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Utopia by Thomas More

Utopia (1516)

by Thomas More

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6,808None538 (3.55)2 / 144
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    paradoxosalpha: Early Modern scenarios for social reform, both set in a fictionalized New World beyond the Atlantic.
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English (34)  Dutch (3)  French (3)  Hungarian (2)  Italian (1)  All languages (43)
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Utopia is simply one of the most important and influential books ever written. Its ideas were then (and for the most part still are) so revolutionary that it can be difficult to believe a man with Thomas More's subsequent history even intended them to be taken seriously.

More wrote Utopia in Latin, the language most widely read at the time by educated persons in Europe. It is also a language independent of place and time, which translator Paul Turner says is ample justification for using informal contemporary English in his translation. The result is highly readable and entertaining, but no less thought-provoking.

The structure of the novel has More himself recounting a conversation he had with a traveler named Raphael who had spent five years living in Utopia, an island roughly 200 miles in diameter located somewhere in the New World. More has all the opinions and observations come from Raphael's mouth rather than his own, obviously to protect himself from being charged with promoting seditious ideas. But while Utopia does satirize a few of Europe's governments and institutions, it is not an attack on any particular person or country, and this is what has kept it relevant over the centuries.

The most radical and most important feature of Utopia is that there is no private property and therefore no need for money. People dress identically and live in identical houses in identical towns. They each work at the trade for which they are best suited, usually the same as their parents. Families are sent in rotation to work on farms, the assumption being that farm work is less pleasant and should be shared by all. Military training is compulsory for both sexes, and the entire town is turned out from time to time for major projects such as roads, bridges, and fortifications. Slavery exists, but only as a form of punishment for serious crimes. All children are born free and equal and raised in identical circumstances.

With no need for luxury goods and no idle classes, productivity is so high that Utopians need work only six hours a day. The rest of the time is devoted to self improvement and recreations such as music. Utopians do their work gladly, for the most part, out of community spirit. But those who might otherwise slack off know that "Everyone has his eye on you, so you're practically forced to get on with your job, and make some proper use of your spare time." Goods are taken to markets and storehouses where anyone who needs something just helps himself. Meals are served in communal halls where the elders are served first out of respect.

There is freedom of religion in Utopia, at least to a point. Citizens are expected to believe in a creator and an afterlife and to attend religious services, but there is no official dogma, and sects are allowed to follow their own beliefs and practices as long as they don't proselytize in public. Atheists are tolerated, but they are considered contemptible and are barred from positions of public trust. That Thomas More would write something advocating religious toleration has always been puzzling, since he later ordered heretics burned at the stake and gave his own life in defense of the supremacy of the Catholic Church. More also mortified his own flesh by wearing a hair shirt despite having written in Utopia that it was as important to be kind to yourself as it was to be kind to others, and that it was ridiculous to suffer unnecessarily.

Women in Utopia are subordinate at all times to their husbands, but may serve in the military and even as priests (provided they are widows). Their role in political life isn't addressed. Considering how revolutionary Utopia is in other respects, it is strangely conventional in sexual matters--probably reflecting More's own prudery. Marriage is for life except in rare circumstances, and any sex before or outside of marriage is severely punished, sometimes by enslavement or death. In a country where there is no private property and therefore no inheritance and no need to worry about legitimacy, where the pursuit of pleasure is considered a laudable goal, and where children are moved from one household to another to learn different trades, such rigid insistence on monogamy seems out of place.

There is much more in Utopia on such things as foreign trade, warfare, education, medicine, aging and city planning. But what comes across most forcefully is the evil of the inequitable distribution of resources which is inevitable in a capitalist economy. The Utopians found one way to address this, a communist solution which many have since tried to emulate, at least in part. ( )
3 vote StevenTX | Sep 13, 2013 |
Thomas More's Utopia is nearly five centuries old yet it's still quite relevant and poignant today. It's somewhere between a fictional travelogue and a philosophical political treatise. I found it especially interesting that many of the complaints presented still ring true 500 years later. The sixteenth century writing can be a little dry at times but the narrative style and presentation are readily accessible and sometimes rather humorous.

