Utopia by Thomas More

It was diverting to read, but Utopia by Thomas More was not a delightful, engaging read. It has essentially no plot: a world-traveler tells a man named Thomas More about a land called Utopia as they discuss various social problems.

And yet, Utopia was interesting to me as a commentary on “utopias” and “dystopias” in general. Although dystopia has come to mean “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives” (M-W.com), I would suggest that the original inspiration for the positive term (utopia) wasn’t so great either. If the land of Utopia in More’s novel is truly “a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions” (M-W.com), I don’t want anything to do with perfection.

Practical or Not?

Interestingly, Merriam-Webster’s third definition for utopia is “an impractical scheme for social improvement.” That seems more accurate, for I thought the ideas supposed in More’s novel were completely impractical, albeit amusing.

For example, to eliminate all the heartache and crime that comes from gold (and by extension money), there is no money-changing in Utopia and gold is used to line chamber pots and the chains of thieves. Because gold is so scorned, no one wants to steal it, and if the country of Utopia needs money for international negotiations, it just melts down the chamber pots for extra funds. There is no hardship on their way of life.

Of course, the land of Utopia also supposes that people are happy working very hard for a life of ease without pleasure — because, obviously, vices like gambling and being idle are not a part of society. Each person is expected to work six hours a day, with the rest of time free to learn: More suggests (satirically?) that attaining more education is the greatest pleasure anyone could enjoy. (The book does discuss other pleasures they enjoy, like staying in good health, for Utopian hospitals are quite successful in healing illness. Music is also enjoyed each night after dinner.) The dirty jobs around Utopia (butchering the animals, for example) are done by slaves, for slaves are either non-native citizens or citizens that have broken the law. There aren’t many laws to break because the people are so happy they don’t need to break laws; besides, there is no money and money is, apparently, the root of most evil.

Freedom in a Utopia

Citizens of Utopia are free, we are told time and time again. Their time, beyond their six hours of work, is their own to fill as they please. And yet, I felt the repressive mantle of Utopia each time I picked up the book to keep reading.

A snapshot of society: Everyone works with and for each other; no one is unemployed or hungry or alone. Everyone’s home is the same and in perfect condition, because the home builders are able to come and repair it immediately because there are the right number of construction workers. Everyone is cared for and fed each night, the oldest getting first choice at dinner. Why wouldn’t this be a utopia?

As I read, I realized a few problems with this utopia. The first problem is ownership: the lack thereof. In Utopia, everyone owns everything. They are one community. It sounds nice, but that effectively illuminates gifts and service. I think it’s important to have ownership of something, be it your time or your goods. You can’t give something to someone unless you owned it to begin with. You can’t serve someone unless they have needs that are not met. The country of Utopia has met all physical needs: what you do is what you are expected to do. Now, maybe I desire things because I’ve always owned things. Maybe, then, if I were raised in the Utopian environment, I’d be satisfied with group ownership, but I doubt it.

Women are also slighted time and again. The country of Utopia is a utopia for men alone. For example, once a month women are required to beg their husbands for forgiveness; men are never required to do the same. The women do the cooking, rotating between families to be responsible for the Sty’s dinner each night. As I read, I kept the era in which Utopia was written in mind, although More’s ignorance of such basic inequalities was quite odd, considering his ideals of equality in so many other ways.

The other major problem is that the country of Utopia lacks variety. In Utopia, everyone rotates through the same two years on the farm in the country and then goes back to his trained work. They all eat the same food together in a Sty every night. They all enjoy music together. They all wear the same shapeless outfit of linen, not silk or wool.

For why should he want more? They wouldn’t make him any warmer – or any better looking. (page 79).

Umm, sorry, I have to disagree. Some clothes are much more comfortable, and looking better (or at least different) is what makes the world interesting. Variety is the spice of life. Utopia doesn’t sound so great to me when everyone is exactly the same.

