Thomas More’s Utopia: The Secrets to Their Happiness

I promised my readers juicy details about how Thomas More’s Utopia achieves it’s happy state of affairs, so here goes:

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The island of Utopia

  • The country of Utopia was once part of the mainland but is now an island this is because the conquerer/founder of the country, Utopus, forced both the natives and the slaves to dig a channel to separate it from the mainland. Of course, the happiness of this place depends on homogeneity of belief and a universal understanding of its rules and expectations, so physical separation from contamination from the outside world is kind of necessary.
  • The island of Utopia has 54 cities all built on an identical plan as far as their individual geographies will allow. The townspeople people live in rows of houses each with a large garden. They love gardening and have friendly competitions for the best garden. Every few years the families switch houses.
  • Travel from city to city requires permission from the city official and a passport. But these are easily obtained. The home city even provides an ox-drawn wagon and a slave for the trip. Travelers find everyone friendly along the road and are always abundantly fed and comfortably lodged. However if you try to travel without a passport punishment is severe. You become a slave.
  • There are rules about the age men and women can marry and the number of children allowed per family. If parents exceed the number of children allowed, extra children are given to families who are in need of more children. However, families are generally quite large. Utopians subscribe to the “it takes a village” approach to raising children.
  • Private use of gold and silver is limited to making chamber pots and chains for the slaves. They also use these metals to make degrading decorations for the slaves such as special earrings symbolizing special dishonor or mock crowns for their heads. In this way the people are taught to hold these metals in contempt. Iron, however, is highly valued for its usefulness.
  • Each city is surrounded by countryside where small farms produce food and other agricultural products such as wool and linen. All Utopians are taught agriculture as part of their basic education. The people rotate to farm labor periodically so that no one class is stuck supporting the rest of the population. Those who find they truly love the agricultural life may ask permission for a longer or even permanent stay on the farm.
  • Utopia has no private property and no private money. Gold and silver for emergency community use, such as defense or recovery from a natural disaster, is stored in warehouses and is acquired by selling excess excess agricultural goods neighboring countries. The Utopians are very productive and therefore always have plenty of goods available for export.
  • Clothing is simple, comfortable, and always the natural color of the material used to create it. No need for dyes or decoration. Everyone dresses the same, even to the national and city leaders.
  • In fact all the worst jobs, the jobs considered degrading to the soul, are done by slaves. Undesirable work includes butchering animals, cleaning up messes, and refuge disposal.
  • Eight hours of each 24-hour day are devoted to sleep and the remainder of the time is for personal pleasure and self-improvement. The most universal free-time activity is reading. The people also like community activities. They have various games including a card game called Virtues and Vices; but if you really enjoy your work and want to do more of it, you are free to do so.
  • Each city is run by an official selected from a specialized class of people singled out for education in literature, philosophy, and scholarship. Reading books and philosophical discussion are highly valued among the entire population but only a select few are excused from regular utilitarian labor to devote themselves entirely to scholarship. Those young scholars who fail to live up to expectations are sent back to the regular labor force.
  • Diamonds, pearls, and gems are used as playthings of young children. In this way older children and adolescents learn to associate jewels with immaturity.
  • Being in the labor force is no great punishment. Every citizen, male and female, has a trade suited to his or her disposition and ability. Women generally work in textile-based trades while men work in trades such as carpentry and ironwork. The work day is six hours: three hours before the midday meal and three hours after.
  • Meals are communal and take place a large hall. The men sit together on one side of the room and women on the other. There is a room set up for taking care of small children and it also accommodates pregnant women who need to take a break. Old and young people are mixed together in the seating plan so that the young can learn from the old in a natural casual setting. Women decorate and set up tables and may do some lighter serving, but the hard messy labor of cooking and cleanup is done by slaves.
  • The Utopians have precise and disciplined methods for handling war and international relations. Since they are not interested in expanding their territory, increasing their wealth, or evangelizing their way of life, the need to go to war is exceedingly rare. However, should they need to defend themselves, they are prepared.
  • Utopians have a religion that includes an afterlife in which they believe virtue is rewarded and vice is punished. They believe the purpose of life is to attain happiness. Utopians think it mad to pursue virtue by renouncing pleasure as virtue and proper pleasure go hand-in-hand. Proper virtues are good and honest and do not degrade either oneself or anyone else. Drinking alcohol, gambling, and sex outside of marriage are not considered either pleasurable or virtuous. There are no taverns or gambling establishments and most certainly no brothels.
  • In fact committing adultery is a serious crime. Do it once and you may apply for forgiveness. Do it twice and you are sent into slavery. If your spouse still wants to be with you, she or he may accompany you. If the community decides you are sufficiently reformed there is a chance you may be restored to freedom.

