Utopia – More

This book by Thomas More is famous for coining the term “utopia – an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.

Unfortunately, that’s all it should be known for. The negative connotation that the term Utopia has, (being something unrealistic, idyllic, fantastical) is a direct reflection of this book.

More’s Utopia is a poorly constructed, highly contradictory, and fictional daydream, of what a perfect theocratic state could look like.

It is less a design for a perfect state, and more an exposition of everything More thinks is “good” and “right”, based on his narrow upbringing.

Utopia is truly a work of fiction, not philosophy.

After reading Utopia I understand why Huxley didn’t want to associate his novel “Island” with this at all. Utopia is a piece of groundless fiction, daydreaming about what perfect theocratic dictatorship could look like, while the Island is a theoretically possible state derived not from dogma, but rationality, wisdom, self-awareness and ultimately, enlightenment.

My big takeaway from Utopia

Dogma is ego. Ego is suffering.

I’ve read three expositions on what a perfect state could look like (Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, Huxley’s Island) and the big picture learning that I’ve had is that a perfect state is not built on a perfect ideology. Any ideology over time becomes dogmatic to the point of dictatorial. Human beings are not identical building blocks, they do not all fit into a predefined structure created by powerful men decades ago.

The perfect state is built on rationality, wisdom, and self-awareness. So that over time, as the needs of the people change, the laws and norms that govern them change too.

More’s Utopia would never work

Here’s why I think that even if we could magically implement the laws and customs of Utopia it would not work. (Also More seems to agree with his contradictory ending: “Many things occurred to me, both concerning the manners and laws of that people, that seemed very absurd.” 🤷‍♂️)

Dogma

  • At the very core, Utopia is built on dogma.
  • Everyone believes and acts in the same way and those who don’t are severely punished.
  • It would work if all men were identical clones of each other and not “fully human beings” as Huxley professes.
  • Dogmatic states are inherently egotistical and doomed to long-term failure. By creating a set of beliefs and principles that are passed down to new generations is doomed to failure. It is the Ego of the original founding fathers, thinking that they know how future men should live and rule better than they do.
  • Rather, like in Huxley’s Island, the fundamental principle of a true ”perfect” state, are not perfect principles but rather the ongoing goal of enlightenment; of pursuing wisdom, of being self-aware enough to govern yourself as a human, and then to collectively govern a whole state.

False compassion

  • “The Utopians hold this for a maxim, that as they seek out the best sort of men for their own use at home, so they make use of this worst sort of men for the consumption of war;”
  • It values the lives of “Utopian” people over other human beings, this is false compassion.
  • More’s Utopia is built on slavery. This is inherently lacking in compassion.
  • Any society not fundamentally built on true compassion will eventually crumble into violence, tyranny, unrest.

False freedom

  • There is false sense of freedom.
  • Every statement about peace, freedom, unity in the book is always portrayed in the following way: that the people of Utopia just naturally want to do what is right, and those who don’t are either outcast or punished to slavery.
  • This sounds like harsh totalitarianism to me.

Notes

  • More’s Utopia is a contradiction built on tyrannic rules rather than rationality and logic.
  • It is less a design for a perfect state, and more a exposition of everything More things is “good” and “right”
  • It’s obviously heavily based on Christian dogmatic doctrine, in a way that makes it cringe-worthy.
  • I cannot imagine the people of Utopic being happy, much less “fully human beings”.
  • More’s Utopians fundamentally lack true compassion, empathy, enlightenment
  • It is truly a work of fiction.
  • From just reading Utopia, one would think that More does not understand human motivation one bit. He constantly contradicts himself by saying “men are seen as degenerate for believing X but not punished.“ He doesn’t understand that accepted social views shape human behavior just as much as laws.
  • After reading Utopia I understand why Huxley didn’t want to associate his novel “The Island” with this at all. Utopia is a piece of groundless fiction, daydreaming about what perfect Christian dictatorship could look like, while the Island is a theoretically possible state derived not from dogma, but rationality, wisdom, self-awareness and ultimately, enlightenment.
  • Dogma is ego.
  • After going suffering through this book, you get to the end to be utterly confused as to what More really thinks. The character representing himself at the end comments on the absurdity of these ideas, especially in relation to war, religion, and co-habitation.
  • I’m not sure if this is to try make it feel more real, or authentic, or believable.
  • Or because as the name suggests (Utopia = No Land in Greek) that all of this is just silly idealizing and won’t actually work.
  • In which case Utopia should be heralded as a waste of time, rather than a great book.
  • More’s Utopia can be thought of as an intellectually inferior communism. I could understand if this had a major influence on Marx.
  • Full of wildly contradictory statements and ideas.
  • Everything about utopia is dogmatic. It does not build on a foundation of rationality and self-awareness as the island does. It is an early form of Communist ideology.

