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Themes and Colors
Travel, Discovery, and Place Theme Icon
Bad Governance, Pride, and Idleness Theme Icon
Property, Labor, and Utopian Society Theme Icon
The Public Good, Virtue, and Religion Theme Icon
Ideals and Practicality Theme Icon
The Ambiguities of Utopia Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Utopia, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Bad Governance, Pride, and Idleness Theme Icon

Utopia is divided into two books. The first (composed for the most part after the second) contains a discussion of governance in Europe generally and specifically in England under King Henry VIII, whom Thomas More the man famously served as a counselor and at whose hand More was later executed for treason. Book II contains the description of Utopia’s government, laws, and orders. (Following the influential Utopia scholar J.H. Hexter, we occasionally refer to Book I as the “Dialogue of Counsel” and to Book II as the “Discourse on Utopia” throughout.) Another way of thinking about this division is that Book I critically presents society as it is—organized irrationally by pride, which Hythloday takes to be the ultimate source of all human wrongdoing—whereas Book II presents a vision of society as it ought to be. The question remains, however, whether knowing what good governance ideally looks like aids us in actually governing well on earth—or, even more troublingly, whether we can really imagine what good governance looks like in the first place.

More saves this second question for Book II, and first considers what bad governance looks like, as revealed by Hythloday’s critique of certain social policies and institutions active in Renaissance Europe. Hythloday begins by arguing against the sentencing of thieves to death as disproportionate to the crime (according to records from the period, some 7,200 thieves were hanged under the reign of Henry VIII alone), and this argument spirals outward to suggest the failings of society in general that make it a breeder of thieves and worse. In Hythloday’s account, poor or idle (because untrained) men are forced to become thieves in order to avoid starvation. Those thieves who aren’t hanged then usually become soldiers, whom society keeps fighting fit by deploying in needless, vain, and unprofitable wars of conquest. Such men could be well employed as farmers, but landowners at the time and even holy men in the Church are profitably turning farmland into pastures for sheep, such that little land is available for commoners to farm. This in turn leads them into beggary, thievery, and debauchery in taverns and alehouses.

In short, unchecked pride and idleness are the parents of social corruption, and European society, irrationally, puts a stop to neither. This would not be the case, Hythloday claims, if people didn’t have the license to pursue their own private interests at the expense of the nation, and also if the government itself wasn’t stuffed with unreflective leaders and flatterers who propose nearsighted solutions that serve only to exacerbate the problems they’re intended to solve.

Bad Governance, Pride, and Idleness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Bad Governance, Pride, and Idleness appears in each chapter of Utopia. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Bad Governance, Pride, and Idleness Quotes in Utopia

Below you will find the important quotes in Utopia related to the theme of Bad Governance, Pride, and Idleness.
Book 1 Quotes

Nothing is more easy to be found than barking Scyllas, ravening Calaenos, and Laestrygons, devourers of people, and suchlike great and incredible monsters. But to find citizens ruled by good and wholesome laws, that is an exceeding rare and hard thing.

Related Characters: Thomas More (speaker), Raphael Hythloday
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

More (the character, as opposed to the author) is speaking with Raphael Hythloday, a traveler who seeks wisdom, and can be read as a mixture of Plato and Ulysses. More asks Hythloday about the places he has been, the people who inhabited them, and how those people governed themselves. More prides himself on not asking Hythloday about whether or not he encountered any monsters. 

In pointing this out, the text parodies the genre of travel narration, which usually relies on bombastic adventures and terrible beasts for entertainment value. Here, More (the author) pokes fun at people who read about the world for entertainment rather than for insights into how they can better their societies and themselves. He is also making an ironic jab at the princes and aristocracies of Europe: they are the monsters so easy to find, those that cannibalize their own societies.


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Provision should have been made [in England], so that no man should be driven to this extreme necessity, first to steal and then to die.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker), A Lawyer
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Hythloday recalls a conversation he had with a cunning lawyer about justice. Their conversation centers on the example of the thief, who, in Europe, is hanged for his crimes. Hythloday argues that this punishment is extreme and inappropriate for the crime. Indeed, Hylthloday thinks that the crime of stealing is motivated by "extreme necessity" as opposed to a base desire to do bad things. As such, the thief who steals to keep themselves or their family alive is more a victim than a criminal - their society has failed them by leaving them unable to earn a living, and then it fails them twice over when it executes them for acting on their only available chance at survival. 

