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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.