In Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, More creates a land that contrasts directly to 16th century Europe. More starts by using the stories of fictional character Raphael Nonsenso to directly criticize the European form of government. He also attacks the European philosophy in his description of the Utopian Commonwealth, which is designed to reflect the flaws of Europe. Although some concepts of More’s Utopia seem impracticable, the society he creates is viable because its laws counteract man’s inherent failures as a race. By abolishing currency, mandating education, and legislating two years of required agricultural work, Utopia manages to demolish corruption, eradicate social class structures, and guarantee a consistent sense of morality among its citizens. More’s outlook on 16th century English society depicts an immoral world run by greed. Some of his criticisms bear more significance than others. Initially, More tells a fictional story of a dinner party attended by Raphael Nonsenso, a lawyer, a Cardinal, and a friar. The topic of capital punishment for thieves arises, and while many support this new decree, Raphael points out its flaws on secular and religious grounds. He proposes an alternate punishment for thieves: the return of the stolen goods and a lifetime of slavery. The lawyer (whose profession, incidentally, does not exist in Utopia) argues that Raphael’s proposal is impossible, and others agree until the Cardinal points out that the outcome of Raphael’s idea could not be known unless actually tested, Hearing that, each dinner guest changes his view and begins to praise what he had just been ridiculing. This story first shows the flaw in the English judiciary system, which is that testimony is judged by counselors who are more interested in power than truth. More importantly, it shows that judgment is formed not on the merit of a proposal but as a response to the opinions of the powerful. As Raphael observes: “This [response], from the Cardinal, was enough to make everyone wildly in favor of an idea which nobody had taken seriously when I had produced it.” (p. 32) In English society, opinion reflects obsequiousness more than rational thought. More further rebukes English society for the gap between the rich and the poor, specifically the differences in class distinctions. More describes each Utopian city as surrounded by farmland, and each citizen must spend occasional two-year stints in the countryside performing agricultural work for his or her respective city. These farms are regarded as land to be worked rather than personal estates to be owned, so when one city gains an agricultural surplus, it is exported and distributed among other Utopian cities at no cost. More says, “Under such a system, there’s bound to be plenty of everything, and, as everything is divided equally among the entire population, there obviously can’t be any poor people or beggars.” (p. 65) The idea of communal agricultural work was a revolutionary idea for its time, most notably because agricultural work was a task usually reserved for the poor, derided by those with any amount of wealth or notability. Thus the Utopian system razes the class distinctions that dominated 16th century Europe. Furthermore, Utopian markets operate under a form of communism, and the economic structures of markets and money simply do not exist there. Without a capitalist economy or a formal currency, greed becomes impossible and the bribery and political corruption that accompany greed are gone as well. More creates a character to disagree with the usefulness of the Utopian agricultural system, stating, “I don’t believe you’d ever have a reasonable standard of living under a communist system. There’d always tend to be shortages, because nobody would work hard enough. In the absence of profit motive, everyone would become lazy, and rely on every else to do the work for him.” (p. 45) However, this is proved untrue by the description of the economical framework of Utopia. Although there is immense motivation in capitalist societies, it is also true that for every one highly motivated and essential worker, there are several others who contribute nothing to society, including most women, priests, landowners, and beggars. In contrast, Utopian workers labor for only six hours per day, but because “hardly any other member of the population is either unemployed or non-productively employed,” (p. 58) tasks are completed equally as fast with less work required from each citizen. Furthermore, More’s comment that in a communal society no one would feel the compunction to work for the simple reason that they would be fed by the work of others is answered in the Utopian law punishing all laziness and lounging on the job. This law acknowledges the flawed nature of man; therefore, it is not that More’s criticism is wrong, but that it can be overcome through proper teaching and social structure. Thus, Utopia is not the result of ideal human behavior, but instead is the product of laws that force its citizens to act perfectly despite their innate flaws in nature. Consequently, the Utopian Commonwealth described becomes a viable possibility. Because Utopian laws and customs compensate for the inherent nature of man, the practices can be applied to any people, no matter the culture or society. For example, natural greed is curbed by the lack of a recognized form of currency while precious metals and stones are devalued. More states: “The Utopian way of life provides not only the happiest basis for a civilized community, but also one which, in all human probability, will last forever. They’ve eliminated the root-causes of ambition, political conflict, and everything like that.” (p. 112) Although the Utopian system is theoretically feasible, it would be almost impossible to fully transform any other form of government into it. Because the changes made to common human desires are so radical, people would naturally resist the change because it would be seen as having a negative impact on their personal lives. Despite the unlikelihood of More’s ideal government becoming a reality, his Utopia is an important foil to the English society of his time.Works Cited:Saint, More, Thomas Sir,. Utopia. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
“sometimes a word is put down with a sign of negation, when as much is signified as if we had spoken it affirmatively, if not more” John Smith (225)
Thomas More’s Utopia is a work that embodies and embraces ambiguity. In fact almost every aspect of the book is instilled with a range of interpretable and unclear meaning, from the intricacies of its language (such as the alternate meanings of its title, which suggests both “good place” and “no place”) to the presentation of seemingly paradoxical ideas with a range of middle ground in between. One of the most frequently used techniques employed by More in putting forth ambiguous statements and ideas is the inclusion of litotes, or double negatives. Perhaps the most conspicuous example is in the phrase “no less beneficial than entertaining” (3) that is used to describe the book’s purpose in the opening statement. Many similar examples are scattered throughout the book, such as in the description of the thief whose sentence is “no less” severe for theft than it is for murder (228), and in the Utopian idea that there is “no less” provision for those who are now helpless but once worked than for those who are still working (228). In these cases More is twisting language in order to imply but not to implicitly state his ideas. This leaves the reader somewhat unsure as to how emphatic his statements are, and on the surface this gives the impression of More’s musings as being open-minded and fairly non-polarized. But on a deeper level it is a rhetorically compelling technique that tends to steer the reader into a one-sided interpretation in spite of the illusion of ambiguity. In the same way that a statement such as “not uncommon” implies commonality, More’s litotes imply more than they openly admit. This kind of effect can be seen not only at the grammatical level, but also at larger and arguably more significant dimensions of the book, even all the way up to its division into two parts. Parts One and Two of Utopia, with their conflicting arguments for practicality and idealism respectively are, in a sense, the two halves of a double negative. Because of this, Part One is both a prelude to Book Two in the sense that it introduces the conflicting identities of the two central characters, as well as the rhetorical way in which More is going to use humanist argumentative style, but it is also a postscript in that it is the second part of a litotes.
The discourse between Thomas More’s persona and the character of Raphael Hythloday that comprises Book One is essentially a one-sided discussion of possible ways to reform England. This focus on reform tends naturally towards an emphasis on problems, rather than ideals, in the form of biting criticism of contemporary English society from the character of Hythloday. During his conversation with Hythloday, More’s persona occasionally tries to tie a practical anchor to Hythloday’s comments in an undercutting manner that is absent from the second book, where naive idealism runs rampant and unrestrained. In Book One, however, More argues that ideas are useless without action, and through his persona he prescribes the bringing about of practical reform through direct involvement of oneself in politics. Hythloday disagrees with More on the grounds that submission to authority is “absolutely repellent to [his] spirit” (7), but nevertheless he is used to explore the major problems of England from a fairly practical viewpoint.
These problems include uprooting of yeomen, excessive and ineffectual criminal punishment, uneven distribution of wealth, hypocritical religious values and idle nobility. The insightful, provocative points that Hythloday makes on these subjects have an air of pure philosophy to them that is filled with persuasive logic to sway the reader. The effectiveness of such an argumentative style can be seen in such examples such as his comment in denigrating the judicial system that “when the punishment is the same, murder is safer, since one conceals both crimes by killing the witness” (15) and other remarks such as the following made concerning human nature, “it is impossible to make all institutions good unless you make all men good, and that I don’t expect to see for a long time to come” (26). While these remain uncontested points in Utopia, Hythloday’s most radical idea, the elimination of private property, is greeted with skepticism from More that is not seen again until a brief and somewhat diluted reappearance at the end of the book. This skepticism serves to provide a divisive viewpoint on the issue of private property (which is really the central theme of the text) and thus sets the stage for the second book, which is essentially Hythloday’s counter-argument to More’s questioning tone. Thus part one of Utopia is mostly comprised of practical analysis of England’s problems, with a quick shift into speculation and idealism tagged onto its end.
Book Two can be interpreted as an idealistic guide on how we, (or rather 16th century England) might be able to build a close-to-perfect (or at least closer-to-perfect) society. The blueprint on how to do this is delivered through the shining example of Utopia, and in the process all of Hythloday’s previous practicality is thrown to the wind as he delivers a fantasy-filled account of the strange island and its people down to the last minute detail. He begins by telling us of a landmass comparable in size and with similar features to England, but as his account develops these similarities serve only to highlight fundamental societal differences that have arisen despite geographical and regional similarities between the island, England and Europe at large. In describing the Utopian way of life, More places heavy emphasis on the features that specifically serve to oppose the undesirable elements of English society critiqued in Part One. Currency is eliminated, and even looked down upon with gold being turned into chamber pots and chains for slaves, thus eliminating the imbalance of wealth (47). There is no place for idle nobility in the system of government, which resembles Plato’s idea of a Republic as opposed to the feudal English system that Hythloday is so critical of. The justice system is lenient in comparison with the harsh sentences that More describes in his home nation. A work schedule of only a few hours a day with an emphasis on agriculture stands in stark contrast to the long, grueling hours of most English citizens. There is even a relatively high degree of religious tolerance, although it could be argued that this is only at a superficial level because all Utopians tend towards believing in a suspiciously Christian God anyway.
The brand of naive, impractical vision that More displays in creating this counter to English society is essentially that of a communist idealist. It is mostly fantasy that cannot realistically be implemented into any European society of the time, principally due to the European necessity for currency and trade. More admits this even before going into its details (through Hythloday) in the following passage from Book One:
“However superior those institutions might be (and as a matter of fact they are), yet here they would seem inappropriate because private property is the rule here, and there all things are held in common. People who have made up their minds to rush headlong down the opposite road are never pleased with the man who calls them back and tells them” (26)
Today we can see that the flaws and impracticalities of Utopia extend past the difficulties of dissolving private property, but perhaps this is an insight that we have only gained from looking back on the failed historical attempts of actual communist governments. Certainly More’s governmental ideals are startlingly similar to those of later communist manifestos, with the relationship between people and government glorified in contentment, such that the government’s power is present but not perceived as coercive. Of course, truly non-coercive power may as well not be present at all, and More’s book requires a ground-up building not only of society, but also of human nature. The kind of tolerance and co-operation present in his ideals could only be achieved through reduction of conflict by unifying human thought and action, thus allowing people to naturally work together for the common good that Utopia represents. The question is whether More believes that this dilution of individuality is a worthy ideal, and to answer this we must return to the rhetoric behind the overarching litotes composed by the division between the two books.
Essentially, by the end of Book One the reader has been presented with an argument highlighting the imperfections of England, and by the end of Book Two Utopia has been thoroughly and intricately depicted as the opposite or negation of this imperfect society. Thus, through the resulting litotes that Utopia is “not imperfect”, More is on some level implying its perfection. In reality, Utopia may be better than England (at least on the levels at which More is critiquing society), but it is ambiguous as to how much better. An interesting aspect of the arrangement of the book is that, were More to have omitted Book One (as in the first draft of Utopia), the litotes would not be complete, and its resulting effect would disappear. The reader would be left only with the idealism without any “sign of negation”, and More’s Utopia would be far less persuasive. It is of course necessary for this negation to be placed at the beginning of the book, to avoid a necessity to contest the ideals of the first part. The ending, which provides no direct resolution as to whether Utopia is truly what it claims to be, shows that More is aware of this problem and is reluctant to counter his previously made points.
But while the book may seem to end in an ocean of ambiguous ideas, we as readers must remain aware that its argumentative thread at a deeper level flows strongly in the path of one particular direction of current. More’s reasons for arguing so subtly and underhandedly for what seems an unfeasible idealism are somewhat ambiguous in themselves, as at first glance his idealism seems to violate the practical aspects of his humanist philosophy. Perhaps he realizes that to affect change an ideal must at first be present, even if it is an unrealistic one. Certainly, More’s ideals could certainly not be implemented in 16th Century England in their pure form. It could be, however, that he saw the discovery of the New World as a possible chance to start a new Utopia, one that could be free of European materialistic constraints and untainted by the inertia of long established social and political institutions. If this is true, then his Eden is an impossible one, but we will never be able to know whether he realized that this was the case. As it is, Utopia stands as an educative look at the basis of communist philosophy and its flaws, as well as a subtle and nuance-filled work that validates idealism through humanist rhetoric, thus arguing for what is ironically a far more impractical society than More could have ever realized during his lifetime.
First published in 1516, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia is considered as one of the most influential works of Western humanism. Through the first-person narrative of Raphael Hythloday, More’s mysterious traveler, Utopia is described as a pagan communist city-state or polis governed by intellect and rationality. By addressing such issues as religious pluralism, women’s rights, state-sponsored education, colonialism and justified warfare, the main protagonist seems to be a very recognizable character to many contemporary readers even after more than five centuries while Utopia itself remains a foundational text in human philosophy and political ideology through the world.In his description of the religious practices held within More’s perfectly structured Utopia, Raphael Hythloday informs the reader that “Women are not debarred from the priesthood, but only a widow of advanced years is ever chosen, and it doesn’t happen often” (Utopia 78). Examples of this rather discriminatory, symbolic remark can be found throughout the text of Utopia which is embedded with many inconsistencies and conflicts related to philosophy. At the conclusion of Utopia when Hythloday has terminated his extremely detailed narrative of the Utopian polis, Thomas More interjects with “When Raphael had finished. . . it seemed to me that not a few of the customs and laws. . . as existing among the Utopians were quite absurd. Their methods of waging war, their religious ceremonies and their social customs were some of these, but my chief objection was to the basis of their whole system. . . their communal living and. . . moneyless economy” (Utopia 84).According to Stephen Greenblatt in his Renaissance Self-Fashioning From More to Shakespeare, this “communal living” appears to be the “central motivation” of the entire story (36), yet More’s opinion on this condemns it and virtually upsets all the important aspects of his Utopian culture. Greenblatt sees this upset as part of the numerous factors underlying More’s entire idea of the communal system which views communism as less than “a coherent economic program” and teeming with “selfishness and pride” (37).After analyzing the personal and political views contained in Utopia, recent feminist scholars have deciphered More’s application of inconsistencies into a progressive statement regarding gender rights and privileges. Upon citing certain resigned attitudes in Utopia pertaining to women’s equality, these scholars have come to the conclusion that women must thoroughly be encouraged to arm themselves, become professional and intellectual and chose their own husbands. Also, More’s obvious tolerance for women’s rights have influenced the progressive tactics of the feminist in the face of defeating the conservative bias of the modern world.With Hythloday’s revelation that “Women are not barred from the priesthood,” it becomes clear that two operatives are in action–the maintaining of female/male equalities and the experience of seniority over the innocence of the young, much like William Blake’s poetical thesis. According to More, communal living allows for the breakup of many familial obligation roles as shown by Hythloday’s statement that “No man is bothered by his wife’s querulous complaints about money, no man fears poverty for his son, or struggles to scrape up a dowry for his daughter” (Utopia 82). Through this, all male-female relationships, usually dependent on some sort of financial stability, are reconstructed via utilitarian means. All gender and familial positions are placed on a lower level for the good of every citizen and every contribution made by a member of this society is deemed as being equal to all those made by others which creates a sense of commonality; however, this type of gender indifference creates numerous