This scene can be read as a sort of “parable” in which the various characters exemplify what Hythloday sees as the wrongs of European society. The lawyer and Hythloday have two conflicting ideas of justice. The lawyer thinks that justice is the law being effectively enforced, while Hythloday thinks that justice is the organization of a society such that people don’t have any need to break the law in the first place. The lawyer’s view, in contrast to Hythloday’s, seems merciless, inhumane, and ultimately ineffective.

Let not so many be brought up in idleness; let husbandry and tillage be restored; let clothworking be renewed, that there may be honest labours for this idle sort to pass their time in profitably, which hitherto either poverty hath caused to be thieves, or else now be either vagabonds or idle serving men, and shortly will be thieves.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Hythloday and the lawyer continue their discussion of justice. Hythloday has been expanding on the many social ills in England that create thieves out of men who could be dependable and responsible citizens if the society were better structured.

Here, Hythloday makes an argument that idleness is one of the most dangerous symptoms of a poorly functioning society, as well as an open door to further criminal and anti-social behavior. A thief, after all, must have been "brought up in idleness," or else they would know a trade and be able to provide for themselves. 

Hythloday calls for a renewal of essential trades: taking care of animals, working the land, and weaving. These, he argues, will give idle men, who currently pass their time as "vagabonds or idle serving-men" something profitable to do with their time that benefits them as well as their society. 

It is against the dignity of a king to have rule over beggars, but rather over rich and wealthy men.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Hythloday is considering the possibility of being a counselor to a king, as his guests have suggested that he would excel at. Hythloday begins to imagine what his fellow counselors would advise a king to do, and makes arguments against their hypothetical advice. 

Here, Hythloday is arguing against the idea that poverty makes men too weak to behave badly or rebel, and so it can be considered in a king's best interest to keep his subjects poor. However, Hythloday points out that all great revolutions begin in dissatisfaction. If a person has nothing to lose, they are much more likely to be desperate and violent. He goes to point out that it is pathetic and below their "dignity" for a king to "rule over beggars." This kind of rule is better suited to a jailer.

Irrational princes who do everything they can to control their people will ironically bring about revolutions in their realm. 

This school philosophy is not unpleasant among friends in familiar communication, but in the council of kings, where great matters be debated and reasoned with great authority, these things have no place.

Related Characters: Thomas More (speaker), Raphael Hythloday
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

"School philosophy" is used here to refer to academic philosophy divorced from the context of real life. Here, More and Hylthoday agree that school philosophy is pleasant and educational when friends are discussing issues, but that the use of it is not practical in Europe as it is. The "council of kings" is too much concerned with the real-life contexts of the country and people under their rule, and as such, school philosophy would strike them as frivolous and naive.

However, the two men leave open the possibility that in a better world, where people are open-minded and interested in the public good, school philosophy does have a place in governance.

It is not possible for all things to be well unless all men were good.

Related Characters: Thomas More (speaker)
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, More continues to consider the question of "school philosophy." He argues that philosophy must have a place in governance - but that it must "know its place and not digress." The end of this kind of philosophy would be to turn the "very bad" into the "merely bad." More then says that "It is not possible for all things to be well unless all men are good," a statement that is complicated by the fact that More feels that most men are bad, and as such, it will be a while yet before all men can be "good." We might imagine that More includes himself among the ranks of men who need to become good before a utopia can be realized.

More also points out that school philosophy need not be presented in an overly systematic way. It can be made entertaining—just as Utopia presents philosophical ideas in the entertaining form of the travel narrative. If the world can’t be perfect, at least it can be better than it is.

Book 2: Of Their Trades, and Manner of Life Quotes

Now consider with yourself of these few that do work [in countries other than Utopia], how few be occupied in necessary works. For where money beareth all the swing, there many vain and superfluous occupations must needs be used, to serve only for riotous superfluity and unhonest pleasure.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Hythloday draws More's attention to societies outside of Utopia, where not every citizen works, and those that do work tend not to do "necessary work," like farming. This is because these other societies are obsessed with money, which creates a market for superfluous and false pleasures as opposed to necessary, hearty products. 

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.

As such, everyone shares the minimal amount of work, and, because everyone works, nobody is forced to work more than anyone else. 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,” as such things are meant primarily as a distracting pleasure, not a way of life valuable in itself.

Book 2: Of the Travelling of the Utopians Quotes

Gold and silver, whereof money is made, they [the Utopians] do so use as none of them doth more esteem it than the very nature of the thing deserveth. And then who doth not plainly see how far it is under iron, as without the which men can no better live than without fire and water?

