Thomas More’s Utopian Satire

The genre of utopian satires came into being in the early 16th century with the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516. Thomas More was Lord High Chancellor to England and a Catholic who opposed Henry VIII during the English Reformation about 15 years later. He was executed under Henry in 1535 for refusing to take the oath of supremacy acknowledging Henry VIII as head of the church of England. His book started out as what might become a reasonable social and political commentary, but it was quickly shown to be an obvious satire.

Utopia was written with Thomas More himself as the narrator, and in it he met and conversed with a world traveler named Raphael Hythloday (which means, as evidence to this book’s satirical nature, “talking nonsense” in Greek). The traveler was portrayed as a reformer who had seen what does not work in political systems. He had traveled the world, witnessing the governments of its various countries, and had concluded that there was much need for reform. In the beginning of the book he seemed quite sensible. He disagreed with standing armies as tools for rulers to grab more territories and power, citing France as an example. He believed that thieves should not receive capital punishment along with murderers, as the thieves would then easily become murderers; as was the case in England. However, he slowly became more radical with his ideas. He wanted the government to abolish gambling, taverns, and sporting events. He wanted the government to intervene with the property of the nobles, preventing them from using their land for shepherding. Finally he wanted to abolish all private property and the use of money, saying:

I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily: not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few…

The traveler was basically saying that he thought what we would today call socialism would be the best way to govern a nation. Thomas More responded to this by saying that men need incentives in order to work hard:

[I]t seems to me that men cannot live conveniently where all things are common: how can there be any plenty, where every man will excuse himself from labor? For as the hope of gain doth not excite him, so the confidence that he has in other men’s industry may make him slothful: if people come to be pinched with want, and yet cannot dispose of anything as their own; what can follow upon this but perpetual sedition and bloodshed, especially when the reverence and authority due to magistrates fall to the ground?

Instead of retorting and giving the reason why the Utopians do not need incentives, the traveler simply said that the system works in Utopia. Thomas More was at this point presenting satire. He had departed from his portrayal of a reasonable reformer, and was now describing through Raphael a system which he believed could not exist.

In book two the traveler went on to describe the social and political organization of Utopia. The basic social unit was the family, which was comprised of no less than 40 members. There were 54 cities in Utopia, and each city could have no more than 6000 families. Presiding over 30 families was a magistrate, and presiding over ten of these was another magistrate. 200 of these latter magistrates chose a prince from four candidates chosen by the people who will rule over Utopia until his death. Every year the government would send 20 members of each family in the country to the city, and 20 more from the city go to the country to fill their place. This was so that everyone would have an equal knowledge of agriculture and the trades of a city. In other words, almost everyone was completely equal and there was no specialization of labor. Gold and silver were despised in Utopia, and nobody was concerned for his personal wealth, yet everyone was extremely diligent in their work. If a surplus of crops was harvested, which was often the case, it would be sent away to other countries for free out of good will. Everyone wore plain wool clothing for there were no fashions. Utopia was an egalitarian society in which nobody had the desire to distinguish himself above anybody else.

Thomas More knew that society could not exist in this way. He knew that people do not work hard with no desire for reward. He knew that a society in which every aspect of life was controlled by a government authority could not be successful. He also had a deep understanding of the mindset of social reformers. For example, in Utopia gold and silver were despised to the extent that they were used for the fetters of slaves and for chamber pots. Much later, in the 20th century, Vladimir Lenin wanted to make urinals out of gold in order to emphasize its apparent worthlessness. More presented the traveler as a reasonable reformer early on in the book, perhaps to attract a reader’s attention, but gradually made him more and more radical until the reforms he was preaching would be obviously perceived as satire.

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2 thoughts on “Thomas More’s Utopian Satire

  1. Pingback: Thomas More’s Utopia: Risk of Persecution? | supererling

  2. Pingback: Utopian Thought in the Sixteenth Century | supererling

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