Book Review: Utopia

ThomasMooreby Anniel  11/10/14
by Sir Thomas More; Published in Latin in 1516 A.D.  •  I wanted so much to understand and do a thorough Book Review of Utopia, as written by Sir Thomas More, that Man For All Seasons. I had only read the book years ago in a condensed version, and I had wondered since if More was writing a parody or believed what he wrote. The name Utopia is said to be a pun on a Greek word meaning “No place.”

Thomas More was born in London in February, 1478, rose to become Chief Counselor and Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII. He was beheaded at Tower Hill on 6 July, 1535, after refusing to accept Henry’s rejection of papal authority and the Catholic Church, and his alleged bigamist marriage to Anne Boleyn. More was charged with treason, and, probably on perjured testimony, found guilty and beheaded. To Catholics Thomas More is a Saint. After More’s execution, King Henry went on merrily lopping off heads, while becoming Head of the break-away Anglican Church.

I pulled up the best full-length and unexpurgated English translation of Utopia, which was originally written in Latin. I tried, oh how I tried, to read every word, but there is only so much room in life for self-flagellation, and I reached the limits of my endurance after gritting my teeth and soldiering on for page after dreary page for more days than I care to count.

I try to make allowances for different styles of writing in different eras, but when sentences are tendentious and repetitive for hundreds of words in length, and single paragraphs are up to 10 or 12 pages long and you haven’t a break in the printing, or even a clue anymore as to who is speaking, or about what, your eyes tend to glaze over and you get even more lost. Going back and rereading can be agony.

To make matters even worse, when I finally read something that made sense, it usually came from one of the opponents the protagonist, Hythloday, sometimes called Raphael after the Archangel, is arguing with.

I finally got to the section where everyone agrees to let Hythloday speak of the joys of Utopia’s founding, gradual formation, and its rules and regulations without being interrupted. Page after page extolling the virtues of no private property; everyone wearing the Utopiasame clothing; all living quarters the same, which anyone is free to enter at any time and take what they need; everyone is provided with everything, cradle to grave; communal education, eating and rearing of children; gadzooks, talk about sheeples, these people would take the cake.

I again banged my head on the table when Hythloday said that to take a walk into the woods or to travel to another town, permission was needed. And anyone found wandering about without signed permission would first be chastised and made to agree not to do it again. If found wandering a second time they would have a permanent identification notch cut into their ear and then have to live the life of a slave. Which might have been OK, because even slaves in Utopia seemed to have a better life than anywhere else, according to Hythloday.

I believe it was the Shaker Religious group in the 19th Century who tried to live such a strict communal life on the American frontier. No locks on the doors allowed, simple furniture (a style people still love today), vegetarianism, no private investment, etc., but they also tried to ban sex, even for married couples. Good luck with that. In the end people left because it was simply an unworkable lifestyle, and there wasn’t much of an up-and-coming generation. Not everyone worked as hard as his neighbors, so that caused problems, too. Because there was no private property of any sort, a man might hang his cloak up one evening and wake to find it gone in the morning because another man grew cold during the night. Loss of private property rights works only in theory.

Do I believe that Thomas More believed what he wrote? Yes, I’m sure he did, even though at the end of the book he writes that there were many things in Hythloday’s account he disagreed with. Religiously, though, Utopia could be seen as More’s yearning for lost Eden.

Unfortunately, Hythloday, in his account of life in Utopia, presented many truths about the vile state of affairs in Europe at that time, but the causes he attributed the problems to are 180 degrees out of whack. The real problems came about because the King owned absolutely everything. A man could be hanged, drawn and quartered for poaching the King’s deer, or not paying taxes on the King’s wheat. Hythloday’s utopian solution is to just do away with private ownership. If a man or woman is jealous of another’s jewelry or fine possessions, just don’t allow gold, silver, pearls or beautiful clothing to be used. Problems solved. And of course all the people living on the island want only the very best for their fellow citizens because their life style makes them all intelligent, self-sacrificing, and wonderful.

Being an imperfect human being, I like my cloak and pearls to be there when I need, or simply want, them, thank you.

