There is a tension throughout Utopia between our ideals and practicality, between wish and reality. Indeed, after listening patiently to Hythloday’s description of Utopia, that ideal society, Thomas More the character confesses that, though he wishes for many features of Utopia to be realized in Europe’s cities, he doesn’t dare hope as much, for such a hope would be unrealistic.
More the character, for his part, is nonetheless somewhat optimistic, at least in Book I. There he proposes that that Hythloday enter into the service of a prince as his philosophical counselor, so that his experience and wisdom may help society in some way. When kings listen to philosophers, after all, or when the philosophers are themselves the kings, as in Plato’s Republic, won’t our wish for good governance at last be realized? Hythloday has his doubts, however. In fact, he says darkly that philosophy has no place among kings. The counselors of kings, necessarily working in imperfect institutions among corrupt people, can do no more than make what is “very evil” into merely a lesser evil, and even the good counselor is easily perverted into wrongdoing. It may well be as More himself says: “It is not possible for all things to be well unless all men were good. Which I think will not be yet these good many years.”
One of the ironies of Utopia, of course, is that the Utopians themselves can be so much more down-to-earth and practical than the philosopher who imagines them. They all wear comfortable, flexible uniforms, distinguished only by gender and marital status, to minimize the number of cloth workers they need. They are skilled inventors and astronomers. In contrast to their European counterparts, the Utopians value iron, which can be used to fashion various tools and instruments, above useless gold, which they scorn and chain their slaves with. Also, rather than force their incurable, agonized sick people to suffer drawn-out deaths, the Utopians have legalized euthanasia (or voluntary death), which they see as both humane and, rather bluntly, as practical, “seeing [as an invalid] is not able to do any duty of life.” It is especially in warfare that the Utopians are so “practical” as to strike us as conniving or cruel. They hire mercenaries to avoid the bloodshed of Utopian citizens—and they rather relish the prospect of their own mercenaries falling in battle, for this means both the death of vicious, warlike men, and also that the Utopians won’t have to pay as much for their services.
Utopia’s interest in practicality seeps so deeply into the text as to determine its very style. In a letter to Peter Giles, More’s real-life friend who also does double-duty as a character in Utopia, More argues that texts plainly and simply written often get closer to the truth—better an iron than a golden tongue.
Ideals and Practicality ThemeTracker
Ideals and Practicality Quotes in Utopia
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.
Utopus…even at his first arriving and entering upon the land [which was to become Utopia], forthwith obtaining the victory [over the natives], caused fifteen miles space of uplandish ground, where the sea had no passage, to be cut and digged up. And so brought the sea round about the land.
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.
Husbandry is a science common to them all [the Utopians] in general, both men and women, where they be all expert and cunning. In this they be all instructed even from their youth, partly in their schools with traditions and precepts, and partly in the country nigh the city, brought up, as it were in playing, not only beholding the use of it, but by occasion of exercising their bodies practising it also.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.