As I dove into this book I knew very little about it other than it was supposed to be More's outline of the "perfect city/state." Interestingly (as pointed out in some of the notes and introduction I read), the word "Utopia" is derived from Greek words and means both "good place land" and "no place land" simultaneously. So strangely it suggests that this is both a "good place" and that it doesn't (or can't) exist. That paradox was an interesting starting point for me as I read.

The book is divided into two parts. The first "book" starts with letters between More and other real-life characters. This epistolary method of writing was quite common especially when trying to frame the reality of the situation. The letters work to introduce the characters and discussion that follows and to emphasize the significance of the information we are about to read. It also serves to introduce us to a character named Raphael who has apparently journeyed to the land of Utopia and has a great deal of expertise and respect for their customs and practices.

The rest of "book 1" consists of a dialog between the recipients of these letters. The dialog includes criticisms of various political policies (primarily European) ranging from wars and international relations down to property rights, poverty and punishment of criminals. It is suggested that perhaps Raphael should go into politics as an advisor. The reply seems to be rather cynical in suggesting that the kings or rulers wouldn't listen to Raphael and that the current flaws of the system will simply be allowed to perpetuate rather than be healed. The best result Raphael could see would be that the leaders may be depressed at the knowledge of the flaws but wouldn't be willing to fix them. A worse result would be that Raphael would be run out of court as a wicked corruptor of society.

The second "book" in Utopia goes beyond the philosophical discussions and into the specific details about the land of Utopia. First we get some general geographic details followed by information about the physical makeup of cities, communities and families. We're taught about the leaders of the society both how they're elected and what they do. We get significant detail about the nature of work within Utopia and the nature of property. We learn about international relations between Utopia and the outside world. We learn about their trade policies, immigration and emigration policies and how they handle wars. We're told in detail about criminal punishment, slavery, household relations (marriage, divorce, etc) and their concept of religion. Each aspect is presented in great detail and with various examples of implementation as well as sometimes comparing their methods to the flawed methods of European countries.

Probably the biggest overall aspect of Utopia is the idea of a wholly communal society. There is no private property. There is no real hierarchy or aggrandizement of any individual, occupation or organization. Those who "lead" certain affairs of the country do so out of necessity for the greater overall good and not with the hopes of "looking good" or getting rich or leaving some sort of legacy. Criminals generally become slaves though their method of slavery is quite humane. The idea is that people are motivated to be good in order to keep the peace and to avoid the shame and restrictions that come in "slavery." The status quo is further maintained by making it a crime to not properly carry your own load. Laziness and idleness are not permitted. If you do not do your particular job, you are a criminal and become a slave.

The Utopian concepts here are often (and rightly) seen as precursors to Marxist systems of government. The distinction is that More's Utopia is outlined as a pure and complete communistic society. Everything is in common from the property to the work to the rewards. Furthermore, while the society strives to improve through education, technology and other means the improvements are seen as existing to better the society as a whole and are taken in such a way as to provide mutual benefit to all involved. They would not consider any illicit means for obtaining advantage or influence. There is no place for pride or greed.

The entire concept sounds very appealing and interesting on paper. There are also many very sound concepts that could see great success in practice. However, in trying to envision the society truly being put into practice, the problems come with the "humanity" of humans. Specifically the pride, greed, laziness and other vices of humanity. Over time, individuals would become bored or otherwise dissatisfied and try to change things. The book suggests that others in society would squash such desires and disallow any groups of such people to disrupt the system. Unfortunately the desire for power, influence or wealth will inevitably allow someone to find a way of scrambling to the top, even in a society with no formal "top."

The idea of doing away with a monetary system and everybody working for the good of society is an ideal that would have potential if it could be sustained. But all it takes is a few small disruptions in the process and soon the whole system collapses in on itself.

From a literary standpoint, Utopia is fun in that it seems to be the predecessor to a genre that's gaining popularity now. That being the utopian novel (and its friend, the dystopian novel, which is all the rage right now). I love reading about societies trying to become "perfect" in every way. It's such a great ideal. I find the dystopian concept very intriguing as well since it generally showcases the way these utopian societies will often overstep their bounds and collapse on themselves or become the enemy.

