Hythloday now turns to how Utopians interact with one another. Cities consist of families, mostly made up of blood relatives. Wives leave their own families to live with their husbands, but men stay in the families they’re born into, governed by the oldest capable man. No family may have fewer than ten members or more than sixteen (not counting their children), and no city may have more than 6,000 families in it.
Families in Utopia are patriarchal, that is, ruled by men. Hythloday gives no reason as to why this might be so (he later suggests that women have more rights and privileges in Utopia, at least, than they did in Renaissance Europe.) It seems almost totalitarian that the Utopian state can for all intents and purposes regulate people’s procreation so as to satisfy quotas for family size—and yet this is probably necessary to maintain the island’s society.
If a family becomes too large, its excess members are moved into smaller families, and if a city becomes too large, its excess members are moved into smaller cities. If the population of the island itself becomes too large, the excess members relocate to a nearby land where there is much waste and they found a town, assimilating the natives there if possible, but driving them out and warring with them if not. The Utopians maintain that the most just cause of war is to liberate ground that people would otherwise idly occupy. If a city in Utopia proper becomes too small, members of these Utopian towns abroad are moved into it.
For the sake of uniform family size, the Utopian state is willing to separate beloved relatives from one another, which might strike us as both inhumane and bad for morale in the commonwealth. And if the Utopians don’t care that they’re ripped from their loved ones, this might reflect just as badly on the commonwealth. Also disturbing is the fact that the Utopians can justify warfare on the grounds of whether or not they think other people are wasting land. Even practicality and efficiency can become tyrannical when enforced upon others.
Now for the interactions of the Utopians. The oldest capable man rules the family. Wives care for their husbands, and children for their parents. Each city is divided into equal quarters, and at the center of each is a marketplace. From here the fathers of the families fetch what their households require for free. No one in Utopia asks for more than they need; fear of lack and pride are the causes of greed, but neither exists in Utopia.
The patriarchal structure of the Utopian family might trouble us, but in More’s Europe it would be par for the course. The centrality of the markets reflects the Utopian commitment to equality. Again Hythloday suggests that the conditions of Utopian society itself, and not any laws, promote the communal spirit.
Around the markets are places to get food: herbs, fruit, bread, fish, the meat of four-legged animals, and fowl. Animals are killed, cleaned, and butchered outside of town by bondmen (slaves), because free citizens are not allowed to do so. The Utopians believe that mercy decays in people who regularly kill. Also, nothing filthy or unclean is brought into the city, and this prevents pestilence and disease. Along every street are great halls for meeting and eating. The Philarchs live in these, along with the thirty families appointed to them. The stewards of every hall come into the food markets to fetch however much meat is necessary.
As admirable as the Utopians’ sense of mercy and compassion is, it seems inconsistent with the fact that they should kill animals at all. Why not vegetarianism? Troubling also is the fact that they force bondmen to kill animals, even though bondmen are those in society whose sense of mercy is presumably most deficient—how can these offenders be rehabilitated if they’re forced to do gruesome, desensitizing work?
Around each city there are four big, well-supplied, diligently attended hospitals, so big they can comfortably accommodate any number of patients without the risk of spreading disease. The physicians are intelligent and skilled. No person is forced to go to the hospital, but in the case of illness most people prefer the hospital to their own beds.
Like the cities themselves, Utopian hospitals are rationally and practically designed. The Utopians especially value health because, without it, one cannot serve the public good.
After the sick receive the food their physicians have prescribed, the best food in the city is divided up, first among the magistrates, priests, ambassadors, and (the very rare) strangers, then among the rest of the citizens. No one is prohibited from fetching more food out of the market and bringing it to his own house. People can dine at home instead of in the halls, but no one willingly does, because it is a point of small honesty to dine among one’s fellow citizens, and also because the food in the halls is better than what one could prepare at home.
It is a sign of the Utopians’ (enforced) compassion that they give the best of their food to the sick, and it is a sign of individual liberty that Utopians can fetch from the markets as much food as they need. Utopia trusts its citizens to consume goods ethically. The fact that the food in the public dining halls is better than what can be prepared in private homes further speaks to the power of the communal spirit in Utopia.
In the halls, the hardest, most drudging labor is done by bondmen. Women from every family prepare and serve the meals. Men sit against the wall opposite women at the table (four people to a table), which makes it easy for women to rise, as often happens when they’re pregnant, and go to the nursery.
In general, the Utopians spare their citizens the worst work, assigning it instead to slaves, mercenaries, and the like. The Utopians are so practical that even their seating arrangements serve a practical purpose (though we might think women are so often pregnant because of the quota on family size).
The nurses sit in a parlor with the babies they’re nursing, and they’re provided with fire, clean water, and cradles. Every mother nurses her own child unless she is prevented by sickness. In such a case, the wives of the Philarchs quickly provide a nurse. Children under the age of five also sit with the nurses at meals. All the other children under the age of marriage, boys and girls, serve at the tables or, if they’re not strong enough to serve, stand silently by. These children eat what’s given to them. There are no other formalities at mealtime among the Utopians.
There are holes and gaps in Hythloday’s account of Utopia. How are the nurses, for example, chosen and trained? Hythloday doesn’t tell us. It is, moreover, one of his characteristic gestures to downplay how strict Utopian society is, as when he says there are no other formalities at mealtime—as if he hasn’t already enumerated a great number of strict formalities and rules.
The Philarch and his wife sit—with two of the eldest next to them, or the priest and his wife—at the center of the high table so that everyone in the hall can see them. The young sit interspersed among their elders at meals rather than off by themselves so that they cannot behave and speak viciously, and elders do not talk tediously but encourage young people to prove their wit and virtuous disposition in conversation.
The Utopians value education in civic virtue so highly as to make it a part of daily routine. But is it possible for young people to be subjected to such intense scrutiny without feeling resentment or even paranoia? Don’t even children need privacy to socialize among themselves? Apparently not, at least in the world of Utopia.
The Utopians begin every meal with a reading of something good, virtuous, and short. Lunch is short, but dinner is long, and no dinner passes without music being played. Incense, spices, and perfumes are burned during meals, and sweet ointments and waters are sprinkled about. The Utopians believe that no pleasure should be forbidden if no harm comes of it. In the country, in contrast, people who dwell far from their neighbors do eat in their own houses.
It is a sign of the Utopians’ practicality that they only read short texts before meals—they 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 Their Trades, and Manner of Life
Book 2: Of Their Trades, and Manner of Life