limitations as far as individual freedom is concerned. Women are allowed to work and achieve a certain amount of self-power while at the same time giving up those powers traditionally held as domestic. The power to debate or criticize one’s husband for insufficient financial means or to ensure that one’s daughter marries into a respectable and stable family are lost in More’s ironic Utopia.Most certainly, much of the indifference to gender in the citizens of this polis can be traced to their dislike for private property (land, wealth, jewelry, clothing, etc.) which creates an entire plethora of problems related to the self and familial prosperity. The domestic side of this issue, i.e. physical and emotional activities, becomes completely secretive which enables the women to maintain conditional power. In this Utopian civilization, privacy is transformed into public, as in the wearing of traditional gender clothing or that associated with being married. This brings to mind the ideals of the modern-day Amish or Shakers communities which deplore individualistic displays of gender-related activities and aim to place all citizens in one enormous basket of sameness. In Utopia, the separation of the sexes is greatly implied as exemplified by women being strategically placed on the outside of the dining table “so that if a women has a sudden qualm or pain, such as occasionally happens during pregnancy, she may get up without disturbing the others, and go off to the nurses” (Utopia 43).This situation could easily be considered as a private affair, yet with more discussion on this topic it becomes evident that it is nothing out of the ordinary and serves as another symbol of sameness in this society:”Each child is nurses by its own mother, unless death or illness prevents. When that happens, the wife of the syphogrant quickly finds a suitable nurse. . . Any woman who can gladly volunteers for the job, since all the Utopians applaud her kindness, and the child. . . regards the new nurse as it natural mother” (Utopia 43).In a “normal” society, the act of child nursing is considered as part of a woman’s motherly duties, but in More’s Utopia it is monitored by all members of the community. Utopian marriage customs, where the roles of gender are conventional and subject to change by the mindset of the whole community, are most disturbing, not to mention the punishment which accompanies premarital intercourse, adultery and sexually-related secretive acts. In addition, this so-called Utopian society sees sexual pleasure as an act of utter depravity and any action made by an individual which attempts to deflect from the sameness inherent in all of the citizens is rewarded with disgrace for both the perpetrator and his entire household.The act of displaying one’s nakedness to the brides and grooms prior to marriage in order to discover if “deformity may lurk under clothing” (Utopia 61) is seen as a preventive step towards men and women seeking forbidden sexual/carnal relationships. Once the marriage is consecrated, a group of elders come together so as to “forbid a husband to put away his wife against her will for some bodily misfortune” (Utopia 61) with the aim being complete monogamy which derails any sort of secrecy, abandonment or solitude. This it would appear constitutes that privacy is a very illegal act with the outcome being further disgrace for both parties.Another significant aspect of More’s Utopia is how an individual or group intention is just as severely punishable as a specific action against another citizen. Hythloday’s narrative specifies this with “A man who (tries) to seduce a woman is subject to the same penalties as if he had actually done it. They think that a crime attempted is as bad as one committed, and that failure should not confer advantages on a criminal who did all he could to succeed” (Utopia 62). From a feminist point of view, this “law” where both men and women are equally punished allows women some freedom and power over their own bodies and a relative amount of bodily security. By exposing the neglected area of seduction, a crime such as rape that was traditionally punished after the revelation of the crime, women in More’s Utopian ideal gain a degree of protection that deters violence against their bodies and prevents them from being stigmatized or brought under the umbrella of shame. As a consequence, the power of the female bridal bed, courtship and the so-called “feminine mystique” are pushed aside in favor of equal protection “under the law” manifested in this Utopia.It also appears that war and religion in Utopia are viewed as non-domestic areas where power seems to be specifically gendered; women are encouraged to “take up arms” but are not enticed to participate in battles. Yet, as Chris Ferns asserts, “any assertion that women are “liberated” to any degree by participating in battle doesn’t take into account the public retribution they suffer, should they refuse, or should they return from the front without their families” (157). This in part brings back the public sphere of Utopia as to the topic of gender and the prevention of individual privacy. The religion of the Utopians considers it a sacrilege to worship the self and have a conscience which makes it mandatory to have confession through the publication of private thoughts under the constant threat of punishment. Paradoxically, if women refuse to participate in battle either by themselves or with their husbands or choose to remain at home while the fighting rages elsewhere, or if they return from battle without their husbands or other family members, they are publicly ridiculed and shamed. Domestically speaking, this creates for women in More’s Utopia the quintessential situation of being “stuck between a rock and a hard place” where one’s actions are both exalted and damned at the same time.Thus, in this fabricated Utopian ideal, the metaphor of communal living that supposedly transforms both the public and private arenas does nothing but wreck havoc on all the institutions associated with this society. The places where women traditionally and exclusively operate are thus governed by the entire community, a situation quite reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery” where the citizens of a small town annually gather together to choose who lives and who dies based on the drawing of a lottery from a little “black box.”Yet the self and the individual is not entirely wiped out in Utopia, for communal living encourages the whole to operate as one specific unit. The potential of each person, regardless of gender, is altered by physical and intellectual education which prepares him/her for exceptional service in the public sphere. Thomas More’s socio-political agenda in Utopia creates a paradigm for feminist based on family interaction, gender-bending, non-wealth and property and bizarre sexually-oriented situations.As the author and creator of Utopia, Thomas More has clearly shown his own personal tolerance and progressive views concerning women’s rights and social privileges.His overall view of how to make a better world for men and women to live in has fascinated the minds of thinkers and philosophers in every age. From Plato to the present day, a span of almost two and a half millenniums, men have been thinking and writing about what the world would be like if as a homogenous unity an earthly paradise could be created and maintained.In the dialog of Sir Thomas More, certain objections to the communal idea are present, yet this seems to be the only point on which he appears to have some reservations, but the words of Raphael Hythloday brings forth the answers to his objections very satisfactorily. In More’s Utopian ideal, violence, bloodshed and vice, according to the narrator, have been eliminated. The people of Utopia have chosen instead to labor for recreation’s sake in their gardens, improve their homes, attend humanistic lectures, enjoy music and converse profitably with each other; in other words, they have chosen to pursue more profitable enterprises associated with the mind instead of with capitalistic pursuits of wealth and money.The Utopian women, for the most part, live very different lives as compared to that of the typical sixteenth-century English woman who usually lived in absolute poverty and slaved every waking hour simply to subsist. In this society, adultery is regarded as a crime and is punished by slavery. Marriage for love is much encouraged, but also prudence in selecting a mate. The welfare of the family is a state matter since it 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 which they hope in this manner will encourage potential enemies to murder one another.The Utopians are described as a religious people who practice toleration almost unknown during More’s times in Catholic Tudor England. Some are Christians while others worship God in their own way. Two specific points should be made in connection with More’s brilliant yet unsettling Utopia–first, his borrowings from Plato and other Greek writers which prevented him from adding much of his own theories and practices; and second, that in the four and a half centuries since the publication of Utopia, numerous ideas suggested by More have been put into effect in our modern world, such as tolerance for other’s viewpoints, equality (generally speaking) amongst the sexes and most important of all the acceptance of the feminist viewpoint on the world as seen through the eyes of women, the proverbial outsiders who have always been able to understand the faults of current society with objectivity based on logic instead of manipulation.SOURCES CITEDAckroyd, Peter. The Life of Thomas More. New York: Anchor Press, 1998.Ferns, Chris. Narrating Utopia. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 1999.Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.Marius, Richard. Thomas More: A Biography. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.More, Sir Thomas. Utopia. Ed. & Trans. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1992.
In Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia,” one may find a fascinating adventure story about the sailor named Raphael Hythloday. However, below the surface of this adventure story lies a deep sea of social criticism. In a time period where speaking against the government was very dangerous, More found a way to express his opinions via the fictional character of Raphael. More is quite loyal to his convictions, while also being very careful not to earn punishment for his would-be seditious societal commentaries.When writing “Utopia,” Sir Thomas More must have been thinking about the problems of society and how to combat and correct them. At the same time, he wanted to write his suggestions in a way that would not put him in dire straights with the law. More’s first attempt to absolve himself from direct criticism was to write a piece of fiction, not a speech or essay. More creates a narrator in Raphael Hythloday to speak any criticisms or controversial ideas. Sir Thomas even puts himself into the story with Hythloday, participating in dialogues with him, and even asking Raphael the questions that he knew would be asked of him if he spoke such outlandish ideas in public. The first concrete proof of “an escape clause” for Sir Thomas More is the very name of his main character. The surname “Hythloday,” when broken down into its Greek roots, is converted to two words: huthlos and daien. Further study of footnote nine on page five of the text provides a definition of the two Greek roots. Huthlos has a translated meaning of “nonsense,” while daien has a translated meaning of “to distribute”. It is also noted that when the words are brought together, they literally mean “distributor of nonsense” or “peddler of nonsense”. This is a quite humorous situation because one could easily imagine a lawman in Renaissance England challenging More about the text of Utopia and the ideas presented by Raphael Hythloday. More could save himself by passing it off as simple drollery. He could reply to any charges by saying, “It was all in fun. Everything Hythloday says is nonsense. His surname translates to ‘peddler of nonsense,’ don’t you get it? It is comedy.” Throughout the text, More embodies a lawyer’s precision in avoiding self-incrimination.On page nine of the text, More and Hythloday are engaged in a dialogue concerning the common practice of societies considering any new ideas unacceptable and against tradition. Hythloday recalls, “Now in a court composed of people who envy everyone else and admire only themselves, if a man should suggest something he had read of in other ages or seen in far places, the other counselors would think their reputation for wisdom was endangered, and they would look like simpletons, unless they could find fault with his proposal”(Utopia, p8). Hythloday goes further to explain “…such proud, obstinate, ridiculous judgments I have encountered many times, and once even in England”(Utopia, p9). I thought this was one of the strongest statements of the passage. Perhaps even dangerous for Thomas More to even address the possibility of his beloved England being guilty of closed mindedness. However, More quickly extinguishes any fire underneath him by challenging ideas of Hythloday. “What! Where you ever in England?”(Utopia, p9). This is another, mildly humorous case of More’s apparent fear of the government and his subsequent attempts to cover his tracks. One other careful criticism is made my More’s alter ego “Hythloday” when he speaks of a dinner he had in the presence of the Cardinal, a high official of the church. More creates another “patsy” when Hythloday speaks of a layman that was “…learned in the laws of your country, who for some reason took occasion to praise the rigid execution of justice then being practiced upon thieves”(Utopia, p9). In footnote two on page nine, it is noted that “It was unusual at that time for a layman to have legal training; but More, who is going to attribute cruel and stupid opinions to this man, wants to dissociate him from the Church and the Cardinal”(Utopia, p9). Here again, More is careful to clearly point out that the layman in no way represents the views of the Church. Any criticism of the Church of England would surely bring about death.The layman represents a common societal point of view when he challenges Hythloday’s view of the punishments not fitting the crimes. “There are the trades, and there is farming, by which men may make a living unless they choose deliberately to be rogues”(Utopia, p10). Obviously, Sir Thomas More believes that the society should not be structured around the fear of being executed. His puppet character, Hythloday, goes further to strike down the retort of the layman by saying, “Oh no, you don’t, you won’t get out of it that way. We may disregard for the moment the cripples who come home from foreign and civil wars, as lately from the Cornish battle and before that from your wars with France. These men, wounded in the service of kind and country, are too badly crippled to follow their old trades, and too old to learn new ones…There are a great many noblemen who live idly like drones, off the labors of others…Lords would rather support idlers than invalids”(Utopia, p10). This serves as another logical criticism of a common practice in renaissance England that Sir Thomas More was obviously offended by.The finale of Utopia is the last example of More’s careful criticism. He speaks of his own thoughts after Hythloday finishes his story of the island of Utopia. He affirmed, “…my chief objection was to the basis of their whole system, that is, their communal living and moneyless economy. This one thing alone takes away all the nobility, magnificence, splendor, and majesty which (in the popular view) are considered the true ornaments of any nation”(Utopia, p84). This is a statement of contradiction because any man who has the ability to identify imperfections in society and also suggest remedies for those imperfections, as More did in the text of Utopia, could not consider nobility, wealth, and majesty as the “true ornaments” of society. No, More’s character in the text is only saying this to avoid incriminating himself. It is important to recognize that in the parenthesis, More notes that the elements he listed are “the popular view” of society. Therefore, one could say that he finds a way to stay true to his convictions by letting the readers know that the statement is the public consensus, not necessarily his own.Sir Thomas More must have possessed great vision of a better society in order to portray his ideas so precisely and honestly through the words of Hythloday. Although the time period did not allow him the freedom to criticize, he still found a way to point out unfair practices by the government and immoral executions of the law. More was clever enough to leave himself an escape route by manipulating elements of a fictional story and puppet characters. Utopia is a story that someone had to write. Humanity needed new ideas and fresh critiques of age-old laws and customs. More’s flawless execution of careful criticism in Utopia serves as reminder to the modern era that even passive resistance can bring about change.
Though Sir Thomas More took an active role in politics and the corrupt government of King Henry VIII, he remained rooted in his political and religious convictions. Famous for his willingness to die rather than betray his ideals, More showed throughout his life a desire to avoid compromising his beliefs. This inner struggle to balance idealistic wishes with less appealing but more attainable practical realities was an important theme in More’s Utopia. Though More harshly criticized the wrongs of European society in Book One of Utopia, he idealistically presented a radical view of a new society in Book Two to force others to consider possible changes to society and to make them realize their own potential in creating better solutions to the problems of the sixteenth century.More expressed his discontent with the Church through Raphael’s strong condemnation of the hypocrisies of the institution and those belonging to it. Preachers “have fitted His doctrine to their lives” because the “greatest parts of His doctrine are opposite” them, declared Raphael (More 23). Raphael felt the preacher’s actions would only make them “more secure in their wickedness” (More 23). More also mocked the self-important friar who, angered by a fool’s gibe, declared that “all that jeer us are excommunicated” (More 16). He disgustedly commented on the Cardinal’s counsel, who “in earnest applauded those things” the Cardinal only liked “in jest” (More 16). More noted the pomposity of one counselor with “all the formality of a debate” saying, “I will make the whole matter plain to you” (More 11). More presented those surrounding the Cardinal as arrogant, mindless fools who had little religion or religious knowledge.More disapproved of European government, war, and man because of their devastating effects on society. Government irked More not only because of its own corruption, but also because of its propagation of war and the unnecessary quest for land acquisition. More referred to soldiers as a “pestiferous sort of people” who were paid to be idle and whose presence was unnecessary (More 8). The soldiers became “feeble with ease”, unable to fight and a waste of resources (More 8). Raphael denounced princes for applying themselves more to the “affairs of war” than the “useful arts of peace” (More 5). Although More sharply reproved establishments contributing to the disturbing state of society, he chastised individual faults and flaws of human nature, as well. He criticized the “cursed avarice” of a few that makes many suffer, complaining not only of the upper class, but also of the “excessive vanity in apparel” and “great cost in diet” among “all ranks of persons” (10). More, irritated by the irrationality of war and the flaws of human nature, disparagingly wrote of the great costs of these continuing problems.More strongly disapproved of society’s treatment of the poor, seeing the rich’s advantage over the poor as a great injustice. In defense of the poor he wrote, “They would willingly work, but can find none that will hire them” (More 9). The rich ” buy at low prices and sell at high rates”, he said, leaving the poor no choice but to “beg or rob” (More 10). More showed his extreme disillusionment with the inequalities of society when talking of the gap between the rich and the poor. He accused society of “first mak[ing] thieves and then punish[ing] them”, a true analysis of the rich’s lack of concern for the troublesome poor (More 11). Incorporated into this was his outcry against capital punishment and cruelty. One of his impassioned arguments