Overall this was a very interesting read. I can definitely see it as being an influential book on political theory. Taking the concepts "off the page" becomes a rather interesting philosophical investigation into the nature of humanity and the things that help us rise or fall through generations.

3 out of 5 stars ( )
  theokester | Jul 19, 2013 |
Summary: Sir Thomas Moore sets forth his ideas for the ideal society. This books was instrumental in discussion of our own government.
Quote: "Thus you see that there are no idle persons among them, nor pretences of excusing any from labor. There are no taverns, no ale houses, nor stews among them, nor any other occasions of corrupting each other, of getting into any corners, or forming themselves into parties; all men live in full view, so that all are obliged both to perform their ordinary task and to employ themselves well in their spare hours; and it is certain that a people thus ordered must live in great abundance of all things, and these being equally distributed among them, no man can want or be obliged to beg." ( )
  6boysandme | Jul 16, 2013 |
The word "utopia" was coined by More for his book from Greek for "no" and "place." There's some controversy as to whether this work is meant as serious or satire. Given not just the name of no place but things like the explanation of why the island is not reachable (someone coughed when the location was announced) I suspect the later. Moreover, this ideal state seems notably radical for a man who was famously a very orthodox Catholic. There's equality between the sexes (sorta), divorce, married and women priests, sanctioned euthanasia and religious tolerance (sorta). And it's a state without lawyers imagined by a man for whom that was his profession. I can't imagine from all I know of the man that what he presents is his ideal. I think it's more satire, more fanfic of Plato's Republic, than serious prescription. I mean c'mon, the slaves' chains are made of gold, children use jewels as playthings? Even the surname of the narrator, Raphael Hythloday, means "spreader of nonsense." Anyone really think More meant this all seriously?

It's certainly not my ideal. Utopia is a republic that elects it's leaders. But like Plato's ideal republic it's one where lives are very tightly controlled. Where people live and their work is chosen by the state; there's no private ownership, no privacy, internal passports, sexual mores are legally enforced. There's even slavery--prisoners of war and people who have violated any of the republic's tyrannical laws. It sounds closer to China during Mao's cultural revolution than anyplace I'd want to live in. About the only aspects I can see as positive are the (relatively) egalitarian relationships between the sexes, the (relative) religious tolerance, the idea of keeping laws few and simple so that all could understand, and elected leadership. Which goes to show, one person's utopia is another's dystopia. Part of why I'm skeptical of utopias left and right--they often seem to crush too many individuals along the way to perfection, and I don't know what I'd find more horrifying, what you'd have to do to reach this utopia, or what it would be like to live under it--although goodness knows, we came close enough during the 20th century and it wasn't pretty.

But what I'm reviewing and rating is not this imagined society, but this book about imagined societies. And I do love the idea of this kind of thought experiment, even if often I find attempts to create them (or at least impose them) wholesale the source of much evil. More might even agree with me. Given the satiric elements, I do think this is more about how utopias are unworkable than admirable. And you know, I think More gets it. There's this passage, said by the the character representing More himself:

I don't believe you'd ever have a reasonable standard of living under a communist system. There'd always tend to be shortages, because nobody would work hard enough. In the absence of a profit motive, everyone would become lazy, and rely on everyone else to do work for him. Then, when things really got short, the inevitable result would be a series of murders and riots, since nobody would have any legal method of protecting the products of his own labour.

