Utopia

Utopia Book 2: Of the Travelling of the Utopians Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
If Utopians desire to travel to other cities, the Philarchs or Archphilarchs grant them license. People don’t travel alone, but rather in companies, and they must carry a letter testifying that they have permission to be abroad and that also prescribes the date of their return. Travelers are provided with a wagon driven by a bondman, but, unless they have women in their company, they usually do without it. Travelers are taken care of by their fellow Utopians wherever they go, though if they stay in a place for more than a day they are expected to work.
The Utopians have so many regulations in place concerning travel, presumably, so that people will not be able to shirk their labor by drifting from place to place. But if the Utopians value the public good as highly as we’ve been led to believe, and deeply enjoy their lives, why would any be tempted to shirk their labor in the first place? We might also think that people should have the freedom to travel alone.
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People who travel without permission are taken for runaways and returned home with a stern warning and sharp punishment. Those who commit such an offense again are punished with bondage. A man can walk about in the country if given permission by the head of his family and his wife. However, the man will not be fed until he does his work. Under this condition, a man can also go wherever he wishes in his own city. After all, there are no wicked taverns or alehouses or brothels for him to go to, and every Utopian keeps an eye on every other.
In his discussion of marriage in Utopia, Hythloday says the only crime for which there is a fixed punishment is adultery—yet there is an inconsistency in his story, for here he says that there’s also a fixed punishment for running away, namely, bondage. If Utopians are constantly keeping an eye on each other, we might wonder if theirs is a culture of suspicion and paranoia—both feelings that would threaten social unity and general morale.
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Everyone in Utopia has what he or she needs because all people there are equal partners. When the three old, wise, and experienced men come from every city to Amaurote each year, they report the quantity of resources their cities have, and cities with an abundance of goods give freely to those with a lack. The whole island is like a family or household in this way. When every city in Utopia is well supplied, the Utopians take their surplus into foreign countries. One seventh of the surplus is given freely to the poor abroad, and the rest is sold at a reasonable, low price. By this means, the Utopians bring back both gold and silver as well as those resources they lack, which is virtually only iron.
More’s Utopia is subject to natural laws (as suggested by the island’s lack of iron) and disaster. But, while we always hear about what Utopia does with its surplus, we never learn what happens to the ideal of equality in emergency situations, that is, when there are not enough resources to go around. How can everyone be equal then? In any case, the Utopians never waste, but would rather give surplus to those who need it most, even non-Utopians. We later learn that Utopia uses its gold and silver mostly to finance warfare—taking advantage of how other nations value these “useless” metals.
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When selling goods, the Utopians accept both ready money and credit. They do not accept promises of payment from private individuals, but require the promises of whole cities. When the day of repayment arrives, a given city will collect all the debt privately owed to the Utopians and put it into the city’s commons until their Utopian creditors demand it. But most of what is owed to them the Utopians never ask for, preferring not to take it from those whom it profits. They require their debt only when lending to another people or in times of war, for the hiring of mercenaries.
Although the Utopians don’t use money domestically, they are practical enough to acquire money for their dealings with commonwealths abroad. However, because they spend money almost only in times of war, and because they avoid war at all costs, it would be a waste for them to collect all of the money owed to them, hence their generosity (which has the added bonus of creating goodwill between Utopia and its neighbors).
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The Utopians value gold and silver far less than iron, because iron is useful and essential for life. People only value gold and silver out of folly, Hythloday says, because it is rare. To prevent people from hoarding gold or becoming attached to it, the Utopians use the stuff to build chamber pots (receptacles for human waste) and other things that serve low purposes, like fetters for their bondmen and jewelry which offenders are forced to wear for shame. Moreover, the Utopians give their children pearls and precious stones, but only so that they outgrow them as our children outgrow and become embarrassed of their toys.
The Utopians love the useful and scorn the useless, hence their opposed attitudes to iron and gold. However, it would seem that even the Utopians find gold inherently attractive—otherwise, they wouldn’t need to associate the metal with dirtiness, slavery, and immaturity in order to scorn it. This is all to say that the Utopians are not born with wiser attitudes about gold, say, than their European counterparts; they just develop wiser attitudes through the rules of their society.
