Utopia has become accepted language for a perfect society. The term originated from the work by Sir Thomas More that described the fictional country of Utopia. More's vision of the perfect society was one in which a communist economic system was followed and religious tolerance was practiced (with certain caveats of course, such as a person cannot believe in no deity at all). The idea of individualism is virtually nonexistant in this society, which leads me to believe that no matter how idyllic life in this country was, I would never be happy in it, and it is very easy to see how easily the country could be seen as a dystopia.

An online, web-based game, found at http://games.swirve.com/utopia/ - easily one of the more addictive online games around.

You get to run a province in a medieval kingdom, a choice of 8 races, various buildings to build, various military types based on race, wizard spells, thieves and thievery ... and you get dumped in a kingdom of 25 provinces, controlled by other human players with whom you must cooperate. There's 25 provinces per kingdom, 50 kingdoms per island and about 50 islands in the game, making for a LOT of players. real fun.

When Sir Thomas Moore coined the term in his book of the same name, he created the word from the greeek Ou, "not" or "no", and topos, "place". Thus "utopia" originally meant "Nonexistant Place" or "Nowhere".

However, due to the idealized nature of Moore's Utopia, it became a common misconception that the word was formed from Eu, "good", and topos, and thus meant "Good Place". The latter meaning stuck, and has become the primary meaning of the word.

Todd Rungren's mid-to-late 70s art-rock band. Members include such studio greats as drummer John "Willie" Wilcox, and keyboardist Roger Powell, as well as unknowns like Kasim Sulton. IMNSHO, their best album was titled "RA", and had a weird middle/far-eastern theme. Lots of Egyptian references, and some other not-so-artsy-conceptual stuff, like a song titled Hiroshima. Good music, if not very strange.

An index to Thomas More's Utopia.

Utopia, the name given to Sir Thomas More to the imaginary island which he makes the scene of his famous political romance "The Ideal Republic, which is the New Island of Utopia." More represents this island as has having been discovered by Raphael Hythloday, a companion of Amerigo Vespucci, but it of course is England, the capital Amaurote, London. Its laws and institutions are represented as described in one afternoon's talk at Antwerp, occupying the whole of the second book, to which, indeed, the first serves but as a framework. More's romance, or rather satire, obtained a wide popularity, and supplied (though incorrectly enough) the epithet Utopian to all impracticable schemes for the improvement of society.

Entry from Everybody's Cyclopedia, 1912.

Being a detailed discussion of whether or not Thomas More's Utopia is in fact an ideal society at all; and being more useful to those with some knowledge of the text than the layman, who should consult one of the above writeups first, though not the 'Everybody'sCyclopaedia' one, since it be full of inaccuracies, the most glaring of which is the assertion that Utopia represents England. But still perhaps being of some interest to those who have not read the book, as an introduction to the kind of thing one may expect to encounter. And being also my first noded univeristy homework. Ooh!

Written with reference to Ralph Robinson's first translation from the Latin; there is a more accesible and excellent modern version available in Penguin, translated by Paul Turner.

When compared with 16th century Europe, Utopia may very well initially appear to be a direct successor to Plato’s republic. It is a harmoniously organised little nation, a society where everyone has a role to play and everyone embraces this role fully. Utopia never goes to war unless it has to; Utopia knows the absurdity of the superficial; Utopia runs like clockwork. Utopians are delighted to be living in ‘the best state of a commonwealth’ on earth. Compared to a Western world which was in the middle of an era of absolutist monarchy in which kings would attack each other for little reason beyond la gloire and a base desire for expansion for its own sake, Utopia might very well have seemed like a haven of reason and calm.

Equally, it is important not to impose twenty-first century values on to a sixteenth century text. We may feel a certain revulsion at the use of slavery as a form of punishment, for example, or consider the supposedly liberal allowance of religious toleration so long as

no man should conceive so vile and base an opinion of the dignity of man’s nature as to think that the souls do die and perish with the body, or that the world runneth at all adventures, governed by no divine providence
no kind of toleration at all. But by sixteenth century standards, slavery is not at all outlandish, and still widespread in, for example, Russia, whilst serfdom in More’s homeland was essentially the same thing; and in a climate of religious hatred - a climate such that More himself had proudly engraved on his tombstone ‘burner of heretics’ - any form of toleration was a fairly remarkable concept. Similarly, laughing at ‘fools’ - in this context, the mentally disabled - would be acceptable in very few parts of modern western society, but would have not been anything out of the ordinary in 1516.

