which is quite progressive as far as it goes:

Before marriage some grave matron presents the bride, naked, whether she is a virgin or a widow, to the bridegroom, and after that some grave man presents the bridegroom, naked, to the bride. We, indeed, both laughed at this, and condemned it as very indecent. But they, on the other hand, wondered at the folly of the men of all other nations, who, if they are but to buy a horse of a small value, are so cautious that they will see every part of him, and take off both his saddle and all his other tackle, that there may be no secret ulcer hid under any of them, and that yet in the choice of a wife, on which depends the happiness or unhappiness of the rest of his life, a man should venture upon trust, and only see about a handsbreadth of the face, all the rest of the body being covered, under which may lie hid what may be contagious as well as loathsome.

Very practical, I would say, but wouldn’t it be even better if the couple were to try having sex as well, to see if they were compatible? Doesn’t someone who buys a horse want to go for a ride on it? I’m not sure about that one, but to invent a more modern analogy: if you buy a car you don’t just want to look under the bonnet, you want to go for a test drive! Or even better, they should live together as man and wife for while, to see how they like it.

Also very progressive (even in the 21st century) are the Utopians’ views on euthanasia, even if they strongly disapprove of suicide:

I have already told you with what care they look after their sick, so that nothing is left undone that can contribute either to their case or health; and for those who are taken with fixed and incurable diseases, they use all possible ways to cherish them and to make their lives as comfortable as possible. They visit them often and take great pains to make their time pass off easily; but when any is taken with a torturing and lingering pain, so that there is no hope either of recovery or ease, the priests and magistrates come and exhort them, that, since they are now unable to go on with the business of life, are become a burden to themselves and to all about them, and they have really out-lived themselves, they should no longer nourish such a rooted distemper, but choose rather to die since they cannot live but in much misery; being assured that if they thus deliver themselves from torture, or are willing that others should do it, they shall be happy after death: since, by their acting thus, they lose none of the pleasures, but only the troubles of life, they think they behave not only reasonably but in a manner consistent with religion and piety; because they follow the advice given them by their priests, who are the expounders of the will of God. Such as are wrought on by these persuasions either starve themselves of their own accord, or take opium, and by that means die without pain. But no man is forced on this way of ending his life; and if they cannot be persuaded to it, this does not induce them to fail in their attendance and care of them: but as they believe that a voluntary death, when it is chosen upon such an authority, is very honourable, so if any man takes away his own life without the approbation of the priests and the senate, they give him none of the honours of a decent funeral, but throw his body into a ditch.

Having now finally read Utopia I can understand why Will Self was so negative about it in his introduction to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (“No one would want to strut across Thomas More’s island Utopia with its religious toleration and pacific people […]”). The Utopians’ world is no place for individualists. Thomas More created it is his own image and likeness, as it were, and while he had some extremely enlightened views on many subjects – property, economics, democracy, equality and euthanasia, to name but a few – as far as religion, sex and marriage went he was very much a man of his time. And, even if the Catholic church regards him as a saint, according to Wikipedia he “advocated the extermination of Protestants and approved the burning alive of people caught with banned books” – not exactly the sort of person I’d want to design the world I have to life in…



author Thomas More
title Utopia
first published 1516
language English
original language Latin
translator Gilbert Burnet
read 16/02/2013 – 22/02/2013
download / read online Project Gutenberg


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