First released in 1516, this book is written as a recount by a character who has visited a country known as Utopia.
Without iron human life is simply impossible, just as it is without fire or water – but we could easily do without silver and gold, if it weren’t for the idiotic concept of scarcity-value. (p.86)
The ideal place of Utopia becomes an example of an ideal society, which More uses to highlight faults he sees in the world around him.
Certainly a man who enjoys a life of luxury while everyone else is moaning and groaning round him can hardly be called a king – he’s more like a gaoler. (p.62)
And considering the high esteem More was held in, both when and after Utopia was released, it is interesting the lasting messages it contains and style of the writing.
What can the great countries of Europe learn from the distant and isolated country of Utopia?
The Utopian way of life could be mocked by the aristocrats in Europe.
Are you interested in how a perfect society can work, or how the values people strive for today and not far removed from those sort most in the 1500s (including wishing for a slowdown in progress and the preserving of farms and building), or how More’s deriding of money and his socialist outline seems to promote communism?
And now just think of how few of these few people are doing essential work – for where money is the only standard of value, there are bound to be dozens of unnecessary trades carried on, which merely supply luxury goods or entertainment. (p.77)
There is an endeavour by More to detail the Utopian way of life. The delivery method is of a character recounting an experience. This gives the story a voice, one the reader knows might be challenged, and is historic. Early stories had to be spread by word of mouth, and as writing developed Greeks wrote stage plays to tell stories in performance. Utopia is largely dialogue, almost as if it was meant for stage, but the text does not work as a narrative story. It is a description of a fictional place, and it has little in the way of jeopardy or character story arch and struggle. This makes for an educative description rather than a gripping narrative.
This is intentionally not a story, but rather a kind of manifesto on government by More.
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. (p.84)
Yes, communism works in theory, and this Utopia is a theory, but under pressure there is plenty that could go wrong with this system. By not exploring or attempting to answer the faults Utopia as a book fails. It ultimately avoids considering Utopia as imperfect, with only minor conceding elements at the end as if to identify places More would have rewritten if he had the time. If the book challenged Utopia, or the idea, in some way the conflict would have made for a better narrative by modern standards, and it would have made for a strong position for the idea, because an opinion that is challenged and that holds firm under scrutiny is better that one that is never challenged or made to be justified.
Below are more passages from the book:
Think of the demoralizing games people play – dice, cards, backgammon, tennis, bowls, quoits – what are they but quick methods of wasting a man’s money, and sending him straight off to become a thief? (p.48)
(Yes, how does one stop people becoming corrupt by the influence of playing tennis? This is a very modern issue.)
There’s a delightful image in Plato, which explains why a sensible person is right to steer clear of politics. He sees everyone else rushing into the street and getting soaked in the pouring rain. He can’t persuade them to go indoors and keep dry. He knows if he went out too, he’d merely get equally wet. So he just stays indoors himself, and, as he can’t do anything about other people’s stupidity, comforts himself with the thought: ‘Well, I’m all right, anyway.’ (p.65)
There’s also a rule in the Council that no resolution can be debated on the day that it’s first proposed. All discussion is postponed until the next well-attended meeting. Otherwise someone’s liable to say the first thing that comes into his head, and then start thinking up arguments to justify what he has said, instead of trying to decide what’s best for the community. That type of person is quite prepared to sacrifice the public to his own prestige, just because, absurd as it may sound, he’s ashamed to admit that his first idea might have been wrong – when his first idea should have been to think before he spoke. (p.75)
(What the community wants, and what is best could be different things.)
In the meantime silver and gold, the raw materials of money, get no more respect from anyone than their intrinsic value deserves – which is far less than that of iron. Without iron human life is simply impossible, just as it is without fire or water – but we could easily do without silver and gold, if it weren’t for the idiotic concept of scarcity-value. (p.86)
This means that if they suddenly had to part with all the gold and silver they possess – at fate which any other country would be thought equivalent to having one’s guts torn out – nobody in Utopia would care two hoots. (p.87)
…how anyone can be silly enough to think himself better than other people, because his clothes are made of finer woollen thread than theirs. After all, those fine clothes were once worn by a sheep, and they never turned it into anything better than a sheep. (p.89)
For they assume that He has the normal reactions of an artist. Having put the marvellous system of the universe on show for human beings to look at – since no other species is capable of taking it in – He must prefer the type of person who examines it carefully, and really admires His work to the type that just ignores it and like the lower animals remains quite unimpressed by the whole astonishing spectacle. (p.100)
(Yes, for those who think the Bible is all that they need to know, they can be assured that He, God, does not agree with them.)
…developing a sense of religious awe, the strongest, if not the only incentive to good behaviour. (p.126)
(Parts of this book seem to suggest that God might not exist, and it also warns of the danger that not believing in a higher power can have on society.)