Thomas More “Utopia” ctd.

Hythloday continues his story about the war customs of the Utopians. Their techniques are a hodge=podge of various military traditions – they use archers like the English, they use war machines like the Romans etc. It’s not very interesting so I won’t get too detailed about it. They are rather humane as conquerors: they take care not to destroy the crops (if only for the fact they may need them themselves), when they conquer a city, they execute the defenders, leave the civilians alone and reward those who wanted to surrender (in other words, traitors). They receive tribute from the conquered nations, not only in form of money, but also in form of landed property, which over time accrued to quite a significant amount. If they don’t give it to their local supporters as a reward, they send their own citizens as governors, who “live on the properties in great style” and still have enough money to send back home. So, aren’t these upright Utopians tempted by the early-capitalist economy? Don’t they sometimes fancy getting clothes which are not only practical, but also nice? Hythloday doesn’t answer that.

Now we are reaching the most often discussed section of Utopia, that on religion. Utopians are in general monotheists, believing in one deity not unlike Judaeo-Christian God – the invisible creator of the universe, all-powerful, infinite, inexplicable and so on. They call him Mithra, like the followers of the ancient Persian religion, or “father”. Some Utopians worship the Sun or the Moon or other planets as the embodiments of this divine force, but they’re gradually coming to understand that these are just superstitions.


Thomas More “Utopia ” ctd.

Utopians fight bravely when necessary but before they send their own people out into the field, they use all other means. First of all, they hire mercenaries since they have lots of money, remember. Hythloday gets into a prolonged description of the nation of mercenaries called the Zapoletes, who as the footnote informs us, is meant to be a description of the Swiss. If that’s true, it shows how rubbish the notion of national character is – the Zapoletes/Swiss in More’s description are blood-thirsty savage hirelings who can’t do anything else but fight and they will fight for the highest bidder. A far cry from the contemporary image of the inhabitants of Zurich and Geneva.

If the Utopians need more soldiers, then they enlist their allies and only in the end they send their own soldiers. Only the volunteers are sent to fight overseas. These rules of course do not apply when it comes to defending their own country, when everyone fights. Wives are actually encouraged to join their husbands in the army and when placing the soldiers in the frontline, care is taken to put all families together so they can look out for one another. They also have a special elite force whose job is to look for and kill or capture the enemy’s general.

Thomas More “Utopia” ctd.

Utopians fight only just wars, defending their country, or their allies, or to liberate a country from its tyrant (because as we know nowadays, it always works out so well). They also fight to protect their citizens or their allies’ citizens who live in foreign countries (because you can always absolutely tell for sure whether an invading country “protects its citizens” against real or imaginary dangers.) If they are cheated in trade, they are willing to let it pass and just break off the trade relations with the offending nation – they are exporting of what they have a surplus anyway and what belongs to everybody, so statistically speaking, every Utopian has been cheated of only a tiny amount of income and they don’t think it’s worth dying for. But if their allies are cheated, or if it’s a matter of a physical injury or death sustained by any of their citizens, they demand remuneration and handing the offenders over to them, or they go to fight. They believe in fighting rather by cunning than by brute force, because any animal can fight with force, and scheming can spare the lives of both their own citizens and their enemy’s soldiers, who may have been conscripted and didn’t want to go to war in the first place. So they start the hostilities by having their secret agents putting up notices about large rewards offered for the assassination of the king, even larger for bringing him alive, and proportionately smaller for those officials responsible for the war.

Thomas More “Utopia” ctd.

Utopians disdain the use of cosmetics and think the inner virtue trumps beauty in terms of long-term relationships. They honour those who have rendered special services to their countries with public statues.

Any man who campaigns for a public office is disqualified for all of them. This is the sentence I liked best so far but also the most utopian principle, I think.  Utopian officials are not proud and they are not distinguished by any rich clothes or special signs, except for a sheaf of grain carried in front of the governor and a tall candle in front of the high priest.

They have very few laws, very simple ones and no lawyers. In court everyone is his own representative.

Many neighbouring countries invite Utopians to be the rulers of their country for a few years. They are excellent rulers because they are incorruptible (they have no use for money when they go back to Utopia) and impartial, since they are outsiders. I think this shows Utopians are made of altogether a finer metal than common people – why shouldn’t such an elected official think “Oh, fuck it, I’m not going back to Utopia, and I’m gonna become a rich and cruel tyrant?”

Utopians enter no treaties because they see no point in them, especially in their part of the world when they are constantly broken. This of course never happens in Europe, says Hythloday with heavy irony (somewhat foreshadowing Gullivers Travels, I think). But their logic is, if we want to be friends with a country, we will, and if we don’t want to, we won’t, and no amount of finely-worded documents is going to change that.

Thomas More “Utopia” ctd.