was, “God has commanded us not to kill, and shall we kill so easily for a little money?” (More 11). It is “absurd” for a thief and a murderer to be punished equally, he argued, as this will “incite” the thief to now kill the man he would have only robbed (More 12). More greatly supported the poor while attacking the rich for their greed.In Book Two More explored new ideas for society, such as a lack of materialism and a communal atmosphere of equality and uniformity. More imagined a world in which everyone wore clothes “all of one color cast carelessly about them” (More 36) and switched houses “by lot” every ten years (More 31). People used gold as a “badge of infamy”, trying to devalue the strange emphasis of other cultures on objects of no real worth (More 44). Utopians sent “overplus to their neighbors” (More 30) and “freely” (More 31) welcomed anyone into their homes, showing the true sense of communal identity that More envisioned. Agriculture was “universally understood” so that all were capable of working in the fields (29). Even the towns themselves were uniform; “he that knows one knows them all” (More 30). More constantly expanded on this theme of equality, giving even the Prince “no distinction” besides a “sheaf of corn” (More 61). This want of class distinction or material value constituted More’s main radical social change.More introduced a new religious and moral philosophy of tolerance in Utopia and also defended pleasure as a God-given gift. The Utopians considered “inquiries after happiness” without consideration of “religious principles” to be “conjectural and defective” (More 47). Utopians thought it the “maddest thing in the world to pursue virtue” (More 48), instead promoting pursuing one’s “own advantages” (More 49). More advocated freedom to choose religion, as long as there was a belief in a “great Essence” (More 72). Utopians felt it “indecent and foolish” to intimidate someone into believing something that “did not to him appear to be true” (More 73). More supported the idea that if there really were one truth, it would “at last break forth and shine bright” (More 73). To keep the true religion from being “choked with superstition”, all were free to believe “as they should see cause” (More 73). The priests were men of “eminent piety”, and though respected, they had few distinctions (More 76). More’s new, accepting, idealistic church was a very different concept from the European Catholic Church in existence.More focused much of Book Two on his ideas on justified war and reasonable slavery. The Utopians felt justified in driving natives of their land if the natives didn’t allow them to cultivate the land, since “every man has a right to such as is necessary for his subsistence” (38). They felt that there was a “partnership of the human nature”, and partly because of this, they detested war as a “very brutal thing” (More 64). The only instance when they were willing to go to war was in case of loss of life of any Utopian or when a neighbor asked for help. Strangely enough, the Utopians did not object to using mercenaries or harboring traitors, deciding that the number of lives saved by a quick war compensated for this breach of morals. Their punishment system was also interesting and very different from Europe. More presented contrasting books of Utopia to provide such an extreme example of change that people would be more willing to accept reasonable change. More said at one point that the bride and groom should see each other naked before marriage as even a “horse of a small value” was inspected thoroughly before being bought. More most likely did not expect people to agree to this unemotional, practical practice, but he might have wanted a couple to realize how important it is to be well suited to and familiar with each other. He also wrote of Utopians exchanging houses every ten years; this idea obviously was not very plausible, but the idea of less emphasis on personal property and social status was appealing. Gold does not have to be a symbol of infamy , but people might benefit from placing less importance on the acquisition of it. Avarice does not have to disappear, but nor should it dominate life. By criticizing every aspect of life in Book One, More startled people into wanting at least moderate change. More also hoped to provoke the average individual into analyzing the problems of European society and imagining new possibilities. More presented the problems in Book One, but as he said that Utopia was “absurd” at the end of his book , he made it clear that his answers were not real ones that he thought would actually work (More 85). Instead, he presented the problems so that others of his time could attempt solutions. More tried to stir the average man into saving society.More’s Utopia at first seemed like a preposterous attempt to determine which exact qualities a society would need to prosper but is actually about a society based on experimentation and gradual improvements over time. Though More uses Utopia as a model for European society, he admits its inability to exist and work as planned.
A man named Nonsenso begins any debate at a disadvantage. What kind of information or argument can be expected of such an individual? Can he articulate a rational idea, deduce a logical conclusion? Is the authority of his discourse to be trusted? Or is he simply a man with a name and a nature that are in perfect agreement? These are all questions which Thomas More leaves us to ask of Raphael Nonsenso, the garrulous sailor-philosopher who describes and extols Utopia in the book of the same name.From his memories of a five year stay on the island, Raphael conjures up a thorough description of the social and political practices constituting the Utopian way of life, which he unabashedly proclaims “the happiest basis for a civilized community whichwill last for ever.” The details of his speech are astounding and the extent of his knowledge staggering; he vividly describes everything from their wardrobes to their war tactics. It is a dazzling recounting, replete with all the details of fact and unburdened by the vague generalities of the imagination. And yet, at the end of the speech, More confesses to harboring “various objections.” He does not call Raphael a liar, for to do so would be to call him a genius, as any man who could create such an enormous (and spontaneous) fiction must be. Indeed, More acknowledges Raphael’s “undoubted learning and experience” while still insisting that Utopia seemed “in many cases perfectly ridiculous.” Could it really be nonsense, albeit clever nonsense, after all? The answer seems to be yes, at least in part.The first glimpse we get of Raphael is of a stranger and probably (More postulates) a sailor. Giles soon joins More, indicating Raphael as a friend and confirming that he is a sailor, but a rather extraordinary one at that. He is, according to Giles, “really more like Ulysses or even Plato.” This is an ambiguous compliment at best. Ulysses, the great hero of Homer’s Odyssey, is not only a globe trotter but also a crafty rhetorician, a persuader, and, to some degree, a manipulator (the Greek word for these traits is teknos ). Plato, of course, wrote his philosophy in dialogues, emphasizing rhetorical skill along with logic and reason. The reference to Plato also reminds the reader of that original Utopia, The Republic. Immediately, then, More (the author, not the character) associates Raphael with two great “talkers,” known not so much for being honest as for being convincing.He also associates Raphael with two Greeks. More calculates the comparison precisely just moments later Giles proclaims that Nonsenso “is quite a scholar” and that he knows “a tremendous lot of Greekbecause he’s mainly interested in the philosophy.” Latin, however, has never really appealed to him. Although the piquancy of this description loses some of its power in translation, More here clearly seems to contrast the Latin of the European Christian world (and of Utopia itself) with the Greek of antique, pagan culture. Latin is a language of action, public affairs, current events; Greek, on the other hand, lends itself to speculation, to thought, to dreamy theorizing. Implicitly, then, More’s own political discourse supercedes Raphael’s, since it best accommodates the political climate of their day. His skepticism about the sometimes “perfectly ridiculous” Utopia is perfectly in keeping with this view.While these comparisons with figures from antiquity help, the primary way Raphael Nonsenso’s character comes to be revealed is through the contrast between him and Thomas More. Beyond their Greek and Latin preferences, Nonsenso and More each maintain a fundamentally different political philosophy, as we see when Giles urges Nonsenso to obtain a court position and put his wisdom and experience to good use. Nonsenso disdains the idea of holding such a post and eschews the prospect of living and working “among people who are deeply prejudiced against everyone else’s ideas.” More chides him for his reluctance, telling him: “you’ve got so much theoretical knowledge, and so much practical experience, that either of them alone would be enough to make you an ideal member of any privy council.” Raphael remains impervious to their praise, though. Rather than acquiescing, he tells an anecdote about a debate on capital punishment he held with a celebrated lawyer while on a sojourn to England. By the end of his story, he thinks he has proven that philosophy falls on deaf ears when related to politicians. Instead, he receives another rebuke from More: “there is a more civilized form of philosophy which knows the dramatic context, so to speak, tries to fit in with it, and plays an appropriate part in the current performance.”The “dramatic context” of this particular exchange is the pitting of the pragmatic More against the idealistic Nonsenso. While the thought of giving excellent advice to inferior minds exasperates Raphael, More finds that it is the philosopher’s responsibility to make himself understood, to adapt his wisdom to his audience’s level of comprehension. “Frankly,” he confesses to Nonsenso, “I don’t see the point of giving advise you know they’ll never accept. What possible good could it do? How can they be expected to take in a totally unfamiliar line of thought, which goes against all their deepest prejudice?” This deftly undercuts Nonsenso’s criticism of European society: how will they ever improve if the wisest among them will not deign to give his advice unless guaranteed that it will be understood and implemented perfectly? If European politicians were so savvy and enlightened, they probably wouldn’t have so many problems in the first place! There is no doubt that both More and Nonsenso dislike