More’s Utopia

Book I: a dialogue on a variety of political and social ills: princely ambition, court flattery, war, the perils of standing armies, unjust laws, poverty, enclosures, theft and homicide. And on a possible course of action: whether Hythlodaeus, who also turns out to be an expert in Greek philosophy, should enter a royal council to advocate the necessary reforms. By engaging with the humanist debate on ‘civic duty’ in Book I, More offers a critique of the claims of ‘contemplation’ as against ‘action’: moral absolutism as against the ‘politick life’. In the course of the dialogue, Hythlodaeus is the speaker who advocates moral absolutism. A fictional ‘Thomas More’ puts the case for Ciceronian ‘action’. Book ends with a debate of the evils of money and private property, which leads Hythlodaeus into a description of the island of Utopia.

Book II: almost entirely a monologue by Hythlodaeus, describing the island of Utopia. There are 54 cities, a federation guided by a senate of 162 members, which meets annually in the capital city, Amaurot. All the cities are identical in language, customs, institutions and laws. Agriculture is the primary occupation at which everyone works. In addition, everyone learns a trade or handicraft. Everyone works for six hours a day. Some magistrates are entitled not to work, but they do not take advantage of the privilege, preferring to set a good example.

Each city and its hinterland is divided into households consisting generally of blood-relations and extended families. Urban households have no fewer than 10 and no more than 16 adult members; rural households have no fewer than 40 adult members. Each year 20 persons from each rural household move back into the city after completing a two-year stint in the countryside. In their place, 20 substitutes are dispatched from the town, to learn agriculture from those who are better skilled at it. The oldest member of each household is the ruler. The society is exclusively patriarchal. Wives act as servants to their husbands, children to their parents, and the younger to their elders. Women are treated ‘equally’, but in reality are subordinated to their husbands. They also work harder than the men.

Utopia is a communist society. Property is held in common. Money and private wealth have been abolished. Money is needed for the conduct of trade with foreign cities, but in practice most foreign exchange transactions are handled on the basis of promissory notes. Money is required by the Utopians only when it is needed to lend to another nation, or in time of war, when it is used to hire foreign mercenaries. Otherwise, gold and silver are held to be inferior to ironwork, and are used to manufacture chamber pots or the chains and shackles of the Utopian slaves. Diamonds and pearls are given as baubles to children, who cast them aside with their toys when they grow up.

The Utopians know the difference between true and false pleasures, and between true and counterfeit nobility. They do not dress in fine clothes, they see no honour in irrelevant ceremonies, nor do they glory in empty titles of nobility. They have no need of inherited wealth or ancient ancestry. They do not waste their time, and avoid such ‘idle’ pastimes as gambling and hunting. They voluntarily attend public lectures before dawn in order to improve their minds. After supper they entertain themselves with music or polite conversation. Blood sports are particularly repellent to them. Hunting is seen as unworthy of free men, since it takes pleasure from killing and mutilation, and induces cruelty in humans through the condoning of brutality to animals.

The Utopians delight in education, which is provided for every child. They are keen students of moral philosophy, which they reinforce by principles drawn from their religion. When they heard from Hythlodaeus and his companions about Greek literature, they eagerly sought to learn the Greek language, which they mastered in three years. The purpose of a Utopian education is to inquire into the good of the soul and the body, to consider virtue, and to discover in what things true happiness consists. The Utopians define ‘virtue’ as ‘living according to nature’, since this is the end to which they were created. A Utopian is following nature when, in desiring one thing and avoiding another, he or she obeys the dictates of ‘reason’. In the first place, ‘reason’ urges the Utopians to love and venerate the Divine Majesty to whom they owe their being and capacity for pleasure. In the second place, ‘nature’ prescribes happiness to them as the end of their being.

The Utopians are pacifists. They despise war as an activity fit only for beasts and think nothing so inglorious as ‘glory’ achieved in combat. They go to war only for defensive reasons or to liberate an oppressed people from tyranny. As soon as war is declared, they infiltrate enemy territory and post placards promising large rewards to anyone who will assassinate the enemy prince. If assassination fails, they incite leading members of the royal family or nobility to plot for the crown. In warfare they commit their own citizens sparingly, and prefer to spend their gold and accumulated credits to hire foreign mercenaries. Since they pay the highest rates, they get the best soldiers. One prominent Utopian commands the entire army, with two others in reserve. Beyond this, no one is forced to fight abroad unless they volunteer. In the conduct of war, the Utopians are magnanimous. Truces are honoured, massacres forbidden, cities are not sacked, nor are territories laid waste. Once a war is concluded, the costs are indemnified by the conquered people who are forced to cede not only money, but also lands from which the Utopians and their allies may enjoy a perpetual income.

