How to make a better world in which to live has fascinated the minds of thinkers in every age. From Plato to the present, people have been thinking and writing about what the world would be like if people could create an earthly paradise. One of the most famous pieces of such thought and writing is Thomas More’s Utopia, a work so famous that its title has come to mean an ideal state. Originally written in Latin, the international language of medieval and Renaissance Europe, the book was widely read, and as early as 1551 a translation into English was made by Ralph Robinson, a London goldsmith.
The book is in two parts, with the second part (curiously enough) written first, in 1515, and the introductory half written in the following year. The book begins with a fictional frame story in which More tells how he traveled to Antwerp on a royal mission and there met Peter Giles, a worthy citizen of Antwerp, who in turn introduced him to Raphael Hythloday, whose name means in Greek “a talker of nonsense.”
Hythloday proves to be more than a mariner, for in his conversation he appears to More to be a man of ripe wisdom and rare experience. Hythloday was supposedly a companion of Amerigo Vespucci when that worthy was supposed to have made his voyages to America. It was on one of his voyages with Vespucci that Hythloday, according to his own account, discovered the fabled land of Utopia, somewhere in the oceans near the Western Hemisphere.
The first part of Utopia does not deal with the legendary island; rather, Hythloday visits England, converses with Cardinal Morton, and suggests to that churchman (who was Henry VII’s chancellor) some reforms that might benefit England. Among the reforms the fictional Hythloday suggests are the abolition of the death penalty for theft, the prevention of gambling, less dependence upon the raising of sheep for wool, discontinuance of use of mercenary soldiers, cheaper prices for all commodities, and an end to the enclosure of the common lands for the benefit of great and wealthy landlords. Although Cardinal Morton listens intently to Hythloday’s suggestions, a lawyer objects that Hythloday’s reforms cannot be undertaken and that they would not be deemed desirable by anyone who knows the history and customs of England.
In this first part of Utopia, More is pointing out some of the social and economic evils of sixteenth century European life. More than that, he is suggesting that only an outsider can see the faults with an objective eye. The introduction of the lawyer’s objections, which are cut short by Cardinal Morton, suggests also that More discerned in sixteenth century society persons who opposed reform and who had reasons—not necessarily edifying ones—for doing so. Part 1 of Utopia is More’s way of preparing the reader, through contrast, for the section in which his ideal realm is delineated.
In the second part, Hythloday expounds at length about the culture of the land of Utopia (Latin for “nowhere”), which he visited during his travels. Hythloday describes Utopia as an island kingdom that is crescent shaped and about five hundred miles in perimeter, separated from other lands by a channel constructed by its founder, the fabulous King Utopus, who saw that the Utopian experiment, if it were to succeed, must be isolated and protected from the encroachments of warlike and predatory neighbors. The island is divided into fifty-four shires, or counties, each with its own town, no town more than a day’s walking journey from its neighbors. The central city, Amaurote, is the capital, the...
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seat of the prince who is the island’s nominal ruler.
The government of Utopia is relatively simple and largely vested in older men, in patriarchal fashion. Each unit of thirty families is ruled by one man chosen by election every year. Each ten groups of families elects a member of the island council. This council in turn elects the prince, who serves throughout his lifetime unless deposed because of tyranny. The council meets every three days to take up matters of consequence to the people, and no decision is made on the same day the problem is advanced, lest undue haste cause mistakes.
It is not in government alone that More introduces suggestions for reform in his Utopia. In this ideal state everyone works, each man having a trade or craft, except the unusually talented, who are selected for training and service in the academy of learning. The workday is six hours long, with the time divided equally between the morning and the afternoon. Each man spends a two-year period working as a farmer in the shire outside the city in which he resides. Since everyone works, there is more than enough food and all other commodities for the inhabitants. All goods are community-owned, with each person guarding what is given him for the benefit of the commonwealth. The tastes of the people are simple; having enough individually, no one desires to have more than others. Even the prince of Utopia is designated only by the symbol of a sheaf of grain, a symbol of plenty. Each person is garbed in durable clothing of leather, linen, or wool. Jewelry is given to children to play with, so that everyone associates such baubles with childishness. Gold and silver are despised, being used for chamber pots, chains for slaves, and the marks of criminal conviction.
In the dialogue, More interjects some objections to the communal idea, but this is the only point on which he seems to have reservations. However, even on this point Hythloday’s answers to his objections satisfy him.
Violence, bloodshed, and vice, says Hythloday, have been done away with in Utopia. Lest bloodshed of any kind corrupt the people, slaves are required to slaughter the cattle. Dicing and other forms of gambling are unknown. The people choose instead to labor for recreation in their gardens, improve their homes, attend humanistic lectures, enjoy music, and converse profitably with one another. The sick are provided for in spacious hospitals erected in each quarter of each city. In the event of a painful and incurable illness, the priests consult with the patient and encourage him or her to choose death administered painlessly by the authorities. Although no one is required to do so, everyone eats in mess halls, where slaves prepare the meals under the supervision of the wives of the family group. At mealtime, young and old eat together, except for children under five, and enlightening, pleasant conversation is encouraged.
The Utopian criminal is enslaved, rather than put to death, as he was in sixteenth century England. Adultery is regarded as a crime and punished by slavery. Marriage for love is encouraged, but also prudence in selecting a mate. Males must be twenty-two and women eighteen before marriage is permitted. The welfare of the family is a state matter, since the family is the basic unit of the Utopian state. The people are anxious for the commonwealth to be rich, for the Utopians buy off their enemies and use their wealth to hire foreign mercenary soldiers; they hope in this manner to encourage potential enemies to murder one another instead of attacking Utopia.
The Utopians are described as a religious people who practice toleration, which was almost unknown in Tudor England. Some are Christians; others worship God in other ways. Atheism and militant sectarianism alike are forbidden.
If to a contemporary reader much of what More cites as an ideal to be reached seems not idealistic enough, then such a reaction may be considered a sign of great hope, in that people have improved over time and that they may continue to do so. Two additional points should be made in connection with More’s work. One is that his borrowings from Plato and other earlier authors did not prevent him from adding much that was his own in theory and practice. The second point is that, in the time since the writing of Utopia, some of the author’s ideas have been, in England and elsewhere, put into effect—unlikely as they may have appeared to his contemporaries. Human society may never come to the utopian ideal, but some credit should go to More for urging improvement in the human condition.