a great many of the customs and laws of European society, but while More expresses willingness to accept compromises on the road to perfection, Nonsenso demands the ideal or else no improvement at all.An idealist who despises European convention, Raphael is a rather suspect source of information on Utopia. His political agenda threatens to overtake his factual account, as it indeed does at certain points in his narration. It is not really nonsense that he is dispensing, but rather strategic elaborations, additional details, and particular embellishments. No wonder More cannot overcome his suspicion that the description is, in the end, somewhat of a “grand absurdity.”The narrative begins reliably, which is to say it begins apolitically. Raphael first gives a magnificent account of the geographical and topographical intricacies of Utopia. He moves naturally into urban planning, agriculture, live stock, labor, food preparation and other little mundane practices that any traveler would dutifully note upon encountering a new civilization. Even Raphael’s description of the communist organization of the society, though alien to the European perspective, does not begin unbelievably. It is perfectly plausible that a nation would implement such a system in hopes of eliminating social inequalities, crime (a cause of concern on the English mind, according to Nonsenso), and all the other difficulties that plague a monarchical government.But then come the inconsistencies, primary among them the strange mix of cultivation and philistinism which Raphael (obliviously) attributes to the Utopians. While they have a passion for gardening and attend edifying lectures each day, they find precious metals and gems quite disgusting and base. Raphael assures More and Giles that “these raw materials of money get no more respect from anyone than their intrinsic value deserves which is obviously far less than iron.” They wear plain clothing, eat plain food they are, in short, Spartan in their ornamentation, lacking (apparently) in all the visual arts. Nature and beauty have become synonymous and exclusively linked terms. Now, from whence comes this distaste for colorful, beautiful things except their associations with luxury and expense in a non-communistic society? There is no reason why the Utopians could not and would not value gold, silver, jewels and fine fabrics for purely aesthetic, not monetary, reasons. It seems, in fact, that it is quite inhuman not to appreciate such beauty; no one, after all, sees the world in such strictly utilitarian terms. In this regard, the behavior Raphael assigns to the Utopians cannot be taken as anything but an invented repudiation of European valuation. They carry on like a communist minority in a merchant economy.Raphael is similarly untrustworthy (and inconsistent) when discoursing on social practices. Euthanasia, he says, is encouraged in certain cases, though not enforced. Before marriage, the bride and groom-to-be examine each other naked to determine if their partner is physically sufficient. They believe in a single god and the immortality of the soul, but they tolerate other religious creeds. These practices shock, but because of the flexibility of the Utopians, they do not outright offend. That is, until you realize that there is always a caveat. In the case of Euthanasia, Nonsenso proclaims that it is optional, but his reproduction of a bullying speech that a priest would give to the terminally ill makes this declaration seem highly dubious. What kind of person would find much zest in life after being told “you’re just a nuisance to other people and a burden to yourself” ? One can imagine, likewise, the effects of being rejected as an unsuitable specimen for marriage. As for religion, Raphael undermines his original explanation of Utopian tolerance with the addition of rather significant clause: there is religious freedom “except [if] you believe anything so incompatible with human dignity as the doctrine that the soul dies with the body, and the universe functions aimlessly, without any controlling providence.” It seems there are two possible explanations for these contradictions: either Raphael fabricates these practices himself or his description of them is tainted by his hearty approval; either he lies altogether or tries to soften the harshness of the Utopians to garner the approval of the Europeans. In either case, this is certainly not an objective representation of Utopian life or an ideal society. The problem with the social dynamic in a so-called perfect society is clear: it reduces to nothing more than an impossible quest to eliminate defects, an enforced system of eugenics.Much in keeping with this, there is a very ruthless (and not wholly coherent) aspect to Raphael’s description of Utopian domestic and foreign policy. Internal relations among Utopians are untroubled by jealousy, anger, violence, and the like. They respect each other as individuals and as a community, existing in a state of unmenaced harmony. Utopia’s relationship with the outside world, though, appears to be in constant upheaval. Although Raphael says that “they hardly ever go to war, except in self-defense,” their military prowess is formidable. They are not so pacifistic as Raphael first hints, for just a moment or two later he notes that “the Utopians are just as anxious to find wicked men to exploit as good men to employ.” It is rather puzzling that such a gentle, unworldly people would take on the responsibility of acting as the military and moral scourge of the international community. And even more confusing is Raphael’s assurance that the Utopians “possess vast foreign assets fora great many countries owe them money.” Assets? Money? Debt? Are they communists or are they not? While Nonsenso has no trouble imagining a Utopian communist nation in isolation, he clearly struggles to come up with a sense of how such a country could function in the context of other, non-Utopian peoples. He resorts here to the kind of belligerent, patriotic rhetoric that belongs to the Empirial nations of Europe. Nonsenso’s inability to articulate a plausible Utopian foreign policy ultimately demonstrates that his true-life account is more likely a hodge-podge of facts and fictions.Nonsenso may have an active, idealizing imagination, but his account of Utopia still contains some valuable truths. More himself says: “I freely admit that there are many features of the Utopian Republic which I should like though I hardly expect to see adopted in Europe.” In a rather sly way, More ends Utopia with this statement, which is really a kind of provocation, a challenge to European nations to outdo what was either incompletely executed by the Utopians or sloppily imagined by Nonsenso. For More, the goal is not to imitate Utopia but to move beyond its deceptive prescriptions and achieve real improvement.
Even in present day, people are still striving toward equality, whether through equal pay for equal work initiatives, the Black Lives Matter movement, or anti-immigration protests. The world of Utopia, the idea of which was conceived several hundred years ago, incorporates communistic ideals to work toward a “perfect” place for all people, not just for the people at the top of the social hierarchy. These anti-capitalistic tendencies that allow everyone to flourish serve as a stark contrast to that time’s European world. The Utopian ways, along with other humanist ideas, eventually sparked the Renaissance Age in Europe, where the people begin to focus on education, logic, and science, rather than tying themselves down to the words of the Bible. Although the members of society in Utopia by Sir Thomas More preach equality and impartiality, it becomes obvious that a social order is a natural human necessity and the community could not exist without that reality.
The Utopian society attempts to eliminate the usual hierarchy by phasing out the materials that support classism, property and money, and by promoting conformity and uniformity. To avoid classism, which prevails through visible, material factors, such as designer clothing, “people wear, and wear throughout their lives, the same style of clothing, except for the distinction between the sexes between married and unmarried persons” (45). The Utopians wore drab clothing with little style, making it so that all the people were dressed the same, which forced them to be equal, at least in that aspect. Another effort to engineer humanistic greed out of the population was made by eliminating private property. No citizen owned a house, instead, “every ten years, they change house by lot” (42). The footnote on this revealed that “the purpose is, of course, to preclude anything like private property and attachment to it.” Again, this made it so that no one could stand out based on the size or decoration of their property. The Utopians even equalized labor by sharing the difficult burden of farming: “The custom of alternating farm workers is the usual procedure, so that no one will have to do such hard work unwillingly for more than two years” (40). No one person is singled out and forced to do demanding labor because of their economic status, gender, or race. By using the rotational system, the Utopians spread the onerous jobs among everyone. These steps are taken to ensure, or at least seem to ensure, that there is no hierarchy.
However, the flaws of this system of elimination are quickly revealed and it becomes obvious that a ranking is needed to ensure order and lawfulness. Each subsection of society needs a ruler to enforce the laws. The households in the rural part of Utopia each have “two slaves bound to the land. A master and mistress, serious and mature persons, in charge of each household. Over every thirty households is placed a single phylarch” (40). The “phylarch,” which comes from Greek, means “the rules of the tribe.” A clear ranking is established in the households, with slaves at the bottom, workers in the middle, and the masters and the phylarchs on top. Without someone in power, it is possible that an undesirable person may rise to power in that vacuum, which the Utopians might have had in mind when creating this system. The slaves are also put to work, usually for life, and they are “either their own citizens, enslaved for some heinous offense, or else foreigners who were condemned to death in their own” (70). If only some members of a community are punished, the whole community is no longer equal, regardless of if the punished persons deserved it. These criminals must be shamed and chastised, otherwise, there would be no way to teach a lesson to someone who went wrong, and chaos would quickly ensue. There needs to be a pecking order to each aspect of society for it to function effectively.
