Thomas More and his "Utopia"

  • As Joshua points out in several of our podcasts, More seems to want to accept many of the "life for happiness and pleasure" aspects of Epicurus, but he wants to condemn and banish as totally unacceptable the core viewpoints of an absence of providential god and reward and punishment after death.

    I have not read this material recently enough to pass judgment on the extent to which More really believed this, or was just hedging his bets or protecting himself from the church, but the way Joshua describes his enthusiasm in the position, it sounds to me like More may serve as a classic example of the type of person who wants to pick and choose what they regard as beneficial ethics without taking the full medicine of a proper understanding of the universe.

    Joshua indicates that More would expel true Epicureans from his otherwise "Epicurean-lite" society, and so it sounds to me like "Utopia" might serve as an ultimate example of the problems with an "eclectic" or "syncretic" approach to Epicurus that fails to appreciate the full philosophy.

    These hazards are such that if this reading of "Utopia" is accurate, I would label More as "Anti-Epicurean."

  • Joshua

    Changed the title of the thread from “Thomas Moore and his "Utopia"” to “Thomas More and his "Utopia"”.
  • Part One

    I will do as much as I can in a reasonable amount of time to draw together the Epicurean aspects of More's project in writing Utopia. The first thing to observe is the title, which is a clever play on words--the prefix ου- is a term of negation, while εὐ- in Greek means well or good, as in words like εὐδαιμονία (good spirit) and εὐάγγελος (good news, and the origin of evangelism). "Good Place" and "No Place" all in one breath--and for Thomas More it was certainly "No Place". For Thomas More, no culture on Earth could possibly sustain the kind of society described in this book.

    The setting for this story is the early sixteenth century. The followers of John Wycliffe, a dissident fourteenth century English priest, were circulating a version of the Bible translated into Middle English (the English of Chaucer) in the teeth of Catholic orthodoxy. One of the men he inspired, a Czech theologian named Jan Hus, was executed at the Council of Constance in 1415 two years before the rediscovery of the manuscript of Lucretius. Utopia was published in 1516, about 15 years before the final break with Rome over the issue (or should I say, the lack of any male issue) of Henry VIII, and while the author was a hardline Catholic who likely wanted nothing more than a thoroughgoing return of England and Europe to the Catholic faith, it was increasingly apparent that the Vatican's hold on Northern Europe was becoming tenuous at best. The church was breaking apart--Thomas More was, evidently, wistful for a solution through compromise--a solution seemingly out of reach. The solution when it finally did come was religious toleration, as expressed by John Locke in his Letter Concerning Religious Toleration in 1689;

    Two more detours; the first, a letter from Poggio Bracciolini to Niccolo Niccoli in 1417--the year Lucretius was discovered--about his experience of the Baths of the German town of Baden;

    I cite this letter merely to demonstrate that in learned circles in the Renaissance, the Epicureans were beginning to get the kind of reputation which they deserved and not one that was surreptitiously foist upon them. A reputation for enjoying innocent pleasure, not burdening oneself by fear of the future and of death, and of considering themselves rich in they enjoyment of what they have and not spoiling it by lusting for what they lack. It's not perfect, but it's not a bad start--Epicurus the inveterate glutton is falling away, and his fall reveals far more accurately (if not completely) his real nature--Epicurus the Philosopher.

    The second necessary excursion in prelude to Utopia is into the travelogues of the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci, born 1451. There are two sets of documents relating to Vespucci's voyages to the New World; the first is a letter addressed to Piero Soderini, and it was published in Florence in 1505. The second set of documents contains several letters written to the Medici family--and here's the thing; no one knows for sure if the first letter, the "Soderini Letter" was genuine or a forgery. The Soderini letter describes four voyages; the Medici letters only describe two. According the Soderini Letter, Vespucci arrived on the continents that still bear his name before Christopher Columbus! The Medici letters put him there after; no one knows for sure.

    What does matter is that these letters were enormously popular reading all over Europe. Think of how many people around the world tuned into the Apollo 11 moon landing--now imagine if instead of barren rock, Neil Armstrong had stumbled into an inhabited world thriving with strange life and strange people--people no European had ever contacted before. The discovery of the New World was without exception the most startling and mind-altering occurrence to have happened since the fall of Rome. There was stuff here, interesting stuff, that neither the Hebrews nor the Greeks had ever encountered, never written about, never left reams of advice and council on what to do with it all. When Lucretius wrote eloquently about an infinity of inhabited worlds, no one in the Renaissance could possibly have taken his words so thoroughly to heart as to imagine that that very century would put them into contact with one of these other worlds, though right here on Earth.

    So I don't know if the Soderini Letter was a clever patriotic forgery meant to secure the palm for Florence in discovering the New World--the point is that the ideas that letter contained were at the core of a momentous change in European affairs. And it is this letter, this strange, alien document, which pulls the name of Epicurus out of the mists of the far distant past and places it squarely in a hesitant and uncertain future.

    That will have to serve as part one of this story. Tomorrow we shall enter Utopia.

