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Utopia | Main Ideas


Property and Wealth

When an individual becomes a member of a Catholic religious community as a monk, nun, or priest, he or she takes a vow of poverty and gives up worldly possessions. This idea intrigued More from the time he was a small boy. He worked as a page in the home of John Morton (who became the Bishop of Canterbury). As an adult, however, More became relatively wealthy and even took the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer—essentially, treasurer for Henry VIII. In short More was a man of complex views concerning the ethics of ownership.

In Utopia More explores the idea of property from several different points of view.

First, in Book One, he has the character of Raphael Hythloday debate the proper punishment for a thief that, at that time, was often death. Hythloday argues that putting a thief to death is unjust for several reasons. First, he argues, it does nothing to stop others from stealing, nor does it teach the thief to understand why stealing is wrong or how to live without robbing others. Second, he says, it encourages thieves to kill anyone who sees them commit their crime, as the punishment will be the same whether they kill or not. Third, he says, it violates God's will. God tells us not to kill, yet thieves (who have not themselves killed anyone) are punished by death. Hythloday makes his point well, though it's not clear he convinces the characters of More or Peter Giles.

In Book Two More delves deeply into the nature of property. Through the story of Utopia he explores the idea that shared, communal property makes theft unnecessary. This approach increases the probability that citizens will have what they need without feeling the need to hoard more than they need. He also explores the question of what would happen if "treasure" (in the form of money and precious metals) ceased to have value of its own. He concludes (through Raphael Hythloday) that having no use for money could make it easier to gain the advantage in international trade, war, and negotiations.

Many of the ideas about property expressed in Utopia have had vast impacts on the modern world. The idea (not More's alone) of a society in which property is shared led, in part, to some of the most important social experiments in history. The 20th-century revolutions in China and Russia built on ideas espoused by Marx and other like-minded thinkers, which were first proposed in Utopia.

The Perfect Place

Thomas More coined the term utopia, which came to mean "the perfect place." While he was not the first to explore such an idea (Plato's Republic was very similar in certain ways), his work sparked the imaginations of generations of writers. Some (like B.F. Skinner in his Walden Two) described true "utopias." Many other writers, however, flipped the idea on its head to create dystopias—imaginary societies that are created to benefit humanity but actually destroy it.

Some of the most famous and significant works of literature are dystopian, and many dystopias are exaggerated versions of More's invented country. More deprives Utopians of their ability to act independently by placing them under constant observation. Utopia removes opportunities for higher education and achievement. It enforces policies that restrict movement and personal ambition under threat of enslavement. Similar but exaggerated versions of this type of society are described in such classic dystopian novels as Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, and Wells's The Shape of Things to Come.

Utopia, in addition to commenting on Tudor society, also raises a number of important questions about what is "best" for human beings. Some of the most important questions it raises have been explored in literature since ancient times. These include:

  • Are human beings better and happier when they are provided with all they need? Or are they more fully human when they are forced to struggle against obstacles to achieve their goals?
  • Is it better for societies to choose their own leaders and represent themselves? Or are they to be led by a single individual or group with a particular vision for the society?
  • Is there glory to be found in fighting and winning wars and dying for a cause? Or is it wiser to find nonviolent solutions even when the enemy is clearly harmful?

Crime and Punishment

Crime and punishment are addressed many times and in many different ways in Utopia. In Book One Hythloday discusses appropriate consequences for theft; he argues that it is not right to execute a criminal for a crime less heinous than murder. He also argues that part of the purpose of punishing a crime is to convince other potential criminals the crime is not worth committing.

The laws of Utopia rarely involve the death penalty (which was common in More's time). Instead criminals are enslaved. Only slaves who rebel can be put to death. Enslavement is also the punishment for a variety of crimes that are common in both Utopia and England. Adultery is punished with enslavement. Heresy is punishable by banishment.

Later in the book, the reader learns Utopian laws are quite harsh. Some actions that would not be considered crimes elsewhere are punishable by enslavement in Utopia. Work and industry are highly valued in Utopia, so a man can be enslaved for the crime of wandering the countryside without working or without permission.

Through Hythloday and the imaginary world of Utopia, More addresses critical questions about the harsh justice meted out during Tudor times. At times with great sincerity and at times with humor, he questions whether the laws of his times are truly just. He wonders whether the crimes for which men were executed truly merited such harsh punishment.

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