Thomas More Utopia

                        Faculty of Foreign Languages

                                 Thomas More

                                                             Open University
                                                                    5 course


 . Introduction
 . Utopia
 . The Second Book
 . Conclusion
 . Bibliography


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.
(Mikhail Bakhtin)
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 subtitle
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,

"Thomas More Utopia "