Utopiaby Thomas More (1478-1535)Type of Work:Social and philosophical commentarySettingAntwerp; early sixteenth centuryPrincipal CharactersSir Thomas More, emissary for Henry VIIIPeter Giles, More’s friendRaphael Hythloday, world traveler andwitness to UtopiaBook OverveiwThomas More toured Antwerp on a diplomaticmission for his king, Henry VIII. There, More’s friend, Peter Giles, introducedthe young ambassador to Raphael Hythloday, an educated sailor who had seenmuch of the world while voyaging with Amerigo Vespucci. The three of themconvened in a garden so that More could question this learned and experiencedman. More and Giles both wondered why a man of such wisdom and statureas Raphael had not entered into a king’s service.
Raphael scoffed at theidea: “The councilors of kings are so wise that they need no advice fromothers (or at least so it seems to themselves).” Moreover, Raphael opinedthat most councilors merely bowed to the king’s inclinations and were moreconcerned with maintaining favor than with offering impartial and wiseadvice.Raphael also believed that the averageking possessed different goals than he himself had; that “most princesapply themselves to warlike pursuits,” whereas he had no interest or skillin the acquisition of riches or territory. Raphael asked Giles and Moreto imagine him before a king, cautioning him that “wars would throw wholenations into chaos, would exhaust the King’s treasury and destroy his ownpeople, and that a prince should take more care of his people’s happinessthan of his own.
” How receptive would the king be to that kind of advice?More asked Raphael if he had ever beento England; the traveler replied that he had, and then proceeded to relatea 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 highincidence of theft in England, he claimed, was attributable to the increasedsheepherding by wealthy landowners.
This new industry had forced the poorerfarmers off their land while at the same time boosting the price of goodsand 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, butit is really neither just nor expedient.” In his view, English societywas “first making people thieves and then punishing them for it.”Another of Raphael’s complaints was thatmany English noblemen, along with their entourages of lazy friends, “liveidly like drones and subsist on the labor of their tenants.
” Such “wantonluxury” only exacerbated the poverty of the common people.While More and Giles could understand thejustice in Raphael’s social criticisms, they were still unable to understandwhy he would not helprescue society by offering his higher wisdom in thepolitical arena. Raphael replied:As long as there is private property andwhile money is the standard of all things, I do not think that a nationcan be governed either justly or happily ..
.. Unless private property isentirely done away with, there can be no fair distribution of goods, norcan the world be happily governed.Neither More nor Giles believed that thisprerequisite to peace would ever be possible to attain. Raphael was notsurprised by their scoffs, but averred that had they traveled with himon the island haven of Utopia, there they would have seen a truly orderly,peaceful society. The two Englishmen then prevailed on Raphael to acquaintthem, after their meal, with all the customs and institutions of the Utopians.
Dinner completed, Raphael began his descriptivetour: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, menand women alike, work at agriculture.” Additionally, everyone worked ata trade of his own choosing, provided the trade proved useful to society.Although every citizen was required to work, each labored only six hoursout of twenty-four. While to many such liberal conditions might seem untenable,Raphael pointed out that “the actual number of workers who supply the needsof 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 orher mind.Food on the island was distributed equally,with the sick tended to first.
The rest of the population ate togetherin vast communal halls. If the people harvested or produced any surplusgoods, these were shared with neighboring nations who might be sufferingfrom plague or famine, or else used in trade. The Utopians imported nothingthemselves, but traded only for the wherewithal to hire mercenaries intimes of war. Rather than store their precious metals in vaults, Utopiansused gold and silver to make chamber pots and stools, and “for the chainsand fetters of their bondsmen.” In this way the citizenry held gold andsilver “up to scorn in every way.” Idling was despised and never tolerated.No gambling was allowed and there existed no brothels or taverns in whichUtopians might while away their time.
When Utopia’s inhabitants were notworking, they were expected to pursue worthwhile activities such as readingand learning, or, if they preferred, to practice their trades. Anyone whoproved especially adept at learning was allowed to forego physical laborin order to pursue scholarly work.Utopia’s laws encompassed “no fixed.
..penalties, but the senate persons elected by the citizenry fixed thepunishment according to the wickedness of the crime.” Serious crimes werepunished 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 wasfreed. The islanders believed that bondage, as a form of punishment, was”more beneficial to the commonwealth,” and that the sight of bondage “longerdeters other men from similar crimes.”Nothing in Utopia was “so inglorious asthe glory won in war.
” The community would “go to war cautiously and reluctantly,”entering into combat for two reasons only: either “to protect their ownterritory or that of their friends … or to free some wretched peoplefrom tyrannous oppression.
” For the most part, when war was deemed necessarythey hired mercenaries to do the fighting. If the mercenaries were defeated,then Utopians (men and women alike) would take up arms. In victory, theywere “more ready to take prisoners than to make a great slaughter.”In all, Raphael was convinced that Utopiansociety was far superior to any other he had observed.
He added particularsconcerning Utopian marriage customs (prospective spouses were advised tosee each other naked before they were wed, so that each would possess afull knowledge of what he or she was getting), fashion (all dressed insimple attire “fit both for winter and summer, to correspond to their genderand marital status), religious observances, foreign relations, health practices,and rules of the marketplace – each aspect of the island society havingas its aim to make life better for everyone. In Raphael’s opinion, Utopiawas the only commonwealth which could accurately be called a “commonwealth”,-all citizens there were treated equally and given equal opportunities andpossessions: “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 “manythings in the Utopian Commonwealth he wished ..
. to see followed amonghis citizens.”CommentaryThe term “Utopia” has come to mean anidyllic, visionary Shang-ri-la type of community. However, when More derivedthe term from the Greek, it literally meant “nowhere.” In essence, bothare correct: Utopia can represent both a mythical, impossible retreat anda great guiding social ideal.Much of More’s book was extracted fromand influenced by the Bible, especially from the “Christian Humanists”biblical interpretations that formed a vanguard of social criticism inhis time.
Along with Erasmus, another humanist philosopher, More yearnedto change his world for the better. He saw that wanton greed and terriblepoverty were often irrevocably bound to one another, and he argued vehementlyfor the closing of the separation between classes.More’s Utopia, of course, has never beenachieved; perhaps it never will be achieved – nor should ever be sought.
But this comment on European society, in his time, reflects the great challengesthat have faced societies throughout history. Tensions born of moral struggles- between power and equality; between work for survival and work to acquireluxury; between creative, joyful leisure and laziness; between the actualand the ideal – these are basic issues for our time and for all times.And More’s Utopia embraces and attempts to clarify them all.