I promised my readers juicy details about how Thomas More’s Utopia achieves it’s happy state of affairs, so here goes:
- 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.
******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.
Utopia by Thomas More starts out as a true account of a diplomatic mission to Flanders. At the time More was serving as a Councillor to King Henry VIII. During some free time in Antwerp, More befriends a prominent young printer named Peter Giles (a real historical person with his own Wikipedia page). But the story soon enters the realm of fiction when Peter introduces More to a wise old sea traveler with philosophical bent by the name of Raphael Hythloday. Hythloday translates as “peddler of nonsense.”
Raphael has traveled widely, accompanying Amerigo Vespucci on three voyages to the new world. It was during one of these explorations that Raphael observed and studied the laws, customs, and population of a perfect society in a place called Utopia. Says More, “We asked him many questions concerning all these things, to which he answered very willingly; we made no inquiries after monsters, than which nothing is more common; for everywhere one may hear of ravenous dogs and wolves, and cruel men-eaters, but it is not so easy to find states that are well and wisely governed.”
The book is not a sincere attempt to offer a serious model for European society to imitate. There is some controversy around More’s real purpose for writing the book, but it was certainly not to sow seeds of revolution. It seems to me mostly a veiled criticism of the corrupt political system of his time. More is not an early version on Karl Marx laying the foundation for a new society, even though his Utopia is basically a communist arrangement. There’s just no serious implied proposal that Europe ought to abolish money, monarchies, and power politics and be like Utopia. My sense is that Utopia is a sharp satire of More’s own society disguised as an anthropological study of a bizarre culture in a faraway land.
Another thing you should know about Thomas More’s Utopia, is that this perfect society as described by Raphael includes slavery. In 2016 Ameria, that fact is enough for many people to trash the whole book at the outset. But because my policy is not to impose my era’s morality on literature of the past, I gave the book a chance. It is fascinating to observe that, in 1516, a society which included slavery could be considered ideal without so much as the raising of an eyebrow. It is just taken for granted as the way things are done, like eating animals or cultivating the earth.
You’d think that in a book that is all about visualizing an alternative way to run a society, someone would question the whole notion of owning other people. But no one does. It seems like up until a certain point in history, perhaps the 18th century, slavery as well as various forms of semi-permanent low-paid servitude were simply accepted as a necessary part of human life, as if for civilization to exist at all it was assumed there had to be slaves.
The fictional location of Utopia is somewhere in South America, just far enough north of the equator for the climate to be pleasant. It was originally attached to the mainland, but its founder had a channel cut to make it an island. The Greek words for Utopia mean something like “no place.” Here is a neatly phrased explanation from the British Library website: “In 1516 Sir Thomas More wrote the first ‘Utopia’. He coined the word ‘utopia’ from the Greek ou-topos meaning ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’. But this was a pun – the almost identical Greek word eu-topos means a good place. So at the very heart of the word is a vital question: can a perfect world ever be realised?”
Even though this book was written nearly a century before Shakespeare, I found the English surprisingly modern. This is because More originally wrote the book in Latin and I read a 1901 edition of a 17th-century translation by Gilbert Burnet. I have not been able to find out the exact date of this translation, but since Burnet lived from 1643 to 1715 I am guessing he published it the latter part of that century. You can get free from the Gutenberg Project.
Coming soon: The juicy details of how the Utopians achieve the best possible human society for its citizens: peace, security, plentiful food, shelter, and clothing, maximum health, meaningful work, and wholesome entertainment.