That. Or they just starve to death. So I suspect those criticizing More as a commie are missing the mark. Some also complain this is a slog. Yet there is wit and humor here, and though some parts were tedious, well, it is short--only 134 paperback pages, not including notes, in my edition. Also More might have been an Englishman, but he wrote the book in Latin, so that means if you're reading it in English it's a translation. The first such translations didn't appear until after More's death. So if you're suffering from one with Middle English affectations, that's not More's fault--it's the translation you picked. I definitely think whatever you think of More's imaginary land, encountering these ideas are worth the read. ( )
  LisaMaria_C | Jun 1, 2013 |
Utopia, or in Latin: De optimo reip. statv, deque noua insula Vtopia, libellus uere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festiuus
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), first published 1516
Reviewed by Chris Chen
Rating: 9 / 10
Synopsis: A truly golden little book, concerning the state of an ideal Commonwealth on the small island nation of Utopia, in the New World. Previously a peninsula, Utopia was separated when the conqueror Utopus ordered all the citizens of the peninsula (formerly called Abraxas before Utopus’ arrival) to occupy themselves by digging a 15-mile wide trench between the mainland and the peninsula’s main body. Utopia consists of two “books”, the first being a critique of European society and its endemic problems, the second a sort of solution to the problems of Europe with the laws and customs of the Utopians.
Review: Utopia presents a problem, and then a good, albeit impossible, solution to that problem. The problems and solutions discussed within are a predecessor of sorts to Marxist and other Communist thought, preceded only by Plato’s Republic.
Much like communism, More’s big problem is the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. His main critique is towards the concept of private property, and how for equality and justice to exist amongst the people, private property must be abolished. His other main problems include absolute monarchism, imperialism, the concept of “chivalry”, the inability of Europe to address the issue of theft over the long-term and the character of kings. He also had a problem with the predominance of Latin and the lack of appreciation for Ancient Greek texts. More saw nothing of worth in Latin texts except for Seneca and Cicero.
The island Utopia solves such issues through warehousing and public ownership of goods and property and using no more land than necessary. Overpopulation of the island is addressed through the colonisation of the mainland, and under population with decolonisation. There is a republican system of government, community dining, simple laws understandable by the yeoman (every citizen is a cunning lawyer) and a requirement for all citizens to work. Utopia also presents several social innovations, such as free hospitals, legalised euthanasia, divorce and allowing priests to marry.
In fact, More’s solutions to European problems could be said to oppose European views and life completely, instead replacing them with the unusual and alien. The ideas are a clear influence on more modern thinking and philosophy (especially Communism), and Utopia also shows how More has been influenced by Greek philosophical thinking. Despite its plain impossibility, More’s philosophy does in fact resolve to the idyllic εὖτόπία (Greek, good place [eu-topia]), rather than the intended οὐτόπία (Greek, no place [ou-topia]).
  VeronicaCrothers | Dec 6, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Thomas Moreprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Black, Walter J.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
del Pozo, Joan ManuelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Donnelly, John PatrickTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fiore, TommasoEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Itkonen-Kaila, MarjaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marshall, Peter K.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prechtl, Michael MathiasIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rodríguez Santidrián, PedroEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Scott, John AnthonyIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sheehan, John F. X.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Turner, PaulTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
van Cleve, Hendrick, IIICover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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There was recently a rather serious difference of opinion between that great expert in the art of government, His Invincible Majesty, King Henry the Eighth of England, and His Serene Highness, Prince Charles of Castile.
The moment we showed them [the Utopians] some books that Aldus had printed, and talked a bit about printing and paper-making -- we couldn't explain them properly, as none of us knew much about either process -- they immediately made a shrewd guess how the things were done. Up till then they'd only produced skin, bark, or papyrus manuscripts, but now they instantly started to manufacture paper, and print from type. At first they weren't too successful, but after repeated experiments they soon mastered both techniques so thoroughly that, if it weren't for the shortage of original texts, they could have had all the Greek books they wanted.
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Cover description: Sir Thomas More's entertaining description of Utopia, an island supporting a perfectly organized and happy people, was a best-seller when it first appeared in Latin in 1516. This work of a Catholic martyr has later been seen as the source of Anabaptism, Mormonism, and even Communism. Utopia revolutionized Plato's classical blueprint of the perfect republic, mainly by its realism. Locating his island in the (then) New World, More endowed it with a language and poetry, and detailed the length of the working day and even the divorce laws. Such precision gives a disturbing and exciting impact to Utopia, which still remains a book of the future.
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In Utopia Thomas More painted a fantastical picture of a distant island where society is perfected and people live in harmony, yet its title means 'no place', and More's hugely influential work was ultimately an attack on his own corrupt, dangerous times, and on the failings of humanity.… (more)

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Yale University Press

Three editions of this book were published by Yale University Press.

Editions: 0300084293, 0300002386, 0300084285

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Two editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

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