Author: Thomas More
First published in 1516, Thomas More’s Utopia is one of the most important works of European humanism. Through the voice of the mysterious traveler Raphael Hythloday, More describes a pagan, communist city-state governed by reason. Addressing such issues as religious pluralism, women’s rights, state-sponsored education, colonialism, and justified warfare, Utopia seems remarkably contemporary nearly five centuries after it was written, and it remains a foundational text in philosophy and political theory.
This was a very interesting book to read – there are many things More wrote that I agree with but also quite a few I disagree with.
One of my favorite quotes is at the beginning of the book and it’s what really hooked me when I started reading it:
“Now if in such a court, made up of persons who envy all others and only admire themselves, a person should but propose anything that he had either read in history or observed in his travels, the rest would think that the reputation of their wisdom would sink, and that their interests would be much depressed if they could not run it down: and, if all other things failed, then they would fly to this, that such or such things pleased our ancestors, and it were well for us if we could but match them. They would set up their rest on such an answer, as a sufficient confutation of all that could be said, as if it were a great misfortune that any should be found wiser than his ancestors.”
I get so annoyed when people act like there’s no reason to change something if it was good enough for those before us so YES, More, you got this one right. This book was very controversial in the 16th century because More is full of criticism for the government. For example, he blames the too harsh laws for creating more thieves instead of giving people a chance to live a life in which they don’t need to steal to survive.
There are plenty of things I disagreed with. “Women generally do little” writes More, in a completely non-surprising display of 16th century sexism because apparently rising children doesn’t count as doing anything. Part of Utopia’s society is slavery – again, something that was considered normal back then but it shows how far we’ve come because, in the 21st century, most people wouldn’t include slavery in their descriptions of the perfect society.
There are many weird traditions in Utopia – everyone wears the same clothes “except what is necessary to distinguish the two sexes and the married and unmarried”; if a family has too many kids, some of them are simply transfered to a different family; everyone lives in identical houses and nobody seems to care about individual expression. The perfect society seems very boring.
This book was revolutionary back when it was first published and it’s still a book people can learn a lot from. It’s very quotable:
“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.”
“Nor can they understand why a totally useless substance like gold should now, all over the world, be considered far more important than human beings, who gave it such value as it has, purely for their own convenience.”
“…there is nothing more inglorious than that glory that is gained by war.”
“No living creature is naturally greedy, except from fear of want – or in the case of human beings, from vanity, the notion that you’re better than people if you can display more superfluous property than they can.”