Utopia Themes

Common welfare vs. private interest

The abolition of private property is one of More's chief criticisms of the Utopian state. On this point, the author allows his fictional equivalent (the character More) to disagree with Utopian policy and with Raphael Hythloday's interpretation of English society. Hythloday defends communism as practiced by the Utopians, noting that a similar sort of communal life was lived by the early Church and is still lived by the holiest monastic orders.

The Utopian argument is that pride is the great source of many crimes and injuries. By eliminating private property, class-based social stratification, and wealth, the Utopians remove the mechanisms with which much harm is done. In Utopia, there is no poverty and everyone works, quite unlike the feudal societies wherein there was much poverty and an inequitable distribution of labor. As modern history has revealed, communism is not the only alternative to feudalism and without a doubt, communism has not proved to be the most viable alternative to feudalism.

The Utopian position is founded upon an inherent distrust of mankind. At one point, we learn of the Utopians' claim that the afterlife of punishment or reward is the one thing that inspires man to obey law and respect others. This extreme position is reflected in the Utopian fear that private property will produce more harm than good and will cause the community to unravel. The Utopians are not opposed to the rational and intelligent improvement of one's interests. Rather, the Utopians seek the prioritization of the common welfare and the fulfillment of private interests through the common welfare whenever possible. Even private activities like eating, reading philosophy, and taking a vacation are inextricable parts of the communal life. Individual and private activities are discouraged. Privacy is a frightening notion for the Utopians: doors are constructed to give easy and immediate access to any passerby; it is a serious crime to discuss any political business anywhere other than the public assembly; families can be reconstituted by the state if the population distribution becomes lopsided.

Uniformity and dissent

Raphael Hythloday describes Utopia as a perfect society, but this perfection is not a natural occurrence. The New World is often depicted as a natural paradise resembling the natural beauty of the Biblical Garden of Eden. As the map of Utopia tells us visually, Utopia is not a natural paradise: it was painstakingly planned and crafted by a great commander named Utopus. Hythloday's commentary comes about 1700 years after Utopus transformed a peninsula of savages into an island paragon of civilization.

In Utopia, perfection is expressed in uniformity. This is not the New World aesthetic in which the diversity of flora and fauna is the indicative symptom of fullness and greatness. Utopia is agricultural, not jungle. The land is heavily urbanized with a system of cities interspaced with the agricultural hinterland. The cities are planned exactly the same way, just as the houses are built of identical architecture, bland utilitarian clothing is distinguished only by the intended wearer's gender, all citizens work the same number of hours daily, each city relies upon the same legal and political practices, and all adherents worship according to the same common prayers despite their various denominations. Indeed, all of the 54 cities have "exactly the same language, customs, institutions, and laws." Hythloday almost seems to flaunt Utopia's perfect uniformity in his opening aside: "If you know one of their cities, you know them all, so similar are they in all respects (so far as the terrain allows). And so I will describe one of them (it doesn't much matter which one)."

Utopia's degree of uniformity outstrips the European counterparts. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we find the formation of the nation-state in Britain, in France and in Spain. The modern reader may take the idea of the capital city for granted, but nation-building monarchs faced difficulties in harnessing the energies of commerce and urbanization in support of their power struggles against the well-placed regional nobles and lords. Today, many modern democracies see pluralism of language, customs, institutions, and‹to a lesser extent‹laws as strength ("E pluribus unum"). In More's time, the Spanish crown was desperate to establish one uniform language among dialects. In France, this same era initiated the Crown's spotty history of successes and failures in regional administration, the levying of taxes, and the mobilization of labor for public works and for war. And as for England, the reader need only note that Sir Thomas More wrote a Catholic defense of King Henry VIII against Martin Luther in 1523, but Henry took More's head 12 years later, More's "treason" reflecting a refusal to honor Henry as head of the new Anglican Church.

Perceiving the Utopians as prone to fighting, Utopus established the possibility of peace by blanching out diversity of thought. The society follows a master plan handed down from generation to generation. And regarding religion, those truths which were held to be self-evident (the existence of a Divine power, the immortality of the soul, the fact of an afterlife), these became the basis for persecution in Utopia, albeit comparatively mild persecution. Heretics were not burned, but they were restricted in speech and effectively barred from public office. The Utopian nation-state seems more like an old world fantasy quite unlike the New World.

