Skip to main content Accessibility help

Political Idealism in More's Utopia

  • James Nendza


While this century has witnessed large-scale attempts to actualize political Utopias, the study of such regimes is as old as political philosophy. The most famous of such imaginary republics is More's Utopia. In the form of a dialogue, Utopia presents the best regime of a philosophic character, Raphael Hythlodaeus. In constructing a regime based on the belief that happiness consists in the acquisition of pleasure, Utopia presents one of the first proposals for political hedonism. While the Utopian understanding of happiness restricts their pursuit of pleasure to those austere pleasures which are natural, their hedonism nevertheless causes problems which require strict political control. More important, an analysis of the text reveals that the Utopian understanding of the requirements of human nature is simplistic. Thus, the proper understanding of the dialogue reveals that More's purpose is not to recommend such radical change but to show the dangers of such idealistic proposals.



Hide All

1 Hexter, J. H., The Vision of Politics on the Eve of the Reformation (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p. 124n.

2 Representatives of the first view include Hexter, J. H., More's Utopia: The Biography of an Idea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952), and Edward Surtz, S. J., The Praise of Pleasure (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), and The Praise of Wisdom (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1957). A fine, recent study which sees the Utopia as essentially ironic is Johnson, Robbin, More's Utopia: Ideal and Illusion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969). Another worthwhile recent study, which takes a position between these two alternatives, is Logan, George, The Meaning of More's Utopia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983). For a more detailed discussion of this question, see Logan, pp. 3–18.

3 98.25–100.7. All references to More are to The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, ed. Surtz, and Hexter, , vol. 4:Utopia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965). Translations are my own.

4 On reading philosophic dialogues, see Strauss, Leo, The City and Man (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964), pp. 5063, and Klein, Jacob, A Commentary on Plato's Meno (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965), pp. 331.

5 Similar understandings of the Utopia are presented by Johnson, , Utopia: Ideal and Illusion,Sylvester, R. S., “Si Hythlodaeo Credimus,” in Essential Articles for the Study of Thomas More, eds. Sylvester, and Marc'hadour, (Hamden: Archon, 1977), and Berger, Harry Jr., “The Renaissance Imagination: Second World and Green World,” The Centennial Review, 9 (Winter 1965), 3678.

6 On the possible significance of the name “Raphael Hythlodaeus,” see Johnson, , Utopia: Ideal and Illusion, p. 33.

7 Ibid., pp. 7–8; cf. Sylvester, , “Si Hythlodaeo Credimus,” pp. 298–99.

8 48.29–50.7, 50.11–14, 54.13–27. In contrast, More introduces himself as a good citizen, a servant of his king, a good friend, a family man and devout: 46.8–48.16; cf. 46.1–7.

9 Sylvester, , “Si Hythlodaeo Credimus,” p. 297.

10 56.1–2; 48.32–50.3, 56.9, 98.8–9; 56.26–58.14, 244.21–26; 66.11–20, 102.20–26, 240.11–28.

11 Logan, , Meaning of More's Utopia, p. 123.

12 150.9–10, 100.10–11, cf. 108.16–19; 158.2–5. The crucial importance of the section on moral philosophy, which, by defining human happiness, determines the goal of the Utopian regime, has not always been recognized. See Logan, , Meaning of More's Utopia, pp. 144–45ff.

13 124.20–28, 158.8–9, 228.8–15.

14 158.5–11, 128.1–12, cf. 134.16–20.

15 160.17–23; 162.15–18.

16 While the belief that individual happiness consists in the acquisition of pleasure is an ancient one, the classical hedonists did not believe such an understanding of human life could be the basis of a decent political order. On classical hedonism's view of politics, see Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 2. 161.

17 162.5–15. For the Utopians, , “the first and most obvious fact about [human] nature is that man is completely self-interested”: Logan, Meaning of More's Utopia, pp. 148–49.

18 The difficulty in reconciling the pursuit of pleasure with the requirements of political society underlies the problems in this section of the Utopia. As Logan notes, “The argument here is highly confusing, partly because of its elliptical nature and partly because it includes logical errors” (ibid., p. 154).

19 162.25–28; 164.13–23; 166.10–13.

20 172.7–176.35.

21 174.29–30. Similarly, in the realm of spiritual pleasures, the Utopians deemphasize philosophic contemplation in comparison with moral virtue, which “has the effect of making the highest component of the good life available to all men”: Logan, , Meaning of More's Utopia, p. 178; cf. White, Thomas, “Aristotle and Utopia,” Renaissance Quarterly, 29 (Winter 1976), 635–75.

22 160.26–162.5, cf. 164.24–25. The Utopians also believe that a “society of nature” unites all humans. Whatever this natural society is, the claims it makes upon men are very weak: 162.26–28, 196.16–198.28.

