In these austere times, when one of the world’s richest countries calls upon some of its poorest citizens to bear the brunt of national debt repayment, it is salutary to re-read Thomas More’s Utopia. The word ‘utopian’ has long passed into the language, but these days relatively few people take the trouble to read More’s text which was originally published in Latin by his friend Erasmus in 1516 – note the 500th anniversary comes up next year. The text of Utopia first appeared in English translation in 1551 after More had been royally executed by Henry VIII.
Utopia takes the form of a discussion between More himself and his learned friend, the narrator/traveller, Raphael Hythlodaeus, based on the character of Erasmus. They discuss the ills of contemporary Antwerp, and describe the social and political structures prevailing in the imaginary island country of Utopia. The name Utopia is normally understood to mean “no place”, somewhere which does not exist; but the term is in fact a Greek pun signifying simultaneously ‘no place’ and ‘good place’. Utopia compares the contentious social life of European states with the perfectly orderly, reasonable social arrangements of Utopia and its environs.
In Utopia, there are no lawyers because of the simplicity of its laws and because social gatherings are in public view, thus encouraging participants to behave well; communal ownership replaces private property; men and women are educated alike; and there is almost complete religious tolerance. Readers of More’s humanist work will also notice in the enlightened communities he describes, the complete absence of zero hours contracts, food banks and poverty and social injustice. Salutary reading for our times, methinks!
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) was a lawyer and a councillor to Henry VIII in addition to being a noted Renaissance scholar. Disagreement with the king on a point of Canon law led to him being tried and executed for treason. Below is an extract from More’s masterpiece, but readers can access the full text at http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2130/pg2130.txt.
UTOPIA, by Sir Thomas More (extract)
“Is not that government both unjust and ungrateful, that is so prodigal of its favours to those that are called gentlemen, or goldsmiths, or such others who are idle, or live either by flattery or by contriving the arts of vain pleasure, and, on the other hand, takes no care of those of a meaner sort, such as ploughmen, colliers, and smiths, without whom it could not subsist? But after the public has reaped all the advantage of their service, and they come to be oppressed with age, sickness, and want, all their labours and the good they have done is forgotten, and all the recompense given them is that they are left to die in great misery. The richer sort are often endeavouring to bring the hire of labourers lower, not only by their fraudulent practices, but by the laws which they procure to be made to that effect, so that though it is a thing most unjust in itself to give such small rewards to those who deserve so well of the public, yet they have given those hardships the name and colour of justice, by procuring laws to be made for regulating them.”
“Therefore I must say that, as I hope for mercy, I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that they have so ill-acquired, and then, that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please; and if they can but prevail to get these contrivances established by the show of public authority, which is considered as the representative of the whole people, then they are accounted laws; yet these wicked men, after they have, by a most insatiable covetousness, divided that among themselves with which all the rest might have been well supplied, are far from that happiness that is enjoyed among the Utopians; for the use as well as the desire of money being extinguished, much anxiety and great occasions of mischief is cut off with it, and who does not see that the frauds, thefts, robberies, quarrels, tumults, contentions, seditions, murders, treacheries, and witchcrafts, which are, indeed, rather punished than restrained by the seventies of law, would all fall off, if money were not any more valued by the world? Men’s fears, solicitudes, cares, labours, and watching’s would all perish in the same moment with the value of money; even poverty itself, for the relief of which money seems most necessary, would fall. But, in order to grasp this correctly, take one instance:
“Consider any year, that has been so unfruitful that many thousands have died of hunger; and yet if, at the end of that year, a survey was made of the granaries of all the rich men that have hoarded up the corn, it would-be found that there was enough among them to have prevented all that consumption of men that perished in misery; and that, if it had been distributed among them, none would have felt the terrible effects of that scarcity: so easy a thing would it be to supply all the necessities of life, if that blessed thing called money, which is pretended to be invented for procuring them was not really the only thing that obstructed their being procured!