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Utopia

Sir Thomas More

Slaves, Euthanasia, Marriage, Treaties

Education, Science, Philosophy

War

Summary

Slaves, in Utopia, are never bought. Utopian slaves are either people captured by the Utopians in battle, people who have committed a horrible crime within Utopia, or people who have committed crimes in other countries and been condemned to death, and saved from their fates by the Utopians. The children of slaves are not born into slavery. Slaves work constantly, and are always chained.

Sick Utopians receive tremendous care, but there are still people who become terminally ill and suffer greatly. In such instances, the doctors, priests, and government leaders urge the patient to recognize that they are no longer able to fulfill the duties of life, that they are a burden to both others and themselves, and that they should put their hope in the afterlife and choose to let themselves die. Those who agree are let from life during sleep, without pain. Those who do not agree are treated as kindly and tenderly as before.

Women cannot marry until they reach the age of 18; men must be 22. No premarital sex is allowed; if anyone is caught they are forbidden to marry for life. This policy exists because Utopians think that if promiscuity were allowed, no one would choose to marry. Before any marriage takes place, the bride and groom are, in the presence of a chaperone, shown to each other naked, so that neither is surprised by what they find come wedding day. It is a policy that seemed ridiculous to Hythloday, but he soon saw that their was some wisdom in it, as it allowed the man and woman to know exactly what they were committing to. Divorce is allowed only in cases of adultery or extraordinary abuse. Adulterers are condemned to become slaves.

Utopians believe that people should make the most of their physical attributes, but the use of cosmetics or tools of enhancement are disdained.

No one is allowed to campaign for public office. Public officials are not meant to be overbearing or awe-inspiring; rather they should be seen as fathers who the people voluntarily treat with respect. There are very few laws, all clearly written. Utopia has no lawyers. Utopian leaders and judges are immune to bribery because money does not exist.

Utopia never signs treaties with other countries because they believe a country's word should be good enough. They believe the very idea of a treaty implies that countries are naturally enemies rather than friends, and Utopians do not accept that interpretation of the world. Also, few countries in their immediate vicinity ever actually adhere to the treaties that they sign. Hythloday compares this lack of forthrightness with Europeans, sarcastically claiming that of course all Europeans abide by the treaties they sign.

Commentary

Slavery in Utopia is not a question of race, ethnicity, or belief. It is a question of moral behavior. Only criminals can become slaves, and the children of slaves are born free. The slavery that exists in Utopia does not, then, contain all of the moral repugnance we rightfully associate with slavery. The fact that slavery could be conceived of as existing even within a fictional, ideal society is a sign that ideal societies are products of their times, subject to the beliefs and prejudices of the world from which they spring.

Similarly, the description of hospital care is revealing of the state of medicine in the early sixteenth century. The idea that a very sick person would not want to go to a hospital seems unusual to a modern reader, but during a time when it might be said that the only thing more dangerous then being sick was getting treated by a doctor, it is understandable. The Utopian practice of not only allowing but even encouraging euthanasia seems at odds with religious doctrine of the time, which believed suicide was a sin that would send its perpetrator to hell. However, euthanasia was a topic touched upon and supported by Erasmus, and Thomas More was certainly aware of that fact.

The marriage practices of the Utopians are called absurd by Hythloday and More, and seem absurd to the reader. It is not entirely clear what should be made of these practices, as they exist in what is supposedly an ideal society. A number of possibilities seem viable. Perhaps the marriage rites are another indication of the fact that while Utopia is near perfect, it is not actually an ideal society. Perhaps the marriage rites are supposed to be taken seriously, as an actual rational proposal. Perhaps they are simply a joke, since Thomas More was known to be fond of jokes. The text gives very little clue. The issue of divorce is a more concrete matter, and similar to that of euthanasia. The Catholic Church frowned on divorce even in the case of adultery, but Erasmus believed divorce was acceptable and necessary in certain situations. That divorce is allowed in Utopia is another indication that Utopian society was a realization of Erasmus's Humanist beliefs and arguments.

Visible in the rules guarding against adultery, pre-marital sex, and those abolishing campaigning for office is the Utopian understanding that mankind's baser instincts of lust and greed will never disappear. Utopian laws, for this reason, are formulated so as to powerfully discourage the vices inherent in human nature. These laws demonstrate that Utopia is not a society full of ideal people. Rather, it is a society that is formulated so that the inherent faults of man are contained as stringently as humanly possible.

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