  • Part Two (scroll to the " :!:" for the important part)

    It is worth noting that in his own lifetime, according to scholars here and elsewhere, Thomas More was known more for his part in translating Lucian of Samosata than he was for the book now under consideration. Lucian had prepared the ground for this kind of fictional travelogue in his True Story, and More may have been looking for an opportunity to explore certain contemporary European dilemmas by an analysis akin to that in Plato's Republic. In More's work, the analysis would take the turn of satire as it does in Lucian--this is an avowedly fictional and nonsensical tall tale, related to his readers with far more than just a wink.

    First, a link to the text at Project Gutenberg;

    The Project Gutenberg eBook of Utopia, by Thomas More

    As you may observe, More begins his story by explaining that King Henry VIII sent him on a diplomatic mission to the continent which led him to the city of Antwerp in Belgium. There he fell in with a fast friend named Peter Giles, who introduced him to a weatherbeaten old traveler;


    Said [More], “I did not guess amiss, for at first sight I took him for a seaman.” “But you are much mistaken,” said [Peter], “for he has not sailed as a seaman, but as a traveller, or rather a philosopher. This Raphael, who from his family carries the name of Hythloday, is not ignorant of the Latin tongue, but is eminently learned in the Greek, having applied himself more particularly to that than to the former, because he had given himself much to philosophy, in which he knew that the Romans have left us nothing that is valuable, except what is to be found in Seneca and Cicero. He is a Portuguese by birth, and was so desirous of seeing the world, that he divided his estate among his brothers, ran the same hazard as Americus Vesputius, and bore a share in three of his four voyages that are now published; only he did not return with him in his last, but obtained leave of him, almost by force, that he might be one of those twenty-four who were left at the farthest place at which they touched in their last voyage to New Castile. The leaving him thus did not a little gratify one that was more fond of travelling than of returning home to be buried in his own country; for he used often to say, that the way to heaven was the same from all places, and he that had no grave had the heavens still over him. Yet this disposition of mind had cost him dear, if God had not been very gracious to him; for after he, with five Castalians, had travelled over many countries, at last, by strange good fortune, he got to Ceylon, and from thence to Calicut, where he, very happily, found some Portuguese ships; and, beyond all men’s expectations, returned to his native country.”

    It is, then, this Raphael Hythloday who will be our conductor to the island of Utopia--a man who sailed with Amerigo Vespucci to the New World, and remained there for several years. This is our first implicit connection with Epicurus.


    I ordered my servants to take care that none might come and interrupt us, and both Peter and I desired Raphael to be as good as his word. When he saw that we were very intent upon it he paused a little to recollect himself, and began in this manner:—

    “The island of Utopia is in the middle two hundred miles broad, and holds almost at the same breadth over a great part of it, but it grows narrower towards both ends. Its figure is not unlike a crescent. Between its horns the sea comes in eleven miles broad, and spreads itself into a great bay, which is environed with land to the compass of about five hundred miles, and is well secured from winds. In this bay there is no great current; the whole coast is, as it were, one continued harbour, which gives all that live in the island great convenience for mutual commerce.

    Let me pause there, and simply observe the description that Homer gives of the island of Pharos in the Iliad:


    “In Egypt, eager though I was to journey hither, the gods still held me back, because I offered not to them hecatombs that bring fulfillment, and the gods ever wished that men should be mindful of their commands. Now there is an island in the surging sea in front of Egypt, and men call it Pharos, distant as far as a hollow ship runs in a whole day when the shrill wind blows fair behind her. Therein is a harbor with good anchorage, whence men launch the shapely ships into the sea, when they have drawn supplies of water.

    It was this passage that led Alexander the Great to choose Pharos and the coast opposite as the site of Alexandria, the greatest city and commercial hub in the ancient world. Unlike Alexandria, Utopia after its great king was governed in a manner something like a Republic;


    “There are fifty-four cities in the island, all large and well built, the manners, customs, and laws of which are the same, and they are all contrived as near in the same manner as the ground on which they stand will allow. The nearest lie at least twenty-four miles’ distance from one another, and the most remote are not so far distant but that a man can go on foot in one day from it to that which lies next it. Every city sends three of their wisest senators once a year to Amaurot, to consult about their common concerns; for that is the chief town of the island, being situated near the centre of it, so that it is the most convenient place for their assemblies.

