Conference Material: Papers and Proceedings

Utopia as Mirror for a Life and Times

By Richard Marius
Keynote Address, Loyola College of Baltimore,
Baltimore, Maryland. 2 March 1995.

Copyright © 1995 by Richard Marius, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Canadian and U.S. copyright laws. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent and the notification of the author (

It's a treat to be part of a celebration about Thomas More's Utopia and to know that I'm speaking to people who have read something Thomas More wrote. I wrote a biography about him some years ago. Some people who reviewed my book had not read More, but they had seen "A Man for All Seasons." Or else they had read the biography by R.W. Chambers published in 1935 and presenting an immaculate hero of the sort we would all like to believe in.

My biography was less flattering. It had to be because it is the only biography written in the twentieth century that took into account all More's religious works and his passionate religious spirit. Part of his religious passion was his relentless and implacable hatred of Protestants, his call that be burned at the stake and his unrestrained glee when some of them were. None of that could fit the pasteboard saint of the play "A Man for All Seasons," or the beautifully photographed film made from the play. The Thomas More of "A Man for all Seasons" would be at home in any academic drawing room.. His view of Protestants might be likened to the commonplace view people in Cambridge take of Republicans. Naturally Paul Scofield wouldn't think of burning a heretic.

Since neither the play nor the film takes seriously More's religion, we are left to read into his martyrdom anything we want. As Bolt surely intended, we read our experience of modern totalitarianism into it and turn More into a liberal-minded democrat like the most innocent victims of Hitler or Stalin or of any one of a thousand lesser dictators who have sprayed recent history with the blood of martyrs.

Well, fair enough. Hollywood loves lessons, and it hates ambiguity. "A Man for All Seasons" proves once again that Hollywood cuts its heroes and its villains out of cardboard and paints them bright enough to sell at the box office. Pauline Kael with her usual perspicacity was one of the few dissenting voices among film reviewers when "A Man For All Seasons" appeared. She mused that Thomas More had all the good lines.

The historical Thomas More, the author of Utopia, was an extraordinarily complicated man who tied up all the threads of his life in his heroic death. The real man is to me much more interesting than the plastic creation adored by his most fervent admirers. The Utopia is the sort of complicated book that we should expect from so complicated a man.

It is heavy with irony. Irony is the recognition of the distance between what we say and what we mean. But then irony was the experience of life in the Sixteenth Century--reason enough for Shakespeare to make it perhaps his most important trope while the century was drawing to a close. Everywhere--in church, government, society, and even scholarship--profession and practice stood separated by an abyss.

The Praise of Folly, written in Thomas More's house, while Erasmus was a visitor to England after 1509, is a catalogue of the ironies of the time. It is usually said that Erasmus influenced More; I rather think the opposite. I think it much more likely that More's lifelong habit of ironic wit probably influenced Erasmus.

The great difficulty of irony is that we can not always be sure when the ironic writer or speaker is being serious and when he is being comical. We find that difficulty in Utopia--as people found it in More's life. Edward Hall, the great chronicler of English history of More's time wrote, "For undoubtedly he beside his learning had a great wit, but it was so mingled with taunting and mocking that it seemed to them that best knew him, that he thought nothing to be well spoken except he had ministered some mock in the communication."[1]

In Utopia three characters converse, and reports of other conversations enter the story. Thomas More appears as himself. Raphael Hythlodaeus--or Raphael Nonsenso, as Paul Turner calls him in his splendid translation--is the fictional traveler to exotic worlds. More's young friend of Antwerp Peter Gillis adds an occasional word.

Yet the Thomas More of Utopia is a character in a fiction. He cannot be completely identified with Thomas More the writer who wrote all the lines. Raphael Hythlodaeus's name means something like "Angel" or "messenger of Nonsense." He has traveled to the commonwealth of Utopia with Amerigo Vespucci, seemingly the first voyager to realize that the world discovered by Columbus was indeed a new world and not an appendage of India or China.

Raphael has not only been to Utopia; he has journeyed to other strange places, and found almost all of them better than Europe. He is bursting with the enthusiasm of his superior experiences.

But how seriously are we to take him? The question has been much debated. The Thomas More in the story objects cautiously and politely to Raphael's enthusiasms. Are we to take those objections seriously?

We can get around some of "More's" objections by recalling that renaissance dialogues had a protective motif. A writer's reputation was all he had. With it he could get patronage since the time lacked luxuries like royalties or copyright laws. Or in More's instance, he could identify himself as one who had imbibed of classical learning and who might therefore claim some advantage at a time when kings liked to ornament their courts with those people we now call "humanists."

A writer who offended the wrong people ran the risk of damage to himself in all sorts of ways. The dialogue form offered writers what politicians now call "deniability" if they found themselves in hot water. Galileo used this protective motif unsuccessfully in his Dialogue of the Great World Systems a century after Thomas More. It was easy enough for angry Aristotelians among the clergy to see that his dialogue made them look like fools.