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Hythloday proceeds to tell a funny story about three ambassadors of the Anemolians (from the Greek meaning “windy people”) who came to Amaurote on a mission. They noticed the Utopians wore no fine clothes or jewelry and assumed that they must lack those things. In order to impress the Utopians, then, the three ambassadors, accompanied by a hundred servants, dressed in gorgeous silks and dazzling gold jewelry and precious stones—only for the Utopians to mistake the ambassadors’ servants for lords and the gaudily dressed ambassadors for slaves! After a day or two, the ambassadors hid away their gold and finery in shame.
This story demonstrates how effective practicality and humility are in putting pride to shame. Wealth only holds power over us when we ourselves empower it to do so—but the Utopians see power only in study and labor. Hythloday’s deeper suggestion here is that the ambassadors really are slaves—and pride and greed are their masters.
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The Utopians wonder why anyone would be enamored of gold when they have the stars to gaze upon. They think it absurd that in many parts of the world gold is valued more highly than people, and that an idiot can command respect by virtue of mere wealth. The Utopians especially detest that people practically worship rich people whom they know will never give them so much as a farthing, a single cent.
If Utopians think gold is inherently unimpressive compared to the stars, say, why do they have to teach their children to scorn such a treasure? There seems to be an inconsistency here. It is characteristically Utopian, however, to pragmatically value people over gold.
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The Utopians develop their opinions through socialization and education. Although few citizens—only the wittiest and most apt—are exempt from labor so that they can dedicate themselves to learning, every Utopian child is given an education in their rich, pleasant native language. Even most men and women bestow their spare hours on learning. The Utopians were not familiar with many famous philosophers until Hythloday introduced them, but they already knew much of what the famous philosophers teach concerning music, logic, arithmetic, and geometry. The Utopians also know much about astronomy, but they do not use the positions of the stars and planets to divine the future as many in Europe do.
Unlike in Renaissance Europe, all children in Utopia are educated, which promotes both unity in the commonwealth and individual happiness. Their educational system must be effective, for Utopians would rather continue their educations than do almost anything else. The four arts the Utopians study make up what was in Renaissance Europe called the “quadrivium,” a program of study designed to prepare one for philosophy and theology. These subjects, in turn, make up the foundation of Utopian life.
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As for moral philosophy, the Utopians’ chief area of inquiry is how people can attain to happiness. They are, in broad terms, hedonists: people who believe that pleasure is the most important thing in life. To build their philosophy, the Utopians draw on religious ideas: they hold the soul to be immortal and destined by God for happiness, and they believe that good deeds are rewarded, and bad deeds punished, in the afterlife.
Hythloday’s account of Utopian philosophy is notoriously confused. He gently disapproves of the Utopians’ love of pleasure, 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.
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If these religious principles were disproved, the Utopians would affirm nonetheless that pleasure is to be obtained by all possible means, legal or illegal, so long as lesser pleasures don’t hinder us from obtaining bigger pleasures. The Utopians believe that people should not willfully submit themselves to pain, and that happiness only comes from good and honest pleasure, like virtue.
The Utopians’ love of pleasure is grounded in, but independent of, their religious principles. This means that the foundation of Utopian virtue could survive any debunking of religious dogma. The Utopians pragmatically avoid pain, but it’s important to remember that More the man inflicted pain on himself as a self-flagellator—whipping himself to atone for sins.
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The Utopians define virtue as a life organized according to nature, which drives us on to seek pleasure wherever we can. We follow nature by heeding what our reason approves and disapproves of; reason also guides us in the love of the divine. Finally, because every person is part of society in nature, it is only natural that in his pursuit of pleasure he does not harm his fellows. We should honor our promises and obey good laws. A life of pleasure can either be evil—in which case we should help no one pursue it—or it can be good, in which case we should help others and ourselves to it. Self-sacrifice is an act of humanity and gentleness, and it always brings benefits, a good conscience, and God’s graces.
By “nature,” the Utopians seem to mean something like “human nature,” for reason is a distinctively human faculty (at least according to the Platonic and Aristotelian theories More is working with here). The Utopian theory of pleasure also precludes acting out of greed, because, insofar as we are social animals, our pursuit of pleasure should be socially conducted. This emphasis on the public good is also evident in the value the Utopians place on self-sacrifice.
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The Utopians define pleasure as anything that naturally delights either the body or mind; after all, the senses and reason itself desire pleasure. The Utopians avoid, however, those things that other people only imagine to be pleasurable despite nature, because once the mind is possessed by false pleasure it can no longer delight in the true. Among false pleasures the Utopians count gaudy clothes; vain and unprofitable honors like those which come with dominating other men; riches and precious stones, which people merely hoard; gambling; and hunting, which to the Utopians is vile butchery.
