Utopia by Thomas More (1478-1535) Utopia by Thomas More (1478-1535) Type of Work: Social and philosophical commentary Setting Antwerp; early sixteenth century Principal Characters Sir Thomas More, emissary for Henry VIII Peter Giles, More’s friend Raphael Hythloday, world traveler and witness to Utopia Book Overveiw Thomas More toured Antwerp on a diplomatic mission for his king, Henry VIII. There, More’s friend, Peter Giles, introduced the young ambassador to Raphael Hythloday, an educated sailor who had seen much of the world while voyaging with Amerigo Vespucci. The three of them convened in a garden so that More could question this learned and experienced man. More and Giles both wondered why a man of such wisdom and stature as Raphael had not entered into a king’s service. Raphael scoffed at the idea: “The councilors of kings are so wise that they need no advice from others (or at least so it seems to themselves).” Moreover, Raphael opined that most councilors merely bowed to the king’s inclinations and were more concerned with maintaining favor than with offering impartial and wise advice. Raphael also believed that the average king possessed different goals than he himself had; that “most princes apply themselves to warlike pursuits,” whereas he had no interest or skill in the acquisition of riches or territory.
Raphael asked Giles and More to imagine him before a king, cautioning him that “wars would throw whole nations into chaos, would exhaust the King’s treasury and destroy his own people, [and] that a prince should take more care of his people’s happiness than of his own.” How receptive would the king be to that kind of advice? More asked Raphael if he had ever been to England; the traveler replied that he had, and then proceeded to relate a story about a discussion he had entered into there with a British lawyer. The lawyer commented that he approved of hanging thieves for their crimes. But Raphael struck up an argument against this form of “justice.” The high incidence of theft in England, he claimed, was attributable to the increased sheepherding by wealthy landowners. This new industry had forced the poorer farmers off their land while at the same time boosting the price of goods and feed; and these combined factors had caused a rise in unemployment. Without work or land, many people had turned to a life of crime or to begging.
This “policy [of hanging thieves] may have the appearance of justice, but it is really neither just nor expedient.” In his view, English society was “first making [people] thieves and then punishing them for it.” Another of Raphael’s complaints was that many English noblemen, along with their entourages of lazy friends, “live idly like drones and subsist on the labor of their tenants.” Such “wanton luxury” only exacerbated the poverty of the common people. While More and Giles could understand the justice in Raphael’s social criticisms, they were still unable to understand why he would not help rescue society by offering his higher wisdom in the political arena. Raphael replied: As long as there is private property and while money is the standard of all things, I do not think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily … Unless private property is entirely done away with, there can be no fair distribution of goods, nor can the world be happily governed. Neither More nor Giles believed that this prerequisite to peace would ever be possible to attain. Raphael was not surprised by their scoffs, but averred that had they traveled with him on the island haven of Utopia, there they would have seen a truly orderly, peaceful society.
The two Englishmen then prevailed on Raphael to acquaint them, after their meal, with all the customs and institutions of the Utopians. Dinner completed, Raphael began his descriptive tour: First of all, Utopian society was uniform, with all cities sharing the “same language, customs, institutions and laws.” Its economy was guided by one fundamental rule: “All the Utopians, men and women alike, work at agriculture.” Additionally, everyone worked at a trade of his own choosing, provided the trade proved useful to society. Although every citizen was required to work, each labored only six hours out of twenty-four. While to many such liberal conditions might seem untenable, Raphael pointed out that “the actual number of workers who supply the needs of mankind is much smaller than imagined,” considering the many noblemen, beggars and others in contemporary society who produced nothing. For Utopians, the chief aim was to allow everyone enough free time to develop his or her mind.
Food on the island was distributed equally, with the sick tended to first. The rest of the population ate together in vast communal halls. If the people harvested or produced any surplus goods, these were shared with neighboring nations who might be suffering from plague or famine, or else used in trade. The Utopians imported nothing themselves, but traded only for the wherewithal to hire mercenaries in times of war. Rather than store their precious metals in vaults, Utopians used gold and silver to make chamber pots and stools, and “for the chains and fetters of their bondsmen.” In this way the citizenry held gold and silver “up to scorn in every way.” Idling was despised and never tolerated.
No gambling was allowed and there existed no brothels or taverns in which Utopians might while away their time. When Utopia’s inhabitants were not working, they were expected to pursue worthwhile activities such as reading and learning, or, if they preferred, to practice their trades. Anyone who proved especially adept at learning was allowed to forego physical labor in order to pursue scholarly work. Utopia’s laws encompassed “no fixed.. penalties, but the senate [persons elected by the citizenry] fixed the punishment according to the wickedness of the crime.” Serious crimes were punished by bondage. If a bondsperson refused to work, he was put to death- if, on the other hand, the slave proved hardworking and repentant, he was freed. The islanders believed that bondage, as a form of punishment, was”more beneficial to the commonwealth,” and that the sight of bondage “longer deters other men from similar crimes.” Nothing in Utopia was “so inglorious as the glory won in war.” The community would “go to war cautiously and reluctantly,” entering into combat for two reasons only: either “to protect their own territory or that of their friends .. or to free some wretched people from tyrannous oppression.” For the most part, when war was deemed necessary they hired mercenaries to do the fighting.
If the mercenaries were defeated, then Utopians (men and women alike) would take up arms. In victory, they were “more ready to take prisoners than to make a great slaughter.” In all, Raphael was convinced that Utopian society was far superior to any other he had observed. He added particulars concerning Utopian marriage customs (prospective spouses were advised to see each other naked before they were wed, so that each would possess a full knowledge of what he or she was getting), fashion (all dressed in simple attire “fit both for winter and summer, to correspond to their gender and marital status), religious observances, foreign relations, health practices, and rules of the marketplace – each aspect of the island society having as its aim to make life better for everyone. In Raphael’s opinion, Utopia was the only commonwealth which could accurately be called a “commonwealth”,- all citizens there were treated equally and given equal opportunities and possessions: “When no one owns anything, all are rich.” Thus, Raphael ended his tale of Utopia, and even the practical, conventional Thomas More had to admit that “many things in the Utopian Commonwealth [he] wished .. to see followed among [his] citizens.” Commentary The term “Utopia” has come to mean an idyllic, visionary Shang-ri-la type of community. However, when More derived the term from the Greek, it literally meant “nowhere.” In essence, both are correct: Utopia can represent both a mythical, impossible retreat and a great guiding social ideal.
Much of More’s book was extracted from and influenced by the Bible, especially from the “Christian Humanists” biblical interpretations that formed a vanguard of social criticism in his time. Along with Erasmus, another humanist philosopher, More yearned to change his world for the better. He saw that wanton greed and terrible poverty were often irrevocably bound to one another, and he argued vehemently for the closing of the separation between classes. More’s Utopia, of course, has never been achieved; perhaps it never will be achieved – nor should ever be sought. But this comment on European society, in his time, reflects the great challenges that have faced societies throughout history.
Tensions born of moral struggles – between power and equality; between work for survival and work to acquire luxury; between creative, joyful leisure and laziness; between the actual and the ideal – these are basic issues for our time and for all times. And More’s Utopia embraces and attempts to clarify them all.