Perhaps the best way to cure Utopianism is to make the book required reading. I am so cured. • (2361 views)

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17 Responses to Book Review: Utopia

  1. I had much the same reaction when I slogged through years ago. How anyone could find his dystopia appealing is beyond me. Just the superior tone of the book is hard to take. Thanks for writing such a spirited and thorough review.

    • David Ray says:

      Too bad Moore’s fellow Roman Catholics didn’t read that spirited review. They also shared this foolish notion of communal property rights . . . right up until Henry the VIII started confiscating their lands.
      Communist Utopias always fail. Hence the need to delay Osamacare’s implementation as long as possible.

  2. pikku says:

    While it has been some years since I read it, my take on Raphael’s description of Utopia was exactly the opposite from yours. The thing that struck me is that he described Utopia in such glowing and positive terms, but IIRC he himself did not live there nor had he been there for years. IOW, More was telling us that Utopia is in fact “no place” — it is tempting to dream of such a place but nobody wants to actually live there.

    Seemed to me to be intentionally ironic, in contrast to the unintentional irony of John Lennon’s song Imagine in which he sings of a utopian place (“imagine no possessions”) while he himself was living in Manhattan on the Upper West Side.

    • Anniel says:

      Irony is such a subtle thing at times it can be lost. I just got so – tired of slogging through and, after awhile, trying to care what was being said.

  3. Timothy Lane says:

    We had an excerpt from it in high school English, and I never read any further, having heard that the Utopia was basically communist. (But then, most utopias seem to follow that pattern. Oddly enough, so do most dystopias. There’s a lesson here.) It sounds rather like The Giver, but the latter at least is entertainingly written.

  4. GHG says:

    I wonder if this (actual) history is taught in the core curriculum these days?

    William Bradford, the Governor of Plymouth Colony from 1620 to 1647, chronicled what went wrong when the pilgrims tried communal living:

    The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter than the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labours, victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it.

    People are not equal in the ways that are required for communistic utopia to work – never will be no matter how much social engineering is imposed. Free or slave are the only two options, and that means that private property must exist for men to be free.

    • Anniel says:

      And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it.
      —-
      I grew up without running water in our home. As the only girl at the time I helped my mom wash the clothes the really old fashioned way, scrubbing on a board with lye soap, later with a wringer washer. I knew just how gaggy really dirty clothes can be. To take care of non-family members clothing could be embarrassing for a woman, besides a slavery. As an aside, I remember telling mom I would only marry a man if I knew I would trust him to do MY dirty laundry.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Speaking of the Pilgrims, in “The Naked Communist,” W. Cleon Skousen has some interesting things to say:

    American Founding Fathers Try Communism

    One of the forgotten lessons of U.S. history is the fact that the American founding fathers tried Communism before they tried capitalistic free enterprise.

    In 1620 when the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth, they had already determined to establish a Communist colony. In many ways this communal society was set up under the most favorable circumstances. First of all, they were isolated from outside help and were desperately motivated to make the plan work in order to survive. Secondly, they had a select group of religious men and women who enjoyed a cooperative, fraternal feeling toward one another. The Pilgrims launched their Communist community with the most hopeful expectations. Governor William Bradford has left us a remarkable account of what happened. The Governor reports:

    “This community … was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong … had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought an injustice … and for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc, they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it.” (Note that even in a Christian brotherhood, Communism cannot be practiced without setting up a dictatorship.)

    But the colonists would have continued to endure Communism if it had only been productive. The thing which worried Governor Bradford was the fact that the total amount of production under this communal arrangement was so low that the colonists were faced with starvation. Therefore, he says:

    “At length, after much debate … the governor gave way that they should set corn every man for his own purpose, and in that regard trust to themselves … and so assigned to every family a parcel of land according to the proportion of their number.”

