In this slim book, Thomas More wrote a work that lent its name to an entire sub-genre of fiction. This is not to say More created the first piece of literature that could be called utopian. Many ancient works, such as the Garden of Eden from the Bible to pick one example, have dreamt of a perfect society where worry is nonexistent and all our needs are met. In the work, More writes himself as a character recalling a diplomatic mission where he met a sailor named Raphael. During this time More, along with some lawyers, and Cardinals begin a discussion about the societal ills plaguing England. As a world traveler, Raphael has seen many different societies and cultures with unique ways of life and offers his views on how to fix the endemic problem of thieves. He goes so far as to criticize the entire economic system of capitalism. Later, Raphael tells More about Utopia, a land that organizes it society along communist lines.
As my introduction discusses the satires of Lucian were a major influence on the text. However, Raphael’s description of the lives and society found in Utopia are reminiscent of Plato’s discussions in The Republic when he outlines his ideal society run by philosopher-kings. Yet for all the ways the text looks back at the past for influence, it is amazing how modern its ideas feel. During the discussion about how to deal with the growing problem of thieves, Raphael condemns the death penalty for such a minor offense. Raphael suggests that people who become thieves are just desperate and have no other means of securing their needs. The rich, in this case nobles, have created a situation where they cannot attain jobs. One of the English lawyers disagrees with him.
“There’s adequate provision for that already . . . There are plenty of trades open to them. There’s always work on the land. They could easily earn an honest living if they wanted to, but they deliberately choose to be criminals (22).”
The lawyers reply could be a stereotypical conservative’s response to a discussion about welfare or criminals today. The lawyer presents the idea that all those commoners turned thieves could find a job if they wanted, but choose not to. However, Raphael points out that it is the rich nobility’s greedy policies, such as converting arable land to pasture for their sheep, which creates job loss in the first place. Raphael advocates slavery for thievery instead of a death sentence. It is an uncomfortable defense of slavery and a difficult proposition for a modern reader. Basically criminals would be slaves and work on projects for the public good. Although he does state some will be given freedom for good behavior.
While this might all sound like deep philosophical pondering, the work is often funny and satirical. During the early discussions about England’s social ills, the reader gets to see that the people in court around the Cardinal are all sycophants. They constantly reject Raphael’s strange ideas as being ridiculous, until the Cardinal agrees with them.
“This, from the Cardinal, was enough to make everyone wildly in favour of an idea which nobody had taken seriously when I produced it. They were particularly keen on the bit about vagrants, since that was his own contribution (32).”
The next part involves the character Thomas More trying to convince Raphael to join a court and provide his sound advice to a ruler. Raphael explains to Thomas More the character why he won’t.
“There’s no room at Court for philosophy (41).”
Most kings would rather fight wars, fleece money from their population, and subvert justice in their own favor than listen to good advice and govern their subjects well. In other words, most kings are corrupt. So good advice would be a waste of time.
The central problem of society is the inequality of wealth.
“I don’t see how you can ever get any real justice or prosperity, so long as there’s private property, and everything’s judged in terms of money . . . I’m quite convinced that you’ll never get a fair distribution of goods, or a satisfactory organization of human life, until you abolish private property (44-45).”
How seriously should we take this work? I don’t think More is asking us to adopt Utopian society wholesale or even Communism. Instead by creating an imaginary society based on these principles called Utopia, More envisions a better world than the Europe of his day. He is not necessarily saying his current society needs to become Utopia, but rather he wants the reader too contrast his social institutions of his or her own society against this imaginary “perfect” one. It is a reminder that the societies we are born into are not perfect. The work forces the reader to consider the faults in his or her own society by comparing it to an imaginary one and consider ways of improving it without necessarily demanding we follow any particular prescription.