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Utopia by Thomas More
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Aug 30, 10

bookshelves: classics, philosophy
Read in August, 2010

Utopia, by Thomas More ****
The Life of Sir Thomas More, by William Roper ****

Imagine a world where nothing is your own. The house you live in, the furnishings, the clothes you wear; everything is held in common with the State deciding who receives what. You can be evicted at any time and forced to live in another house, taking nothing with you, leaving all behind. Your time is not your own. You are constantly watched by your neighbors who will report on you if you do not work often and diligently enough. You, in turn, are expected to watch and report on those same neighbors. There is no leisure time. What we call leisure would be spent on secondary and possibly tertiary vocations for the good of the State. Even your children are not your own. They can be taken from you if the state determines that you have too many children and another family has too few. The houses are exactly alike, the clothes are shapeless and grey. Welcome to Utopia.

Utopia, the word, the book, and the country, were the inventions of St. Thomas More, one of the greatest minds of 16th century England. The literal meaning of Utopia, the word, is “no place”, a land that does not exist. It was invented as the title to a treatise on politics that described “the best state of a Republic”. “Utopia”, the book, was written in the form of a travelogue narrated by the fictional Raphael Hythloday, whose character spent five years in Utopia, the country. During his stay, Hythloday learned much about the culture of Utopia and he describes every aspect of Utopian society: their form of government, religion, architecture, education, agriculture, family life, and their economic, legal, and penal systems. It is possible to summarize all these descriptions in two words: totalitarian socialism.

Utopia is the socialist’s dream world. Though More’s descriptions make it sound appealing, there is no getting around the fact that The State is all-powerful in all areas of Utopian society. There are almost no individual liberties at all. Few laws are needed in Utopia, for the State is the ultimate arbiter in all things. When examining other Socialist environments, either practical or literary, it is easy to draw parallels between them and “Utopia”. The 10 planks of Communism codified by Marx? Most of them can be found in “Utopia”. The world of Camazotz from L’Engle’s “Wrinkle in Time” could almost be a photocopy, with the exception of advanced technology. The uniforms worn by the citizens in Communist China could have come straight out of More’s description of the fashions of the Utopians. The use of neighbors as spies in Russia and Communist Block Europe could easily have found its inspiration in Utopia. The sole exception lies in the area of religion. The Utopians are libertarians with regard to religion, taking a live-and-let-live approach so long as no one disrupts the body politic in general.

It seems clear, though, that More was anything but a socialist, which raises the question, why did he write “Utopia”? Was it a critique of monarchal forms of government? Was it satire? Did he really believe that “Utopia” described the best way to govern a nation? It is my impression that he did not, and that Utopia was an intellectual exercise for More. Utopia does not only resemble the socialist’s dream, it is also very similar to a monastic society. Keeping in mind that More was, above all, a churchman who spent time in a Carthusian Monastery, it is possible that he was working out how and if a monastic form of society could be applied at the national level. He does not seem to be convinced that it could work; the closing paragraphs leave it in doubt.

“Utopia” is a strange but fascinating book. More is an engaging writer. His prose is elegant and enjoyable to read. As distasteful as my description in the first paragraph above may be, More manages to make Utopia almost appealing. Trying to discern his purpose is an interesting exercise. It requires more than just reading his book, which is where Roper’s “The Life of Sir Thomas More” comes in handy. Though primarily an apologia for More in the years following his martyrdom for treason, it includes biographical details spanning his entire life. In Roper’s “Life”, I learned of More’s involvement with the Carthusians, one of the most ancient and strict of monastic orders. Though he did not become a monk, his experience left an indelible impression on his life.

If Roper is to be believed, and there is no reason to doubt him as his testimony is born out by other contemporaneous accounts, St. Thomas More was a remarkable man. He possessed a prodigious intellect that was tempered by genuine humility. He was doggedly loyal to family and friends, but refused to play favorites. More was one of the most influential men in the court of King Henry VIII, but he never abused his influence, and even surrendered it when he could not support Henry’s divorce of Catherine and re-marriage to Anne. He refused to compromise his integrity when doing so could have saved his life from the headsman’s axe. He loved his God and Church too much to compromise in any way.

It is amazing how thoughts and ideas enter into and permeate the fabric of society. Most everyone in the English-speaking world has heard of and used the word “utopia”. It is part of our collective vocabulary and we all know that it refers to the ideal human society, one in which we would all be glad to live. At least we think we would. Given what it really describes, most would probably not want to live in a Utopian society. Let’s hope it remains an experiment consigned to monastic society and that it is never attempted on a large scale in America.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Melinda (new)

Melinda Was "Utopia" a work from the mature thinking of More as an older man? Or perhaps an exercise from his younger years? I would be interested to know when he wrote the book. Also, is there any justification of "no place" from Scripture at all?

How fascinating and how strange to find the roots of a word I have heard so much. Thank you for the VERY insightful review!


Michael Melinda wrote: "Was "Utopia" a work from the mature thinking of More as an older man? Or perhaps an exercise from his younger years? I would be interested to know when he wrote the book. Also, is there any just..."

Thanks for the comment! :-) More was almost forty and well into his second marriage when he wrote "Utopia", so it is very much the work of a mature mind. It was written while he was an envoy to Flanders to help settle a trade dispute (the fictional Hythloday was dutch). I don't know that there is any justification for "Utopia" in Scripture, but I need to think about that.


message 3: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne Very interesting! Thank you.


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