So, after over a week of trying, I have finally managed to finish reading Thomas More’s Utopia! It’s a bit ridiculous how long it’s taken me to be perfectly honest with you; it is only 100 pages long after all… I’m going to begin by saying that Utopia is by no means one of my favourite books, nor am I likely to read it again. However, it does offer some interesting insight into the personal feelings of Sir Thomas More with regards to the political, social, and religious state of the country at the time of writing.
Spoilers ahead readers! (If I can call them that, there really isn’t much of a story to spoil.)
So this is the perspective from which I will approach Utopia: as a way of seeing the things that More disliked about the way the country was run, and as an indication of life under the reign of King Henry VIII. Utopia is the first in a long line of Utopian novels. Written in 1516 by Thomas More, advisor and friend to King Henry VIII, it is a discourse on the workings and culture of a fictional island called, would you believe it, Utopia.
Therefore, when I reflect on the wise and good constitution of the Utopians, among whom all things are so well governed and with so few laws, where virtue hath its due reward, and yet there is such an equality that every man lives in plenty…”
More’s overall point in writing this novel was to describe the fantastic way that the Utopian community worked. Each chapter of the book focuses on a different aspect of Utopian life, as described by the fictional character Raphael Hythloday and provides an interesting comparison to the way that Western civilisation operated at that time.
The first chapter gives a general overview of the general economic situation in Britain at the time of writing. It describes Raphael’s travels, ‘not as a seaman, but as a traveler, or rather a philosopher’, and gives his views on Plato amongst other things. This first chapter is difficult to read as it switches between perspectives, seldom using names, until you have occasions where Raphael is recounting a discussion in which one party quotes a discussion that they had with another person. It’s very confusing, but the general impression is one of distinct dissatisfaction with the current running of Western countries.
The final few pages of the first chapter give a geographical account of Utopia, a brief history of the land, and an explanation of the movement of people within the country, which is very similar to the movement of crops through fields.
The difficulty in writing about Utopia, or I should say, one difficulty in writing about it, is that it is very difficult to discuss the core meaning and points of the text without being mind-numbingly boring… Given that the book itself is mind-numbingly boring, this perhaps comes as no surprise, but assuming that this is only ever going to be for my own use, it probably doesn’t really matter.
In an attempt to keep this as short and interesting as possible, I’m going to try and just summarise each chapter and say my main thoughts on it… It’s still going to be mind-numbingly boring, but there you go!
So! Chapter 2 gives a short description of the towns. Again, this is mostly geographical and architectural, and not a lot to do with the actual way of life itself. Perhaps this is why it’s only a couple of pages long!
Chapter 3 is even shorter, but this gives an account of their system of governance. The system stresses democracy and voting people into power. This is interesting given that More was part of the church, an institution that typically ‘hires from within’, promoting their own people according to monarchal favour mostly, at least at this time. Maybe this suggests that More is uncomfortable with the way that people were governed under King Henry. Certainly, there is an emphasis on the way that small groups of people are governed by one person who is then part of another group that is governed by another person, and so on. Even the Prince (note, not a King, it probably would have been frowned upon to suggest that another King is better than Henry, even if he is fictional). The whole of Utopia seems to show little ways in which More believes that Britain could be run differently. Although the words themselves come from Raphael, and More is careful to say that he doesn’t necessarily believe that all these things would work, we have to believe that there is at least a small amount of self-projection onto Raphael’s character, who offers More protection, essentially, from criticism from the nature of his thoughts.
What I find interesting about Chapter 4 is mainly that, while constantly trying to show that women and men are equal, he also maintains that women are weaker. Firstly, More says that ‘agriculture is that which is so universally understood among them that no person, either man or woman, is ignorant of it’. However, when describing the way the tasks are divided, he says that x
There are two keys points in Chapter 4 that interest me (yes, they actually interest me! Hurrah!) are the portrayal of the differences between men and women, and the portrayal of the differences between Utopia and other nations. While the description of women and men still maintains that women are weaker, it seems that More refers to physical weakness when compared with the strength of men: ‘women, for the most part, deal in wool and flax, which suit best with their weakness, leaving the ruder trades to the men.’ Similarly, More doesn’t suggest an intellectual weakness in women either: ‘ agriculture is that which is so universally understood among them that no person, either man or woman, is ignorant of it.’
The second point, the portrayal of differences between Utopia and other nations, is such that it again suggests deficiencies in the governance of England. Several pages of Chapter 4 are dedicated to the ways in which Western civilisation fails to live up to the Utopian way of life. Through Raphael, More condemns the vanity of the English, the idleness of the nobility, and the English attitude to religion. (p53, pp41-44)
Chapter 5 is concerned with the familial aspect of life in Utopia, and the way their food is served and shared. The familial hierarchy is much the same in Utopia as it was in any other country at this time, ‘wives serve their husbands, and children their parents, and always the younger serves the elder.’ That is really all I have to say about chapter 5.
Chapter 6 is called ‘Of the Travelling of the Utopians’, but it really contains a lot more than that. It does discuss the ease with which one may travel as a Utopian, with a system very similar to the current passport and visa system we use today, although one must gain special permission from a magistrate before you can go anywhere. The chapter then goes on to discuss the Utopian view of money and precious stones or metals, as well as their propensity and proficiency for learning. Raphael then describes the Utopian view of pleasure and enjoyment. Apart from the best description of sex I have ever read (the pleasure that ‘arises from satisfying the appetite which Nature has wisely given to lead us to the propagation of the species’ – seriously, it makes me laugh every time I see it), this chapter is the first of two main instances, the other to come later, where we see More shining through Raphael in a sort of free indirect speech.
They account health the chief pleasure that belongs to the body; for they think that the pleasure of eating a drinking, and all the other delights of sense, are only so far desirable as they give or maintain health; but they are not pleasant in themselves otherwise than as they resist those impressions that our natural infirmities are still making upon us. For as a wise man desires rather to avoid diseases than to take physic, and to be freed from pain rather than to find ease by remedies, so it is more desirable not to need this sort of pleasure than to be obliged to indulge it. If any man imagines that there is a real happiness in these enjoyments, he must then confess that he would be the happiest of all men if he were to lead his life in perpetual hunger, thirst, and itching, and, by consequence, in the perpetual eating, drinking, and scratching himself; which anyone may easily see would be not only a base, miserable, state of a life.”
This is possibly the most powerful quote for me in the entire novel. Clearly, More is condemning the over-indulgence of food and alcohol, of physical pleasure, as secondary to higher, more intellectual pleasures. That the three things condemned as ‘untrue pleasures’, are the three things that King Henry favoured the most – eating, drinking and the scratching of itches, so to speak – certainly cannot be a coincidence. In this passage, More is almost openly condemning Henry for his enjoyment of ‘base’ pleasures.
From here, More continues to discuss the joy of learning and the particular proclivity that the Utopians have for it. The abrupt switch of tone from authorial voice to narrative is apparent here as More finishes his rant and Raphael continues discussing the never-ending virtues of the Utopians.
Which brings us to Chapter 7, another boring and largely pointless chapter which serves only give us some more background information on the Utopians and a description of a rather bizarre wedding ritual… (For anyone who’s interested, see pp 69 + 70 in the 2010 Simon & Brown edition)
Of Chapter 8 there is little to say except that they do not engage in war unless the reason is just.
Finally, Chapter 9 and the second instance of free indirect speech and More’s true opinion – On the Religions of the Utopians.
Maybe it’s unsurprising that here is where we mostly see More’s true opinion. He was a very religious man who was a victim perhaps of the way that Henry manipulated the Catholic Church and then manipulated his subjects through the Church of England. His description of the religious beliefs of the Utopians is so Catholic, it is almost unbelievable. This is the description of their deity, before they had been introduced to the idea of God:-
Yet the greater and wiser sort of them worship none of these, but adore one eternal, invisible, infinite, and incomprehensible Deity; as a Being that is far above all our apprehensions, that is spread over the whole universe, not by His bulk, but by His power and virtue; Him they call the Father of All, and acknowledge that the beginnings, the increase, the progress, the vicissitudes, and the end of all things come only from Him; nor do they offer divine on as to any but to Him alone.”
Basically, the Deity that they worshipped before they new about God, was God. Note as well the capitalisation. More sees their God as at least equal to, and most probably the same as, his God, the Catholic God, the Church of England God. The Utopians are portrayed as a good, God-loving, God-fearing people who abide by the Christian way of life. In linking the religions in this way, More not only made the Utopians more accessible to the readers of the time, but made them more acceptable. The Utopians were good, Christian people, and so their ideas, their way of life was allowed.
The rest of the novel is More slowly working his way around to his ‘get out clause’ as it were. He finishes the novel by essentially saying, ‘it’s not me, not my words, it’s all Raphael’. His supposed disinclination to ‘perfectly agree to everything he has related’ is a way of saving face with his friend and monarch. Literally. He could quite easily have had his head removed…
So that’s it! Those are my thoughts, poor though they may be, on Utopia. Boring isn’t it? No wonder it took me so long to read!
That’s it for this time then (thank god,I hear you sigh), but next time I will be back with my opinions on Mankind, the late medieval morality play. If anyone is a fan of Everyman, you may find that one interesting.
’til next time readers,