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.
The Public Good, Virtue, and Religion ThemeTracker
The Public Good, Virtue, and Religion Quotes in Utopia
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.