Thomas More (1478–1535)
“Their Moral Philosophy”
All Utopians are educated, since through education an individual’s values and attitudes take shape. Utopians devote much of their free time to learning, and they are advanced in the sciences. They avoid pointless abstractions in philosophy and focus instead on the meaning of life and the nature of happiness, themes that relate to their belief in the afterlife. They distinguish between true pleasure, which arises from care of the mind and body, and false pleasure in status and appearance.
“Their Delight in Learning”
Hythloday describes how eager the Utopians were to learn Greek and how happy they were to read the works of Greek grammarians, historians, and philosophers that Hythloday left behind after a journey. The Utopians are fast learners and are always ready to learn skills to make life more agreeable, such as printing and paper making.
Utopians do not execute criminals but rather condemn them to slavery, and they offer asylum to criminals sentenced to death in other countries. The slave class consists not only of domestic and foreign criminals but also of foreign soldiers captured in battle.
“Care of the Sick and Dying”
Utopians properly care for the sick, and priests encourage euthanasia for the terminally ill. Those who refuse euthanasia are still well cared for. Suicide is condemned, however, and the bodies of people who kill themselves without priests’ approval are disposed of carelessly.
Utopians view marriage as a sacred institution. Premarital intercourse is prohibited and severely punished, but the bride and the groom view each other naked before the wedding day to avoid unwanted surprises. The Utopians permit divorce in cases of abuse or adultery, and they sentence the adulterer to slavery.
Utopia has no lawyers. Politicians are respected but not venerated, and since there is no money or property, bribery is unknown.
Utopians avoid the dishonesty and ruthlessness characteristic of Europeans. They do not believe in treaties because treaties imply conflict and deceit among the parties.
The Utopians maintain a skilled army for self-defense and for humanitarian interventions. When possible, they hire mercenaries to fight in their place. They send supplies to allies under attack, and if the situation is especially dire, they send soldiers. To avoid war, they carry out covert propaganda campaigns in enemy territory in an effort to cause political turmoil, such as by offering rewards for the assassination of the enemy leader. Utopia has no forced military service unless the country is invaded, in which case men are sent into battle with their wives and children so that they are inspired to fight bravely.
Utopians consider atheism immoral but tolerate other forms of religious expression. Many worship planets, animals, or an ancient virtuous hero, but the majority believe in one mysterious and all-powerful God. Many Utopians were baptized after Hythloday and the other travelers taught them about Christ. All worship together at the same ceremony. Priests, both male and female, conduct the service, educate the children, and act as moral and spiritual guides.
Hythloday concludes his description of Utopia by extolling its virtues and superiority. He believes their contempt for money is the reason for their happiness. Pride prevents rich men in other countries from changing. More disagrees with many of the Utopians’ choices, but he still hopes to institute some of their practices in actual cities.
The Utopian belief in education as a right and a necessity was revolutionary. In More’s Europe, only the rich and powerful could hope to get an education. The proliferation of learning during the Renaissance applied only to the nobility and wealthy upper classes, and most Europeans remained illiterate. In Utopia, on the other hand, all people can share in an intellectual life. Utopian education is systematized and uniform, unlike the European system, which often involved independent private tutors and differed from school to school. Through their rational education system, Utopians feel they can shape the morality and values of their children and give them the ability to be good citizens. Education in Utopia is not just a means of intellectual enlightenment but a program of moral and cultural development designed to ensure that Utopia will always replenish itself through its children.
Although Utopia is a fantasy, Hythloday’s descriptions reveal a great deal about sixteenth-century Europe, and many of Utopia’s most provocative elements are meant to encourage reflection on the true nature of European society. For example, slavery in Utopia is not premised on race, ethnicity, or belief but rather on moral behavior, and only criminals can become slaves. However, the fact that slavery could be conceived as existing even within this ideal society suggests that ideal societies themselves are products of their times, subject to the beliefs and prejudices of the world from which they spring. The Utopian system of medical care, too, reveals a great deal about the state of medicine in the early sixteenth century. Utopians not only allow but encourage euthanasia, an idea at odds with religious doctrine of the time, which contended that suicide of any kind was a sin that damned its perpetrator to hell. Utopian attitudes toward marriage and war, though fanciful and highly impractical in many respects, are deliberately provocative, and More may have included them to give new perspectives on the actual customs of his day.
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