Thomas More (1478-1535) is best known for Utopia, a work of socio-political satire published in 1516. It is split into two books: Book 1, Dialogue of Counsel, constitutes a debate between the traveller Raphael Hythloday, a fictional version of More, and his associates regarding the modern social problems in Europe and how to advise monarchs. In Book 2, Discourse on Utopia, Hythloday relates his experience living in the island of Utopia (located somewhere in the New World) for 5 years, arguing that Utopia alone achieved the ‘best state of a commonwealth’ through their institutions and social customs.
The work, whose full title translates to ‘On the best state of a commonwealth and the new island of Utopia’, coined the term Utopia, which has a twofold meaning. It combines the Greek word ‘ou’ (not) with ‘topos’ (place) – ‘Utopia’ thus means ‘no place’. However, it also puns on the Greek word ‘eutopia’, meaning a ‘happy or fortunate place.’ This very title sets the satirical, ambiguous tone of the work – is Hythloday’s enthusiasm for Utopian customs meant to be sincere, or is More deliberately leaving us with an ambivalent, puzzled view of Utopian life? While there are several facets to the social, political and religious customs of the Utopians which validate either side of this debate, I shall concentrate on More’s startlingly modern, radical assessment of private wealth as the root of social evils.
To understand More’s arguments, it’s crucial to set some context about contemporary political debates which arose alongside the Renaissance. More belongs to a tradition of so-called ‘humanist writers’, who were inspired from the tradition of Greek and Roman political writers (most prominently Plato, Aristotle and Cicero) to debate what constitutes ‘the best state of a commonwealth’. Broadly speaking, there were two schools of thought: the Ciceronian humanists, who promoted an active, politically educated citizenship who participated in a republican government; and the Greek humanists, who promoted government of a single individual that allowed everyone else to pursue a life of contemplative leisure.
A common assumption in humanist political commentary was that the ‘best commonwealth’ allows its citizens to pursue happiness and ‘live well’. But this sparked a second debate regarding what constitutes the noble, ideal citizen of such a commonwealth. A common claim was that inherited wealth was a condition for true nobility, as proper use of extensive wealth allowed an aristocrat to effectively exercise civic virtue for the good of the commonwealth. Ciceronian humanists challenged this view with the claim that virtus vera nobilitas est: possession of virtue in one’s character was the only ground for true nobility. And so, one of More’s concerns in Utopia was to contribute to this debate over the meaning of true nobility in the ideal commonwealth.
Utopia follows the Ciceronian stance, basing virtue as the ruling principle of their society. Utopian laws and customs forbid idle leisure of any kind. Although Utopian citizens devote only six hours of their day to work, they go to bed at 8PM and arise at 4AM; attend public lectures before dawn; and other hours of the day are required to be “used properly in some chosen occupation”, such as intellectual pursuits or practice of some trade. Priests are rigorously chosen based upon their outstanding virtue; and high honours and praises are conferred upon magistrates who serve with especial virtue.
The above is a fairly conventional defence of the Ciceronian belief of true nobility, but Utopia notably goes further and advocates a radical eradication of both privacy and private property (which is founded upon Platonist beliefs). Privacy is almost non-existent in Utopia: people eat together, their houses are designed so that anyone can enter and they exchange houses every ten years. Before marriage, each person is required to show themselves naked to their prospective partner to avoid deception.
Above all, the Utopians recognise that only the removal of both private property and the monetary economy can result in the ‘best state of a commonwealth’. Utopians consider it insanity to connect nobility with splendid displays of wealth: they are “amazed at the madness of any man who considers himself a nobler fellow because he wears clothing of specially fine wool”. They value gold as less than iron because it serves no practical function, going so far as to force criminals to wear golden rings in their ears and fingers as a mark of infamy. They have a uniform dress code for men and women which is practical without being ostentatious. And so, Utopians have attained the ‘best state of a commonwealth’ by organising a society which prioritises truly noble, praiseworthy qualities – as opposed to qualities that are merely displayed by the gentry and the nobility.
By contrast, Hythloday’s analysis of the injustices of contemporary English society in Book 1 reflect a society that has accepted this counterfeit view of nobility, perpetrating several social evils as a result. The upper classes (noblemen, goldsmiths, moneylenders) make a living doing “either nothing at all or something not especially necessary for the commonwealth”, while the poorer classes are reduced to a life of slavery in all but name, so that “even beasts of burden would scarcely endure it”. The nobility does not just live idle, wasteful lives, but their greed to hoard private property harms others. The enclosure of common land for grazing by landowners leads to increased prices of food and raw wool, thereby forcing poor people to go hungry or lose their occupation of making cloth – they are thus forced to commit social evils, such as theft, out of desperation (p. 19). Furthermore, the nobility is twice as guilty, as they participate in antisocial uses of wealth through gambling, drinking and going to brothels, and their servants and retainers are a class of dependents who serve no useful function to society. Ultimately, the citizens of such a society cultivate the worst vices – pride and greed. A contrast between Utopian society, which has nevertheless attained the best conduct of public affairs, and Europe, in which social stratification, corruption and social unrest is rampant reveals the irony – the nominally Christian Europe still has much to learn from a ‘heathen society’.
The degree to which More endorses the Utopian way of life is debatable, for there are certainly problematic aspects about Utopia, such as its strict regulation of lifestyle and absence of privacy, which are beyond the scope of this article. However, More’s assessment of Utopia’s eradication of poverty and social unrest is considered a straightforward, unambiguous attack upon the European nobility and his fellow humanists’ promotion of inherited wealth. Ultimately, Utopia may be a successful thought-experiment of a society that successfully eliminated pride and greed through its institutions, and perhaps deserves the title of ‘best state of a commonwealth’.
Written by Nikita Nandanwad
George M. Logan, and Robert M. Adams. (tr.), Utopia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Baker-Smith, Dominic. More’s Utopia. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.
Skinner, Quentin. “Thomas More’s Utopia and the Virtue of True Nobility,” in Visions of Politics, 2:213–44. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.