Thomas More was born in London in 1477. More had extensive education and rose quickly through the Government hierarchy and attained high office. In May 1515, he was appointed to a delegation to help revise an Anglo-Flemish commercial treaty. During this time, he began writing Utopia and completed it upon his return to London. Utopia was first published in Latin at Louvain in December 1516. More added Utopia just before the outbreak of the reformation, during a time when the stresses and corruption that led to the reformation were rapidly increasing towards conflict.
Utopia itself depicts what its narrator Hythloday, claimed to be an ideal society. The book became a huge success and founded a literary tradition known as ‘the utopian novel.’ This tradition is the author’s attempt to describe a perfect and ideal society. The book is in two parts, and it is believed that the first was written last and the second was written first. The first book (book 1) is presented as an introduction to book two and provides commentary to it. Many also viewed that the first book was likely to have been written in two parts, firstly, to introduce the characters, particularly the narrator: Hythloday briefly.
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The second part being of Hythloday giving an extended speech on several subjects, with some being of significant interest to More, the author. Book one starts as a discussion between More, Hythloday and Peter Giles. At first, the discussion is very relaxed, starting in a church, then continuing into a garden and at a friend’s dinner but soon becoming more and more intense as they enter into debates such as practical politics and theft in England. Even though More himself has his character in the book, many believe More uses Hythloday as a mask and shields himself behind him and so can gain the safety he needs to discuss a number of controversial issues and ideas that he has about England.
For example, during More and Hythloday’s discussions, Hythloday talks about capital punishment, land reform and the distribution of property and gives his full opinions and suggestions as to how these matters should be resolved, whereas the character of More tends to remain silent about Hythloday’s opinions but he does agree that some reform is needed. MThus, moreare able to use Hythloday’s character in the book to create discussions about problems that clearly need resolving, rather than use his character as a mouthpiece as More doesn’t always seem to agree with Hythloday’s views.
During these discussions, and while Hythloday is offering resolutions to many of the problems, he gives examples of places he has visited where such practices had been in place, resolving a lot of problems they may have otherwise had. From this, he then talks about introducing the island of Utopia, which they do not start until book two after they have had lunch, and they are ready to listen to Hythloday’s description of the island as there is no discussion involved in the book two.
Hythloday presents the island of Utopia and its practices to us as an island of perfection. Each of its cities is the same size. The houses all look the same. Each city has the same number of families and no. of people in those families because the utopians see equality as a visual image of perfection. They also take great pride in their gardens thus, presenting an allusion to the biblical garden of Eden again, ‘the perfect garden’. In Utopia, everyone works and work is limited to only six hours a day as this is all that is necessary, and they don’t believe that people should work unless they need to. This also gives people more free ‘private time’ for each of them, which they can then enjoy and put to proper use.
Utopia has no money, and people only have the bare necessities they need. The utopians believe that happiness does not consist of material things such as position and title. As long as there is property and money in a nation, it will never be governed justly or happily. Utopians do not like war and try to avoid it, but each of their men is still trained in military expertise just in case. They believe a glorious war is a victory when no blood has been shed, whereas a bloody war tends to trouble them. Therefore, they do not take part in wars that can be avoided and only declare war if they believe there is no other possible way to resolve the problem.
“Their one aim in wartime is to get what they’ve previously failed to get by peaceful means – or, if that’s out of the question, to punish the offenders so severely that nobody will ever do such a thing again. They make for these objectives by the shortest possible route – but always on the principle of safety first, and national prestige second.” The utopians do not fight themselves unless it is necessary. Instead, they hire people from other countries to fight for them; this way, they are still fighting but saving their people from death and can still win wars.
Decision-making is very different in Utopia compared to most countries. Annually a ‘pilarch’ is elected to represent every thirty families, and then an archpilarch rules over every ten pilarch’s. There are 200 pilarch in total, and each has to pick from a list of four people a prince – a person they believe to be the most suited to be in office and this person remains there for their lifetime unless they are removed to due suspicions of corruptions etc. No decision is made regarding the Utopian public until it has been debated amongst the council for at least several days. Two different pilarch’s sit every day to discuss each of these matters and the archpilarch’s meet every third day to discuss more important matters.
Although, if the matter is fundamental, it is discussed amongst the families who then report back to the pilarch’s and archpilarch’s, etc., so the final decision is fair. They also have a rule whereby a decision is not be made in less than 24 hours therefore, each decision is thought out properly and not made irrationally. Making them seem just and fair. From each of the examples given about the island of Utopia Hythloday makes out that it seems to be a perfect and ideal placed to live in, where everyone is equal, everyone has the same amount of food and materials etc. and everything seems just.
He believes Utopia to be the greatest social order in the world, and societies other than Utopia are merely conspiracies of the rich because these societies have money and wealth that leads to evil and corruption whereas money and wealth in Utopia have no meaning. For some people, it would seem the utopians are under a false consciousness of being happy and in a perfect and ideal society. Because they are so intensely conditioned for example, from the minute they start education they are forced into agricultural labour and monitored to make good use of their spare time throughout their adulthood by continuing their knowledge and education which for some people they may have other interests which they may not be able to explore because of these rules imposed upon them.
It would also seem that Utopians lack independence, individuality and freedom as they never have a day off from work or study even when they go travelling they have to continue to work. They all dress the same, eat together and each of their houses always has an open door which also means their personal space and privacy would be extremely limited. One of the main criticisms of seeing Utopia as an ideal society is that the word Utopia itself means ‘no place’ and the main character Hythloday translates into ‘expert in nonsense’. Showing that overall, More may not have perceived Utopia as a society of idealism and perfection, but it would seem that many of Utopia’s policies offer criticisms and resolutions to the problems he saw in Europe at the time, and so it is vital to see that this book is a response to a specific historical period.
- Logan, G, M., Adams, R, M. (1997). Utopia. London: Cambridge University Press.
- Skinner, Q. (1978). The foundations of modern political thought: The Renaissance V.1. London: Cambridge University Press.
- More, T., Turner, P (editor). Utopia (2003). London: Penguin Books ltd.
- Solomon, R, C., Higgins, K, M., (1996). A short history of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Thomas More/Utopia Websites: