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The Public Good, Virtue, and Religion Theme Analysis

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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
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The Public Good, Virtue, and Religion Theme Icon

As a character in Utopia (not to be confused with the historical figure and author), Thomas More questions Hythloday as to whether or not people will really work at all without the incentive of personal gain (referring to Utopia’s lack of private property). Won’t people be too confident in other people’s industry and so lazily excuse themselves from labor? In response, Hythloday explains how many important features of Utopian society are designed precisely so that everyone cultivates a sense of virtue and works not only willingly but zealously on behalf of the public good. Almost the only task for Utopian magistrates is to keep others diligent in their tasks and to excite others’ industry, and there are also positive incentives in place that keep Utopians whistling while they work, so to speak. In exchange for their labor, Utopia provides all of its citizens with housing, as much good food as is reasonable, high-quality medical care, and protection from war. All the time that is not spent at work, sleep, or eating the Utopians may spend as they please, as long they remain “virtuous” and busy. Significantly, Hythloday doesn’t even explicitly tell us how idle Utopians are punished (whipping? bondage? exile?), so we might imagine that Utopia is so well designed that the conditions which give rise to idleness simply don’t exist there.

Moreover, Utopians are rigorously educated from the time they are children, both in virtue ethics (which develops an individual’s character) and in civic ethics (which develops our conduct as citizens working together cooperatively) modeled after the Roman idea of duty. Utopian virtue ethics, derived from Greek philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, has as its goal every citizen taking pleasure in exercising virtue and in doing the right thing, which is the highest pleasure of the mind. More specifically, virtue for the Utopians means desiring and refusing things as reason dictates. Now, this is not to say that Utopians don’t enjoy pleasures of the body like drinking wine and listening to music, or less still that they pursue pain for its own sake (compare this with the fact that More the man, for one, was a self-flagellator). We might rather summarize the Utopian position as follows: we can achieve happiness principally through good and honest pleasures, including but not limited to the exercise of virtue, but we should not let lesser pleasures hinder us from obtaining bigger pleasures.

Finally, it must be added that religion binds the Utopians together in service of the public good. Utopians believe in and worship different gods without conflict, but all worship in the same churches, and all agree in this: the chief god they worship is of the very same divine, majestic, and absolutely sovereign nature as everyone else’s gods. So long as one’s religious opinions do not insult the dignity of humankind, and so long as one is not altogether irreligious, one has religious freedom in Utopia. This is so important to the Utopians because they ground their entire philosophy upon religion: they hold the soul to be immortal and meant for happiness, and believe that good deeds, especially “busy labors and good exercises,” are rewarded in the afterlife, while evil deeds punished. Moreover, the Utopians are convinced that, if one does not have religion, one will necessarily mock the faithful or break the country’s laws. Whether or not this is the case, Hythloday makes it clear that virtue and religion as goals in themselves orient Utopians in the service of the public good.

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The Public Good, Virtue, and Religion Quotes in Utopia

Below you will find the important quotes in Utopia related to the theme of The Public Good, Virtue, and Religion.
Book 1 Quotes

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. 


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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. 

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 Towns, Particularly of Amaurote Quotes

As for their [the Utopians’] cities, whoso knoweth one of them knoweth them all, they be all so like one to another as far forth as the nature of the place permitteth.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

All of the cities in Utopia are almost identical to one another - if you've been to one, then you know them all. 

This uniformity among the cities reflects the values and virtues of the citizens of Utopia. Being alike to one another is of utmost importance - just like their cities are identical, so everyone who lives in every city believes in the same values, and acts according to the same civic plan. It is clear that the citizens of Utopia and Hythloday consider this uniformity a recipe for a calm, just, and efficient country. 

There is no allowance for diversity or variety in Utopia, however, which is unsettling. But Hytholday does not seem to be disturbed by this lack - he essentially argues that peace and prosperity for all is more important than creativity and individuality.

Every house hath two doors… These doors be made with two leaves never locked nor bolted, so easy to be opened, that they will follow the least drawing of a finger, and shut again alone. Whoso will may go in, for there is nothing within the houses that is private or any man’s own.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

In Utopian society, there is no private property. Instead, everything is communal, including the houses. In this passage, we learn that every house has two doors which are easy to open, and, most importantly, are never locked. As the passage goes on to say, there is no point in locking your doors when you do not own anything inside of the house. 

This detail is borrowed from Plato's Republic, and reflects the Utopians’ absolute commitment to collective ownership of all resources. The foundation of their society, and its main divergence from all European societies, is the abolition of private property. Hythloday argues that this lack of possessiveness among the Utopians leads to their general trust and neighborliness.