Anyway, the main point about renaissance dialogues and declamations such as The Praise of Folly or Utopia is that their meaning depends on how we hear them. How we hear them depends on what we bring to them.

I believe that we must bring to Utopia everything else he wrote in his complete works--even those religious works he wrote long after Utopia was published in 1516. I'm one of the few people on earth who has read all those works. One of my rewards is to be with you this evening. But I shall not strain your hospitality by any detailed commentary. I've made a great many linkages between the rest of the work and Utopia in my biography, and there is much more to say than I have said even there.

Tonight let me say only that More was one of the most thorough and consistent thinkers in the Sixteenth Century. He argued everything like the splendid lawyer he was. I believe that when we read Utopia dialectically, through his other works, we may penetrate to some degree the ironic screen that he has thrown over the work. Even so, complete certainty about his meaning sometimes eludes us.

And, having now declared myself an admirer of More's consistency, I must also say that he was a very busy man. He was extremely busy while he was writing Utopia. I rather doubt that he had the time we have to puzzle out all the implications of some of the things he put into the imaginary commonwealth. Some of the mysteries we find there now may be there because More, like Homer, nodded.

Tonight I shall devote most of my remarks to the second "book" or chapter in More's work--the description of the island commonwealth somewhere in the New World. I shall leave aside the fascinating first book, which is a real dialogue--indeed an argument between the traveler Raphael Nonsenso and the skeptical Thomas More. I shall rather discuss the second book, Nonsenso's description of this orderly commonwealth based on reason as defined by the law of nature.1 Since the Utopians live according to the law of nature, they are not Christian. Indeed they practice a form of religious toleration--as they must is they are to be both reasonable and willing to accept Christianity when it is announced to them.

What is the Utopian commonwealth? What does the little book mean?

To my mind Utopia is best understood if we apply to it some of the concepts of carnival developed by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin to explain François Rabelais, More's bawdy contemporary. Carnival is, said Bakhtin, not merely a spectacle; it is to be lived in; it is a second life, organized on the basis of laughter; "it is a festive life."[2] In Carnival people have the freedom to turn the world upside down. The official feasts, Bakhtin says, "sanctioned the existing pattern of things and reinforced it."[3] But, he says,

As opposed to the official feast, one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed.[4]
Utopia provides a second life of the people above and beyond the official life of the "real" states of the Sixteenth Century. Its author took the radical liberty to dispense with the entire social order based on private property, as Plato had done for the philosopher elite in his Republic.

But at the same time, More took the liberty to suppose a commonwealth built on the pessimism about human nature propounded by St. Augustine, More's most cherished author. Augustine believed that secular government was ordained by God to restrain fallen humankind from hurtling creation into chaos. Without secular authority to enforce peace, sinful human beings would topple into perpetual violence; so the state exists to keep order.[5]

A major source of violence among fallen human beings is cupidity, a form of lust. Sinful human beings have an insatiable desire for things. For Augustine there was no end to it. He wrote of humankind in the coils of cupidity:

Thou didst at first desire a farm; then thou wouldest possess an estate; thou wouldest shut out thy neighbours; having shut them out, thou didst set thy heart on the possessions of other neighbours; and didst extend thy covetous desires till thou hadst reached the shore; arriving at the shore, thou covetest the islands; having made the earth thine one, thou wouldest haply seize upon heaven.[6]
More took the communism of Plato's republic or of the "golden age" supposed by Ovid and later adapted by the Christian fathers.[7] But he kept the fallen human nature that Augustine believed to be the curse of the Fall. He then created a literary carnival, allowed himself the freedom of speculating on the sort of commonwealth would arise from a juxtaposition of seemingly contrary ideas. No wonder that the little poem that introduces the work, supposedly done by "Mr. Windbag," the son of Raphael's sister, declares,
Plato's Republic now I claim
To match, or beat at its own game.[8]
More's work aims to take into account a "true" and pessimistic view of human nature, one quite different from Plato's Socratic optimism. If Utopia is truer, it is therefore better.

So if we look at Utopia with More's Augustinian eye, we see a witty play on how life might develop in a state that tried to balance these two impulses--human depravity and a communist system aimed at checking the destructive individualism of corrupt human nature. It is carnival, a festival, not a plan for reform. When the carnival is over, and we come to the end of the book, reality reasserts itself with a crash. More did not see in Utopia a plan of revolutionary reform to be enacted in Christian Europe. Remember the subtitle "On the best state of a Republic and of the new island Utopia, a book truly golden, not less salutary than festive." The key word is "festiuus,"[9] usually translated "entertaining," though, in the spirit of Bakhtin, I prefer "festive." It is not revolution. Reading Utopia makes us aware of how very far we will always be from its hopes. We can understand the comment of J.W. Allen, the historian of Sixteenth-Century political thought, who called it, "the saddest of fairy tales. . . . an indictment of humanity almost as terrible as Gulliver's Travels."[10]

But like Swift's Gulliver, More's Raphael entertains us just because he brings our experience in the ordinary world up against an ideal that we cannot reach, yet one that has about it a certain plausibility. Utopia is a mirror held up to nature, and almost against our will, we see ourselves reflected in it. It is a carnival mirror, throwing back at us distorted reflections, and yet we stand there, and we recognize ourselves in the very distortions.

