Author: Thomas More
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Date of Publication: March 2nd, 2010 (first published in 1516)
Number of Pages: 176
In Utopia, More paints a vision of the customs and practices of a distant island, but Utopia means 'no place' and his narrator's name, Hythlodaeus, translates as 'dispenser of nonsense'. This fantastical tale masks what is a serious and subversive analysis of the failings of More's society. Advocating instead a world in which there is religious tolerance, provision for the aged, and state ownership of land, Utopia has been variously claimed as a Catholic tract or an argument for communism and it still invites each generation to make its own interpretation.
Utopia is probably one of the most demanding books I’ve ever read. Not only the writing style of Thomas More is so specific, but this particular novel challenged my own ideas. Anyway, Utopia was always one of those books that have been sitting on my to-be-read list for years, and I did mean to actually read it. I finally got to read it due to the ClassicsClub Spin #13. I won’t hide though that I wasn’t too thrilled with my luck with this spin. So, I reluctantly read it, and even more reluctantly I’m reviewing it.
Utopia literally means “a place that doesn’t exist” although today this is a word with an entirely different meaning. So when Thomas More is describing the distant land of Utopia he is talking about a civilization that doesn’t exist. And can’t exist, if I might add. Anyway, let’s take things from the very beginning. Thomas More travelled abroad and in this particular travel a friend of his acquainted him to Raphael Hythloday, who had just returned from his travels all around the world. He had seen many wonders, but the one thing that deeply moved him was Utopia. And so, after the urging of the writer he described every aspect of this ideal society.
We made no inquiries after monsters, than which nothing is more common; for 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, declared Thomas More. This is completely true, and if there were such an ideal society, I’d love to hear everything there is to it. The rest of the book is the narration of Raphael of what he witnessed during his stay in Utopia.
But how is the Utopian society so much different? How can such an ideal society exist? How can all of the citizens be content with just a single system? These are the questions that still torture me. Before anything else, I have to admit that I am not a political person. I have my beliefs but I’m never too passionate about them. Well, Utopia made me realize how much I care when they are talking about the most important thing for me: personal freedom.
First of all, in the island of Utopia there is no such thing as a property. All of the goods are stored in warehouses and given equally to all of the citizens. The houses do not own locks, as every ten years the Utopians change houses. The objective of each citizen is to offer something to the society. The most important job in Utopia is agriculture and for this reason everyone has to spend at least two years in the countryside in order to learn the craft. They also learn other crafts, such as carpentry and weaving. Only a select few, who show a tendency for learning during their early years, learn how to read and go on to become officials and priests.
For me, each of these citizens is the same person with a different face. There is no fashion - all of them have to wear the same woven clothes. But this isn’t what bothers me at all! None of them has the freedom to decide for himself what he would like to do. He has to act solely for the society. He can’t travel without a special permission, he can’t choose the way he spends his life, and he can’t have his own views concerning pleasure. And above all, there is not even a hint of privacy in Utopia. I’ve always esteemed the individual, and reading all of the above things, I was shaken. Such a society, for my own way of perceiving the world, would be a nightmare. Even though there are a few things that I’d love to see in our actual societies, I couldn’t deal with the absence of the individual.
Another thing that baffled me was that slavery exists in Utopia. I thought that in such a society that everyone is trying to offer their best for their society that there wouldn’t be in need of slavery. The slaves are doing all of the hard labour and they are either prisoners of war, or Utopians that broke their law. They find it such a disgraceful thing since they could not be restrained by the advantages of so excellent an education, and so they are judged worthy of harder usage. For my ideal society slavery should never exist.
As for the good parts of Utopia there are still things that even today we find controversial. The first issue is free health care. What is more important in a society than to offer to the citizens hospitals and care whenever they need it? Another issue is euthanasia. Well, this is definitely a controversial one. Should one decide whether he wants to die? We have still a long way to go, until we truly realize the mindset and the suffering of these people. Other things that I liked are premarital sex and divorce. Yes, nowadays they are so common, but this book was published in 1516. I wouldn’t go as far as punishing adultery with slavery, though.
Utopia was an interesting read. It wasn’t an easy one (imagine if I’d read it in Latin!) and it did challenge my own views more than a few times. The problem I had was that its ideas are so different from the fundamental view of the world that I have. Nevertheless, I realize why this is an important book. I’m sure that when it was published those very same ideas were revolutionary, even unthinkable. Be prepared for a book with an argument after another, complex sentences and many ideas that will challenge your worldview.