What Political & Social Ideals Are Set Forth in More's "Utopia"?

Thomas More's
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A utopian story is one that depicts a world free from suffering. It comes from Thomas More’s book “Utopia,” written in 1516 which tells the story of a perfect island society. Thomas More was a philosopher, statesman and lawyer who served, and was later beheaded by, King Henry VIII. More’s book described a fictional place where property was shared and where the government, ruled by reason, perfectly served the interests of its populace. Much like the dystopian stories of the 20th century that approached political critique by describing a society gone completely wrong, the function of More’s “Utopia” was to criticize the corrupt and greedy political practices of his time by establishing political and social ideals.

1 Social Ills

Thomas More wrote “Utopia” to address the social ills of the 16th century by creating a traveler, Raphael, who remarks upon the social and political order of England. Raphael finds a world where those in power prey upon those weaker than themselves, depriving them of property and labor, forcing the working classes to steal food and then punishing them for doing so. The destitute are kept in their place by a rich class that owns all the property and has control of the standing army. No attempt for wise counsel is sought by royalty, Raphael remarks, because no ruler would willingly accept advice from one who sought to decrease his power. There is no concern for the public good, only private gain.

2 In Pursuit of Property

Thomas More’s utopian society prohibits private property. All property and goods are held in common. More believed serving the interests of property to be a great evil, forcing the individual to serve his own ends instead of those of the public or one’s neighbor. Private property creates the “rat race” that consumes the working and social life of citizens and creates a host of problems including greed, theft, misery and anxiety. A society founded in the pursuit of property, according to More, cannot be just, because one cannot serve both the interests of property and one’s neighbor simultaneously.

3 The Six-Hour Workday

Without having to serve the interests of property owned by the ruling class, society forms in what we might call agrarian communities where men and women farm, create, and share the fruits of their labor. The citizens of Utopia have the choice of the kind of work they would like to do as long as they do not remain idle. Utopians work six hours a day and sleep for eight, and when they are not working, they are encouraged to engage in “proper exercise” and not “luxury and idleness.” A society like this would be more productive, More theorizes, even if each individual is only working six hours a day because no one would live off the labor of someone beneath him.

4 Time Spent Wisely

Since there is a high degree of public accountability, what one does with his spare time must be “proper.” There are no places to drink or gamble in public, and brothels are abolished. There are no “opportunities for seduction.” Spare time should be spent reading, conversing, attending public lectures or listening to music and playing games. Consumption as an activity is eliminated when goods are held communally, leading to an absence of commodities. For example, there is no clothing style since clothes themselves are practical tools, never changing, and they are not pursued as items in and of themselves.

John Conway is a professor and writer who has been teaching for more than 15 years. He has written about a variety of subjects, including technology, science, literary theory, online education and culture. Conway holds an M.F.A. in creative writing and a Ph.D. in English.