The context in which this text must be taken, then, is one of 16th century Christian values. More was a man who died for his faith; it is safe to say that he took it seriously. If Utopia is seriously divergent from the kind of values which he would have held dear it is impossible that it can be meant to be taken as a straightforward manifesto for a better kind of society towards which Europe should aspire.

But then there is the problem of deciding what those values were. By most Christian standards of the era, the idea of euthanasia would be an abomination, a terrible crime against God; but the passage advocating it in Utopia does not appear in the slightest ironic, and it is conceivable that More’s biblical interpretation allowed him to diverge from the mainstream of Christianity on this issue. Then again, it is also arguable, given More’s insistence, for example, that the King could not divorce Catherine of Aragon, that he was a man of theological traditionalism, and that his advocacy of euthanasia is strong evidence that he did not intend his work to be taken entirely seriously.

There is further evidence for such a case. The custom of

showing the woman, be she maid or widow, naked to the wooer
seems utterly at odds with his other beliefs (even if the surely apocryphal tale of something similar happening in his own house is to be believed) and certainly not seriously intended. In the same way, for a man who wore a hair-shirt and believed strongly in self-denial to suggest, even with qualifications, that
nature proscribeth to us a joyful life, that is to say, pleasure, as the end of all our operations
is at the very least surprising.

The strongest piece of evidence, perhaps, in this direction, is More’s (admittedly limited) allowance of divorce: if

it chanceth whereas the man and woman cannot well agree between themselves, both of them finding other, with whom they hope to live more quietly and merrily, that they by the full consent of them both be divorced asunder and married again to other.

This is remarkable. Here is a man who was executed, ultimately, for his refusal to sanction a divorce and thus acknowledge the fallibility of the pope, suggesting that divorce is within the scope of the morally acceptable.

There may be a kind of qualification here. If More’s discomfort at the idea of Henry divorcing Catherine was rooted entirely in the fact that to do so would be to admit that the leader of the Catholic church was not infallible then it might be argued that, since Utopian divorce would be outside of the pope’s jurisdiction, it would be allowable. (Also, of course, Utopia was written before this issue arose: it is possible that More’s views hardened.) Nevertheless, this is a subtle distinction, and surely not one that More could have been confident of his audience making. Superficially, it looks like a contradiction.

Though some of these points are persuasive, they are probably not enough to convince the reader that More’s work is not intended to be instructive. There are very many aspects of the society of Utopia which would certainly have seemed attractive to More, and to many contemporary readers; there are many aspects, too, which may attract the modern reader just as much. Utopian leaders are incorruptible; Utopians are pacifistic except in the last resort; Utopians live in genuine communities; Utopians very rarely commit crime, because they have no need to; Utopians respect all law-abiding members of society (except, of course, for the mentally disabled, a rather less attractive trait).

We are left, then, with an apparent contradiction. It is highly unlikely that More’s vision of a perfect England, or other European country, would precisely mirror Utopia; but he certainly intends it to be a kind of successor to Plato’s Republic, and also believes that the residents of Utopia would be happy. Probably, too, More genuinely believes in the form of communism which he advocates. (Again, it is important to avoid bringing a modern sensibility too much to bear here: our view of practical communism must inevitably be coloured by the experiments of the past century.)

It may be instructive to consider Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It is an occasional misreading of this work to argue that the last book, the voyage to the land of the Houyhnhnms, is a recommendation of how human beings ought to live. Similarly, a more common misreading, perhaps closer to reality, exists: this suggests that in fact, Swift, as well as mocking Gulliver, is mocking those who would try to perfect human nature, and considers the whole pursuit of self-improvement absurd. Rather than either of these extremes, a middle point is surely more accurate: Swift recognises the impossibility of humans behaving perfectly reasonably, and considers it the utmost folly to attempt to deny their ‘Yahoo’ nature; but at the same time, he advocates the use of reason as far as possible, and is certainly closer to the Houyhnhnms in his sympathies than he is to the brutal, animalistic Yahoos.