To read Utopia is to be jolted into asking ourselves this fateful question: "What is the relation between our possessions and our souls?" Are the conspicuous illusions of wealth injustices? What truth about ourselves resides in Raphael's passionate declaration towards the end? "In fact, when I consider any social system that prevails in the modern world, I can't, so help me God, see it as anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organizing society."[11]

If a sterile metal like gold measures the worth of men and women, are the people who wear chains of gold not indeed prisoners of illusion? And is it possible, in a zero sum world where my gain is another's loss, that the people who sport such finery are not in fact condemning legions of poor to roam the great highways as beggars--or else to be herded together in the slums like cattle to be slaughtered in our great cities?

If we measure worth by possession, are we not driven by a peculiar and implacable logic to put people to death for theft? Or if we do not kill them, are we not bound to make psychological war on them, to scorn them, and to be sure that they suffer for everything we give them? I believe that the answer to these questions in More's own mind was not that we should create a communist society. But I do believe that part of the response that More intended was to make us at least ask the questions, for to question society is to see it, and we must see it before we can do anything to reform it.

The six-hour working day in Utopia also represents an eternal check against the tendency of an acquisitive society to turn human beings into beasts of burden to be worked as if they had no claim over themselves. Set over against the misery of peasants depicted in the vision of Piers the Plowman or against the child labor of early industrial America or the sweatshops of modern Asia, the Utopian limitation on labor is a way of saying that life is an end in itself and not merely an instrument to be used for someone else.

It is perhaps also a rebuke to those of us for whom work and life come to be identical so that to pile up wealth or reputation makes us neglect spouses, children, friends, community, and that secret part of ourselves nourished by the willingness to take time to measure our souls by something other than what we produce.

The sanitation of the Utopian cities is exemplary. The Utopians value cleanliness, and they believe that the sick should be cared for by the state. The Utopians care for children. Education is open to all. They like music, and in an age that stank in Europe, the Utopians like nice smells. To average English people of the Sixteenth Century--living in squallor and misery, not solitary but (in Thomas Hobbes's famous phrase) nasty, brutish, and short, Utopia would have seemed like paradise--at least for a while.

But to middle-class people like ourselves, our messy and fragmented society looks good in comparison to Utopia. Here More's Augustinian conception of sinful humankind becomes burdensome to the soul, for in the Utopian commonwealth, individualism and privacy are threats to the state. I suspect that we see as clearly as anywhere in Utopia just why communism did not work. The weight of human depravity was simply too much to be balanced by eliminating private property. Yet it is worth saying that More did not ignore that depravity. Utopia is full of it.

I mentioned earlier J. W. Allen's likening of Utopia's view of human nature to that of Swift's Gulliver's Travels. It is a To me it is rather like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn where the river carrying Huck and Jim along passes through a human jungle of evil where the innocents on the raft must always be wary.

Dominic Baker Smith has pointed out that Utopia from the beginning was an artificial construct. Some 1760 years before,[12] Utopus had dug a channel to separate Utopia from the corrupting lands nearby. As the wise law-giver he imposed laws on people who could not or would not create those laws themselves.[13] He is much like the prince in the thought of More's contemporary Niccolo Machiavelli whom Machiavelli calls upon to unite and pacify the warring Italian peninsula. Utopus did for Utopia what Machiavelli wanted a prince to do for Italy. Yet the Utopian commonwealth, like the raft of Huck and Jim floating apart in the serene river, is endangered whenever it touches the shores of the real world.

The attention the Utopians give to military affairs is based on a sound practical consideration: The world out there is not Utopia. A virtuous nation unarmed amid a world of tigers goes quickly to its death. More startling, when we think of it, are the massive walls the Utopians build around their towns on their island. Yes, these ways may be primarily to ward off invasion from beyond the channel Utopus has dug to separate them. But given the history of England and popular uprisings, including the Wat Tyler revolt of 1381 and the later revolt of the peasants of Cornwall mentioned in Utopia itself,[14] it seems that one purpose of these walls may have been to protect Utopian cities from revolt in Utopia itself--perhaps from all those slaves.

No locks bar Utopian doors--which open at a touch.[15] The only reason the Utopians can imagine for privacy is to protect property; there being no private property, anybody can walk into your house at any time to see what you're doing. Conformity is king. All the cities and all the houses in the cities look pretty much alike. Of the towns Raphael says, "When you've seen one of them, you've seen them all."[16]

The Utopians change houses by lot every ten years just so they won't get too attached to any endearing little idiosyncrasies in a dwelling. The Utopian towns are as nearly square as the landscape will allow; that means they are built on a grid. I can imagine nothing more similar to Utopian cities in our own day than the sprawling developments outside our great cities where every house looks like every other house and where even the people and the dogs in one household bear a startling resemblance to all the other people and all the other dogs in the neighborhood.

