Monday, July 2, 2018

Utopia, by Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More
Published 1516

I did look forward to reading this book, but I ended up disliking it, as it bored me terribly. I admit: I also found the writing tricky. But overall, the historical story - about More - behind the fictional one was more interesting to me.

Utopia is a conversation involving several fictitious characters, including: More, himself, who works for King Henry VIII (which he did in reality); his friend, Giles; and another man, Hythloday, who traveled, with Amerigo Vespucci, to the New World and came to the island of Utopia. Hythloday spends an evening describing Utopia to More and Giles, and they discuss its ideals, comparing them to 16th century Europe.

In short, Hythloday says that the Utopians lived in perfect harmony because there was no poverty, no greed, no love of wealth, no class structure, no private property, very little crime or moral corruption, and no war (except in self-defense or to help neighbors). Everyone was educated and worked joyfully and willingly hard. And there was also religious tolerance for all religions (except for those who rejected God altogether). Utopia was a society based wholly on reasonable thought or common sense. The End.

I would like to know where Utopia found its inhabitants because they do not sound human. More and Giles are skeptical, too; but mostly they are reluctant to agree on certain notions, like community property and war, because they know those principles would never be implemented in Europe. This was probably true, too.

I was more curious about why More wrote on this topic at all, given that he worked for King Henry VIII. More wrote Utopia on the Eve of the Protestant Reformation. He was an ardent defender of the Catholic Church throughout the Counter Reformation. And when he would not support the King's break from the Church, to divorce his first wife, More was imprisoned as a traitor of the King, and later beheaded.

It is challenging to pin point why More wrote Utopia. Was it to provoke thought, which he knew would be impossible to reach about the perfect human society? Was it to promote his own humanistic thought, as a humanist Catholic, in which one uses Christian principles and rational thought, as opposed to traditional dogma? Or did he only want to critique what he thought was incorrect about 16th century Europe, the feudal system, and the unfair English justice system? Maybe it was a little of all three.

Whatever the answer, I found the idea of Utopia totally dull, and I would never want to live there because no one was different; everyone was equal --- equally boring. Even their clothing was very similar. It was totally unrealistic. 


Again, if you like old texts, classics, and the like, this is one you should read. At least once. But if you are looking for a riveting story about people in the perfect society (*yawn*), you may want to find different "utopian" literature. Personally, I found Gulliver's Travels much more intriguing than this. 


Fanda Classiclit said...

I found Gulliver's Travels a bit boring, so this book is certainly NOT for me.
Thanks, though, for the review. And after this you'd need a very cheerful book for remedy! :))

Carol said...

Ha! I read it years ago when my boys were doing Ambleside Online Year 8 & my daughter will be reading it soon. She won't be happy because she has a snitch on More. I just finished reading 'The Daughter of Time' to her & More doesn't get any credit for his historical writings related to Richard III.

cirtnecce said...

Ruth....great review! I have always wondered if I should read this one! It was one of the optional readings in one my Elective Courses in Grad School and one of the few book, optional or mandatory that I skipped. I think there are better books on that discuss the society and Gulliver's Travel which you cite is one of the best examples!

Ruth said...

If you thought GT was boring, then, yes, you'll probably not care for Utopia. I do need a cheerful read. I have a few in mind. :)

Ruth said...

How did your boys like it?

Ruth said...

Well, thanks; but it's more of a complaint than review. I'm sure scholars go to town on this one, but I was not at that level while reading it.

Carol said...

Ruth, I don’t think they minded it but. they read it over about 6 months, a short section each week, so that may have helped. It will be interesting to hear my daughter’s thoughts on it as she tends to be quite vehement in her likes & dislikes! I used a Kindle version with the boys & I read that also (I plodded along when I read it & was just glad to get through it) but now have the Paul Turner translation AO recommended - Penguin Classic. It looks more readable than the Kindle version.

Ruth said...

I see. Slowly reading through it would have helped digest it. Also, since I mentioned that it was a little tricky to read, I think a different (very different) translation would have been better for me. It needed to be in plain English.

Joseph said...

Well, I wasn't crazy about GT, but this has long been on my TBR. I'll still pick it up someday, but perhaps move it down in the queue a bit.

Ruth said...

Yeah, if you didn't care for GT, there is no mad rush to read Utopia.

Anonymous said...

I remember reading this in college and thinking "it would be great to live in a society without crime, poverty, or class distinctions." But, I was only about 21 or 22 then. Now, in my 40's, I would probably have the same reaction as you, Ruth, "this would be boring!" When I get to that book on the History list I'll read it slowly and pick a good translation.

Ruth said...

Yes, maybe a modern English translation would be better, but I don’t know if it wound help the idea any.