They set great store by their gardens. In them they have vineyards, all manner of fruit, herbs, and flowers, so pleasant, so well furnished, and so finely kept, that I never saw thing more fruitful nor better trimmed in any place.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Garden and the Island
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

The garden is an important symbol in Utopia, representing human work and desire imposed onto, and in harmony with, the natural world. The people of Utopia are hard workers, and they clearly put a great deal of effort into their gardens, keeping them "well furnished" and "trimmed." This symbolizes the Utopian's simultaneous mastery over and respect for the natural world. 

In caring for their gardens so attentively, the Utopians follow the traditions of their country's founder, Utopus, who dedicated himself to gardening.

The focus on the importance of the garden in Utopian society also suggests Paradise, where people live in perfection and happiness, just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Utopians are, More is suggesting, closer to Paradise than their proud, warlike counterparts in Europe. The connection between the garden and Paradise is finally strengthened by the fact that Utopia is located off the coast of the New World, that is, the Americas, which Europeans optimistically imagined to be the site of the Garden of Eden.

Book 2: Of Their Traffic Quotes

They [the Utopians] begin every dinner and supper of reading something that pertaineth to good manners and virtue. But it is short, because no man shall be grieved therewith.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Hythloday tells More that all Utopian citizens eat together in large dining halls, as opposed to eating alone in their homes. This is because they appreciate and enjoy their community - a people that live in interchangeable cities tend to act as a group. Before they eat, they listen to a reading of some virtuous text.

The fact that these texts are always very brief is a revealing moment of good humor and practicality—the people of Utopia, practical as they are, understand that it’s hard to focus when one is hungry. They also enrich the necessity of eating with unnecessary, harmless pleasures, squeezing as much enjoyment as they can out of their free time.

Book 2: Of the Travelling of the Utopians Quotes

The chief and principal question [for the Utopians] is in what thing, be it one or more, the felicity of man consisteth. But in this point they seem almost too much given and inclined to the opinion of them which defend pleasure, wherein they determine either all or the chiefest part of man’s felicity to rest.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Hythloday has been discussing the Utopian position on philosophy. Although they were ignorant of many of the most famous philosophers due to their isolation, the Utopians still managed to come to a lot of the same conclusions. 

The main philosophical question that the Utopians are engaged with, however, is in what "the felicity of man consisteth," or, how best to be happy. Boiled down, the Utopians are hedonists: they believe that pleasure is the most important thing in life. 

Hythloday’s account of Utopian philosophy is notoriously confused. He gently disapproves of the Utopians’ love of pleasure in this passage, yet we later learn that their chief pleasures are of the mind—exercising virtue and good conscience. Hythloday seems too bookish and dry to truly relish intellectual activity as a form of pleasure.

They [the Utopians] embrace chiefly the pleasures of the mind, for them they count the chiefest and most principal of all. The chief part of them they think doth come of the exercise of virtue and conscience of good life.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

Although the Utopians value pleasure above all things, we might be surprised to learn how they define life's greatest pleasures. They feel that the pleasures of the mind are the greatest to be had: virtue, education, and acting in good conscience.

They also feel that a person can become numb to these true pleasures if they are inundated with "false pleasures," which include the ownership of luxury items, gambling, and hunting. This list of false pleasures is meant as a critique of European society, which wrongly considers ownership of these frivolous objects and engagement in harmful practices to be signs of "the good life."

Book 2: Of Their Slaves, and of Their Marriages Quotes

But if the disease [of a Utopian] be not only incurable, but also full of continual pain and anguish, then the priests and the magistrates exhort the man…that he will determine with himself no longer to cherish that pestilent and painful disease…but rather…either dispatch himself out of that painful life, as out of a prison or a rack of torment, or else suffer himself willingly to be rid out of it by other.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, we learn that the Utopian health care system makes allowances for assisted suicide, or euthanasia, in the cases of people suffering from"pestilent and painful" terminal diseases. This is one of the most intriguing moments in the text, especially in light of the ambiguities it raises about More's own opinions on Utopia.

The Utopians’ conception of the public good is not one of ruthless productivity and efficiency—rather, it is one of general welfare and happiness. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Utopians’ health care system, which is centered on availability and excellence of care as well as compassion. Note that the Catholic Church, of which the man Thomas More was a part, strictly prohibits euthanasia as a crime against God’s gift of life. The question arises then (here, as elsewhere): to what extent does the author of Utopia really approve of Utopian policy?