The Utopians make much of the household, but they give little place to the nuclear family; they group people into households with "not less than ten or more than sixteen adults."[17] Each household is under the authority of the oldest male--unless he becomes senile. Thirty households make a tightly organized community called in Paul Turner's elegant translation a "Sty."[18] At the sound of a horn, the thirty households gather together for lunch and for supper, and although households can eat at home alone if they want, it seems clear that the Utopians frown on the practice.[19] Says Raphael:

You're quite at liberty to take food home from the market once the dining-halls have been supplied, for everyone knows you wouldn't do it unless you had to. I mean, no one likes eating at home, although there's no rule against it. For one thing, it's considered rather bad form. For another, it seems silly to go to all the trouble of preparing an inferior meal, when there's an absolutely delicious one waiting for you at the dining-hall just down the street.
We wonder how husbands and wives could ever develop real intimacy under such a system. Even if they choose to eat in the household, they share the table with a minimum of ten other adults and possibly as many as sixteen. Given the primacy the Utopians give to men throughout their commonwealth, it seems that they see nothing to be gained by a dining arrangement where women might be able to have a private word with their husbands. We presume that the only privacy a husband and wife have with each other is alone in their bedroom at night, and that for the Utopians seems quite enough.

More himself sets the tone for his view of family life by the introductory letter to Peter Gilles that he attached to Utopia when it was published. He is explaining to Peter why publication of his little book has been delayed. He has been busy at work. And afterwards, he says:

You see, when I come home, I've got to talk to my wife, have a chat with my children, and discuss things with my servants. I count this as one of my commitments, because it's absolutely necessary, if I'm not to be a stranger in my own home. Besides, one should always try to be nice to the people one lives with, whether one has chosen their company deliberately, or merely been thrown into it by chance or family relationship--that is, as nice as one can without spoiling them, or turning servants into masters.[20]
It all sounds very, well, dutiful. Children are cared for, but they are treated like cogs of the commonwealth. And why not in a nation where the individual is rigorously subordinated to the needs of the group? Children usually follow the professions of their parents, and when they chose another profession, they are adopted by another family without apparently any pangs of regret at parting.[21] Again, why not? If everyone is almost identical in Utopia, why not swap children around as one might swap Barbie Dolls? In the same way, a family with too many children passes off the surplus to another family who lacks them.[22] Friends of mine taken with the legendary example of More's household tell me that of course parents would accompany the children moved to another dwelling unit. Maybe so--but not one word of such accompaniment is to be found in the text.

Indeed, the Utopians have many of the qualities of the early Christian fathers who saw family, spouses, and children as secondary or even tertiary to the most important obligation of the Christian male. That obligation was to serve God and the Catholic Church. St. Augustine (I say again, the most important single influence on Thomas More's mind) dismissed his concubine of fifteen years when he became betrothed to a rich young woman, and in all his voluminous writing, he never tells us what her name was. His son by that union, Adeodatus, had an intelligence that amazed his father, but when he died his Augustine seemed little grieved.[23]

Jesus himself had said, "No man is worthy of me who cares more for father or mother than for me; no man is worthy of me who cares more for son or daughter."[24] And with regard to conversations between husbands and wives, we should also recall St. Augustine. Why did God create Eve to live with Adam? Augustine pondered the question. He mused that "If it was company and good conversation that Adam needed, it would have been much better arranged to have two men together, as friends, not a man and a woman."[25] One might also reflect that the Utopians were very much like the Stoics and the Epicureans of classical times who believed we are most free and therefore most human when we tame that emotional part of ourselves that forms attachments to other human beings. To a friend who had lost a friend to death Seneca wrote:

I am sorry to hear of your friend Flaccus's death. Still I would not have you grieve unduly over it. I can scarcely venture to demand that you should not grieve at all--and yet I am convinced that it is better that way.[26]
Utopia is a commonwealth where not only the individual life is held in check, but individual emotions and affections are suppressed. Women are in a distinctly inferior position in Utopia. Dominic Baker Smith, who has written the best recent book on the Utopia, has commented that the position of women in the Utopian commonwealth was about the same as it was in More's Europe.[27]

I think in fact that Utopian women have a somewhat better time of it. A small number of Utopians are allowed to spend their lives in study, freed from the obligation to manual labor that is imposed on everyone else. Women are among this privileged group.[28] Divorce is permitted if husbands and wives prove completely incompatible and if the case is investigated by the authorities. But a husband is forbidden to divorce his wife merely because she has become ugly.[29] In Utopia no old rich men throw out the old wife and take a new young trophy wife in exchange. The same harsh penalties for adultery apply to both sexes. Husbands chastise their wives for offenses.[30] But erring husbands are punished by their superiors in the hierarchy of men.

Utopia is a male-dominated society. Women have no political authority; that authority is all placed in the hands of fathers. It is hard to escape the suspicion that sexuality is stringently limited as part of a general belief that passion of any kind is dangerous to the superior rationality that only men can possess.

And then there is the Utopian restriction on political discussion. "It is a capital crime to discuss such [political] questions anywhere except in the Council or the Assembly".[31] In reading that almost casual sentence, we inevitably call up our own experience in the twentieth century, those many totalitarian states infested with informers where people live in terror of the secret police.

But maybe instead we should think of spectacular trials in our own time, such as the O.J. Simpson trial now going on, where the jurors are enjoined from having any private conversation with each other about the proceedings. Or perhaps we should think of Woodrow Wilson's desire for "open covenants openly arrived at" in his Fourteen Points put forwards as proposals to end World War I. It is clear that the Utopians are meant to have free debate in their assemblies.[32] No political assembly of theirs is to be the rubber stamp affairs that we have seen in our own time of so-called "people's democracies" and the "cult of personality." In the city of Aircastle or Amaurotum, as the Latin has it, every law relating to the public good has to be debated at least three days.[33] Still, the rule against private discussion of politics represents extreme distrust of the people, and in that distrust Utopia and modern dictatorships share more than is sometimes supposed.

Again, I must say that Utopia is not intended to be a dictatorship. The commonwealth itself is a federated republic. It has no king. In a commonwealth where individuality is almost non-existent, no cult of personality is possible. No one in Utopia except the eponymous founder Utopus is given a name. No individual stands out above the others. Utopia is a commonwealth of anonymous masses. Raphael can relate the opinions of the Utopians as if everyone on the island shares them. He quotes no one, for one generalization fits all.

The fine leisure the Utopians can enjoy because of their six-hour working day is carefully regulated. The pursuits the Utopians enjoy are primarily intellectual. And even here we do not find specifically mentioned the solitary intellectual mulling that is for some of us one of the chief joys of life. They seem to debate one another in the style of the Platonic dialogues--as More and Raphael do in Book one. They go to public lectures--though we wonder how the lecturer ever had occasion in this obsessively public society to prepare something in private worth saying in public.

Raphael delivers to them a considerable library of Greek books. (Interestingly enough he does not take them a Bible--typical of More's later reluctance to have the Bible freely distributed among the common people.)[34] Raphael and his band of Europeans also teach the Utopians how to make a printing press and how to manufacture paper.[35] Yet given their distrust of the individual doing anything alone, I rather think the Utopians must study these works by reading them aloud to one another and commenting on them much as though they were in seminar together. Like Socrates in the Phaedrus, they may distrust the written word separated from its communal and vocal associations.

The communism of the Utopia deserves another word to this generation that has seen this once mighty ideology crumble to dust in most of the places where it once seemed imperial, irresistible, and eternal. I've noted that the Utopians acted on the premise that to eliminate poverty, the entire economic and social order had to be rebuilt from the ground up. That was precisely the view of Karl Marx, but More and Marx came to radically different conclusions about what the social order would become if it were rebuilt.

For Marx, as we all know, religion was the opiate of the people, and he wanted to get rid of it. His golden age when the state had withered away would have no religious life and no compulsion from above. Human nature would be reshaped, remade, re-formed, and rigorous education during the "dictatorship of the proletariat" would teach us the virtues of cooperation and selflessness.

Religious belief upheld the Utopian commonwealth. Every Utopian had to believe in God, in the immortality of the soul, in future states of reward and punishment after death, and in the Providential governance of the universe.[36] Those who do not hold to such doctrines are not put to death.[37] But they are not "allowed to receive any public honour, hold any public appointment, or work in any public service. In fact such people are generally regarded as utterly contemptible."[38]

Utopian religion is useful to the commonwealth. No one is to be trusted who believes that the soul lives on after the body dies.

Anyone who thinks differently has, in their view, forfeited his right to be classed as a human being, by degrading his immortal soul to the level of an animal's body. Still less do they regard him as a Utopian citizen. They say a person like that really doesn't care a damn for the Utopian way of life--only he's too frightened to say so. For it stands to reason, if you're not afraid of anything but prosecution, and have no hopes of anything after you're dead, you'll always be trying to evade or break the laws of your country, in order to gain your own private ends.[39]

There is a lot here to ponder, and I see some internal contradictions in these texts from Utopia. On the one hand, Raphael the narrator does not establish any reasoned arguments for believing in the religious views he gives to the Utopian. Somewhat like Aristotle and Aquinas, they believe that the order of the universe supposes a creator.[40] But beyond that inference, they do not go through elaborate logical proofs to establish their system of ethics and religion.

They assume that their religion is most fitting to the dignity of human kind. They also believe that religion is best for the state because otherwise they cannot imagine good citizenship without faith in God and a belief in rewards and punishments after death.

