Hythloday now discusses the work done in Utopia. As has been said, everyone develops expertise, both theoretical and practical, in farming. In addition, every Utopian learns his or her own proper craft, be it clothworking, masonry, metalworking, or carpentry. (The Utopians have no need for any other occupations.) Hythloday includes a brief digression here about apparel: the Utopians all wear attractive, comfortable, flexible garments of the same fashion, distinguished only by gender and marital status, to minimize the number of workmen they need.
Equality in labor creates plenty, and so all Utopians are trained to labor. Moreover, because the Utopians have abolished private property, they (supposedly) have no interest in luxury goods, and therefore they have no need for occupations other than those that serve essential functions. Note that this does not imply the absence of beauty or art in Utopia—their houses and churches are gorgeous, and they love music—but there seems to be no “art for art’s sake,” and such things are meant primarily as a distracting pleasure, not a way of life valuable in itself.
All citizens, men and women, must learn a craft. The women, being less physically strong, tend to work with cloth. The men take up “the more laboursome” crafts, and each is usually brought up in his father’s craft. But people are free to learn the craft they find most appealing, and they can even to learn a second craft after the first if they so desire. When someone has learned two crafts, they can do whichever they please unless the city has more need of one than the other.
Although the Utopians value uniformity, they are also accommodating of individual aptitude and preference. People are not treated like ants in Utopia, but are free to work at the craft they prefer. That being said, they must work, and the needs of the community always override individual preference.
Keeping people diligently at their tasks is almost the only office of the Philarchs. So that people do not exhaust themselves working like beasts, they are only required to work six hours every twenty-four-hour day, three before lunch and three after, until dinner. Utopians go to bed around eight o’ clock in the evening and sleep for eight hours.
The Philarchs are like the parents of the families they govern over. Although Hythloday claims the Utopians only work six hours a day, the critic Stephen Greenblatt argues that this figure is a gross underestimation given all the work Utopians must do.
All the time that is not spent at work, sleep, or eating the Utopians may spend as they please. They can attend the daily lectures open to the educated and general public alike, listen to music and dance, or play virtuous games (no gambling, naturally, in Utopia), including a chess-like game and a didactic game (of More’s invention) where vices fight with virtues.
The Utopians work only as much as is necessary, and this gives them time to rest and savor life. However, their leisure activities are no more idle than their daily labor. The Utopians give their free time to pleasurably bettering their minds and character.
Even though the Utopians work only six hours a day, they complete all the work necessary for a healthy, happy life. This is because there are no idle serving men here, no idle women, no idle priests, no idle landowners, and no idle able-bodied beggars. Also, because there is no money in Utopia, people don’t work at vain and superfluous occupations, and they don’t waste their money on bad, dishonest pleasures. If everyone in society worked hard and productively, Hythloday says, no one would be overworked.
Hythloday contrasts the ideal, yet also strictly down-to-earth work ethic of the Utopians with European idleness and wastefulness—things made possible by money and private property. The Utopians work less, as a whole, because all of them work.
In Utopia, only 500 people are exempt from labor, including the Philarchs. But not even these magistrates live idly: they labor anyway so that “their example [may] provoke others to work.” Furthermore, those whom the people have excused from labor to learn can be plucked back to the company of the workers if they prove unsatisfactory. Many craftsmen, for their part, become so learned in their spare time that they are promoted to the company of the “learned” (educated). All ambassadors and magistrates are chosen out of the learned class.
A running motif in Utopia is the idea that Utopians not only have to work but also want to work, as the Philarchs do, because they enjoy exercising virtue by serving the public good. Contrast this with Hythloday’s Europeans, who work only for selfish reasons. Although Utopia is a pleasure-driven society, the people especially embrace pleasures of the mind, such that even the average Utopian is learned.
The Utopians avoid excessive building costs by continually repairing their buildings instead of letting them fall into decay and replacing them. They also lessen the charge of clothing by wearing durable leather while they work and wool cloaks while they travel, all of one color. They use coarse linen because it is less expensive such linen also lasts longer than, say, fine and dainty silk.
The Utopians work hard and smart, doing a little inexpensive work periodically rather than living in idleness till their infrastructure requires major, expensive repair or even replacement. They always value things in proportion to their usefulness and practicality.
Because the Utopians don’t need to work as much as people elsewhere, many can come together to repair broken highways as needed. Also, the magistrates do not make the people work when it’s unnecessary; as such, they will, whenever appropriate, announce fewer hours in work. This makes it possible for the Utopians to improve their minds freely, and this is their principle happiness.
The Utopians do not do work for the sake of doing work—they do only what is necessary, because this ultimately promotes happiness.