Sir Thomas More’s Utopia

Utopia (1516) seems much younger than its almost five hundred years. If you liked Gulliver’s Travels, Brave New World, or 1984,  but you’ve never heard of Utopia, you’d be surprised at how many of the thoughts expressed by Jonathan Swift, Aldous Huxley, or George Orwell or were founded on ideas elaborated on by More. Some of the major differences include acknowledgment of the developments from technological advancement and political changes. Another thing you’d likely be surprised to learn is that of all the authors mentioned above were English/Irish writers. Utopian literature in general (the genre term comes from More’s book) is dominated by the English. It’s as if the English don’t have anything better to do than come up with ideal systems of government. Don’t they like the one they have?

An early rendering of the fictional isle, though I imagined it slightly differently

Imagine the rest of the isle equally covered with small townships

My rendering: Imagine the rest of the isle equally covered with small townships

That being said, Plato was one of the first people to use his imagination and construct an ideal system of government in The Republic. Of course, in his version, philosophers are the kings. Plato considered his system eutopian and perfect, which distinguishes his work from More and those who came after him (hence the irony in the homonym of eutopia and utopia). Plato put a lot of work into pointing out the flaws of an already present system and instructed how to make them better. More and those after him propose alternative systems that seem like solutions, but don’t purpose to provide all the right answers to all the questions.

While reading Utopia seems instructive and a seriously viable plan, it’s best to look at the booklet as a satire of what was already happening in England and what could be changed. Most of these suggestions happen by referring to what the Utopians don’t do. This implies that that which they do do (like all that repetition?) is not that what More’s contemporaries did/do. There seem to be a lot of suggestions that could be taken seriously, such as removing the idea of private property and the “scarcity value” of “precious” metals like silver and gold, but when one reads certain lines, one has to question whether the suggestions are merely commentary or actual suggestions.

The Utopians are particularly strict about that kind of thing [pre-marital sex], because they think very few people would want to get married – which means spending one’s whole life with the same person, and putting up with all the inconveniences that this involves – if they weren’t carefully prevented from having any sexual intercourse otherwise

Basically, More  can write that no one would want to get married if they can have sex without getting married, because he knows no one would take these thoughts seriously (though I’m sure the idea has crossed many a mind). Because no one would take it seriously, no one would bother to say it. Because More says it, one can imagine that the rest isn’t meant to be taken seriously either.

What fascinates me about this book is not just the highly elaborate system of government More constructs, but the ways in which he avoids censorship and getting himself into trouble. During his time, there was no such thing as “freedom of speech” and one has to keep in mind that this was written even before works like John Milton’s Aereopagitica. Mind you, the measures More takes didn’t keep him out of the Tower of London forever, but they did ensure that the book survives to this day.

Besides the tactic just mentioned, consider the framing device More uses. The book opens with a letter from More to his friend, Peter Gilles, asking Gilles to find out from his acquaintance, Raphel Hithlody’s the actual location of Utopia. Then, one has a letter from Gilles to another friend asking for assistance in publishing More’s summary of Hithlody’s descriptions of the island. Finally, one has the opening of the “account” which describes More meeting Hithlody for the first time and the three of them, More, Hithlody and Gilles sitting down for a good few hours and talking about Hithlody’s solution to punishment for thievery, which segues into a description of various different lands that Hithlody has experienced. These two letters set up the fiction that More is not responsible for the description of the events and that he was receiving merely a description and not a defense as Hithlody points out:

We’ve no time to discuss whether it’s right or wrong – nor is it really necessary, for all I undertook was to describe their way of life, not to defend it.

The frame further allows More to project some negative views without taking the blame for them himself. In fact, the character More can disclaim any responsibility and present a critical viewpoint of this system, thereby relieving himself of guilt for the implicit criticism of the present government by the story:

I cannot agree with everything he said, for all his undoubted learning and experience. But I freely admit that there are many features of the Utopian Republic which I should like – though hardly expect – to see adopted in Europe.

More acknowledges that there are some positive aspects of Utopia without specifying what they are, and he implies that there are some things in his contemporary Europe that need to be changed, but doesn’t specify those either.

There are other ways that More writes so that his ideas are not taken seriously to his disadvantage, such that vital aspects of human nature, such as the desire to be creative, competitive, or selfish are ignored. It is clear that the systems put in place in Utopia cannot actually be put into practice, and therefore one does not need to be threatened by the system.

At least, I don’t feel threatened by the system or the fear that we’ll all suddenly think there’s no difference between fine-woven and coarse wool. I do, however, leave reading this book with the quiet awe that one man thought communism through so long before the industrialization of England, or how certain themes appear over and over in the English literature I am reading. One particularly strong theme is the steady flow of opinion on morality, and the other is the significant difference in wealth acquired by actions and wealth acquired by inheritance. For a nation so stuck on the idea of nobility and blood, a place where the royal monarchy is still allowed to retain vast reserves of the nation’s wealth, the literature seems awfully obsessed with class consciousness. More on that in the coming weeks.

Disclaimer: I am ignoring my writing pride and general fear of unworthiness in my ability to write well/ clever in order to produce more entries on the works on my reading list. This blog is more a tool to get my thoughts out and dots connected rather than a formal product for readers. Such being said, I kind of hope I get readers anyway, so if you’ve got any comments to share, please do share them!


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