My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Utopia was written by Thomas More in 1516, about 20 years prior to his execution for King Henry VII for treason. It, through a man named Raphael Hythloday (introduced to More in Antwerp by those he corresponds with in the beginning of the book), describes a “perfect society” in a place called Utopia. Hythloday lived here for several years amongst the people and therefore could present an accurate model of the Utopian society, however fictional it may be.
Prior to the actual descriptions of Utopia, More corresponds with two acquaintances: Peter Gilles and Jerome Busleiden. They correspond on the faults and shortcomings of current society and they also discuss some ideas about how society may be improved. These include changes to the administration of punishment and sentencing for crimes in particular, as well as some ideas on changing the nature of property. It is at this point that Hythloday is first brought into the discourse and Utopia is mentioned for the first time as Hythloday thinks they have a way of life that dissolves all of the problems present in current society. More asks Hythloday to describe Utopia in detail. (Note: At present (2012), a number of the ideas discussed by more and his colleagues have been implemented and in place for over 100 years.)
Hythloday discusses all aspects of Utopian society including population size, family, property, work, military strategies and religion – he mentioned a large number of differences between Utopian society and European society during the Tudor era in England.
I found that some aspects of the Utopian society seemed archaic even relative to the time Utopia was written. Concepts and practices seem to be hundreds of years “behind” even 16th century standards and innovations. It was made quite clear that Utopians are a people that take great pride in themselves and their country. They live under the premise that no one owns property, stemming any greediness in Utopian people. They also do not subscribe to keeping jewels or precious metals or rich cloths for the same reasons. All Utopian citizens, including their magistrates live in simple homes and wear simple, plain clothing. In keeping with this concept, Utopia’s form of government appears to be quite effective. All officials are democratically elected, but none act superior to the general population. They complete all the same tasks as compared to the general Utopian population, aside from attending meetings to discuss matters of the state on a regular basis. I found this general concept generally refreshing; however upon looking more closely, I did begin to question and wonder.
Utopia’s population is organized into a number of large cities, each with no more than 6000 families. As such, a means of population control is in place. Each family has a certain number of members, and those families with too many members will give their extra children to families with fewer children. This also follows in terms of overall city populations. I found this slightly disconcerting as the term “family” in Utopia is not understood in the same way it is in European society in the 16th century or even in the present for that matter. In Utopia, a family is a unit of people (usually related by blood) who help each other live their daily lives. Similar to now yes, but the emotion aspect that we would assume to be present in a family appears not to be present in a Utopian family. Slavery is also an aspect of Utopian society though they seem to be well treated in general. I cannot bring myself to agree with this as slavery is just an unacceptable practice to me.
Utopians don’t practice any one particular religion, but they all practice one that worships a single Diving Being. It would seem that the latter is a requirement in how I understood it. However, there is no prejudice based on religion in Utopia and no one thinks their own religion is better than another. I liked this idea and really appreciated the concept. I could not find myself able to agree with the concept of having to practice a religion of some sort no matter what, as I am accustomed to having the choice whether or not to.
Utopian military practices are quite different from any I have read about anywhere else; in fact, I found their military practices quite interesting. Utopians are not proponents of war and therefore prefer to avoid getting involved in any sort of war. They do when there is no choice, and at that point they prefer to hire soldiers from neighboring nations for a price instead of sending their own citizens to the battlefield. Utopians are still trained in military skills, but they are rarely ever put to use as Utopia will not send their own citizens to war unless there is no other option. I do not think this would be effective as a general rule. For them though, it may be possible as they are an isolated nation. Utopia to me seems to be a relatively successful application of socialism as we understand it today. As a real place though, I do not think Utopia could survive.
In general I found the book to be a heavy read and the writing and language in the book difficult to follow. There were a lot of very long sentences and I found myself having to start reading sentences over a number of times as I had difficulty remembering what I was reading about. I assume though that this was normal for writing of that time period. I find that I needed to concentrate a lot to get through the book, though when I was able to give the book my undivided attention I was able to really enjoy reading it. There were a lot of really interesting concepts discussed and it really opened my eyes to the kinds of ideas that Thomas More had during the era of Henry VII as I detected a bit of a critique of the way he ruled within. Overall, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a heavier read, and likes to have their ideas challenged.