Yet More knew that Lucian, whose epigrams he and Erasmus had translated, did not believe in the immortality of the soul. He knew also that "Democritus, Lucretius, Pliny and many others" shared this disbelief. The "many others" would have included Cicero, Seneca the Younger, Aristotle, and Epicurus himself as well as legions of others in the classical world.[41]

More's argument bears some resemblance to that of Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae that immortality of the soul is a natural desire and thus must be true. We have, said Thomas, a natural desire for food, and the fact that the desire exists is proof that food exists. We have a natural desire for the immortality of the soul; the fact that the desire exists proves that the soul is immortal.[42] Pico della Mirandola, a great influence on More, thought that immortality and the free will of the soul were part of the natural dignity of humankind.

Yet in the same year that More published the Utopia, Pietro Pomponazzi of Padua created scandal in Italy by publishing his On the Immortality of the Soul with its argument that reason could in no way prove the soul to be immortal--a view shared by Cardinal Cajetan, Luther's great antagonist at Augsburg in 1518. Both Pomponazzi and Cardinal Cajetan said they believed in the immortality of the soul not because reason could establish it but because the church taught it.

Yet More in his "reasonable" Utopia seemingly could not bear to have the Utopians doubt immortality--although some must have done so or the Utopians would not have laid on penalties for disbelieving the doctrine. His motive is in part utilitarian: In his view, a reasonable state must have a religion that enforces morality or else people would commit sins in secret that would damage the state. Such a religion required a belief in rewards and punishments after death.

Here is an essential point, an impenetrable wall between More and Marx--a wall raised by St. Augstine. I have already alluded to it. The Utopians despite their reasonable and virtuous state have no faith that human nature can be transformed into selfless virtue. They know that individual wickedness, the superbia of St. Augustine, always couches at the door, ready to devour any community, including their own. They also know that human beings in a community cannot keep one another under surveillance all the time--although their best to do just that. Says Raphael:

You see how it is--wherever you are, you always have to work. There's never any excuse for idleness. There are also no wine-taverns, no ale-houses, no brothels, no opportunities for seduction, no secret meeting-places. 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.[43]
Given the Augustinian view of human nature in Utopia, we are not surprised that the society has harsh penalties for those who do not conform. More's contemporary Machiavelli posed this question in the same year that More wrote the Utopia: Is it better to be loved or feared? It is good to be both loved and feared, said the great Florentine political theorist, but if one has to make a choice between fear and love, it is better to be feared. Utopia is a machine of state constructed to the most reasonable specifications. But it is lubricated by fear.

More posits the death penalty for two convictions of adultery, assuming that in a society where the family is the chief pillar, anything that disrupts the family is of lethal consequence to the state. And, as we have seen, he also requires the death penalty for private discussion of political affairs. Those who sin grievously in Utopia are tried in public and usually condemned to slavery. They are not usually put to death because the immediate disappearance of the criminal is not as helpful example as the salutary fear created by observing lifelong punishment. Those condemned slaves who rebel against their servitude are put to death like wild beasts.[44]

All this represents a strange paradox. The individual is seen as a dangerous surd in society, likely to spin out of control at any moment and inflict catastrophic damage on the whole community unless the whole community keeps vigilant watch. The individual is almost continuously subjected to scrutiny in every waking hour, but even so, some commit crimes for which they are harshly punished to encourage the others to conform.

Yet the magistrates in Utopia are supposed to have an almost infallible selflessness. Rule of each family clan is given to the oldest man. These men elect officers over them, and those officers elect in turn other officers and a mayor to rule each city. Utopia has no king, and indeed in the Latin text More wrote, Utopus himself is never called king.[45]

More mistrusted kings, and he had reason; his experience with them was almost universally bad. Born in the reign of Edward IV, he probably retained a childhood memory of Richard III the usurper riding through the streets of London, and when Henry VII overcame Richard at Bosworth Field, in More's later view it was only to exchange one tyrant for another. More's son-in-law William Roper tells us that More opposed Henry VII in Parliament and almost had to flee the country to avoid the king's wrath.[46] When Henry VII died, More wrote rejoicing poems.[47] I surmise that the More of 1516 could read well enough the character of King Henry VIII who would later send him to the block. And so he had every reason to have no king in Utopia.

I might add that he never wanted to give too much authority to any single person, no matter how exalted the office. He never exalted papal authority; he thought popes could err; and he believed that the general council was superior to the pope and could depose a pope for any reason that the council saw fit.

But was he wise to place such complete faith in the wisdom, the apparent infallibility of patriarchal magistrates in Utopia? Is a nation naturally more moral than people taken as individuals?

Reinhold Niebuhr addressed this issue in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society published first in 1932. He argued cogently that people acting in masses are inevitably less moral than individuals. I believe Niebuhr's thinking on this issue is sound. It is one of the reasons why throughout their history, the American people have been continually angry with their Congress.