Quotes

  • “‘The change of the word does not alter the matter.'”
  • “‘The increase of pasture,’ said I, ‘by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns;”
  • “if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this but that you first make thieves and then punish them?’”
  • “your friend Plato thinks that nations will be happy when either philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers. It is no wonder if we are so far from that happiness while philosophers will not think it their duty to assist kings with their counsels.'”
  • “‘he would rather govern rich men than be rich himself; since for one man to abound in wealth and pleasure when all about him are mourning and groaning, is to be a gaoler and not a king.’”
  • “not for this speculative philosophy, that makes everything to be alike fitting at all times; but there is another philosophy that is more pliable, that knows its proper scene, accommodates itself to it, and teaches a man with propriety and decency to act that part which has fallen to his share.”
  • “for you spoil and corrupt the play that is in hand when you mix with it things of an opposite nature, even though they are much better. Therefore go through with the play that is acting the best you can, and do not confound it because another that is pleasanter comes into your thoughts.”
  • “You are not obliged to assault people with discourses that are out of their road, when you see that their received notions must prevent your making an impression upon them:”
  • “and if all they that languish out their lives in sloth and idleness (every one of whom consumes as much as any two of the men that are at work) were forced to labour, you may easily imagine that a small proportion of time would serve for doing all that is either necessary, profitable, or pleasant to mankind, especially while pleasure is kept within its due bounds:”
  • “The magistrates never engage the people in unnecessary labour, since the chief end of the constitution is to regulate labour by the necessities of the public, and to allow the people as much time as is necessary for the improvement of their minds, in which they think the happiness of life consists.”
  • “It is the fear of want that makes any of the whole race of animals either greedy or ravenous.”
  • “That the soul of man is immortal, and that God of His goodness has designed that it should be happy; and that He has, therefore, appointed rewards for good and virtuous actions, and punishments for vice, to be distributed after this life.”
  • “They define virtue thus—that it is a living according to Nature, and think that we are made by God for that end; they believe that a man then follows the dictates of Nature when he pursues or avoids things according to the direction of reason. They say that the first dictate of reason is the kindling in us a love and reverence for the Divine Majesty, to whom we owe both all that we have and, all that we can ever hope for.”
  • “Why, then, ought not a man to begin with himself? since no man can be more bound to look after the good of another than after his own; for Nature cannot direct us to be good and kind to others, and yet at the same time to be unmerciful and cruel to ourselves.”
  • “Thus as they define virtue to be living according to Nature, so they imagine that Nature prompts all people on to seek after pleasure as the end of all they do.”
  • “They look on the desire of the bloodshed, even of beasts, as a mark of a mind that is already corrupted with cruelty, or that at least, by too frequent returns of so brutal a pleasure, must degenerate into it.”
  • Contradictory bullshit: “yet they do not rashly engage in war, unless it be either to defend themselves or their friends from any unjust aggressors, or, out of good nature or in compassion, assist an oppressed nation in shaking off the yoke of tyranny. They, indeed, help their friends not only in defensive but also in offensive wars; but they never do that unless they had been consulted before the breach was made, and, being satisfied with the grounds on which they went, they had found that all demands of” reparation were rejected, so that a war was unavoidable.
  • Egotistical: “‘The only design of the Utopians in war is to obtain that by force which, if it had been granted them in time, would have prevented the war; or, if that cannot be done, to take so severe a revenge on those that have injured them that they may be terrified from doing the like for the time to come.”
  • False compassion: “The Utopians hold this for a maxim, that as they seek out the best sort of men for their own use at home, so they make use of this worst sort of men for the consumption of war;”
  • Inherent greed/desire: “They send some of their own people to receive these revenues, who have orders to live magnificently and like princes, by which means they consume much of it upon the place; and either bring over the rest to Utopia or lend it to that nation in which it lies.”
  • All theists: “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 honours to any but to Him alone.” And, indeed, though they differ concerning other things, yet all agree in this: that they think there is one Supreme Being that made and governs the world, whom they call, in the language of their country, Mithras.