To continue the topic of euthanasia, people who decide to end their life starve themselves to death or are given a poison which ends their life painlessly. But they are under no pressure, oh no. (Yep, when your priests and your family keep on badgering you about how it’s time to end your suffering and you feel pretty shitty anyway, you are absolutely under no pressure.) On the other hand, those who commit suicide for reasons other than an incurable illness are treated with contempt and their bodies are thrown into a bog without the proper burial (pretty similar to the way suicides were treated in Europe until the 19th century, with their bodies buried at the crossroads etc.)

Now, the famous sexual morals. In Utopia, people before they get married see each other in the buff, accompanied by respectable minders, because of the whole “not buying a pig in a poke” reasoning. But all forms of extramarital sex are severely punished: people caught in premarital sex are not allowed to marry until the end of their lives and their parents are publicly disgraced. People caught in adultery are made slaves for life, and their spouses are free to divorce them; if they want to forgive them, they may stay but they have to share their labour. They have something like our “at-fault” and “no-fault” divorce; in the first case, the party at fault is again not allowed to remarry. Sometimes when both people can’t get on together and they both wish to remarry, their marriage can be dissolved. Both forms of divorce are granted by the senate and are very rare, not unlike in England where until 1857 you needed a special Act of Parliament to get a divorce. Utopians maintain such strict sexual morality because they feel they have to defend themselves against the influence of other cultures, which are polygamous, and also because they feel nobody would bother about buying a cow if you could get milk everywhere, if you get my drift. I guess. The whole discourse is based on the assumption that you need a set of extremely strong chains to chain two people to each other for life. Why does Hythloday assume society needs such chains? It would take a volume to discuss it, I’m afraid. (Note – it will take a decade before Henry VIII start considering annulling his marriage. In the meantime, he would be very unhappy about his sister’s Margaret divorce.)

Some more scattered remarks: the gravest crimes are punished by slavery because it’s considered to be more useful to society than capital punishment, but if slaves rebel, they are killed. The unsuccessful seducer is punished severely as the successful one. Utopians like fools and treat them kindly, but they find it base to mock physical deformities. You have to remember that at that time many jesters employed at European courts were simply people handicapped physically and/or mentally – viz. Velazquez’s famous paintings of the court jester.

Francisco Lezcano, el Niño de Vallecas

Sebastian de Morra

Thomas More “Utopia” ctd.

Utopians got also some books on medicine, which they consider one of the greatest arts and in general they think of science as a means for a man to admire the work of the Creation. They learnt the trade of paper-making and printing from Europeans; neither of the Europeans was actually a specialist but Utopians are so bright that they developed their own technique just by listening to whatever the Europeans knew about it.

As has been mentioned before, they do have slaves. They enslave the prisoners of war only during the wars they fight themselves, but Hythloday doesn’t elaborate on that and I didn’t really know what he means – only the wars for which they don’t use mercenaries or the wars in which they are aggressors? The latter doesn’t seem probable, since they are presented as supremely wise. Their slaves are basically criminals, either the home-grown ones, or the imported ones who were sentenced to death in their own countries. They have also some voluntary slaves, poor foreigners who perhaps should be rather called hirelings, since they are treated well and are free to leave whenever they want.

Utopians take excellent care of the sick, but in case of the incurably sick they encourage them to euthanize themselves, arguing not only that their life is a misery to themselves, but they are also a burden to the whole society. It’s basically a Stoic argument, as the footnote author points out, just with more emphasis added on the social side of things. I guess it’s a very good argument for the theory that Utopia can’t be read as an actual political programme of More, but a kind of “what-if” intellectual exercise.

Thomas More “Utopia” ctd.

Utopians believe that pleasures such as eating, drinking and scratching are of a lower order because they only alleviate some kind of suffering. They appreciate all other sensual pleasures, such as enjoying beautiful sights or nice smells, because they set us above animals, which never stop to smell the flowers, just smell for something tasty to eat. They don’t believe in mortifying one’s flesh just for mortifying’s sake. I guess it’s a jab at the Catholic modes of penance and mortification, but why does it come from the man who is a saint of the RCC and allegedly wore a hairshirt in secret all his life? Something to think about.

Their climate is not that great, nor is their land very fertile, but they manage to get enough food out of it because of their industriousness – they were even capable of moving whole forests into to more convenient places. They are also keen scholars and they learnt Greek with great facility from Hythloday, perhaps because their language is somehow related to Greek (no wonder, since all the place names are Greek neologisms coined by More). Hythloday rattles off the whole list of Greek books he brought them during one of his journeys, not so many Latin ones, since he didn’t think they could find much use for them. I guess that says something about the changing canon of classical studies in the Renaissance Europe (“we are Renaissance humanists, we can read Greek, not like the undereducated medieval monks”). Still, he brought them Plutarch and Lucian. He also brought them Sophocles, Homer, Aristophanes, and a whole list of grammarians and minor philosophers I have never heard about. Oh, and Plato, of course. This is the passage which was undoubtedly very entertaining to More and his humanist friends, but a rube like me, deprived of classical education, quickly loses interest.