The collapse of communism with its patriarchal and supposedly infallible magistrates is sign enough that too much faith in assemblies claiming to represent the people is, well, Utopian. I would say in addition that the spirit of hatred alive in our own country, particularly after the last election, does not seem to me at least to indicate that a political majority united under the flag of moral reform is likely to surmount the evils that we see in individuals.

At the More Project at Yale where so many of us toiled so happily and for so long editing More's work for publication, our great mentor Richard S. Sylvester used to have pinned up a quotation from the English wit Max Beerbohm:

"Utopia? Excuse me. I thought it was hell."
But did More intend it to be a bad place?

My late mentor and friend Richard S. Sylvester loved Thomas More. He could not bear the thought that More could have created an ideal society with so many flaws that affronted the liberal imagination. In an article published in 1958, he argued that More had intended to cast Utopia as a dystopia, not a good place but a bad place, one where the rule of reason had obliterated the gentler human virtues.[48]

You will be relieved to know that I do not intend to argue in detail against Sylvester's position. I will make only two points against it. It does injustice to all the good qualities that we find in Utopia, many of which I have mentioned already, including the virtues of Utopian worship that I have not dwelled upon. If More intended his work to be as ironic as Sylvester imagined it to be, the book was an utter failure, for no one took it in that spirit for more than four centuries after More wrote it. My other point is simply to say that reading Utopia as an intentionally bad place seems to me at least to ignore entirely the carnival aspects of the work that I noted early in this lecture.

Let me close by making a point that I implied above. Utopia is part of Thomas More's biography. It is his mirror as well as the mirror of his society. He was a driven man for whom one of the worst sins was to waste time. This was a man who drove his two wives and his children to education and piety with a relentless dedication. He wore a hair shirt under his fine outer garments to mortify his flesh, and according to his son-in-law, William Roper, he beat himself with whips for the same reason.[49] This was a man who waged war with all his power against the incursion of Protestantism into England. He wrote furiously and relentlessly that heretics should be burned at the stake; he rejoiced and joked when some of them did perish in the judicial fires. His last great devotional work, the De Tristitia Christi, radiates hatred towards the heretics, and that same hatred was stamped on the tomb in Chelsea Old Church, a tomb he was destined not to occupy.

This was a man of stern temperament, and his Utopia suits the rest of his life. Nothing in Utopia is more like him than the Utopian law that anyone convicted twice of adultery will suffer the penalty of death. He was a man who considered the monastery but decided, as Erasmus said, to be a good husband rather than a bad priest. I have long maintained that the commonwealth of Utopia has the look of a monastic compound where marriage is allowed but strictly controlled so that conjugal relations relieve sexual needs without creating any genuine bonds of intimacy between husbands and wives.

Utopia is thus not a program for our society. It is not a blueprint but a touchstone against which we try various ideas about both our times and the book to see what then comes of it all. It helps us see what we are without telling us in detail what we are destined to be. Utopia becomes part of a chain, crossing and uncrossing with past and present in the unending debate about human nature and the best possible society possible to the kind of beings we are. Utopia becomes in every age a rather sober carnival to make us smile and grimace and lift ourselves out of the prosaic and the real, to give ourselves a second life where we can imagine the liberty to make everything all over again, to create society anew as the wise Utopus himself did long before in Utopia. His wisdom is not ours. But it summons us to have our own wisdom and to use it as best we can to judge what is wrong in our society in the hope that our judgment will make us do some things right, even if we cannot make all things new this side of paradise.


  1. References to nature are frequent throughout Utopia. See, Utopia, eds. Edward Surtz, S.J. and J.H. Hexter, The Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. 4, p. 164 et al. Afterwards "CW 4" will refer to the Latin text preserved in this volume. Back

  2. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, tr. Helene Iswolsky, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1984, pp. 7-8. Back

  3. Bakhtin, p. 9. Back

  4. Bakhtin, p. 10. Back

  5. See Herbert A. Deane, "The State: The Return of Order upon Disorder," The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine, New York, Columbia University Press, 1963, pp. 116-153. Back

  6. En. in Ps. 39:7; quoted in Deane, p. 45. Back

  7. Harry Levin, The Myth of the Golden Age in the Renaissance, New York, Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 19-24. Back

  8. Utopia, PT, p. 27; CW 4, pp. 20-21. Back

  9. CW 4, title page facing cxciv. Back

  10. Quoted in Levin, p. 90. Back

  11. Utopia, PT, p. 130. Back

  12. The 1760 year figure is intriguing. (CW 4, p. 120.) That would put Utopus's conquest and renovation of Utopia at about 244 B.C., about the time of Roman victory in the First Punic War but before Rome set itself on the course of Empire that was to bring down the Republic and create the rule of Caesars. More may have taken the Roman Republic at its most virtuous as the model for his own, and with his antipathy for kings and for war, he might have located Utopus at about this time. The editors of the Yale Edition have suggested that the time refers to the coming to power of King Agis IV of Sparta who wanted to cancel debts and divide Spartan land into equal lots. CW 4, p. 395. Back