    Once a family was given land and corn they had to plant, cultivate and harvest it or suffer the consequences. The Governor wanted the people to continue living together as a society of friends but communal production was to be replaced by private, free enterprise production. After one year the Governor was able to say:

    “This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been…. The women now went willing into the fields, and took their little ones with them to set corn, which before would allege weakness and inability; who to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”

    The Pilgrim Fathers had discovered the great human secret that a man will compel himself to go ever so much farther than he will permit anyone else to compel him to go. As Governor Bradford thought about their efforts to live in a Communist society, he wrote down this conclusion:

    “The experience that was had in this common cause and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato and other ancients — applauded by some in later times — that the taking away of property, and bringing it into a commonwealth, would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.”1

    It becomes apparent that Governor Bradford concluded that Communism is not only inefficient but that it is unnatural and in violation of the laws of God. This may raise a question in the minds of some students who have heard that Communism provides the most ideal means of practicing the basic principles of Christianity. Elsewhere, we have considered the historical background of this problem.”2

    It is interesting that after the pilgrim fathers tried communism they abandoned it in favor of a free enterprise type of capitalism which, over the centuries, has become more highly developed in the United States than in any other nation. In its earliest stages this system was described as a heartless, selfish institution, but economists have pointed out that after a slow and painful evolution it has finally developed into a social-economic tool which has thus far produced more wealth and distributed it more uniformly among the people of this land than any system modern men have tried.3 The evolutionary process of further improving and further adapting capitalism to the needs of a highly industrialized society is still going on.

    It’s particularly interesting to note, as Mr. Skousen mentioned, that Communism failed miserably even in a highly-movtived, brotherly, like-minded community which has an inherent common purpose.

    Because Mr. Bradford’s purpose was to establish a thriving colony, not prove some arcane bit of political dogma, he was able to easily move to another system. But contrast that with the loads of intellectuals and others who have much of their careers and reputations invested in various forms of Communism. The real problem regarding Utopia is not the desire for it as much as the fundamentalist and political zealotry that requires that it work, no matter what, even if that means a hundred million deaths.

    What kind of a monster thinks like that? Oh, the same kind who would take a health care system already crippled by government intrusion and throw more government (socialism) at it. Until the people, at large, can be at least half as wise and practical as Mr. Bradford, we will undergo such unnecessary hardship and waste. That the zealots can impart their socialist zealotry upon others (who then make it their own) show why the Left is little more than a cult, a product of intense and prolonged lies and propaganda. That parents can send their children off to college and receive the equivalent of a Leninist back shows the power of this cult (somewhat grounded in sex and drugs, which is a difficult combination to beat).

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Rush Limbaugh, of course, has been telling this story for years (as I recall, he got it from his father). Naturally, the first of his Rush Revere books dealt with the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving.

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I tried, oh how I tried, to read every word, but there is only so much room in life for self-flagellation, and I reached the limits of my endurance after gritting my teeth and soldiering on for page after dreary page for more days than I care to count.

    Thank you, Annie. You’ve done a great service with your review. I’ve tried starting this book a couple times in the past and just about chiseled my incisors down to nothing with all the teeth gritting. I couldn’t do it. Thanks for freeing me up from the obligation to read this classic. I do believe this is yet another book that everyone says they have read but hasn’t actually read. But at least you’re now cured.

    • Rosalys says:

      Yes, thanks for the heads up, Anniel. It never dawned on me that I should read this, but if it ever does dawn on me I will squelch the impulse! (I developed that same “eyes glazing over syndrome” trying to read through the 75 page diatribe from John Galt in Atlas Shrugged – I finally threw in towel and skipped to the end.)

      But perhaps it’s fitting that the book should be such as I find that listening for the millionth time to the nonsense that the leftist Utopians of our day spew forth produces the same result!

      • Timothy Lane says:

        75 pages for Galt’s super-long speech? I thought it was over 100. A blind woman I used to know said it took over 3 hours (which is how long he spoke in the book) to play — at double speed.

    • Anniel says:

      Definition of a “classic”: An old book that thinks it still has something to say.

  7. There’s one more book that needs bringing up in this discussion — “Lost Horizon” by James Hilton. It’s a much more pleasant read and is in some ways more disturbing. The four main characters end up in Shangri La, a gorgeous monastery high in the Himalayas. It was perfect –except for one small thing: you couldn’t leave. And that ruins it all. My honors students always read this; it made for superb discussion.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The very embodiment of the gilded cage. In reality, of course, the cages never stay gilded for long.

    • Anniel says:

      I have read “Lost Horizon” many times since High School, and right now I am staggered by how little I remember of it. I remember it being such a feast of sensuous description and I always loved the memories returning with each reading. I will have to get it on Kindle and – rekindle my memories yet again. Thanks for the reminder Deanna.

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