Thomas More Utopia
THE UNIVERSITRY OF LATVIA
Faculty of Foreign Languages
. The Second Book
The "dark" Middle Ages were followed by a time known in art and literature
as the Renaissance. The word "renaissance" means "rebirth" in French and
was used to denote a phase in the cultural development of Europe between
the 14th and 17th centuries.
Thomas More, the first English humanist of the Renaissance, was born in
London in 1478. Thomas More wrote in English and in Latin. The humanists
of al1 European countries communicated in the Latin language, and their
best works were written in Latin.
His style is simple, colloquial end has an unaffected ease. The work by
which he is best remembered today is "Utopia" which was written in Latin in
the year 1516. It has now been translated into all European languages.
"Utopia" (which in Greek means "nowhere") is the name of a non-existent
island. This work is divided into two books.
In the first, the author gives a profound and truthful picture of the
people's sufferings and points out the socia1 evils existing, in England at
the time. In the second book more presents his ideal of what the future
society should be like.
“The word "utopia" has become a byword and is used in Modern English to
denote an unattainable ideal, usually in social and political matters. But
the writer H.G. Wells, who wrote an introduction to the latest edition,
said that the use of the word "utopia" was far from More's essentia1
quality, whose mind abounded in sound, practical ideas. The book is in
reality a very unimaginative work.” (Harry Levin, “The Myth of the Golden
Age in the Renaissance.” 1969.)
Thomas More's "Utopia" was the first literary work in which the ideas of
Communism appeared. It was highly esteemed by all the humanists of Europe
in More's time and again grew very popular with the socialists of the 19th
century. After More, a tendency began in literature to write fantastic
novels on social reforms, and many such works appeared in various
The historical Thomas More, the author of Utopia, was an extraordinarily
complicated man who tied up all the threads of his life in his heroic
death. The real man is to me much more interesting than the plastic
creation adored by his most fervent admirers. The Utopia is the sort of
complicated book that we should expect from so complicated a man.
It is heavy with irony. Irony is the recognition of the distance between
what we say and what we mean. But then irony was the experience of life in
the Sixteenth Century - reason enough for Shakespeare to make it perhaps
his most important trope while the century was drawing to a close.
Everywhere in church, government, society, and even scholarship profession
and practice stood separated by an abyss.
In Utopia three characters converse and reports of other conversations
enter the story. Thomas More appears as himself. Raphael Hythlodaeus or
Raphael Nonsenso, as Paul Turner calls him in his splendid translation is
the fictional traveler to exotic worlds. More's young friend of Antwerp
Peter Gillis adds an occasional word.
Yet the Thomas More of Utopia is a character in a fiction. He cannot be
completely identified with Thomas More the writer who wrote all the lines.
Raphael Hythlodaeus's name means something like "Angel" or "messenger of
Nonsense." He has traveled to the commonwealth of Utopia with Amerigo
Vespucci, seemingly the first voyager to realize that the world discovered
by Columbus was indeed a new world and not an appendage of India or China.
Raphael has not only been to Utopia; he has journeyed to other strange
places, and found almost all of them better than Europe. He is bursting
with the enthusiasm of his superior experiences.
But how seriously are we to take him? The question has been much debated.
The Thomas More in the story objects cautiously and politely to Raphael's
Anyway, the main point about renaissance dialogues and declamations such as
Utopia is that their meaning depends on how we hear them. How we hear them
depends on what we bring to them.
“More was one of the most thorough and consistent thinkers in the Sixteenth
Century. He argued everything like the splendid lawyer he was. I believe
that when we read Utopia dialectically, through his other works, we may
penetrate to some degree the ironic screen that he has thrown over the
work. Even so, complete certainty about his meaning sometimes eludes us.”
(Harry Levin, The Myth of the Golden Age in the Renaissance, New York,
Oxford University Press, 1969.)
The Second Book
The second "book" or chapter in More's work – the description of the island
commonwealth somewhere in the New World. I shall leave aside the
fascinating first book, which is a real dialogue--indeed an argument
between the traveler Raphael Nonsenso and the skeptical Thomas More. I
shall rather discuss the second book, Nonsenso's description of this
orderly commonwealth based on reason as defined by the law of nature. Since
the Utopians live according to the law of nature, they are not Christian.
Indeed they practice a form of religious toleration – as they must is they
are to be both reasonable and willing to accept Christianity when it is
announced to them.
What is the Utopian commonwealth? What does the little book mean?
“As opposed to the official feast, one might say that carnival celebrated
temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established
order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges,
norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of
becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized
and completed.” (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, Indiana
University Press, 1984.)
Utopia provides a second life of the people above and beyond the official
life of the "real" states of the Sixteenth Century. Its author took the
radical liberty to dispense with the entire social order based on private
property, as Plato had done for the philosopher elite in his Republic.
“But at the same time, More took the liberty to suppose a commonwealth
built on the pessimism about human nature propounded by St. Augustine,
More's most cherished author. Augustine believed that secular government
was ordained by God to restrain fallen humankind from hurtling creation
into chaos. Without secular authority to enforce peace, sinful human beings
would topple into perpetual violence; so the state exists to keep order.”