23 162.10–15, cf. 176.35–178.9. Those who devote themselves to the public at the expense of their own pleasure, in this life at least, are called “especially religious”: 224.20–226.19.

24 Cf. Logan, , Meaning of More's Utopia, p. 166.

25 218.29–220.6, 220.20–29.

26 220.7–8; 220.29–222.3, cf. 160.32–162–16; 226.25–27, 140.13–14, 142.24–26, 186.5–20, 226.27–228.15, 228.27,234.5–7. Such religious fear also reinforces the less difficult virtues, by keeping men from any “secret dishonest act”: 224.2–13.

27 Logan notes the dialectic weakness of the “claim that the Utopians were led to their religious principles by reason” (Meaning of More's Utopia, p. 163).

28 On the founder's use of god as a mouthpiece, see Machiavelli, , Discourses on Livy, 1.11, and Rousseau, , The Social Contract, 2.7; 216.11–15, 216.25–32; 224.13–20.

29 On the importance of Utopia's being self-sufficient in material goods, see White, , “Aristotle and Utopia,” pp. 640–42.

30 164.22–23, 194.32–33; 128.27–130.10; 130.26–132.1; 126.19–24, 146.15–24.

31 130.10–25, cf. 134.10–15, 148.3–11; 124.20–126.6, 132.29–134.10; 128.30–33; 182.21–23; 132.11–29, 226.26–228.8, 146.19–20. Significantly, Raphael's two explicit criticisms of the Utopians are for their excessive tendency to indulge in pleasure: 144.20–23, 160.20–23.

32 Nature's beneficence, which is a beneficence of necessary goods, is known only through the use of reason. Anyone pursuing pleasure “by sense” alone would find nature's bounty an extreme scarcity.

33 104.6–20; 236. 31–244.19; 130.10–14, 136.31–138.9, cf. 196.10–12.

34 120.6–13; 140.17–26, cf. 144. 6–14; 244.17–21; 192.23–29.

35 See Surtz, , “Sources, Parallels and Influences,” Introduction to Utopia, p. clviii. Such an explanation fails to account for other “abhorrent” practices in Utopia, e.g., the worship of planets. Erasmus says that More once “defended the community of Plato even up to that of wives”: Opus Epistolamm D. Erasmi, ed. Allen, P. S., vol. 4 (London: Oxford University Press, 1922), 21.

36 142.8–12; 188.15–27, 192.21–23.

37 190.18–19, 186.27–29; 134.27–29, cf. 142.26–33,,232.33–234.7, 114.5–6; Plato Republic 328d2–4, Aristotle Politics 1262a40–1262b24. Cf. Hexter, , “The Composition of Utopia,” in Surtz and Hexter, p. xlii.

38 134.24–136.7, cf. 196.10–12, 56.31–33. Johnson aptly remarks that “the inference on a deeper level seems to be that Hythlodaeus might be very willing to see natural family bonds replaced by artificial ties, if that were found necessary in order to preserve the Utopian ideal intact and render it safe from human error” (Johnson, , Utopia: Ideal and Illusion, p. 84).

39 188.22–190.14, 186.24–33.

40 130.32–132.8.

41 While repression is not absent from Utopia, the control stems not from a militarily powerful class set above the rest of the citizens, but from the self-control instilled by education, supplemented by “a multitude of positive and negative reinforcements to encourage good behavior and discourage bad” (Logan, , Meaning of More's Utopia, p. 202).

42 112.15–19, 146.25–148.3, 134.29–136.4.

43 122.9–22, 124.1–7.

44 192.29–30, 226.25–26, 122.9–19.

45 132.5–8, 158.5–8; cf. 164.21–23; 122.28–124.18, cf. 122.19–21, 132.1–5.

46 120.13–23. On one level, Utopia, as a whole, is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. Like that original garden, Utopia is “emasculated, soft, an unreal paradise of unearned pleasures” (Johnson, , Utopia. Ideal and Illusion, pp. 1011); cf. Berger, , “Renaissance Imagination,” p. 68.

47 178.30–31; 170.18–28, 138.13–18; 226.10–12. The traditional justification for hunting—that it is a pursuit fit for rulers due to its value as a preparation for war—is inconsistent with the Utopian belief that, given the proper political reform, war is an unnecessary part of the human condition: 198.16–31; cf. Plato Laws 824a1–9, Machiavelli, , Prince, chap. 14. The Utopians similarly prohibit the sacrifice of animals during religious ceremonies in the belief that “divine mercy does not delight in blood”: 234.7–10; cf. Machiavelli, , Discourses, 2. 2.

48 On problems with the Utopian view of war and foreign policy, see Avineri, Shlomo, “War and Slavery in More's Utopia,” International Review of Social History (1962), pp. 260–90. A more sober and balanced view of this section is presented by Logan, , Meaning of More's Utopia, pp. 221–29.