Similarly, there is a more balanced view about Utopia. Utopia is not a perfect republic by any means, and it is certainly not intended to form a manifesto for a new kind of society. But it is in powerful contrast with the flaws of European nations. In feudal Europe social justice of any kind was nothing more than a fantasy, in Europe a very few lived extremely well and the vast majority lived in squalor; in Utopia society is absolutely equal, to the extent that those with extraordinary talents are no more rewarded than those with almost none. From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs: this old socialist ideal seems to be obeyed to the letter in Utopia. But given More was a successful man who had taken advantage of his gifts to become a man of great repute, it seems unlikely that he was an absolute communist in this sense. Rather, he looked at the deeply unequal European system and, in order to emphasise its flaws, made Utopia the absolute opposite. Thus, Utopia is a work designed to offer one way of living which, whilst not ideal or even possible, is important simply as an alternative which points out some of the failings of the culture in which he lived.

Let us not forget, too, that More was a true scholar, a man who, we may reasonably assume, was interested in ideas for their own sake. There is a sense in which we do not need to consider Utopia in any kind of context at all, but can see it simply as a fascinating document of an imaginary civilisation, one which is interesting because it is extraordinarily well described, both in depth and in breadth. Utopia is quite capable of standing on its own as a work of art irrespective of any role as satire, manifesto, or judgement.

Nevertheless, we should not feel that our own response to Utopia is any the less valid because we view it through a twenty-first century prism. It does seem that Utopia is a society which any modern reader would be hard-pressed to argue is truly ‘ideal’.

As Stephen Greenblatt suggests, Utopia is a society in which citizens are offered a freedom which is gradually qualified and qualified and qualified until it is not really a freedom at all. Religious toleration exists, so long as you don’t want to be irreligious. You may travel wherever you please, so long as you get permission, and so long as your family don’t mind, and so long as you don’t mind that you may not eat until you have done half a day’s work. You may consider yourself an equal of all, except that women beg their husbands’ forgiveness for their sins, and old men are served before young at table, and dignitaries get the best food of all. You may train for more than one job, and, once trained, may do whichever of them you please, except when one of them is more necessary than the other. You are quite free to hold political opinions, except that the penalty for discussing affairs of state away from the ‘senate’ is death.

If Utopia were a gangster, it wouldn’t tell you to hand over your money or face the consequences: it would tell you that, whilst you are quite free to do as you wish with your money, if you hand it over Utopia will make sure that nothing bad happens to you, but won’t be held responsible for the consequences if you don’t. It is an insidious kind of tyranny which works by persuading the people that it is all for their own good, and proceeds almost to enslave them to the state and remove as many elements of choice as possible. Even if, in a century in which such tyranny would have seemed almost normal, More is not himself making a moral judgement against such behaviour - and it seems that he is not, for his namesake narrator’s qualification that ‘many things came to my mind which in the manners and laws of that people seemed to be instituted and founded of no good reason’ is hardly a damning indictment - we may do so, and consider much of the Utopian system abhorrent. And Shakespeare, less than a hundred years later, understood that a system which allows no flourish, no splendour, and, ultimately, no beauty, could never be a spiritually rich one: Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man's life's as cheap as beast's, cries King Lear, and it is hard not to agree with him.

Whilst such concerns about freedom might seem absurd to a contemporary serf, to a modern reader the limitations placed upon the Utopian people would be anathema. And many of the minor points which More makes seem utterly barbaric in modern times, and often hypocritical; they are too numerous to list exhaustively, but, for example, the nation which prides itself on the value it places on its citizens’ lives believes that they should do a very good thing for all mankind if they could rid out of the world all that foul stinking den of that most wicked and cursed people (the Zapoletes); the nation that prides itself on justice believes that execution is a reasonable reprisal for adultery; the nation that prides itself on religious toleration warns that any who do not quickly repent after excommunication be taken and punished (physically) of the council as wicked and irreligious.

Again, ambiguities arise. We cannot really know what More really thinks. As well as the layers of uncertainty already referred to, there is the question of the narrator’s identity, of whether More is really the man who says very little but remains sceptical, or if he is in fact the man whose name means ‘Nonsense’ but who speaks persuasively and at length. Who Thomas More is in this work is a mystery.

Ultimately, though, it is not necessary to resolve this ambiguity. It is one of the great pleasures of Utopia that we are never quite certain of what the author intends; he may not even know himself. The book is no less successful for being complex and contradictory and hard to fit into a box; in fact, it is more so. More, like Walt Whitman, contains multitudes.

Before writing this I read an excellent essay by one Stephen Greenblatt called 'At the table of the great'; but the ideas are my own except in the instance where his name is mentioned.

The Utopia is a model of perfection (as well as an engaging literary genre, the term having been constructed by Sir Thomas More), but it’s not that simple as this perfection could entail any of the following definitions:

  • Lacking nothing essential to the whole.
  • Being without blemish or defect.
  • Completely suited to a particular area, purpose, situation or subject.
  • Pure and undiluted.
  • What sense of the word ‘perfect’ are we using when we conceptualise a ‘perfect world’? In my view we are attempting to establish something absolute, with no flaws of any kind. At the risk of pedantry, the defining feature of a Utopian society is ‘ideal (the greatest extent of) perfection’ as described below. Most of the following are based on the premise that we must either:
    a) Re-sculpt or otherwise alter our surroundings to attain a fixed physical perfection, or
    b) Alter ourselves individually in order to change our perception of perfection.
    Please note that we are discussing creating a reality which is perfect for us as a species, or perhaps even ‘us’ as an exclusive ideology. Obviously this is an oversight in many instances, and very few of the following assume that the reality we sculpt will be to our desires only.

    Firstly, it must invariably be accepted that human beings as individuals are, just as humankind as a whole is, inherently imperfect. This is true in that we all could be improved in some manner - the majority of definitions support this anyway. Perhaps, though, we are merely discussing perfection in terms of being an adequate component of a whole, although this seems to do poor service to the concept of perfection and to the unfathomable nature of utopias. Utopias are contemporarily understood as being ‘perfect’ in the sense that improvements are impossible, inextricable from the recognition that this type of perfection is a mere flight of fancy. I would like to opine that we are either incapable of conceiving of perfection or of recognising it were we to see it, although this opinion rests upon the same basis of evidence as any other - none.

    Utopias presumably meet every need of every individual within the society. While material subjugation and the creation of economic caste systems exist, equality (which is not necessarily synonymous with the meeting of needs, but often helps a great deal) is a fiction, which means that an unequal balance of power cannot spawn or govern perfection, if this perfection is to be based on consensus. If a central agent (a computer, say, or an oligarchy composed of the intellectual elite) is responsible for all decisions instead, it cannot be expected to account for the variables involved with each individual identity, nor even to care. There is debate as to what constitutes a need (an extremity of desire, really, albeit usually survival-oriented) and these are likely to vary between individuals. Unless a single entity can be formed from the collective consciousness of everyone, the system will fail someone at some point. Besides, a conglomerate entity is not really a society.

    Humankind does not merely accept - it conquers. Each individual has perspectives at odds with the majority of society, which we are engineered to express as action. We change our surroundings - it’s the reason why we’ve survived. How to nullify this selfish impulse? That’s the paradox: the survival instinct is a fatal flaw in the construction of ‘perfection’. Well, granted, there is a community impulse in the human makeup, but it’s a community which thrives on competition and disparity. This does not disqualify it from utopian status. Suppose for a moment that prevention of selfish behaviour (especially expression in physical violence) is no longer considered necessary for a perfect society or is rendered irrelevant by separation from one’s fellows. You could remove the above point if we accept Plato’s model which states that subjection of the masses is a natural thing, although there is no evidence to suggest that such a system has any merit - the main problem is, once again, individual difference.

    If we must alter ourselves (with a chemical, say, or false stimuli - yes, I do recall the Matrix) then we must first create a self-perpetuating system which can ensure the maintenance of this illusion. We do not know how to create self-sustaining machines which can be entirely relied upon, nor (in my opinion) would we accept the subversion of our senses so readily. There is always the fear of incompatibility or technical fault. This seems to hearken back to the survival instinct which urges us to trust only what we can personally detect. Suppose we transcend biology and manage to immerse ourselves in constant pleasure - there is a limit to our threshold of experience, even if we assume that it can be maintained constantly without internal destruction.

    Maybe utopia will never see a terrestrial incarnation. I find it highly unlikely that all the necessary pieces will fall into place themselves, and as a species we have an abundance of examples as to how social engineering can go terribly wrong.

    Thomas More’s book Utopia, while notoriously hard to characterize, is nonetheless a product of its time. It addresses the concerns of More and his humanist contemporaries in both style and content, and is also in part a critique of European government and politics. This is most clear in book one, in which Raphael Hythloday describes a debate he had with a lawyer, and sets forth ideals of justice and communism. I will focus on this first book of Utopia in this analysis, but will also refer to the second book and to writings about Utopia by various scholars.

    Utopia was written in the form of a dialogue, a return to classical style. This is one of several traits that exhibit its foundations in humanism. Like other humanists, More rejected the logical, carefully structured Latin of much of academia and wrote in a manner more reminiscent of classical Roman writers. Peter Giles described the work as “preserving a pure Latin style,” but the resulting feel is also one that can be described by Robert M. Adams as “simple, conversational, and everyday.”

    The dialogue form of Utopia also shows the particular influence of the works of Plato on More’s book. Plato is mentioned no fewer than six times in book one alone, and More seems to regard Plato’s Republic as the prototypical predecessor to his own work. Giles described Utopia as “going far beyond Plato’s Republic,” so he too must have seen a connection between the two. The Republic had only recently been translated into Latin when More wrote Utopia, so it was a novel source of ideas for late medieval thinkers.

    The humanist endeavor that led to the translation of the Republic also led to new trends in intellectualism. There is evidence of this change in intellectual paths in the text itself in the form of More’s central character, Raphael Hythloday. Raphael, a philosopher and intellectual, “knows a good deal of Latin, and is particularly learned in Greek,” the latter a language little studied in Western Europe before the humanist movement. Raphael seems to be strongly attracted to this humanist enterprise, and is particularly interested in ancient Greek philosophy. Indeed, Raphael seems to represent an ideal of humanism: a scholar and explorer, not only studying the knowledge of the ancients, but traveling and discovering new things for himself. Raphael also resembles many great real-life scholars of his time in that he abandoned an inherited position of nobility in favor of his quest for knowledge.

    At this point in Raphael’s life, though, another distinctly 16th century influence came into play. Raphael travelled with Amerigo Vespucci on three of his four voyages. Tales of Vespucci’s voyages were very widely read at this time, and More’s references to the New World within his own story take advantage of it being a subject of much interest. The basic narrative construction of Utopia, particularly in book two, relies on there being places in the world about which very little is known, and in which explorers are constantly finding new and unusual things. “Nowadays we find all sorts of lands turning up which the old geographers never mentioned,” wrote Giles, in a letter which treats the work as a genuine account. The genre of traveler’s tales, of which Vespucci’s writings were part, was a popular one, but More’s work took the genre in a different direction, mildly mocking it at the same time. “We made no inquiries, however, about monsters, which are the routine of traveler’s tales,” he wrote. “Governments solidly established and sensibly ruled are not so common.” This fantastic quality of traveler’s tales, and Vespucci’s stories in particular, allowed More to write in a very imaginative way without departing from the established genre.

    At the same time, More’s story deals with issues of practical importance during a period of great exploration. One of the most essential of these is religious conversion. The voyages of Christopher Columbus and other Europeans were greatly influenced by a desire to spread Christianity, and to either convert or kill those not of what they believed to be the one true faith. More’s fictional explorers behave somewhat differently from this, teaching Christianity to some of their hosts but not publicly preaching. Indeed, one of the Utopians who converted to Christianity “took on himself to preach the Christian religion publicly” and was exiled for “creating a public disorder.” Had these events happened to real European explorers, they probably would have responded violently, but Raphael and his comrades accepted the sovereignty of the Utopian government and took their coreligionist’s exile as the end of the matter.

    It seems from this text that More was opposed to the religious violence that took place in the New World in the name of Christianity; while against heresy and by no means religiously tolerant at home, he imagined things functioning differently in this new, unexplored territory. More even goes so far as to state that the founder of Utopia, Utopus, “suspected that God perhaps likes various forms of worship and has therefore deliberately inspired different people with different views.” Though it does not seem that More lived his life according to these principles, they still reflect in an interesting way the time in which he lived. In some earlier periods in history, Europeans had little contact with non-Christians. In these times, it would have been difficult to even imagine people having different views, let alone God liking and respecting their worship.

    Raphael also talks about domestic politics, addressing issues such as the proper punishment for theft. He argues strongly that thieves should not be executed, as they were in England in More’s day. Here More again uses to his advantage the fact that much of the world was little known by Europeans of his time, and describes the Polylerites, a people near Persia who have a very different and more humane way of punishing thieves.

    Both the Polylerites and the Utopians serve to make the point that it is possible for a society to be more just than that of Christian Europe. Indeed, More’s depiction of Utopia emphasizes the similarities between Christian ideals and Utopian life, and thus implies that Europe is not living up to the ideals set for it by Christ. When Utopians convert to Christianity, he suggests that “they were also much influenced by the fact that Christ had encouraged his disciples to practice community of goods,” an ideal which the Utopians themselves had already realized.

    The communism More describes in Utopia was actually much related to the ideals of Protestants whom he despised, and was thus fitting to its time, though not necessarily to its author. It seems that, though More later condemned communism as a heresy, he argues for greater equality of wealth too well not to believe in it at all. He has Raphael say that “as long as you have private property, and as long as cash money is the measure of all things, it is not really possible for a nation to be governed justly or happily.” Throughout this conversation, though, More uses the dialogue form to leave it unclear what view he himself agrees with.

    In C.S. Lewis’ writing on the subject, he concludes that More’s later enmity toward communism (and to some degree toward his own book) was a reaction to outside threats to More’s ideals. He compares this to how “any of us might now make criticisms of democracy which we would not repeat in the hour of its danger.” Lewis’ words are reprinted from a book published in 1954, and it is notable that in the 50 years since Western democracy has twice reached what might be regarded as an “hour of its danger,” and both times has reacted as More did.

    Americans have recently become less tolerant of skepticism about government policy, as we did during the Cold War. Those who would normally question authority freely and openly now restrain themselves or are restrained by others. Similarly, More was in favor of the intellectual discourse his book generated when it was not threatening to Catholicism, but eventually defended his religion when it was truly threatened, and did so at the expense of his other intellectual values. In the light of the Western response, and particularly the American response, to the threats given the reductionist terms communism and terrorism, More’s reaction to Protestantism becomes more clear.

    The essence of Utopia, then, is that it is a place where people can live without the political and religious struggles of More’s day, or indeed any such substantive troubles. There are two ironies to this. One is that More was more engaged in these struggles than nearly anyone else of his time, and probably would not have wanted to live in Utopia, detached from conflict. The other is that Utopia, an impossible, idealized “nowhere,” is actually a reflection of the very real problems of its time.

    Works Cited

    • Thomas More, Utopia, translated and edited by Robert M. Adams (New York: Norton, 1991).

    The above-listed edition of Utopia includes all referenced essays and commentary.


    More's Utopia started a literary genre, that of utopian writing - books describing idyllic commonwealths which could not exist on earth. However, it also continues an earlier philosophical genre which was started by Plato in The Republic - describing an ideal state which represents the best way to solve the problems of human society in the mind of the author. The book is a discussion between a man called Raphael Hythloday, who is describing the institutions and customs of a people who he claims to have encountered on the island of Utopia ('Nowhere' in Greek, also 'Eutopia' would be 'happy place') and two other men, Thomas More and Peter Giles. Hythloday claims the Utopians have utterly rid themselves of ambition and faction through an egalitarian social system and religious tolerance.

    Reading the book

    It is a common belief that More's Utopia should be seen alongside Plato's Republic as a piece of 'ideal commonwealth' literature, providing a model for the best (if not the only) way to solve the problems of human society, in this case a Christian one.1 This view is born out by the fact More chooses to preface both books of Utopia with the subtitle 'The Discourse Of Raphael Hythloday On The Best State Of A Commonwealth'.2 It shares with the works of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero discussions about the merits of the active vs. the contemplative life, a discussion of individual morals, a discussion of how to establish a just social order (including the issue of property distribution) and even a discussion of the music appropriate to the ideal commonwealth.

    The existence of multiple characters in the work allows More to present different points of view, and the work ends in irresolution, leaving doubt as to which parts are intended to be ironic. Unlike in most of Plato, the other characters do not exist purely to raise spurious objections which are eventually demolished. Hythloday's discourse on the Utopian commonwealth, and his preference for contemplation over the active life, does not escape criticism from the book's other characters, including the fictional 'More' who is depicted as a practical man of politics.

    Hence, Hythloday's arguments as to why the Utopians have 'torn up the seeds of ambition and faction at home' cannot be taken as a full representation of More's views, especially as just after Hythloday has made this statement the book is ended with the fictional More’s reservations.3 A detailed analysis will perhaps show that the ultimate reason for the Utopians having established the best commonwealth, of which the destruction of ambition and faction is a part, is their single-minded devotion to rational change and progress, something entrenched social classes would resist if it threatened their position.

    Civil matters

    Hythloday's critique of Christendom in Utopia contains two strands, one civil and one religious. While it is true that the main focus of the work is on secular matters, the critique of contemporary Christianity which resides in the description of the religious practices of the Utopians is another important side to the work. Both concern matters of faction and ambition, which are products of what Hythloday describes as 'the prime plague and begetter of all others – I mean Pride'.4 The most striking secular suggestion in Utopia is an endorsement of the Platonic position on the equality of all property among all citizens in the commonwealth (something Plato did not specifically recommend, as he neglected to say whether the communality of property in his own Republic extended beyond the Guardians), and the associated absence of money.

    Hythloday argues that gradations of wealth and property created people 'mad with delight over their own blue blood' who are in fact just parasites on society.5 Not only are these people not living a virtuous life, they harm the commonwealth through their ambition for as much money and fame as possible, when their accumulation of such things only harms the common person who must work and suffer for them: such is the basis of the critique of enclosure and engrossment in Book 1. The creation of a society in which all have equal amounts of property and gold is held in low regard does away with such problems, as although no-one is poor no-one is spectacularly rich either.

    Skinner has argued that More is here making a wholehearted endorsement of this communal way of life, and that the idealism of More's work consists in the argument that 'if private property is the cause of our present discontents', it 'will have to be abolished'.6 The Utopians' abolition of faction and ambition in secular matters would hence reside purely in their abolition of private property, which begets the sin of Pride. The communal way of life has Scriptural endorsement, as the early Christians in Acts also 'had everything in common'.7 In this interpretation, Hythloday is straightforwardly arguing that the abolition of private property has led to the abolition of faction and ambition, and he also stresses that the Utopian liking for Christianity is based on their admiration for its communal way of life, which exists in Christendom only in the monasteries.

    However, the fictional More's objection to this practice at the end of Utopia might point to a subtler meaning. Bradshaw has contended with Skinner whether this is the end-point of the book's argument, as the reservations listed by More at the end of the book include arguments against other parts of the Utopian system which cannot be dismissed as ironic. A deeper meaning is discerned if we note that both books end with the same polemic against the stagnant nature of Christendom, by suggesting that the true genius of the Utopians lies in their acceptance of any new practice which reason recommends to them. Book I ends with Hythloday stating that 'this readiness to learn is, I think, the really important reason for their being better governed and living more happily than we do, though we are not inferior to them in brains or resources.'8

    It is hence the concern with education and learning, shared by humanists in More’s circle, which has allowed the Utopians to abolish faction and ambition: for each citizen puts the commonwealth first, and as they own nothing they do not fear losing their property when society needs to change.