A major source of violence among fallen human beings is cupidity, a form of
lust. Sinful human beings have an insatiable desire for things. For
Augustine there was no end to it.
So if we look at Utopia with More's Augustinian eye, we see a witty play on
how life might develop in a state that tried to balance these two impulses--
human depravity and a communist system aimed at checking the destructive
individualism of corrupt human nature. It is carnival, a festival, not a
plan for reform. When the carnival is over, and we come to the end of the
book, reality reasserts itself with a crash. More did not see in Utopia a
plan of revolutionary reform to be enacted in Christian Europe. Remember
The six-hour working day in Utopia also represents an eternal check against
the tendency of an acquisitive society to turn human beings into beasts of
burden to be worked as if they had no claim over themselves. Set over
against the misery of peasants depicted in the vision of Piers the Plowman
or against the child labor of early industrial America or the sweatshops of
modern Asia, the Utopian limitation on labor is a way of saying that life
is an end in itself and not merely an instrument to be used for someone
It is perhaps also a rebuke to those of us for whom work and life come to
be identical so that to pile up wealth or reputation makes us neglect
spouses, children, friends, community, and that secret part of ourselves
nourished by the willingness to take time to measure our souls by something
other than what we produce.
The sanitation of the Utopian cities is exemplary. The Utopians value
cleanliness and they believe that the sick should be cared for by the
state. The Utopians care for children. Education is open to all. They like
music, and in an age that stank in Europe, the Utopians like nice smells.
To average English people of the Sixteenth Century – living in squalor and
But to middle-class people like ourselves, our messy and fragmented society
looks good in comparison to Utopia. Here More's Augustinian conception of
sinful humankind becomes burdensome to the soul, for in the Utopian
commonwealth, individualism and privacy are threats to the state. I suspect
that we see as clearly as anywhere in Utopia just why communism did not
work. The weight of human depravity was simply too much to be balanced by
eliminating private property. Yet it is worth saying that More did not
ignore that depravity. Utopia is full of it.
“No locks bar Utopian doors--which open at a touch.” (Thomas More, Utopia,
tr. Paul Turner, London, Penguin, 1965, p. 73) The only reason the Utopians
can imagine for privacy is to protect property; there being no private
property, anybody can walk into your house at any time to see what you're
doing. Conformity is king. All the cities and all the houses in the cities
look pretty much alike. Of the towns Raphael says, "When you've seen one of
them, you've seen them all." (Thomas More, Utopia, tr. Paul Turner, London,
Penguin, 1965, p.71)
The Utopians change houses by lot every ten years just so they won't get
too attached to any endearing little idiosyncrasies in a dwelling. The
Utopian towns are as nearly square as the landscape will allow; that means
they are built on a grid. I can imagine nothing more similar to Utopian
cities in our own day than the sprawling developments outside our great
cities where every house looks like every other house and where even the
people and the dogs in one household bear a startling resemblance to all
the other people and all the other dogs in the neighbourhood.
I think in fact that Utopian women have a somewhat better time of it. A
small number of Utopians are allowed to spend their lives in study, freed
from the obligation to manual labour that is imposed on everyone else.
Women are among this privileged group. Divorce is permitted if husbands and
wives prove completely incompatible and if the case is investigated by the
authorities. But a husband is forbidden to divorce his wife merely because
she has become ugly. In Utopia no old rich men throw out the old wife and
take a new young trophy wife in exchange. The same harsh penalties for
adultery apply to both sexes. Husbands chastise their wives for offences.
But erring husbands are punished by their superiors in the hierarchy of
Utopia is a male-dominated society. Women have no political authority; that
authority is all placed in the hands of fathers. It is hard to escape the
suspicion that sexuality is stringently limited as part of a general belief
that passion of any kind is dangerous to the superior rationality that only
men can possess.
Let me close by making a point that I implied above. Utopia is thus not a
program for our society. It is not a blueprint but a touchstone against
which we try various ideas about both our times and the book to see what
then comes of it all. It helps us see what we are without telling us in
detail what we are destined to be. Utopia becomes part of a chain, crossing
and uncrossing with past and present in the unending debate about human
nature and the best possible society possible to the kind of beings we are.
Utopia becomes in every age a rather sober carnival to make us smile and
grimace and lift ourselves out of the prosaic and the real, to give
ourselves a second life where we can imagine the liberty to make everything
all over again, to create society anew as the wise Utopus himself did long
before in Utopia. His wisdom is not ours. But it summons us to have our own
wisdom and to use it as best we can to judge what is wrong in our society
in the hope that our judgment will make us do some things right, even if we
cannot make all things new this side of paradise.
. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, tr. Helene Iswolsky,
Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1984.
. Harry Levin, The Myth of the Golden Age in the Renaissance, New York,
Oxford University Press, 1969.
. More, Thomas. Utopia. Trans. Paul Turner. New York: Penguin Books,