Utopia by Thomas More (1478-1535)

by Thomas More (1478-1535)

Type of Work:

Social and philosophical commentary


Antwerp; early sixteenth century

Principal Characters

Sir Thomas More, emissary for Henry VIII

Peter Giles, More\'s friend

Raphael Hythloday, world traveler and
witness to Utopia

Book Overveiw

Thomas More toured Antwerp on a diplomatic
mission for his king, Henry VIII. There, More\'s friend, Peter Giles, introduced
the young ambassador to Raphael Hythloday, an educated sailor who had seen
much of the world while voyaging with Amerigo Vespucci. The three of them
convened in a garden so that More could question this learned and experienced
man. More and Giles both wondered why a man of such wisdom and stature
as Raphael had not entered into a king\'s service. Raphael scoffed at the
idea: "The councilors of kings are so wise that they need no advice from
others (or at least so it seems to themselves)." Moreover, Raphael opined
that most councilors merely bowed to the king\'s inclinations and were more
concerned with maintaining favor than with offering impartial and wise

Raphael also believed that the average
king possessed different goals than he himself had; that "most princes
apply themselves to warlike pursuits," whereas he had no interest or skill
in the acquisition of riches or territory. Raphael asked Giles and More
to imagine him before a king, cautioning him that "wars would throw whole
nations into chaos, would exhaust the King\'s treasury and destroy his own
people, [and] that a prince should take more care of his people\'s happiness
than of his own." How receptive would the king be to that kind of advice?

More asked Raphael if he had ever been
to England; the traveler replied that he had, and then proceeded to relate
a story about a discussion he had entered into there with a British lawyer.

The lawyer commented that he approved of hanging thieves for their crimes.

But Raphael struck up an argument against this form of "justice." The high
incidence of theft in England, he claimed, was attributable to the increased
sheepherding by wealthy landowners. This new industry had forced the poorer
farmers off their land while at the same time boosting the price of goods
and feed; and these combined factors had caused a rise in unemployment.

Without work or land, many people had turned to a life of crime or to begging.

This "policy [of hanging thieves] may have the appearance of justice, but
it is really neither just nor expedient." In his view, English society
was "first making [people] thieves and then punishing them for it."

Another of Raphael\'s complaints was that
many English noblemen, along with their entourages of lazy friends, "live
idly like drones and subsist on the labor of their tenants." Such "wanton
luxury" only exacerbated the poverty of the common people.

While More and Giles could understand the
justice in Raphael\'s social criticisms, they were still unable to understand
why he would not help
rescue society by offering his higher wisdom in the
political arena. Raphael replied:

As long as there is private property and
while money is the standard of all things, I do not think that a nation
can be governed either justly or happily .... Unless private property is
entirely done away with, there can be no fair distribution of goods, nor
can the world be happily governed.

Neither More nor Giles believed that this
prerequisite to peace would ever be possible to attain. Raphael was not
surprised by their scoffs, but averred that had they traveled with him
on the island haven of Utopia, there they would have seen a truly orderly,
peaceful society. The two Englishmen then prevailed on Raphael to acquaint
them, after their meal, with all the customs and institutions of the Utopians.

Dinner completed, Raphael began his descriptive

First of all, Utopian society was uniform,
with all cities sharing the "same language, customs, institutions and laws."

Its economy was guided by one fundamental rule: "All the Utopians, men
and women alike, work at agriculture." Additionally, everyone worked at
a trade of his own choosing, provided the trade proved useful to society.

Although every citizen was required to work, each labored only six hours
out of twenty-four. While to many such liberal conditions might seem untenable,

Raphael pointed out that "the actual number of workers who supply the needs
of mankind is much smaller than imagined," considering the many noblemen,
beggars and others in contemporary society who produced nothing. For Utopians,
the chief aim was to allow everyone enough free time to develop his or
her mind.

Food on the island was distributed equally,
with the sick tended to first. The rest of the population ate together
in vast communal halls. If