    Religion In religious matters, the Utopians have also abolished both the faction of sectionalism and the ambition of the priesthood. When Utopus first arrived on the island, he was able to conquer it easily due to the fighting between various religious groups. Afterwards, he prescribed a law whereby no-one could fight about religion and any form of worship of the Supreme Being was allowed, as he saw peace was 'completely undermined by constant quarrels and implacable hatreds' relating to religion.9 Religious services were kept united as public services only led worship in ways which were offensive to none of the religious groups, and extra ceremonies could be performed in private buildings.

    More, like other Christian humanists, seems to be taking the stress of Christianity away from ritual, dogma and ceremony and placing virtuous action at its centre. The Utopians are the most virtuous of pagans, and when they hear the word of Christ by being exposed to the Bible some choose to convert. Hythloday points out that they endorse the Stoic position on the definition of virtue, in that they 'define virtue as living according to nature; and God, they say, created us to that end'.10 However, their aim in seeking virtue is the Epicurean one, which was that in pleasure ‘all or the most important part of human happiness consists’ – hence they seek the virtues for pleasure, not as ends in themselves.11

    Their definition of virtue means that their religion leads them to live virtuously and without egoism or faction, and More is trying to make the point that the Scripture and right reason lead people to arrive at the same conclusion, which is why the Utopians have no trouble adopting Christianity. As for the end of virtue, Hythloday argues that they are 'rather too much inclined' to the preference for pleasure – a rare criticism by him of Utopian culture, and a vice of theirs which perhaps would pass away if they adopted Christianity.


    The Utopians can hence be seen as having torn up the seeds of ambition and faction by having civic and religious institutions which regard the greater good rather than individual advancement. They are bound together by institutions which serve not individual parasitical elements like the courtiers in Book 1 who prescribe pragmatic but immoral policies, or moneylenders or goldsmiths who do not serve a productive purpose, but rather the whole commonwealth. This is why Hythloday argues that it is the only 'commonwealth' that deserves the name, because it alone exists solely for the common weal. The island has no executive ruling over it but rather a council of citizens.

    United in their observance of natural law and educated in such by the priests, the Utopians do not need masses of laws to restrain them from immoral activity, as their fear of God and communal spirit is enough. The abolition of property and money has abolished pride, which takes with it the striving for power and money which constitutes faction. This has provided the Utopians with stable institutions which can withstand change when it is rationally desirable, and also ones which More is suggesting are compatible with Christianity.

    Hythloday the philosopher endorses the measures taken to abolish faction and ambition, but the practical politician More ends the piece by echoing the Aristotelian position that such levelling could destroy the basis of authority and society itself. Although this fundamental dichotomy is left unresolved, More ends the book by saying that Utopian institutions contain features he would 'wish rather than expect to see' in European Christendom.12 Hence both More and the Utopians agree on the idea of rationally advancing and reforming society towards goals, however varying the content of these goals may be.

    1.For instance, B. Bradshaw, 'More on Utopia', Historical Journal (1981), pp. 18 - 27
    2. Thomas More, Utopia, trans. G.M. Logan and R.M. Adams (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 8, 41
    3. Ibid., pp. 106 - 7
    4. Ibid., p. 106
    5. Ibid., p. 69
    6. Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Vol. 1: the Renaissance (Cambridge, 1978), p. 262
    7. Acts 2:44
    8. More, op. cit., p. 40
    9. Ibid., pp. 94 - 5
    10. Ibid., p. 67
    11. Ibid., p. 65
    12. Ibid., p. 107

    U*to"pi*a (?), n. [NL., fr. Gr. not + a place.]


    An imaginary island, represented by Sir Thomas More, in a work called Utopia, as enjoying the greatest perfection in politics, laws, and the like. See Utopia, in the Dictionary of Noted Names in Fiction.


    Hence, any place or state of ideal perfection.


    © Webster 1913.

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