  • “he was condemned to banishment, not for having disparaged their religion, but for his inflaming the people to sedition; for this is one of their most ancient laws,”
  • False open-mindedness: “He judged it not fit to determine anything rashly; and seemed to doubt whether those different forms of religion might not all come from God, who might inspire man in a different manner, and be pleased with this variety; he therefore thought it indecent and foolish for any man to threaten and terrify another to make him believe what did not appear to him to be true. And supposing that only one religion was really true, and the rest false, he imagined that the native force of truth would at” last break forth and shine bright, if supported only by the strength of argument, and attended to with a gentle and unprejudiced mind;
  • Immoral to be atheist? Sounds like a religious dictatorship: “only he made a solemn and severe law against such as should so far degenerate from the dignity of human nature, as to think that our souls died with our bodies, or that the world was governed by chance, without a wise overruling Providence: for they all formerly believed that there was a state of rewards and punishments to the good and bad after this life; and they now look on those that think otherwise as scarce fit to be counted men, since they degrade so noble a being as the soul, and” reckon it no better than a beast’s: thus they are far from looking on such men as fit for human society, or to be citizens of a well-ordered commonwealth;
  • On atheists: “They never raise any that hold these maxims, either to honours or offices, nor employ them in any public trust, but despise them, as men of base and sordid minds.”
  • Ego: “They think that the souls of beasts are immortal, though far inferior to the dignity of the human soul, and not capable of so great a happiness. They are almost all of them very firmly persuaded that good men will be infinitely happy in another state:”
  • Religions hold ultimate power: “None of the magistrates have greater honour paid them than is paid the priests; and if they should happen to commit any crime, they would not be questioned for it; their punishment is left to God, and to their own consciences.”
  • False compassion: “lifting up their hands to heaven, pray, first for peace, and then for victory to their own side, and particularly that it may be gained without the effusion of much blood on either side;”
  • Fear based: “And they intermingle them so, that the younger and the older may be set by one another; for if the younger sort were all set together, they would, perhaps, trifle away that time too much in which they ought to beget in themselves that religious dread of the Supreme Being which is the greatest and almost the only incitement to virtue.”
  • Crux of More’s ideology; money corrupts society: “for the use as well as the desire of money being extinguished, much anxiety and great occasions of mischief is cut off with it, and who does not see that the frauds, thefts, robberies, quarrels, tumults, contentions, seditions, murders, treacheries, and witchcrafts, which are, indeed, rather punished than restrained by the seventies of law, would all fall off, if money were not any more valued by the world? Men’s fears, solicitudes, cares, labours, and watchings would all perish in the same” moment with the value of money; even poverty itself, for the relief of which money seems most necessary, would fall.
  • Ending: “In the meanwhile, though it must be confessed that he is both a very learned man and a person who has obtained a great knowledge of the world, I cannot perfectly agree to everything he has related.”

sebastiankade

Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on sebastiankade.com

2 Comments

  1. Hey Sebastian,

    Interesting take on More’s Utopia. I think you’ve perhaps taken it too literally and not considered the historical context? It was I believe intended to be a criticism on Catholicism and the Catholic Church at the time – so in part it’s a satire (although to what extent, it’s not clear).

    I know you don’t necessarily like looking at the history of a place (or perhaps a book), but often the can add a lot to understanding something better.

    Keep up the posts, and summaries as they are great! I like how this was less a set of just quotes, and more your thoughts and opinion on the text.

    Also, you should reply to comments :p

    • Thanks Ro 🙂

      This one I actually spent a fair bit of time reading up on the background of the text. The problem is that nobody really knows the motivation behind it. It’s a mix of critique, satire, but also honest thought backed by philosophical references. It’s really a hot mess of everything.

      The first part of the book is the large attack on the “current” state of things. In that part More openly critiques England, the Church, and the idea of private property.

      However, the second part is a mix of satirical nonsense, mixed in with what I believe to be More’s opinions on good living.

      My ultimate problem is that it’s not enough of anything. It’s not enough of a critique of life and law, nor is it enough or a satirical joke. It’s a strange mix of contradictory ideas and feelings.

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