There is no official Utopian religion. Different forms of religion exist in the island, even within the individual cities. But the Utopians believe in a single divinity, whom they call their Father and to whom they attribute the creation and providential government of the world. Although individuals differ in various details of their religion, everyone agrees that there is one supreme power or Divine Majesty, whom they call Mithra. The original architect of Utopia, King Utopus, prescribed religious toleration. He laid down by law that everyone may cultivate the religion of his choice and proselytize for it, providing they do so rationally and without offending others. If persuasion fails, no one may resort to violence or abuse, and anyone who fights over religion is punished by exile or slavery.

Despite his advocacy of religious toleration, King Utopus required conformity to two basic doctrines or beliefs, because they affirm the dignity of human nature. The first is the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The second is that the universe is ruled by divine providence and not by ‘blind chance’. Although these are religious principles, the Utopians see them as derived from natural reason. They constitute a ‘rational’ sanction for morality and a life of ‘virtue’. If the soul were not immortal, and if life on earth were purely random, no one would feel inhibited from pursuing self-gratification irrespective of right or wrong. If there is no reward after death for virtue on earth, ‘you have no compensation for having passed your entire existence without pleasure, that is, miserably.’

Since the Utopians are free of the constraints of private property (and public expenditure limits!), More could imagine a radical social environment. The cities of Utopia have public hospitals with qualified physicians in constant attendance. There are comprehensive welfare programmes, universal education, divorce, euthanasia, and women priests. Slavery is permitted, but the Utopian slaves are either prisoners of war, heinous criminals, or foreigners who have been condemned to death in their own cities. Slaves are generously treated with the exception of those former Utopian citizens who, despite the advantage of a moral education, have resorted to crime. So much so that the labouring poor from other nations voluntarily choose slavery in Utopia, since it is so much more congenial than staying at home.

BUT in Utopia divorce is conditional and extremely rare. Women priests are possible: ‘but only a widow of advanced years is ever chosen, and it doesn’t happen often. Euthanasia is regulated by priests and magistrates, and is never forced on anyone against their will, nor does refusal lead to a denial or restriction of medical care. In particular, euthanasia is distinguished from suicide, which is only permitted in extreme circumstances. If anyone commits suicide without prior approval, his or her body is thrown unceremoniously into a bog. Sexual matters are also strictly ordered. Premarital sex is severely punished, as is seduction and attempted seduction. Adultery is punished by the severest form of slavery. If an innocent party chooses still to love or remained married to an unfaithful spouse, this is permitted, but he or she must share in the punishment to which the guilty party is condemned. As to the ‘equality’ of women, it has already been noted that any ‘benefits’ More had offered in educational and religious provision were extinguished in the Utopian kitchens.

The conversion of the Utopians to Christianity is integral to the structure of Book II. Utopia is a heathen society, but Hythlodaeus and his companions introduce the inhabitants to the teaching of Christ. The Utopians either ‘through the secret inspiration of God’ (one of More’s favourite phrases in his anti-Lutheran writings), or because Christianity seemed so very like their own religion, were eager to embrace the faith. Many were converted and baptized on the spot. Unfortunately, two of Hythlodaeus’ original companions had died, and among the survivors there was no priest. The Utopians could not be confirmed or given the Eucharist since these sacraments require the office of a priest. But the Utopians ‘understand what these [sacraments] are, and eagerly desire them’  Hythlodaeus expresses his concern that the full sacramental system of the Catholic Church should become available to the Utopians. The effect is to shift the argument in Book II from a focus on ‘reason’ to a focus on ‘revelation’. Christianity so appeals to the Utopians, once it is explained to them, because Christ ‘approved of his followers’ communal way of life’ Hythlodaeus in his peroration in Book II invokes Christ’s authority in support of Utopian communism, whereas at the conclusion of Book I, when the topic was first introduced, he had invoked only Plato’s authority.