Reading Utopia

I mentioned in my review of We that that was the first true dystopia (1920s). I have to amend that. There were a number of imitation “utopias” written about in the 1500s and 1600s, but Utopia, written in Latin in 1516, was the first true dystopia. I learned a lot from the notes. If you read Utopia, make sure you read an edition with accompanying notes as well; it makes it much more enjoyable.

I enjoyed the translation I read (by Paul Turner, 1965) because he translated proper names into English from the Greek. Sixteenth century readers would have picked up on the puns, while I would not have. The man telling of Utopia was named Raphael Nonsense, and other names were similarly puns on the mess that the utopian society must have been: Styward (the head of the group of households in the Sty), Lietalk (the Parliament of Utopia). The translator warns that the Ralph Robinson translation of 1551 has some misleading errors (like translating the city’s leader as “Prince” rather than “Mayor,” thus making Utopia sound like a monarchy rather than a republic).

The historical context in the introduction and notes to my edition also helped me. First, I learned why More wrote it as he did. In the early 1500s during which he wrote, there were not many novels with fictional people and intricate plots; printing had just been developed. In fact, I’m not sure if Utopia is considered “a novel.” More wrote the work as he did to be convincing, for successful fiction had to convince the reader it was true. (I found that Charlotte Bronte did something similar in Jane Eyre, written in the 1800s.) Thus, More wrote as if he had met a man with whom he had the following discussion. Compared to modern novels, Utopia is therefore not engaging, although it is still very interesting.

From the introduction and notes, I also learned that the society More suggests is a significant improvement on his contemporary society in terms of rights. Thus, the citizens of the land of Utopia had life much better than the majority of the people living in 1516 England. It was a true utopia in that day and age. (Just a side note: one reason I wanted to read Utopia was because of Danielle’s comment in the movie Ever After: “The prince has read Utopia!”)

Finally, the notes also helped me to see the satiric aspects of this novel, for as I mentioned when I read “A Modest Proposal,” I’m rather clueless on finding satire on my own.

Utopia is a novel I would have loved to discuss in a class setting: there is so much I didn’t understand about the society, and as you can see, I had a lot to say about it, after just one read. Then again, it’s nice that I can finish reading it, write this review, and move on!

In the end, I’m very glad I read Utopia. The novel itself was just over 100 pages, and while it wasn’t a quick read, it was a nice foundation to my general thoughts about utopian and dystopian fiction.

What would make your life truly “utopian”? I’m pretty happy with what I have now, although a few more hours in the day would be nice every now and then.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. “[A]ttaining more education is the greatest pleasure anyone could enjoy” may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that statement is very true for me with only slight modification that includes having pets and good friends. 🙂

    As for owning “things”, and without climbing on my soapbox, I’m not in disagreement with you but I do think many of us could benefit greatly from learning what honestly is “enough” to make us happy. The answer is most likely a lot less than we think and would then provide a lot more for others. That’s overly simplified, but, like I said, I’m leaving my soapbox in the closet. 🙂

    I’m hoping to read this someday, and I liked reading your thoughts on it!

    Lezlie

  2. Lezlie, I agree on both counts. I guess the point of the education thing is that for everyone, I think there usually is at least some time for doing something a little bit “idle” and that was a big no-no in Utopia.

    In terms of your soap box, I also agree. We’re pretty tied to material things, and I know I am. I just think about my bookshelf: I like to own the physical pretty book, purely for aesthetic reasons. Do I need to own it? No. The library is a collective system and since I pay taxes, techinically I jointly own all the books in it along with the rest of the city. It works for the purpose of the book: reading it. But I like to own a book myself.

    I just felt I couldn’t be happy in a country like Utopia where everyone jointly owned all their houses and clothes and EVERYTHING. I would feel so stifled and depressed, but maybe it’s not the lack of owning “things” that I feel would stifle me but the lack of variety. It’s a thought to ponder.

    I hope you enjoy it when you read it. I do recommend it!

  3. I’m a variety junkie myself, so I have to work very hard to practice what I preach, and I’m not always successful. Especially when it comes to books! That being said, I’ve been fairly successful at keeping most of my other accumulation habits restrained to make up for it. 🙂

    Reading your thoughts about free time reminded me of when I read “How To Think About The Great Ideas”. The author, Mortimer Adler, distinguishes between “play” and “leisure”, with “leisure” being the time we spend furthering our personal educations. He argued that we need both play and leisure time, but leisure was the more important of the two.

    Lezlie

  4. That Utopia sounds kinda annoying. I’d like some warmer weather at the moment.

    I have to agree that I’d have to have my own books. Sometimes you just have to have something just for you.

  5. I’m reading this one for your Really Old Classics Challenge, so I kind of skimmed through this one. If not thrilling, it seems as if it’s at least thought provoking. I’m looking forward to it. I’ll come back once I’ve finished it.

  6. Lezlie, hmm. I wonder if Utopia’s education was “leisure” by that definition. I’d have to reread it with that thought in mind.

    Chris, I sure wouldn’t want to live there! If I were a starving peasant in 1516, I might have thought differently, however!

    Jessica, well, since this doesn’t really have a plot, it might be hard to “spoil” it. I do hope you enjoy reading it. It definitely is thought provoking!

  7. Great commentary. It sounds like a thought provoking book and I really like hearing your issues with it. I’ve always agreed that I would hate living in a Utopia, which is just a strange concept in and of itself!

  8. I love your long posts, Rebecca, you always make the books sound so interesting.

    Tomas More’s Utopia sound like my idea of the ideal society – working 6 hours a day, free meals cooked by someone else, access to common books and all the time I want for my studies. I still don’t think it’s practical; it’s very close to communism and that political scheme has been proven not to work in the real world. And it’s a real shame it’s built on slavery.

  9. Heather, yes, thought-provoking is a good word for it!

    Paula, Where do you think the concept of communism came from? 🙂 This was probably a precursor.

    I didn’t intend the post to be so long! But I guess I did have a lot to say. As for the society, remember that as a woman, you’d be responsible for the meals, once every week (? or maybe it was more like every six weeks? I can’t remember) and you’d be the one apologizing to your husband once a month, because everyone is married unless you’re a slave. I don’t recall there being much choice in most matters like that.

  10. I have never read this one, but it sounds like it was thought-provoking if nothing else. I agree, I don’t always pick up on satire, especially in older novels like this one. Sometimes it just feels so obscure to modern society.

  11. Did you know that Walt Disney originally planned for part of Disney World to be a kind of uptopia? Part of it was going to be like a little city. Wouldn’t that have been neat? Well, it would have certainly had had it’s problems just like the place in this book. It sure does sound like a suffocating place!

    I think I live a pretty good life right now. The only thing that would make it better is to have someone to clean for me lol.

  12. Kim, yes satire can be a bit obscure. This one is still amazingly relevant today, though, I think!

    Ladytink, very interesting about Disney World. I still think one person’s Utopia is another person’s dystopia, though. I’d love for someone to do my cleaning too. Would make things easier.

  13. I agree, Rebecca. I am not volunteering to live in More’s Utopia. The two things that weirded me out most were the solution to overpopulation (that the surplus Utopians would just row across the bay and “repossess” the land that the “ignorant” natives weren’t using or cultivating), and the way shame worked in their society. Apparently More, in his personal life, was often incapacitated by religious guilt, and found it so oppressive that he was really drawn to a shame-based society, where all the bad feelings for a misdeed are imposed from without, rather than from within. Learning about his personal life allowed me to understand where he was coming from with all the intense shaming that went on in Utopia, but it still creeped me out so much! But it’s fascinating to think about how different peoples’ ideal societies would be, isn’t it?

  14. More’s Utopia is not utopian at all, it was not then and it will be hell now. A book available on Amazon, IMAGINE: A PERFECT UTOPIA, written by somebody using the pen name Sir Thomas More X, seems to counter those shortcomings and paint a Utopia for this time and age.

    If you manage to read it, I will be happy to hear your comments.

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