Now and then it chanceth whereas the man and the woman [in a marriage] cannot well agree between themselves, both of them finding other, with whom they hope to live more quietly and merrily, that they by the full consent of them both be divorced asunder and married again to other.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

The Utopian laws concerning marriage and sex are among their most conservative, save for their divorce laws, which are surprisingly lenient, and, as we will see, offer another moment of authorial ambiguity. 

The Utopians strictly punish premarital sex, and they also insist that a man sees his future wife naked before he marries her, under the disturbing logic that one would not buy a horse without having inspected it thoroughly. While these laws are conservative, and, in the second case, sexist and dehumanizing, the Utopian opinion on divorce is surprisingly open. Although it is not common in Utopian society, divorce is allowed and respected, which enables Utopians to find partners that they can live with "more quietly and merrily."

Utopia’s policies concerning divorce are much more liberal than those of More’s England at the time. Indeed, More himself infuriated King Henry VIII when he refused to condone the King’s divorce—a moral stance that ultimately led to More being executed. It is surprising and intriguing that the author of Utopia, a land in which divorce is legal, lost his life defending the eternal sanctity of marriage. 

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. 

Their [the Utopians’] chief and principal purpose in war is to obtain that thing, which if they had before obtained, they would not have moved battle. But if that be not possible, they take so cruel vengeance of them which be in the fault, that ever after they be afeard to do the like.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

The Utopians love health and respect human life, so it makes good sense that they would rather satisfy their objectives through intelligence than through blood. When the Utopians do decide to go to battle, they do not do so to gain spoils or conquer other countries. Instead, they are focused, practical, and controlled - they keep in mind the single object that motivated them to fight in the first place.

To this end, Utopians prefer to "fight dirty," that is, to make use of propaganda and rewards for defectors. These tactics are meant to minimize bloodshed. However, as we see in these lines, sometimes the Utopians are called upon to take "cruel vengeance" on their enemies in an effort to stop further fighting. 

This another moment of ambiguity - history forces us to question whether being cruel to one’s enemies is really an effective policy for deterring future conflict, or whether it only stirs up more anger and strife.

Book 2: Of the Religions of the Utopians Quotes

Though they [the Utopians] be in divers opinions, yet in this point they agree all together with the wisest sort in believing that there is one chief and principal God, the maker and ruler of the world… For every one of them, whatsoever that is which he taketh for the chief God, thinketh it to be the very same nature to whose only divine might and majesty the sum and sovereignty of all things by the consent of all people is attributed and given.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

Religion is the last topic that Hylthloday covers during his and More's discussion on Utopia, and it is one of the most intriguing and ambiguous of the sections. We remember that More, the man, actively fought against religious freedom in his time, and even supported the torture of Protestants.

Utopian society is marked by radical freedom of religion - different citizens are free to worship whichever god they choose without fear of persecution.

This diversity of religious thought is united by a few central tenents, outlined in this passage. They believe that God is eternal, incomprehensible, and inexplicable, dispersed throughout the world as power and virtue. He is the creator of all things and the end of all things. All Utopians, despite diverging opinions on the form God takes, nonetheless agree that there is one chief and principal Supreme Being, the maker and ruler of the world, and this Being they call Mithras (a Persian god, worshipped in Rome as the god of the sun). 

However, the deeper suggestion here is that the Utopians understand all gods to be images of one common truth. (Unsurprisingly, given More’s Catholic convictions, this truth sounds like what’s endorsed by Catholic theology.) The Utopians apparently find the majority’s idea of God most compelling, however, for they are adopting it of their own free will.

He [Utopus] made a decree that it should be lawful for every man to favour and follow what religion he would, and that he might do the best he could to bring other to his opinion, so that he did it peaceably, gently, quietly, and soberly, without hasty and contentious rebuking and inveighing against other.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

Hythloday continues to outline the religious freedom that marks Utopian society. Not only are all religions allowed, and none discriminated against, but the Utopians also are against violent proselytizing (attempting to convert someone to your religion). Here, we learn that Utopians are free to try and convince one another to convert to a different religion so long as they are respectful and "gentle" in their efforts. 

The moment that the conversation turns angry and "contentious," the aggressive party will be punished with exile or bondage. This harsh treatment is, like all things in Utopia, based in practicality. After all, religious tolerance was instituted by Utopus himself when he observed how religious disagreement caused strife among the natives of the island—and was what enabled his conquest of them in the first place. Maintaining that peace requires that no one be bullied into changing their beliefs. 

Thomas More, the man, was a devout Catholic who, during the Reformation, tortured Protestants and approved of burning them at the stake as heretics. It is darkly ironic, then, that his utopian vision should be one in which people who condemn other religions are subject to exile or bondage.