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Related Symbols: Gold
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

In these lines, we learn about one of the most striking details of Utopian society: their disdain for gold and other precious metals and gems that European society so cherishes. Hythloday explains that their disdain is born out of practicality: you cannot do much with gold and silver other than make coins and jewelry. Both metals are seen as being infinitely inferior to "iron," which is as essential as "fire and water" to the Utopians. 

The Utopians are attracted to gold, much like Europeans, but they fight their attraction by making only loathsome things out of the metal: chamber pots, fetters for slaves, and jewelry meant to shame wrong-doers. Similarly, Utopians gives precious stones and jewels to their children to play with so that the children will come to think of these things as immature and embarrassing when they are grown. These efforts on the part of the Utopians reveal that they have the same instinctual interest in gold and precious stones, but unlike the Europeans who give into that instinct, the Utopians fight it in the name of a healthy society.  

They [the Utopians] marvel also that gold, which of its own nature is a thing so unprofitable, is now among all people in so high estimation, that man himself, by whom, yea, and for the use of whom, it is so much set by, is in much less estimation than the gold itself.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Related Symbols: Gold
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

The Utopians are well-aware of the status that gold holds in other areas of the world, and they are confounded and disturbed by the fact that a man's life is considered less valuable than gold by many people in other countries. It is imminently practical, as well as humane, for the Utopians to value human life over gold. 

Utopians are also disturbed by the fact that, in many societies, money seems to be a stand-in for virtue and intelligence. In Europe, an idiot will be well-respected if he is rich. This is a perversion of the Utopians' most cherished values of hard work and self-improvement. Instead of working hard and enriching their society, rich men and women are free to be idle and live off the work of others. Thus, introducing gold and money into a society is a poisonous practice as it enables people to avoid work and public service.

Book 2: Of Their Military Discipline Quotes

War or battle as a thing very beastly, and yet to no kind of beasts in so much use as to man, they [the Utopians] do detest and abhor. And contrary to the custom almost of all other nations they count nothing so much against glory as glory gotten in war.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Hythloday explains that Utopians "detest and abhor" warfare, and consider it subhuman - it is a beastly activity, and not even wild beasts go to war, after all. To this end, when the Utopians do go to war (and they are prepared to fight - they practice military drills daily, out of practicality) they do not do so to become richer. And, if they do gain by going to war, then they consider their "glories" to be more disgraceful than glorifying.

The reasons that the Utopians will go to war include: settling trade disputes, avenging wrongs, and delivering people from tyranny. Although these motivations sound reasonable, it is strange that Utopians, who value human life more than gold, would kill people over trade disputes. Stranger still that they would not consider the potential fallout of "delivering" an oppressed people. 

Book 2: Conclusion Quotes

When I consider and weigh in my mind all these commonwealths which nowadays anywhere do flourish, so God help me, I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of commonwealth.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

In the concluding section of the text, Hythloday begins explicitly comparing Utopia to European society. Here, he claims that Utopia is the best commonwealth in the world, and also the only one worthy of the name "commonwealth," as all things are equal in Utopia.

He then goes on to consider other "flourish[ing]" commonwealths, which he feels are ironically named - after all, they are really just conspiracies "of rich men" who exploit the poor "under the name and title of commonwealth."

The main difference between these sham commonwealths and Utopia is private property and the use of money. By getting rid of money, Hythloday argues, Utopians have pulled up evil by its root. Hythloday relates this to Christ's teachings against private property, which he says that European societies are too prideful to follow.

As I cannot agree and consent to all things that he [Hythloday] said…so must I needs confess and grant that many things be in the Utopian weal-public which in our cities I may rather wish for than hope after.

Related Characters: Thomas More (speaker), Raphael Hythloday
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

At the very end of the text, More invites Hythloday in for dinner and says that they will discuss and evaluate Utopian society at a later time. Here, More tells us that he does not agree with all of Hythloday's points, but that he does wish for many Utopian features to be realized in European society. This can only be a "wish," however, as More feels that it is deeply unrealistic to hope that these changes will be put into effect.

More’s response to Hythloday’s account of Utopia is never presented to us, and so all our questions are left unanswered. This ending adds to the sense of the work as a “joke” or a playful satire, but perhaps the suggestion is also that we as readers are responsible for conducting that dialogue among ourselves. The text requires that we reason for ourselves about Utopia, and what system of governing might be best for an ideal society. This is, after all, the first step we all must take before any utopia can become a reality.