Utopia: Theme Analysis
The utopian theme: ideal society versus corrupt society
The overriding theme of Utopia is the ideal nature of Utopian society in contrast with the corrupt European society of Thomas More's day. Utopia has no money or private property and there is therefore no greed, power struggles, corruption, or vanity, and very little crime. Everything is held in common and everyone's needs are supplied. There is very little hierarchy, apart from the elected Prince and Tranibors (also called Syphogrants and magistrates). European society, on the other hand, is described as a place where greed and corruption rule, and where idle monarchs and nobles seek to increase their own wealth and power at the expense of the people, who are left in poverty and misery.
There are two aspects in which Europe is portrayed as more advanced than Utopia, and those are culture and access to Christianity. First, Utopia has no literature or recorded history. Second, many of the Utopians, Hythloday says, recognize the superiority of Christianity over their own religion and convert. Here too, however, Thomas More's point is to criticize European society and praise Utopia's. The implication is, as the critic R. W. Chambers notes, "The underlying thought of Utopia always is, With nothing save Reason to guide them, the Utopians do this; and yet we Christian Englishmen, we Christian Europeans.!" (The Meaning of Utopia, 1992).
The search for justice is a major theme of Utopia. In Book I, Thomas More, through his mouthpiece, Hythloday, draws attention to the injustice of punishing thieves with the death penalty - a practice that continued in England into the nineteenth century. He points out that theft is not a crime that deserves death, and no punishment will deter a thief if stealing is his only means of survival.
Hythloday says that as long as there is personal property and money, there can be no justice because the greediest men will appropriate the best things, and the rest of the people will be left in misery. He also points out the inequity of the justice system: the lower classes must remain bound by the restraints imposed on them, yet princes measure what is lawful only by what is in their interest. Often, he says, monarchs and the nobility succeed in having their interests enshrined in law. As a lawyer, Thomas More was aware that much of the law was written by property owners to protect their holdings.
These two examples of injustice - punishing theft with the death penalty and the tendency of the law to protect the interests of the moneyed classes and to oppress the poor - are reflected in a famous quote from the famous case of Elizabeth Fricker, condemned to be hanged for burglary in London, England in 1817. In response to the public outcry against this disproportionate punishment, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon, stated, "if hanging was abolished for theft, the property of Englishmen would be left wholly without protection."
In Utopia, the absence of money and property has the effect of minimizing crime and ensuring that everyone is fairly and equably treated. The laws are few and understandable by everybody. Because everyone accused of a crime conducts his own defense and there are no lawyers, justice is not conditional on whether he can afford a good lawyer.
The Utopian system, in common with that of Plato's Republic, is based on the premise that money corrupts government and destroys justice in rulership and happiness in society. Hythloday points out that the worst men accumulate most money, but are not happy even then because they worry too much about keeping it. They leave the rest of humanity with insufficient money for their needs, which leads to injustice, misery and crime.
More advises Hythloday to offer his counsel to some king, citing the Greek philosopher Plato's (c. 427-c. 347 BC) belief that "nations will be happy, when either philosophers become kings, or kings become philosophers." Hythloday also says that as long as there is personal property, and while money governs everything, there can be no justice in government or happiness in society.
Many examples are given of the corruption of European government, in which the rulers are concerned only to gain power and money. These things, however, fail to make the rich few happy, while creating misery for the majority of people who lack enough even to supply their needs. In contrast, Utopia had a wise founder, Utopus, who built his wisdom into the constitution of the nation. In Utopia, everything is arranged to benefit all the people, not just a small ruling elite. Hythloday affirms that it is the only state that deserves the name of commonwealth.
Happiness is of primary importance to the Utopians. It is their chief topic of philosophical debate. They think that pleasure is at the root of happiness, and that God intended man to be happy. They believe that God has planted appetites in man for good and healthy things in order to guide him to live happily. These ideas may seem somewhat surprising considering that Thomas More was a devout Catholic, and many Catholic writers emphasized the importance of suffering in spiritual redemption. But in fact, such ideas were prevalent among Renaissance humanists, among whom Thomas More is generally numbered. In addition, Thomas More has Hythloday qualify his definition of pleasure: it excludes pleasures that are destructive to the body or the morals, and pleasures that detract from the pleasure of others.
Idealism versus political engagement
More, Giles and Hythloday have a continuing debate in Book I as to whether it is better for a person educated in statesmanship to engage with a corrupt government by becoming an advisor, or to remain independent and uninvolved. Hythloday chooses the latter option, as if he were in service to a ruler, he believes that he would have to compromise his ideals or not be listened to. Giles and More argue that it is more constructive to become involved, in the hope that one can influence the system for the better from within.
The debate may have reflected an internal struggle in Thomas More's mind at the time he wrote Utopia. He had been asked to enter the service of King Henry VIII and was considering his answer. He decided to accept and rose to become Lord Chancellor in 1529. However, he soon found his ideals in conflict with Henry's administration. He refused to support Henry in his break with the Pope, and resigned his office in 1532. He was accused of treason and beheaded in 1535.