Thursday, January 9, 2014

Utopia by Thomas More

Way back in my Rutgers days I was supposed to read Utopia by Thomas More in a class on Tudor England taught by Professor Maurice Lee. I must have had some video games to play or something, because I didn't read it. Maybe I was painting some Games Workshop tanks and artillery that week? Anyway, this week I downloaded an electronic version of Utopia and completed the assignment, less than 25 years behind schedule.  I didn't let you down after all, Prof Lee!

More starts off his book, presented to the world in 1516, with a first person narrative about his diplomatic mission to the Continent.  In the Low Countries he meets a wise and well-traveled man. At a friendly meal this traveler, Raphael Hythloday, starts criticizing the English and French ruling classes and their governing policies. Thieves, he claims, are driven to crime by hunger, hunger caused by the policies of the rich, and so hanging thieves is immoral and counterproductive. The nobility and their hangers on are idle and greedy. The French government is damned for maintaining a standing army, and the English upper class denounced for the “enclosure movement” we talked about ad nauseum in college, whereby farm land held in common was turned into private pasture for sheep, leading to increased efficiency and the dislocation of many rural people. Everybody, rich and poor, spends too much money on fancy clothes, on gambling, and in taverns and “infamous houses,” writes More, the guy who wore a hair shirt and thought flagellating himself was a good way to spend his down time.

So, More has a lot of gripes about the powers that be (who doesn’t, buddy?) and even ordinary people who want to relax with a little sex, booze, dice and cards. But does he have solutions? Well, he does; or at least he acts like he does.  Hythloday relates how thieves are dealt with among the Polylerits, a fictional autonomous bunch of people in Persia - thieves become slaves to the public, forced to wear distinguishing marks and follow complex rules that keep them from fleeing or fomenting revolution. More is so impressed by this idea that he proclaims Hythloday a genius and urges him to become a royal adviser, but Hythloday declares that his ideas are too radical to be welcomed by courts and kings.

Hythloday then drops his bombshell. There is no hope, he tells More, of a just and prosperous society until property has been abolished and equality enforced, as it has been in a wonderful land he visited and spent five years in, Utopia. More (the character) makes the obvious objection to collectivism: that with no prospect of reward, people will not work. Hythloday tells More that if he will spare him some time, he will explain in detail how things work in Utopia, a country with no money, no property, and a happy populace. Seeing as there are no video games yet, and Games Workshop has yet to be founded, More has time to listen to Hythloday's description. So begins the discourse on the fantasy land which gives its name to More's book and has been applied to the entire literary genre of exemplary ideal societies.

Utopia has a scientifically planned economy, with experts keeping track of how much food needs to be grown and what quantities of other resources are required and directing who is to produce them and where they are to be sent. These experts draft people to work in the fields, whether they want to or no, and everybody has to work on the farm for at least two years. The government determines what professions people can pursue, and directs people to those professions the experts feel are in need of more practioners.

Every little detail of life has been planned out and is under government control. The island of Utopia has 54 towns, and they all are built on the same plan. In fact, even the houses and streets all look exactly the same. People are assigned where to live; if your family has lots of children some will be assigned to a family which has few children; if your city has lots of people some will be sent to a city where some disaster has lowered the population. Everyone wears the same clothes, and fashions never change. The government makes sure you spend an appropriate number of hours a day working, an appropriate number of hours sleeping, and a healthy number of hours at wholesome recreation. If you want to go visit some other town, you have to ask permission from a government agent, and since there is no money, while in that town you have to pay your way by working. No one is allowed to be idle or waste time and resources on things like making nice clothes of different colors or designing or constructing different styles of architecture.

Order is maintained in Utopia by compelling all men to live in full view where there is no opportunity to form political parties; there is no privacy (doors are not locked) and no such places as taverns or brothels. Government magistrates are forbidden to talk about politics in private; such a crime is punished with death. Lesser crimes, like leaving your town without permission, get you tossed into slavery.

The Utopians have no money, and Hythloday argues at the end of the book that most crime would cease if money were abolished. The Utopians have such contempt for gold and silver that they use these metals to make chamber pots, as well as chains for their slaves. Pearls and diamonds are worn only by children. For fun everybody reads and attends lectures; More tells us that the Utopians find gambling and hunting totally uninteresting, even disgusting - all necessary butchering and hunting is done by slaves.

More's vision of Utopia is so extreme and repellant that we have to wonder how seriously he is promoting Utopia as a model of a just and efficient society, and how much his image of a totalitarian state with no property and no money is in fact some kind of satire. (In the last paragraph of the book More muddies the waters and leaves us with a puzzle when he says he endorses some but not all of the policies and beliefs of the Utopians, without specifying which. Tricky!)

How much sense does it make for a guy to criticize how real life governments abuse power, and then propose a government with far greater power? How much sense does it make for More to decry the way rural people are forced off the land in the interest of efficiency by rich sheep farmers, and then argue that it would be great if the government, in the interest of efficiency, told you where to live and what work to do and if and when and for how long you could take a trip to the next town? Maybe More is attacking English government policies by exaggerating them and showing how terrible they would be if more universally applied?

On the other hand, I suppose it is not hard to believe that More, a successful lawyer and politician and a well-read and pious intellectual who thought it was just fine to burn heretical books and heretical people, would like the idea of smart industrious ascetic guys like himself organizing everything and enforcing their own prejudices, making the lazy work, the vain abandon their fancy clothes and jewels, and the vicious put down their dice and cards and pick up improving books. More probably looked at the world, which is full of wars and crimes and poverty and famine, and figured he, or a cadre of people like him, could do a better job of running things. More also didn't have the benefit we have of 20th century examples of countries where policies abolishing property and planning the economy were put into practice.

Can I recommend Utopia, even though I am emphatically opposed to Utopia?  It's not exactly a thrill ride or a page turner, but if you are interested in politics, economics, religion, and European history, as I am (in my own haphazard and lazy way), it certainly is worth a little of your time.  The book provides a view into another world, that of early 16th century Europe, and addresses important contentious issues, like the role of the state and relations between social classes, that have been at the center of Western civilization for thousands of years and are still at the center of political and social debates in our day.


  1. I always thought that More was satirizing specific economic, judicial, and political policies of the day by creating a world that deliberately shows them in stark contrast. A great review of Lafferty's Past Master I once read (which I cannot find right now) pointed out that there is some conflict in how people react to the satire in Utopia--many people see see it as a satire of English social structure of the early 16th century, while social and religious conservatives see it as a satire of the drive to create a more ideal society by throwing out stable social structures. The review saw Lafferty's portrait of More drawn along those religiously conservative lines.

    Now, more than ever, I am looking forward to your review of Past Master.

    Thank you,


  2. I didn't mention it in the body of the blog post, but I decided to read Utopia now mostly as preparation for reading Past Master, which i will probably start tonight or tomorrow.

  3. Tommaso Campanella's early 17th century The City of the Sun is BY FAR my favorite Utopia inspired utopia. One of the most important early utopian works.... Tommaso Campanella was quite the character.

    Here's the wikipedia link.

    1. I find it incredibly thought-provoking -- I do not espouse his political views (theocratic) in anyway. So, intriguing as a historical document with fascinating philosophical ruminations...