‘An Infinite Multitude of Chickens’: Reading Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) in 2017

UtopiaThis book is #39 on my Classics Club list.

2017 has dawned with the words ‘dystopic future’ hovering on more than a few people’s lips. ‘Dystopia’ and ‘utopia’ are loaded terms, of course – one man’s ‘post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland created by the greed of power-hungry and irresponsible capitalists and world leaders’ is another man’s ‘strategically-managed relocation solution with wonderful future prospects following the end of the nuclear winter’, although I’m not sure I’d really want to meet the person who thinks like that.

Amidst all this talk of a dystopic future, where greedy capitalists have succeeded in grinding down the poor and middle classes and filling the rising oceans with plastic and ring-pull cans, 2017 seems like a good time to revisit the origins of the terms Utopia, and consequently Dystopia. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels like Thomas More’s 1516 work Utopia, which gave us the term and presented us with one of the earliest examples of a utopian text, is still remarkably relevant today.

Utopia: The Text, The Term

Thomas More was a lawyer and rose to a high position within the court of Henry VIII, he of the six wives and remarkably short attention span (the two things are related, as you might have guessed). But he was also a staunch Catholic and refused to support Henry when the king decided to break with the Pope and set up his own religion in order to divorce his wife (aren’t you glad social attitudes towards divorce aren’t quite so strict these days, world country that I shall not mention by name?), and Henry rewarded More’s loyalty by ordering him to be executed. The Church made him a saint, because that’s basically their PR department’s strategy whenever somebody gets fired in a rather permanent way.

Thomas More

More, looking jolly as usual. Don’t feel too bad for him – he did a bit of persecuting of Protestants in his day, so he was no saint. Well, metaphorically speaking, any way. (Image Source)

Before all this went down, though, More wrote Utopia. And while today ‘Utopia’ is the term used to describe an ideal society, it’s useful to note that it’s made up of two Greek words that together literally translate to ‘no-place’ (there’s a lot of Ancient Greek in Utopia, the text of which was originally written in Latin; More was one of those people who took pity on all those embattled Classics students in universities across the world and decided to give them something new to write about after hundreds of years of ploughing over the same passages in Virgil over and over again). What this means is that inherent in the term itself is an understanding that perhaps this ideal society does not really exist at all. That’s a rather bleak approach, but perhaps it’s only realistic.

Drew Barrymore explains Utopia to Me

The book begins with the character ‘Thomas More’ meeting up with some friends in Flanders and sitting down for a good long chin-wag. Things have not changed much since the sixteenth century – like today, the topic quickly finds its way to the issue of How Bad The World Is, and How Much World Leaders Suck, and generally Seriously, People, We’re Gonna Be So Screwed. In this first section, the author criticises the way that contemporary European societies function, complaining about the unequal distribution of wealth, and the dangers of obsession with money and power. He writes: “everywhere one may hear of ravenous dogs and wolves, and cruel men-eaters, but it is not so easy to find states that are well and wisely governed”. Ouch. If I were Henry I’d be inclined to take that personally. More adds: “For most princes apply themselves more to affairs of war than to the useful arts of peace […] they are generally more set on acquiring new kingdoms, right or wrong, than on governing well those they possess”. Essentially, they’re power-hungry buggers. Sounding familiar yet?

There is also a long tirade about the way that society punishes criminals who are forced to steal in order to survive:

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?

And if these lines sound familiar to you, then you may have heard them coming from the mouth of Drew Barrymore in the Cinderella-inspired movie Ever After, which is not exactly the first place you’d expect a piece of political philosophy to come from. Then again, maybe Utopia is actually the perfect text to inspire a movie about a pretty white girl marrying a rich, handsome prince, because as we all know, this is the greatest triumph over injustice that one can possibly imagine.

The Perfect Society

But back to Utopia. More and his friends then listen to a traveller called Raphael Hythloday talk about his visit to the New World (i.e., American) country of Utopia. This is an ideal society, we’re told by the enthusiastic Hythloday, and basically everything there is awesome. The people are happy, the rulers are good, and everything works the way it’s supposed to. I wonder what that’s like, I hear you sigh.

Well, for one thing, the Utopians do have a few, but tough, laws, which are designed to “limit the prince, that he might not grow too great; and to restrain the people, that they might not become too insolent”. Sounds all right to me, you might say, especially that part about “limiting the prince”.