The highest officials of Utopian society, which include the priests, the holy people, and the senate, are the heads of society and have the most say in the way people live, showing that there is a hierarchy in Utopia. They even go as far as to have decisions in marriages. If a couple wanted to divorce, they needed approval of the senate, “but such divorces are allowed only after the senators and their wives have carefully investigated the case” (73). Even if said couple had a desperate reason for separation, they could not separate of their own choosing, unless they had been carefully vetted by the authorities. The Utopians even separate the very devout members of society, who essentially serve just under the priests, into “two sects. The first are celibates who abstain not only from sex but also from eating meat […] the other kind are just as fond of hard work, but they prefer to marry […] The Utopians regard the second sort as more sensible, but the first sort as holier” (88-89). They regard the celibates as holier, and “respect and revere them” (89). These people are separated from the normal people of Utopia and have more power than them, but still less than that of the priest and of the senate. The priest is also treated almost as a deity, with “no official in Utopia more honored than the priest. Even if one of them commits a crime, he is not brought into a court of law, but left to God and his own conscience” (90). These priests are held to no laws, and have power even in a person’s choice to choose death in cases of extreme suffering. These rankings show that Utopia demands a ranking and the top people are necessary for order.
The Utopian society is far from perfect, and definitely not completely equal. Perhaps, however, any inequality that emerges from this system serves as a motivator for lower-tier citizens. But the limits to equality begin and end with the need for a moderator, a type of enforcement, in society. The communist-like practices that Utopia holds itself to seem ideal on paper, but they cannot be effective unless everybody can both conform and behave. However, it becomes obvious that some rogue citizens have difficulty controlling themselves. Thus, Utopia shows that a society that is truly equal cannot be obtained, and that limits to the equality through a hierarchy of power must be put in place.
Three dollars and fifty-eight cents. To use the money now to buy dinner or wait and let the hunger pass. To sleep on the park bench or try to find availability at the chaotic homeless shelter. To stand outside under the searing sun in hopes of obtaining a few more dollars or to sit under the shady tree and skip another meal. These are the possible decisions that the impoverished might encounter daily. In society today and especially in 16th Century England, these decisions were prevalent among the substantial amount of people suffering in destitution. As Thomas More recognized this problem, he further realized the absurdities and wrongs within his society as the rich lived in ease and the poor suffered through daily turmoil. More’s Utopia criticized the inequities of English society as the novel presents an ideal land where England’s societal problems have been resolved and are nonexistent. Utopia displays a simplistic lifestyle and presents social and economic equality among all the citizens; contrary to England, where there were social classes and an unjust distribution of wealth that made up the basis of English society. More depicted Utopia as the antithesis of English society to enlighten the educated and upper class Englishmen of the wrongs within their society and prompt them to revise their mistakes and aid in the betterment of England.
Within the country of Utopia, the primary focus is agriculture. Everyone is “instructed in it from their childhood,” ensuring that the citizens are knowledgeable of the necessary labors that is the foundation of their civilization (107). The participation in cultivation equalizes the community, as everyone habitually engages in farming and experiences the strenuous work associated with it. More presents the agricultural civilization within Utopia to express the lack of commendation towards farmers within his own society and to critique the egotistical attitude of the privileged. The elites within England were able to indulge themselves in an hour, with the food that had taken farmers months of laborious farming to produce. They ignored the tribulations that farmers underwent in order to acquire a successful harvest and chose to believe that they are above the arduous work. More presents the supercilious and selfish nature of high-class English people as they lived with no worries towards the stability of their homes and lifestyle and had no regards to anyone else that were not classed the same. While farmers relied solely on their unstable harvest as their source of their income, with the harvest possibly being the deciding factor in whether they would have food and a home or not. Making agriculture the basic foundation of Utopian civilization instills a sense of fairness and unity among the community that—due to the narcissism of the elites—England did not have.
Material items such as extravagant clothing and luxurious accessories are deemed ludicrous in Utopia. People on the island do not find opulent items as a necessary aspect to their survival, and therefore find no use for them. All the citizens wear similar, basic clothing with the only distinction being between gender and marriageability. Even the idolization of gold and silver is laughable to the Utopians as they use them as playthings for children, household materials such as “chamber-pots and close-stools”, and also “chains and fetters for their slaves” (137). More presents the Utopians’ distaste to express the absurdity of English people, specifically high-class English people, and their emphasis on sybaritic objects that held no significant contribution to their survival. The upper class was obsessed with having expensive and lavish clothes and jewelry merely to boast to one another. They spent excess amount of money on indulgent objects, while the majority of England barely had enough to sustain themselves. More employs Utopia’s treatment of luxury items for what they are—nonessential and excessive—to show how the elites’ admiration of those objects was simply to appeal to their superiority complex. Rather than utilizing their surplus wealth to aid in the survival of those who are less fortunate within their community, the rich spent money on items with high monetary worth, but in reality, were worthless.
Personal property and possession of items are nonexistent within Utopian civilization as there is “no property among them” and everything “belong[s] to the whole town” (101). Making everyone have the same amount of belongings—basically nothing—further equalizes the citizens of Utopia. More shows that “where no man has any property, all men zealously pursue the good of the public” and therefore focus on contributing to the furtherance of their community, rather than selfishly improving oneself at the expense of others (248). Utopia’s lack of ownership depicts a contrast to England as the privileged class thrived on an immoderate amount of possessions. Possessions defined England’s high society as their social power derived through the number of items that they owned. More presents the strong emphasis his society had on possessions, as their belongings influenced the perception of what other elites thought of them and impacted the life they would live. Property of land and possession of extravagant items determined the person they would marry, the success in their occupation, and their power within government. He shows how vapid the upper echelon of England was as they relied on the quantity of one’s belongings and wealth, rather than the quality of one’s character to determine how “well-off” they would be. More made life in Utopia based off of quality of life and minimalistic living for happiness to present to upper class England that possessions does not bring happiness and should not play such a significant role in influencing one’s life.
The justice system within Utopia is quite basic with minimal laws and straightforward processes and consequences for crimes; thus dismissing the ability for any exploitations of the law. When a crime is committed, the offender defends himself or herself as lawyers are thought to “disguise matters and to wrest the laws” (190). The ability for the accused person to defend oneself to a judge allows for a quicker and more effective process as the argument for innocence comes straight from the accused party and has no “artifices which lawyers are apt to suggest” (190). More formed the Utopian legal system as the converse to England’s legal system to illustrate how the privileged manipulated the system and distorted the definition of justice. England’s legal system favored the elites as those that were affluent and held titles impacted the creation and the interpretation of laws that could benefit them. The high society utilized their wealth to corrupt the system by swaying judges and witnesses in their favor. The use of lawyers further shows how justice can be corrupted within English society as the possibility for a one to be found innocent heavily relied on the proficiency of one’s lawyer. The rich were able to afford more adept lawyers that could effectively influence the courtroom, while the poor could barely afford—or not afford at all—substandard representation.
Utopian civilization is built on humanism, as there is no restriction on the necessities and supplies that families can acquire. Fathers are able to “[take] whatsoever he or his family stand in need of, without either paying for it or leaving anything in exchange” (121). No one in Utopia lives in constant worry about whether or not they will be able to economically provide for their family as there is “plenty of everything among them” (121). More presents a lenient control on the distribution of materials to depict England’s unjust acquirement of necessities. England’s lower class was unable to afford the food and materials that were necessary to their survival; however, the upper class was easily able to afford a surplus amount of food and furthermore, a surplus amount of luxuries. More depicts Utopians lack of desire to obtain more materials than needed, as “they are sure they shall always be supplied” to show how it is fear of not knowing whether one will be able to obtain imperative items that leads to greed and selfishness (121). The attainment of food and materials in England was based on the exchange of currency; therefore, society had an underlying unease from the possibility that they may not be able to afford their essentials. More shows that this underlying unease is what causes the rapacity within the privileged class and consequently, the destitution among the lower class.
Through Utopia, More reveals the un-altruistic and materialistic behavior of the upper class. The equal and united community of Utopia exposes the wrongs within English society as the rich carelessly spent their fortunes on lavish items and the poor struggled to make ends meet. The elites fed their egotistical nature through duplicitous actions derived from their hunger for power and greed; consequently, leaving the impoverished to attempt to survive on what little was remaining. Through the description of the ideal land of Utopia, More presents possible solutions to Englishmen on how their society could have be improved. Members of the upper class had the ability to break free from the narcissistic norms of their class and contribute to the advancement of their society through simply offering a fraction of their wealth—which would have barely made a dent within assets—that would have greatly assisted those living in poverty. Therefore, if you see ever someone that is less fortunate, think: can you afford losing a few dollars? Can your spare change be the difference in someone’s ability to purchase a meal? Will you be that person that takes a step towards the melioration of the world or will you stand by claiming ignorance of the wrongs occurring around you?
