Thomas More’s Utopian Ideas

From The Lecture Series: Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

Thomas More’s Utopia is similar yet different to the England of 1516. The book encourages the people of Renaissance Britain to think about the ways of reorganizing their society. Can the utopian ideas work as an actual policy?

A vintage image of parchment and quill.
Through his book, Thomas More criticizes contemporary doctrinal interpretations used to justify inequity in Renaissance Britain. (Image: ronstik/Shutterstock)

Thomas More’s fictional island, Utopia, is almost exactly the same size as England. Both Utopia and England have 54 city-states. So, what are the differences between the two places? Let us take a look at the Utopian society to find an answer to this question.

This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Economic Model of Utopia

Raphael Hythloday in Utopia tells Thomas Morus that there is no need for money in this economy, since all goods are centrally held, to be drawn by citizens as needed. Basic survival needs—like shelter, food, health care—are communally produced.

Hythloday explains that each citizen spends some time learning agriculture. Citizens move regularly every few years between rural and urban living, and those who have a strong preference for one or the other are usually able to trade with another person of opposite inclinations.

But, even the agriculture-loving citizens do not participate in one central agrarian act: the slaughter of animals. However, they do eat meat. So who’s doing the necessary butchery?

Slaves in the Utopian Society

The butchery of animals is performed by slaves. In addition to slaughtering animals, slaves do all the particularly dirty and heavy chores. Interestingly, Hythloday and Morus discuss the pragmatics of slavery, but never the ethics. Hythloday explains the rules:

“The Utopians keep as slaves only prisoners taken in wars fought by the Utopians themselves. The children of slaves are not born into slavery, nor are any slaves imported from foreign countries. Most are either their own citizens, enslaved for some heinous offence, or else foreigners who had been condemned to death in their own land.”

Slaves who were once citizens—criminals from Utopia—they’re treated far more harshly than either the foreign slaves acquired through war, or through purchase at a very modest rate, or through a gift.

Marriage Customs in Utopia

A portrait of Thomas More.
Thomas More was a devout catholic. This explains why premarital sex is strictly forbidden in his Utopia. (Image: Naci Yavuz/Shutterstock)

Premarital sex is strictly forbidden, bringing shame to the household of offenders and a prohibition to ever marry, unless the offender is pardoned by the prince, which is a common exception within Utopian criminal law.

Adultery is even more severely punished, resulting in slavery on a first offence and death on a second.

Since the prohibitions against pre- and extra-marital sex are so strict, the practice of choosing a spouse is considered an extremely important decision. The Utopians follow a particular custom in which the bride and groom see each other naked before the marriage ceremony.

As in many things, the Utopians have much more gender equity than do the English of the same period. Brides are not used as objects of exchange to cement political or economic ties between two families. Instead, potential brides, like potential grooms, have the option of refusing a mate.

Learn more about Samuel Butler and utopian technologies.

Law and Treaties in Utopia

There’s a nuanced approach for crimes except adultery, with the senate listening to the facts straight from the offender, as there are no lawyers in Utopia. Hythloday seems much in favor of this approach, as he notes that the absence of lawyers makes it easier to get at the truth.

Hythloday is not so favorable in his account of the Utopians’ decision not to enter into any treaties with other nations, saying that this practice comes from the fact that treaties are often badly kept. The aversion to treaties actually goes far beyond any practical consideration of the enforcement of legal documents.

For the Utopians, treaties are based on the idea that nations will fight one another unless they enter a legally binding agreement not to. This reason, to eschew legal agreements with neighbors, has a deep philosophical foundation, perhaps one that is roughly analogous with the enlightenment debate about whether humans are naturally drawn toward good or evil.

Learn more about Utopia: The perfect nowhere.

Foreign Relations in Utopia

Fortunately for the Utopians, the island’s pretty isolated, so they don’t have to deal with other nations on a daily basis. They’re also very fair-minded, so they don’t have a lot of conflicts, and when they do, they tend to rely on sanctions rather than violence. In the rare case that they are attacked or that a friendly nation has been wronged, they respond pragmatically.

Since they see war as entirely inglorious, avoiding it by cunning is a preferable option than participating in an activity that leads to a loss of human life. If forced, they do raise a volunteer army, and women are as welcome on the battlefield as men.

But the Utopians are a peaceful people, so they don’t have that many volunteer soldiers. Because of their great wealth due to their communist economy, they usually hire soldiers to represent them in wars.

After a war, the Utopians always act with compassion and rationality: they never burn crops or ravage enemy territory. The Utopians don’t need the spoils of war; they already have all they need for survival.

Religion in Utopia

The Utopians have a wide variety of religious beliefs and practices. Maybe there is something mystical about the conversion to Christianity of many Utopians. More likely, though, the Utopians are attracted to Christianity because, “Christ encouraged his disciplines to practice community of goods, and that among the truest groups of Christians, the practice still prevails.”

A wooden cross on blue background.
Utopia reminds the readers of the essential Christian practice of sharing goods with others. (Image: Freedom Studio/Shutterstock)

First, there’s a praise of Christianity in the account of so many of the happy, rational Utopians embracing it the minute they hear about it. But there’s also a critique of modern Christian practice implied by the reminder that Christ in the book of Acts told his disciples to share their goods.

This is not how Renaissance Christians distributed resources, so readers could see this as an example of More being subversive, criticizing contemporary doctrinal interpretations used to justify inequity. 

In conclusion, More’s book sets the conventions for the modern utopian genre. It provides carefully elaborated details of a fully functioning society. At the same time, it includes a built-in critique of the very idea of utopia. We see this as we get continually drawn deeper and deeper into the contradictions that are perhaps inherent in the very project of imagining a better place, a better society.

Common Questions about Thomas More’s Utopian Ideas

Q: What do the Utopians do after a war?

After a war, the Utopians always act with compassion and rationality: they never burn crops or ravage enemy territory.

Q: Is adultery a punishable offence in Utopia?

In Utopia, there is a severe punishment for adultery: slavery on a first offence and death on a second.

Q: What tasks do slaves perform in Utopia?

The slaves butcher the animals and do all the particularly dirty and heavy chores in Utopia.

Keep Reading
Great Works of Medieval Welsh Literature
The Golden Age of Roman Literature
Oscar Wilde’s Role in Literature’s “Aesthetic Movement”