It is important to note that many of the things we think of as pleasurable—like nice clothes, money, and gambling—the Utopians don’t find pleasurable at all. People take pleasure in these things, Hythloday says, only by unnaturally perverting their ideas of pleasure. This leaves the crucial question of how our ideas of pleasure can come to be “perverted” in the first place—but Hythloday doesn’t address this issue.
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Among “true” pleasures, the Utopians recognize two kinds: those of body and those of mind. There are two kinds of bodily pleasure. The first is the pleasure we feel when we satisfy our bodies’ physical requirements, as when we eat and drink when we’re hungry and thirsty, relieve our bowels, or scratch an itch. Related to this is the pleasure we feel when we listen to music, as this affects our senses. The second kind of bodily pleasure is that which comes from good health, which is the foundation and ground of all other pleasures. The Utopians “chiefest and most principle of all” pleasures, however, are those of the mind, especially the exercise of virtue and conscience.
Although the Utopians’ chief pleasure comes from exercising virtue and conscience, Hythloday gives us only a cloudy picture of what this looks like in practice. Also lacking from Hythloday’s picture of mental pleasure is a discussion of arts other than music—it seems that there is no room for the “artist” as an occupation, but only for art as distracting, virtuous pleasure. Art is, in contrast, a major topic for Plato in his Republic—and it’s also worth noting that in Plato’s ideal city, poets were banned.
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Hythloday comments now that the Utopians are the most excellent people in the world, and that their commonwealth is the most flourishing. The Utopians are healthy, active, nimble, and strong. Though their soil and air are not of the highest quality, the Utopians manage their resources so well that they thrive. The people are gentle, happy, witty, delighting in quietness, and able to endure great labor as required. They aren’t especially fond of bodily labor, but they never grow tired of studying and exercising their minds.
It is ironic that Hythloday begins his discussion of Utopian hedonism on a note of disapproval, only to conclude that the Utopians are the most excellent people in the world. We might appreciate the fact that, though Utopian society has labor as its cornerstone, the Utopians are the first to acknowledge that there’s so much more to life than mere work.
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When Hythloday exposed the Utopians to Greek literature and philosophy (he didn’t think they would care much for Latin writings, except for historians and poets), they earnestly asked him to teach them the language. The Utopians learned with marvelous quickness, and in three years had mastered Greek; indeed, Hythloday suspects that the Utopians must have originated in Greece. In addition, Hythloday gave the Utopians most of Plato’s works, most of Aristotle’s, some Greek grammars and histories, the poetry of Homer and Euripides, and more. They would also now have Theophrastus’s book about plants in its entirety had a marmoset (a kind of monkey) not ripped some pages out while Hythloday was sailing aboard a ship during his fourth voyage.
Hythloday’s speculation that the Utopians originated in Greece is something of a joke on More the author’s part. After all, so much of More’s creation borrows heavily from Greek culture and thought, as in Utopia’s democratic elements and virtue ethics. We must keep in mind, also, that humanists like More idealized the cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome. The story about the monkey parodies the sea monsters that inevitably appear in Renaissance travel narratives—the scariest thing for Hythloday is losing pages of his precious books.
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The Utopians especially value the medical writings of the Greek physician Galen. Although they need less medical attention than any other people, the Utopians delight in exploring the mysteries of nature. They are ingenious inventors of things that are to the advantage and enrichment of human life. They owe to Hythloday and his fellow travelers the crafts of printing and of making paper, by which they’ve multiplied their books into many thousands of copies.
The Utopians use the craft of printing to make copies of their books and democratically spread knowledge. Just as important is what they don’t use printing for. In More’s time, the printing press was often used to mass-produce vitriolic political and religious treatises. Utopian unity prevents such abuses there.
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The Utopians are very welcoming of guests. They love to hear about the laws, policies, and manners of other lands. That being said, few merchants come to Utopia because the only thing the Utopians buy, really, is iron. The Utopians also think it more prudent to go into foreign lands to trade themselves, rather than have merchants come, because this gives them better knowledge of their surroundings and keeps them proficient and knowledgeable in sailing.
The Utopians very practically learn as much about the world abroad whenever the opportunity presents itself. This gives them ideas to implement at home, and it also prepares them to deal politically with other commonwealths.
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