Hythloday explains that the biggest rule the Utopians have is against owning property. Everything is communal, and property is seen as an evil:

In all other places it is visible that, while people talk of a commonwealth, every man only seeks his own wealth; but there, where no man has any property, all men zealously pursue the good of the public. (‘Of the Religions of the Utopians’)

In other words, rich people only care about getting richer.

In fact, the Utopians despise wealth so much, and value its trappings so little, that they never wear gold, silver, or expensive fabrics – instead, these things are given to slaves (I’ll get to that) and children. And when foreigners visit all decked out in their finery, the Utopians laugh at them.

So what else do the Utopians have, apart from a commendable contempt for the rich? Well, among other things, they have:

  1. Universal healthcare (people actually willingly go to the hospital because they know they’ll get treatment – I know, mad. Who on earth would want such a system?).
  2. Euthanasia for those who want it.
  3. Freedom of religion (but no religious persecution, and no bullying people into converting to another religion allowed, which, considering the way that the Europeans reacted when they came to the New World, is kind of ironic).
  4. Secret ballots to elect the Prince (presumably without other nations meddling). We’re told that “These things have been so provided among them that the Prince and the Tranibors may not conspire together to change the government and enslave the people” (‘Of Their Magistrates’). Good to know somebody’s thought about that.
  5. Lots of time off to read and improve one’s mind.
  6. No lawyers. This is something I’m sure a lot of people can get behind.
  7. Women can fight in the military and even become priests in some circumstances.

If some of these things, particularly the laws about property, seem familiar, it’s thought that early socialists were in fact influenced by More’s ideas, even though a lot of them eventually thought he didn’t go far enough. But one thing is clear: Utopia is a damning critique of the wealthy in European circles, as More writes:

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” (‘Of the Religions of the Utopians’)

The Perfect Society?

Of course, you may have picked up on a few problems above. For one thing, the Utopians have slaves. And while Hythloday does say that they’re mostly people who have committed some infraction, let’s face it, this is far from ideal by modern standards.

Then there’s the fact that More discusses slavery and marriage under the same subheading. Insert sitcom-y joke about marriage here: __________________________________________.

And while women seem to be allowed a little more freedom than in contemporary Europe, there is this: “before they go to the temple, both wives and children fall on their knees before their husbands or parents and confess everything in which they have either erred or failed in their duty, and beg pardon for it” (‘Of the Religions of the Utopians’). Yick.

As you can see, Utopia is far from presenting this so-called ‘ideal society’ in an uncomplicated manner. But reading this book today is still enlightening. For one thing, its critique of the relationship between money, property, and power is still incredibly relevant. Money leads to self-interest, and a great deal of money leads to egomania; this, More argues, is not the way to run a country. Successful countries, according to More, are those that are run in such a way that individual interests can be put aside in order to create a fair environment for all.

It’s up to the reader to decide whether this theory can ever be applicable in reality. Personally, I would hope that it can be. But to end on a lighter note, I wanted to share something else about the fascinating Utopian society that More describes. I’ve discussed healthcare and property, the law and slavery; but here’s one last titbit about the Utopians: “They breed an infinite multitude of chickens in a very curious manner”. And isn’t that just the best bit of all?

Rating: 4 Stars

4 Stars

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2 thoughts on “‘An Infinite Multitude of Chickens’: Reading Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) in 2017

  1. It’s always interesting to read people’s thoughts about Utopia. I finished it last year and thought it was a satire on Ancient, Medieval, and early Renaissance philosophies. But it looks like you think that More was mostly being serious. The writer of the introduction to my edition also thought like you that it’s not supposed to be read as a satire. But there isn’t really a scholarly consensus. I saw inconsistencies in his description of Utopia, and I have difficulty taking his argument for religious freedom seriously because More executed at least two Protestants as Lord Chancellor. But if you are interested, these were my thoughts: https://exploringclassics.wordpress.com/2016/06/20/reflection-on-utopia-spoilers-included/

    • Thanks for your comment, Fariba! This is definitely a really interesting work that seems to draw vastly different responses from various readers. I read about these two opposing theories – one, that Utopia is a serious critique of More’s society, and the other that it is a satire that isn’t supposed to be taken seriously. I agree his behaviour towards Protestants definitely contradicts the religious freedom that is supposedly an important part of Utopian society. Personally, I’m inclined to believe, like you, that More was being satirical – as you point out in your review, he undermines the whole concept of Utopian society with the ending to the book. But I’m nevertheless inclined to read the book seriously, whatever More himself thought, because I think it gives some serious food for thought about the way that our societies function, and how we organise them.

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