******

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Thomas More when he was Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII. By Hans Holbein, the Younger, 1527

Does that sound like a place you’d like to live? If you are happy to live according to the rules and if you are not a slave, I suppose it sounds like a nice-enough life. Personally I would avoid Utopia like the plague. I can’t help wonder what happens to the first teenage girl who discovers you can color fabric with plants and wants to weave colored threads through her natural colored clothing. Or the boy who wants to sneak outside the city walls at night and explore the world all by himself. People being what we are, any Utopia has to efficiently eliminate the impure elements to keep things operating according to plan. This invariably means coercion, slavery, and death for the non-compliant.

Maybe Thomas More knew this and that’s why this book is not a serious call to action. In the end Thomas More personally experienced the fatal consequences of non-compliance with the state.

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Posted on June 5, 2016, in Classics, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I get to read this for TWEM histories, and strangely I am looking forward to it. It doesn’t sound like a place I’d want to live b/c I don’t like man-made rules. I certainly don’t like the communal aspect and lack of family units.

    • I looked up your post on the TWEM histories. I will probably want to try that too. I have recently waded into The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon. Maybe that one is on the list. I am a little surprised Utopia is in on a list of history books. There is about a chapter of it that could be considered historical but most of it is fiction. Of course it is also a satire very closely connected to the events of the time, so when you read it you do learn a lot about history and in the most fun way. Not dry as dust like The Decline and Fall. I’m hoping that one gets better. So far I am just taking it a chapter at a time.

  2. I completely agree with you about the sinister implications of all Utopias. I wonder if in the context of More’s violent and chaotic Europe of 1516 that vision might have seemed more attractive?

    • Ian, I’m sure Utopia would seem like a better alternative to the situation of many, probably most, people in Europe at that time. If you are poor, hungry, or living in fear you will grab at any hope, even imaginary hope. I’m guessing Utopia must have seemed way more imaginative in the 16th century than it does in our era. We have seen some societal engineering schemes actually tried on a large scale.

  3. Utopia does not sound like such a nice place. That’s the problem with all utopias, isn’t that everyone has to agree all the time or it won’t work. Noncompliance cannot be allowed. Which then makes one wonder whether utopia is actually a totalitarian state.

    • More does not present it as a totalitarian state because the laws are few and mild and the leaders are good and honest. Nevertheless it is, because if you break one of those mild easy laws punishment is severe and certain. There is no arguing or working for change. I’m not sure T. More thought it all the way through. Reading and education are encouraged but what do they read? What if they were to read about, say, a free-thinking philosophy of personal freedom? Or a book on colorful dyes you can make from plants? Eventually they might need to impose censorship.

      • And that would make it even more totalitarian. I read once the More intended the book to be satire, do you get that impression?

  4. C.S. Lewis treats it as light fiction and even More poked fun at his work. Lewis said:

    “….. it appears confused only so long as we are trying to get out of it what it never intended to give. It becomes intelligible and delightful as soon as we take it for what it is —- a holiday work, a spontaneous overflow of intellectual high spirits, a revel of debate, paradox, comedy and (above all) of invention, which starts many hare and kills none ….. There is a thread of serious thought funning through it, an abundance of daring suggestions, several back-handed blows at European institutions ……. But he does not keep our noses to the grindstone. He says many things for the fun of them, surrendering himself to the sheer pleasure of imagined geography, imagined language, and imagined institutions. That is what readers whose interests are rigidly political do not understand: but everyone who has ever made an imaginary map responds at once.”

    I really enjoyed Utopia and I loved learning about More. Quite a complex and fascinating man. I really enjoyed your reviews ~~ it’s so interesting to see how each reader reacts to this book.

    • Each reader’s response is what reading and sharing classics is all about. Thanks Cleo. You know I love C.S. Lewis. He can really capture the spirit of a book. In “Surprised by Joy” he talks about the imaginary world he and his brother built for years during their childhood. It laid the foundation for the rich creative life he lived and the books he wrote.

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