Modern day interpretations of Thomas More’s critical and controversial Utopia have called into question his messages to sixteenth century audiences. Utopia depicts a collection of similar, ideal cities that work together in equal accordance to achieve a liberating, stress-free lifestyle. As the story has aged, there have been new perceptions (developed from scholars and students alike) claiming that the work parallels communist practices. The speculative communism seen in Utopia refers to present-day radical communism of the sort that was (and in some cases still is) present in North Korea, Cuba, China, and Russia. People associate communistic government with tyrannical dictators, restriction of resources, and bleak quality of life. The line dividing Communism and Utopianism is very thin and gray. Though somewhat similar, Utopianism and Communism are also very different. Utopia best resembles communistic tendencies through the depictions of work life, emphasis on conformity, and strict laws. Although Thomas More’s Utopia shares similarities with Karl Marx’s communistic philosophy, More’s text is actually an exemplar of Renaissance humanism.
Work life in Utopia is one several focal points of the novel where communistic tendencies are displayed. Utopians take pride in their six-hour work days. On the island, it is declared that all citizens participate in agriculture/farming. Their population’s focus on farming sounds faintly similar to the focus of communist China (1958) whose ruler, Mao Zedong, demanded all citizens take part in steel and grain production in a program called the “Great Leap Forward” (San Diego State Uni.). It is easily seen that these people value their work and style when More tells audiences, “Agriculture is the one occupation at which everyone works, […] and throughout their lives always wear the same style of clothing” (More 603). This focus of all Utopian cities following the same priority towards farming sound similar to communism’s belief where each citizen most work regardless of preference. When the audience learns that all Utopians wear the same clothing, it could be easy for a reader to point out that their negligence of vanity sounds similar to communism’s practices where citizens all look very similar. The basic styling of Utopian people supports communist beliefs on living life in a simplistic matter. By disregarding different types of fashion, Utopians become (and look) more united. Another section of the Utopia that may come off across as communistic to audiences is the way these people abide by occupational rules and regulations. In their job philosophy, it is stated that, “consequently, the Utopians maintain that one should not only abide by private agreements but also obey all those public laws which control the distribution of vital goods” (More 616) in order to maintain Utopia’s functionality. In present communist society, it is required for a worker to be as efficient as possible. Since the Utopians claim to follow the public laws and private agreements set out by higher authority, this scenario demonstrates how the Utopian and Communists are submissive to work life and think similarly in terms of benefiting their work life.
While work life is a large focus of Utopian (and Communistic) society, there is also a very large emphasis on conformity. In More’s novel, the citizens never once express any signs of discontent with the current conformity placements held by the governor and phylarch. The citizens of Utopia seem to never have interaction with other non-Utopians when the narrator states, “hardly any stranger[s] enter” (More 599). This seclusion from other territories and determination to stick together as a body of Utopians sounds eerily familiar to communistic North Korea. Within this Asian country, there are a series of tests and in-depth interviews for strangers of the country to take to cross the border. Another example where there are communistic tendencies being exploited in More’s work is when it is announced that, “It is a general rule that the more different anything is from what people are used to, the harder it is for people to accept.” (More 611). This tells audiences that the inhabitants of Utopia need to blend in with the crowd and not cause any disturbances to the norms of the island. This restriction of divergence (in thinking) in Utopian society relates perfectly to communism’s support for sameness. Both societies engage in this activity of restriction to eliminate potential conflict. In communist countries, they find progress in having a united body of people with the same mindset to ensure success of their people (Bukharin & Preobrazhenskiĭ). Since Utopian and communistic philosophies both value conformity, it is easy to say that living in these worlds would require a much practice in the art of losing one’s self to a devoted cause.
In regards to the third (and final) exploration of apparent communism in Thomas More’s Utopia, one must look at the strict laws that are set in place in the story. Audiences can imagine a communistic society as a place with strict rules and the setting of Utopia is no exception to this common practice. It is common present-day communistic practice for a ruler/dictator to take over the land and rule until they die. This strict practice is apparent in Utopia when it is revealed, “That in the beginning the whole city was planned by Utopus himself […] The governor holds office for life.” (More 601-602). As one can see from Utopia’s text, there is a very big similarity in the way the rules are set in place for the island and for communistic rulings. While the firm rules regarding leadership are very strict and remaining firm, it is also important to look at another strict set of laws in the text. If there are natives on the island that do not abide by the rules, then Utopians, “think it is perfectly justifiable to make war on people who leave their land idle and waste,” (More 607) which is a very extreme. Reading this, audiences may begin to develop an idea that maybe Utopia is not what they thought it was. One may relate this to communist Russia or North Korea who send threats of war to other nations and see it justifiable as well. All in all, the strict laws of Utopia are heavily regarded by their supreme ruler and the system is not looking for change.
As one can see, there are some apparently well-considered arguments that communism is present in Utopia. While there may be many reasons and inferences to support this observation, these accusations must be laid to rest. It is imperative to understand that Utopia was written in 1516 and the foundations of communism were committed to print around 1848. Therefore, it is easy to see that the idea of a utopia came way before the idea of communism, let alone radical communist government. Utopianism was a concept, while communism was an actual practice. Therefore, any presences of communism in Utopia are all simple coincidence. Utopianism is founded on the premises of Renaissance humanism, which is all about progression of learning. After all, Thomas More created Utopia to criticize England (Cleland). Within this world, he wanted Utopia to be a place where people would not have to worry about the material items in life and focus on flourishing the mind around people that are just like oneself to embrace learning. He thought that by eliminating anything in life that was too excessive, he would be able to achieve sameness if he gave all Utopians the exact same resources. Meanwhile, the basis for Communism came from philosopher and scientist Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto. He was like More in that he wanted to eradicate the problems man face. He, however, had a different approach to make people the same. Communism is the process of bringing down the rich and rising up the poor in order to have one common middle class of people (to have equality). Unfortunately, as centuries have passed, communism has evolved into a type of government that now houses harsh rules, mean rulers, restriction of resources, and austere lifestyle. In the present, people associate communism with something bad, when it was potentially something good for humanity. The authors’ (More and Marx) intentions of writing their texts were originally meant to be for pure, hypothetical theory.
Although the speculations regarding communism in Utopia are not necessarily valid, it is heartening to see that scholarly minds are associating political philosophy and literature together. While utopianism and communism are considered different, the two philosophies are the same in that they want what is best for their people: equality. The critical work of Utopia still serves a place in modern day society to show audiences what life would be like if society were to abolish materiality. These connections to communism in Utopia are still important because it reveals how current minds think and compare things to one another. It is essential that audiences see Thomas More’s book as an exemplar of Renaissance humanism and not proto-communist manifesto due to the fact that More’s intended purpose was to challenge readers with a mental exercise of humanistic customs. With that being said, Utopia not only exemplifies Renaissance humanism, but also pinpoints the basis of what social accord could possibly be like. Thomas More’s Utopia can be thought of as many things, but what it should most be esteemed for are its humanistic and futuristic beliefs, ideas well ahead of its era.
Bukharin, Nikolaĭ, and E. Preobrazhenskiĭ A. The ABC of Communism; a Popular Explanation of the Program of the Communist Party of Russia. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1966. Print.
Cleland, Katherine. “The Renaissance “Rebirth”” Renaissance Literature. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg. 23, 25 Aug. 2016. Lecture.
More, Thomas. “Utopia.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by Julia Reidhead, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012, pp. 599-616.
“The Great Leap Forward Period in China, 1958-1960.” The Great Leap Forward Period in China, 1958-1960. San José State University Department of Economics, n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.
Yassour, Avraham. “Communism and Utopia: Marx, Engels and Fourier.” Studies in Soviet Thought, vol. 26, no. 3, 1983., pp. 217-227.