  13. Dominic Baker Smith, More's Utopia, London, HarperCollins Academic, 1991, p. 150. Back

  14. CW 4, p. 58. Back

  15. Thomas More, Utopia, tr. Paul Turner, London, Penguin, 1965, p. 73. Back

  16. Utopia, PT, p. 71. Back

  17. Utopia, tr. Paul Turner, p. 79. Back

  18. The Latin text uses the word "syphograntia." CW 4, p. 140. Turner renders the word "Syphograntum" for the officer as "Styward," perhaps for the "steward" of the Inns of Court. CW 4, p. 398-399. Back

  19. Utopia, PT, p. 81-82. Back

  20. Utopia, PT, pp. 29-30. Back

  21. Utopia, p. 75. Back

  22. André Prévost has speculated that when too many children turned up in one of the clans, the parents and the child were shifted to another clan or "family" to overcome the imbalance. But nothing in the text suggests such a benign interpretation. See Prévost, L'Utopie de Thomas More, Paris, MAME, 1978, pp. 86, 681. Back

  23. See Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1969, pp. 62. Back

  24. Matt. 10:37 NEB. Back

  25. Brown, p. 62. Back

  26. Seneca the Younger, Letters from a Stoic, selected and translated with an introduction by Robin Campbell, London, Penguin Books, 1969, p. 113 [Letter 63: Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium]. Back

  27. Dominic Baker Smith, More's Utopia, London, HarperCollins Academic, 1991. Back

  28. CW 4, p. 158. Back

  29. Utopia, PT, p. 104. Back

  30. CW 4, p. 190. Back

  31. Utopia, PT, p. 74. Back

  32. When I gave this lecture at Loyola in Baltimore, this question arose: How with a free assembly could the Utopians not question their system and change it over a period of 1760 years? What if someone said, "I don't want communism any more; let's put the matter to a vote." The only analogy I could think of was More's attitude towards doctrine in the Catholic Church. Once time had revealed a truth and consensus had been arrived about it and it had been accepted for a very long time, it could not be debated any further. But then the Church has a divine sanction that Utopia does not. At any rate, Raphael gives us no sign that the Utopians ever questioned the fundamental wisdom of their system, and we may surmise that an Adam Smith rising among them to proclaim a capitalistic theory of the Wealth of Nations would have been hooted down. Back

  33. Utopia, PT, p. 74. Back

  34. CW 4, pp. 180-183. Back

  35. CW 4, pp. 182-183. Back

  36. Utopia p. 91. Back

  37. Utopia, PT, p. 120; CW 4, 222. The Latin here reads, "Caeterum nullo afficunt supplicio. . . . " From Ralph Robinson, this sentence has been translated much as Paul Turner does: "They're not punished in any way." But that cannot be right, since we have just read a series of punishments imposed upon such unbelievers. The word supplicio here obviously has its classical meaning of "death penalty." Elsewhere in Utopia, the word supplicio is used for the death penalty that might have been prescribed for criminals had they not become slaves in Utopia. See Prévost, p. 119, CW 4, p. 184. Back

  38. Utopia, PT, p. 120. Back

  39. Utopia, p. 120. Back

  40. CW 4, pp. 182-183. Back

  41. Thomas More, Translations of Lucian, CW 3, pp. 4-5. Back

  42. ST I.75.6. Back

  43. Utopia, PT, p. 84. Back

  44. Utopia, PT, p. 105. Back

  45. Bad translations, including the Norton "translation" by Robert M. Adams and the Cambridge edition by Robert M. Adams and George Logan, inevitably call Utopus "King," following Ralph Robynson's 1551 translation on which many modern "translations" are based. But the Latin text never gives him that title. This is one of many reasons why Paul Turner's translation is to be preferred over any other now in print. Adams castigated my biography of Thomas More in a review in the New Republic because I said the island commonwealth had no king. Later, in the Cambridge translation of the Utopia which Adams did with George L. Logan, who has the advantage of knowing Latin, a note declared that yes, Utopia was a republic. I was glad to see that this bloodless revolution had occurred between Adams's review of my biography and the Cambridge Utopia, but the Cambridge Utopia is still insufficiently grounded on More's Latin text. Back

  46. Roper, p. 199-200. Back

  47. CW 3, pp. 42-43. Back

  48. Richard S. Sylvester, "Si Hythlodaeo Credimus," Essential Articles for the Study of Thomas More, eds. R.S. Sylvester and G.P. Marc'hadour, Hamden, Connecticut, Archon Books, 1977, pp. 290-301. Back

  49. William Roper, "The Life of Sir Thomas More," Two Early Tudor Lives, eds. Richard S. Sylvester and Davis P. Harding, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1962, p. 224. Back

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