More’s Utopia has been the victim of a critical tug of love. Catholics and communists have both claimed it as their exclusive property, and in the interest of ownership have tended to ignore every feature of this multifaceted work that conflicts with their own ideology.Paul Turner
If you’ve ever seen the movie “Ever After: A Cinderella Story” with Drew Barrymore and Anjelica Huston, then you have probably heard of Utopia by Thomas More, at least in passing. Barrymore’s character in “Ever After” quoted very freely from Book One of Utopia and used it as actual political theory in the context of the movie.
But should it have been?
Utopian society has no personal liberty, freedom, or privacy. In fact, much of the book sounds like a very early version of Animal Farm or 1984. Granted, More wrote in the 1500s. This was not an age of the world known for its dedication to the cause of freedom and choice.
If you leave the lack of personal choice aside, there are other problems. It may have been all right for Danielle de Barbarac to freely quote from Utopia as a great political ideal, but it’s not a text we should look to ourselves to answer society’s ills.
Utopia is first and foremost a fictional work.
Paul Turner’s introduction to the Penguin Classic is quick to point this out. The mere fact the island is called “no place” is a constant reminder to the reader that the text is of an imaginary place with imaginary people.
Utopian fiction of any kind is just that: fiction. It’s not a political treatise, a white paper, or even a well-informed blog post. It’s fiction. So, how seriously can we take it as a blueprint for society?
I personally don’t think we’re meant to. It’s a flight of fancy by one man based upon his own experiences, learning, and worldview. Does it have good advice?
Yes, it does. We do, in fact, assign community service for some civil offenses. It’s not slavery, but it is service to the state. We can at least see that gold being valued more than a human life is a little absurd.
We can even sense the folly of even attempting to creating any society which is “perfect.” Because as we’ve seen, it’s not. Not if slavery, agism, and sexism are a part of it.
If you read between the lines, there are a lot of assumptions made about how human beings work as a species. We naturally want to own things. Do you think taking away personal property rights changes that?
Food for thought, isn’t it?
Utopia is a slave society.
They’re either Utopian convicts or, much more often, condemned criminals from other countries, who are acquired in large numbers, sometimes for a small payment, but usually for nothing. Both types of slaves are kept hard at work in chain gangs, though Utopians are treated worse than foreigners.Utopia
There is nothing on how, when, or if slaves are ever released. I suspect they are not. Not only that, but they allow indentured servitude only there’s no mention of the servitude ever ending unless the indentured leave the country itself. So, no way out either as an indentured servant or a slave.
In More’s Utopia, slavery is the solution offered for convicts instead of imprisonment or the death penalty. This way, you don’t have people sitting idle at public expense and you aren’t inflicting a punishment that doesn’t fit the crime for offenses like stealing.
But is it preferable for offenses like thievery?
Thinking so is awfully tempting. It’s practical at least and human beings do like practical solutions as a rule. We do use something similar in the modern world, but we call it community service and some states use prison crews to clean up the highways. It’s definitely not slavery, however.
More would have had no idea the connotations slavery would bring in the centuries following Tudor England. As to his own opinions on the subject, there’s no way of telling whether his opinions would have aligned with our own. Nor should we try.
Only the oldest people get to rule.
Ok, so I’m going to get a lot of flak for this, I know, but I detest how More’s Utopia is structured to favor the old over the young. Perhaps that is my millennial sensibilities coming through.
Now, I am all for respecting your elders. I’m Southern and this is a cardinal rule of being Southern. In fact, I tend to get along better with my elders than I do with my peers.
But the idea that children must wait on their elders at mealtimes and only eat what those elders deign to feed them is reprehensible. Really? And the young don’t really get a chance to lead anything or anyone until they are the oldest people left?
Oh, that’s going to work out so well. There comes a time when the younger generations do have to take the wheel, as it were. Times change, and as we get older, we are less and less resilient to change.
It assumes that the younger generations will just accept things as they are. Well, that may have been true in More’s day, but it’s an idea that hasn’t aged very well. No pun intended. Probably didn’t age very well then, either.
How, for instance, are the young supposed to get used to running a civil state if their elders are not there to give advice or encouragement? More’s “ideal” society doesn’t allow for this at all.
Women are ruled and “disciplined” by men.
Husbands are responsible for punishing their wives, and parents for punishing their children, unless the offense is so serious that it has to be dealt with by the authorities, in the interests of public morality. The normal penalty for any major crime is slavery.Utopia
Yeah, big red flag for me on this one. Sorry, that’s a hard pass.
Worse still, husbands can punish their wives. Yep, Lori Alexander-style. The link, by the way, leads to the Goodreads page for the book she published. It tells you all you need to know. I can vouch from growing up during the 90’s-era fundamentalist movement that all the one-star reviews are 100% accurate.
At least in More’s ideal society women are spared most of the heavy labor in the fields and elsewhere. And they are educated along with the men. Also, it’s never implied that women are less intelligent than the men.
Which is a step-up from Lori Alexander by far. But then, More had daughters and he made sure they were educated.
Should we discard Thomas More then?
No! Whatever Thomas More’s failings are by our 21st century standards, he proved elsewhere his worthiness of our consideration.
Nowhere more than when he refused to compromise on his own principles just to please a king. He was beheaded for it.
And while Utopia is not a society we would consider ideal, its literary importance cannot be denied.
Thomas More invented the word utopia. It’s a combination of two Greek works and roughly translates to mean “no place.” Since Utopia first arrived on the literary scene in 1516, More’s made-up word has lent itself to at least three different genres of literature:
- Utopian Fiction
- Science Fiction
- Dystopian Fiction
In fact, Utopia was ahead of its time in many respects. We respect the work of Marx and Engels today, but we don’t necessarily realize that their own suppositions are already in More’s Utopia. More was not a communist, but there are an awful lot of similarities between Utopia and The Communist Manifesto.
However, we must never lose sight of the fact that More wrote a piece of fiction. It wasn’t political theory. It was fiction. Meant to entertain and perhaps make you think on your own role in society.
Perhaps to even be grateful for the freedom we have. More didn’t have the luxury of private opinion.
My copy of Utopia…
Utopia, you know, was originally written in Latin. Which means anyone seeking to read it for themselves will need an excellent translation.
I used the Paul Turner translation from Penguin Classics.
The 2003 edition I used has his updated source materials and notes along with a very insightful introduction that puts the whole work into perspective for the modern reader.
If you haven’t read Utopia yet, I hope you’ll be encouraged to now!
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