Civic virtue and the moral education of citizens

The Utopian population is well educated and the office of citizen corresponds to aspects of Roman practice and Greek philosophy. The Utopians may not regard Aristotle's defense of private property, but their celebration of virtue is much like the Greek philosopher's. Utopians devote a considerable amount of time and energy towards the moral education of the young, and they also integrate the ideas of justice, beauty, and happiness. Like Plato's "Republic," Utopia is ruled by philosophically minded individuals and there are striations of citizenship designed to funnel great minds of character towards positions of leadership and public trust. Like the Romans, the Utopians celebrate great ancestors and memorialize them in statue form as a means of presenting an example of virtue.

While the Athenian ideal is more sympathetic to ideas of individualism and privacy, the Roman idea of the individual as public citizen is closer to the Utopian paradigm. The citizen is charged with obligations of vigilance against tyranny and the family unit is sometimes sent into war as a small division or phalanx within an army. In Utopia, Virtue is defined in a circular manner: it is the moral character of an individual who supports society, and individuals who serve as the pillars of society are considered virtuous. The Utopians lack an objective standard of virtue separate from the prevailing standards of their society. Family and state work together to carefully transfer the values of the older generation to the members of the younger generation.

Truth: parody vs. factual representation

Utopia is both a work of fiction and a philosophical treatise. The author, Sir Thomas More, appears as a character alongside his real-life friend, Peter Giles. Giles and More are joined by Raphael Hythloday: a man who describes the island of Utopia. Both Hythloday and Utopia are products of More's imagination. This has ramifications for the literary structure of the work because More wants to forward philosophical truth at the same time that he is presenting fiction. Hythloday's commentary is transcribed in Book Two. The introductory letter, Book One, and the concluding letter sandwich Book Two and provide the context within which Hythloday's arguments may be properly read.

More offers clues to help the reader understand that Utopia is not actually a real place. The very word Utopia means "no place." The major city of Utopia, Amaurot, means "phantom." The Anyder is named as a river with no water, and the ruler Ademus is a man with no people. Of course, if More were arguing that Utopia was actually an island in the New World, he would be neither the first nor the last writer of fraudulent New World adventure tales. Utopia is a parody of that genre, even as it is a work of philosophy.

The tension in More's games is that More knows that language games are often used to deliberate blur the truth. More served as an accomplished lawyer and judge yet the Utopians ban all lawyers as "clever practitioners and sly interpreters of the law." Certainly, this was intended to be humorous and serious. Hythloday becomes a mouthpiece for criticisms of church practices, political corruption, and social ills. Parody and humor allow More to expose areas of legitimate concern, albeit indirectly.

Exploration through philosophy and travel

More's work presents two forms of exploration. In one sense, More's fictional story simulates the New World adventures of travelers who searched the unknown regions of globe. These earliest travelers were motivated largely by myths and stories of the New World and one of the most popular storylines was the idea of the perfect Paradise. Utopia puts forward the idea of a place that is not merely a naturally perfect paradise; rather, it is a society of human perfection. Utopia means "no place" however, and we see that Utopian society is quite imperfect. Though More celebrates the pursuit of perfection, he accepts the rational observation that the reality of the New World (or the Old World, for that matter) is sure to fall below the standards of the ideal.

Though perfection is elusive, conditions can always be improved. Utopia may be read as "no place" but it is more often interpreted as "good place" (eu-topia). More's philosophical exploration is founded upon the belief that the contemplation and discussion of philosophy can initiate the processes through which society is improved. More describes his fictionalized treatise as "medicine smeared with honey." The exploration of a fictitious New World island is the honey that makes the medicine of serious philosophical contemplation easier to stomach.

Utopia's narrative structure testifies to More's use of the fictional island as "honey," as stylistic form as opposed to content. Thomas More was aware of the accounts of the New World, but the images of cannibals, monsters and treacherous reefs are extremely rare in the work. Utopia's climate seems to resemble Europe more than the tropics, and Utopia is described as a response to Old World politics: More does not create an elaborate history of the New World. Utopia stands as an example, an exercise for thought. Just as Utopia has fifty-four cities, England had fifty-three counties plus London. At some points, Utopia is the mirror opposite of More's England (private property). At other points, Utopia seems to be a desirable alternative to More's England (the intelligent construction of bridges). Utopia is not valued as an inhabitable paradise; Utopia is a moral exploration not unlike John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, through which the reader may see himself in others and make amends.