49 192.24–29; cf. 166.33–168.1.

50 124.2–4, 122.19–20, 130.26–132.8. The description of Utopian citizens reminds one of the description of slaves in Part 1: compare 132.33–34 with 76.24–26, and 146.6–9 with 78.1–2, cf. 224.5–6. Even the hard-working paupers, exploited elsewhere, are only sometimes willing permanently to exchange freedom for a physically more pleasant life of mild slavery in Utopia: 184.25–30.

51 “The emphasis on uniformity in outward matters in Utopia appears to be motivated by the conviction that individuality in such matters almost inevitably becomes occasion for emulation, vanity and pride” (Surtz, and Hexter, , Utopia, p. 387). At the same time, however, “institutionalizing the utopian ideal ends with the common interest tyrannizing over the benefits of each individual member …” (Johnson, , Utopia: Ideal and Illusion, p. 18).

52 150.16–152.18; 176.24–32, cf. 138.6. Similarly, in Utopia, where children use jewels to “glorify themselves and become proud,” the wearing of jewels by adults is treated as a matter of “shame.” Shame, not reason, is used to suppress a desire whose presence in children indicates its naturalness: 152.18–26. Cf. Binder, James, “More's Utopia in English: A Note on Translation,” in Essential Articles for the Study of Thomas More, p. 231.

53 156.10–14, 182.12–21.

54 Logan argues that the “dismal uniformity of Utopian life does not reflect a conviction that such drabness is desirable in itself … but that the free development of the material and esthetic delights that would make Utopian life more vivid would seriously inhibit the achievement of more important goals” {Meaning of More's Utopia, p. 237). I believe Logan underestimates the role of beauty in a fully human life.

55 Such resplendent virtues would be impossible for Utopian citizens also because “it is impossible or not easy to do noble deeds without equipment” (Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1099a32–1099b1). White sees the impossibility of such noble deeds as a sign of a disagreement between More and Aristotle. It certainly reflects Hythlodaeus' demotion of the importance of such noble acts (White, , “Aristotle and Utopia,” pp. 660–61).

56 244.13–246.2, More's criticism has sometimes been differently interpreted as an ironic judgment on the grounds of “public opinion,” rather than as More's own judgment. If, however, More believes, as Socrates, that public opinion, while not always correct in its judgments, is also the starting point for the search for the truth, the lack of the resplendent virtues in Utopia would be a serious criticism of the regime on More's part. For other views of this much discussed passage, see Allen, Ward S., “The Tone of More's Farewell to Utopia,” Moreana, 13 (09 1976), 108118;Skinner, Quentin, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 1: 256 ff.; and White, Thomas, “Festivitas, Utilitas, et Opes: The Concluding Irony and Philosophic Purpose of Thomas More's Utopia,” in Quincentennial Essays on St. Thomas More, ed. More, Michael (Boone: Albion, 1978), pp. 135–50.

57 244.19–21, 178.4–6; cf. Machiavelli, , Prince, chap. 9, beginning. Glaucon's opinion of Utopia may be gathered from his opinion of the “most necessary city” in the Republic, a city he calls a “city of sows” (369d11–12, 372d4–5).

58 While the Republic and the Utopia are similar in theme, the Utopia is a necessary supplement to the Republic because of the changed political situation caused by the advent of Christianity. Utopia is an ideal especially attractive to men educated in the Christian tradition, although in Utopia human ends—learning and material security—replace otherworldly ones. Utopia thus might be called post-Christian.

59 Raphael's lack of prudence is revealed in the one story of his pre-Utopian travels More deems it worthy to recount. During his travels, Raphael introduced the compass to the sailors of the New World. While previously timid on the open sea, traveling only in summer, now, “by faith in this stone, they contemn winter, being more certain than safe, so that there is a danger lest what was thought would be a great good become a cause of evils through imprudence.” This imprudence is partly their own, but partly also Raphael”s; for it is surely imprudent to introduce technical innovation among people not yet sufficiently knowledgeable to use it well (52.18–24).

60 244.22–26, cf. 102.4–13; Plato Republic 440c1–d3, 450c6–d2; Laws 817bl–5.

61 The most important statement which claims that Socrates does not intend the Republic as a practical proposal is that by Cicero: “[The Republic] is a city more to be wished for than hoped for … not one which can be, but one in which it is possible for the workings of political affairs to be observed” (Republic 2. 52). That More understood his Utopia in the same way is indicated by his echoing of Cicero's very words. Many things in Utopia too are more to be “wished for” than “hoped for” (246.1–2).

62 On the distinction between “academic” and “political” philosophy, see 96.31–100.4.

Political Idealism in More's Utopia

  • James Nendza


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed