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
Bad Governance, Pride, and Idleness Quotes in Utopia
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.
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.
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.
It is against the dignity of a king to have rule over beggars, but rather over rich and wealthy men.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.