    Here follows a great deal about their manners and modes and life, and I will be liberally skipping over most of it. He describes that Utopians labor for only six hours a day, and by keeping their wants few (and not being asked to support idle priests, monks, and nobility) they are able to spend there time in healthful leisure and improving their minds.


    dividing the day and night into twenty-four hours, appoint six of these for work, three of which are before dinner and three after; they then sup, and at eight o’clock, counting from noon, go to bed and sleep eight hours: the rest of their time, besides that taken up in work, eating, and sleeping, is left to every man’s discretion; yet they are not to abuse that interval to luxury and idleness, but must employ it in some proper exercise, according to their various inclinations, which is, for the most part, reading. It is ordinary to have public lectures every morning before daybreak, at which none are obliged to appear but those who are marked out for literature; yet a great many, both men and women, of all ranks, go to hear lectures of one sort or other, according to their inclinations:

    The similarities between the Utopians and the monastic orders of Europe in how they spend their time is often noted by scholars. Actually, they are claimed to have managed this six hour work day by the simplicity of their societies in contrast to Europe;


    It is so far from being true that this time is not sufficient for supplying them with plenty of all things, either necessary or convenient, that it is rather too much; and this you will easily apprehend if you consider how great a part of all other nations is quite idle. First, women generally do little, who are the half of mankind; and if some few women are diligent, their husbands are idle: then consider the great company of idle priests, and of those that are called religious men; add to these all rich men, chiefly those that have estates in land, who are called noblemen and gentlemen, together with their families, made up of idle persons, that are kept more for show than use; add to these all those strong and lusty beggars that go about pretending some disease in excuse for their begging; and upon the whole account you will find that the number of those by whose labours mankind is supplied is much less than you perhaps imagined.

    Other aspects of their lives;


    They despatch their dinners quickly, but sit long at supper, because they go to work after the one, and are to sleep after the other, during which they think the stomach carries on the concoction more vigorously. They never sup without music, and there is always fruit served up after meat; while they are at table some burn perfumes and sprinkle about fragrant ointments and sweet waters—in short, they want nothing that may cheer up their spirits; they give themselves a large allowance that way, and indulge themselves in all such pleasures as are attended with no inconvenience.


    So that it is plain they must prefer iron either to gold or silver, for men can no more live without iron than without fire or water; but Nature has marked out no use for the other metals so essential as not easily to be dispensed with. The folly of men has enhanced the value of gold and silver because of their scarcity; whereas, on the contrary, it is their opinion that Nature, as an indulgent parent, has freely given us all the best things in great abundance, such as water and earth, but has laid up and hid from us the things that are vain and useless.


    They had never so much as heard of the names of any of those philosophers that are so famous in these parts of the world, before we went among them; and yet they had made the same discoveries as the Greeks, both in music, logic, arithmetic, and geometry. But as they are almost in everything equal to the ancient philosophers, so they far exceed our modern logicians for they have never yet fallen upon the barbarous niceties that our youth are forced to learn in those trifling logical schools that are among us. They are so far from minding chimeras and fantastical images made in the mind that none of them could comprehend what we meant when we talked to them of a man in the abstract as common to all men in particular (so that though we spoke of him as a thing that we could point at with our fingers, yet none of them could perceive him) and yet distinct from every one, as if he were some monstrous Colossus or giant; yet, for all this ignorance of these empty notions, they knew astronomy, and were perfectly acquainted with the motions of the heavenly bodies; and have many instruments, well contrived and divided, by which they very accurately compute the course and positions of the sun, moon, and stars. But for the cheat of divining by the stars, by their oppositions or conjunctions, it has not so much as entered into their thoughts. They have a particular sagacity, founded upon much observation, in judging of the weather, by which they know when they may look for rain, wind, or other alterations in the air; but as to the philosophy of these things, the cause of the saltness of the sea, of its ebbing and flowing, and of the original and nature both of the heavens and the earth, they dispute of them partly as our ancient philosophers have done, and partly upon some new hypothesis, in which, as they differ from them, so they do not in all things agree among themselves.

    :!: :!: :!: And here is the most important part--a discussion of the philosophy of the Utopians, of their understanding of the chief good, and of the end toward which nature persuades us in all things.

    And finally, the fatal flaw:


    [Utopus] made a solemn and severe law against such as should so far degenerate from the dignity of human nature, as to think that our souls died with our bodies, or that the world was governed by chance, without a wise overruling Providence: for they all formerly believed that there was a state of rewards and punishments to the good and bad after this life; and they now look on those that think otherwise as scarce fit to be counted men, since they degrade so noble a being as the soul, and reckon it no better than a beast’s: thus they are far from looking on such men as fit for human society, or to be citizens of a well-ordered commonwealth; since a man of such principles must needs, as oft as he dares do it, despise all their laws and customs: for there is no doubt to be made, that a man who is afraid of nothing but the law, and apprehends nothing after death, will not scruple to break through all the laws of his country, either by fraud or force, when by this means he may satisfy his appetites.

    Utopia is far from perfect in it's treatment of Epicureanism, but it has gone some way. The author's motives in writing this book are hotly contested still today, and yet as resource for understanding the reception of Epicureanism in England we would be hard pressed to find much better. His anticipation of a socialist state in Utopia foreshadows the coming of English Utilitarianism and also of Karl Marx, who wrote his dissertation on Epicurus.

    An maybe the most important takeaway is that Epicurus was none of these things. If we wish to understand how we should go about reviving Epicurean Philosophy, we cannot escape the necessity of trying to understand where previous efforts have failed. And that conversation starts with Thomas More.

  • I should also use this occasion to recommend The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, which touches on not only Thomas More but Lorenzo Valla, Michael Marullus, Montaigne, Thomas Jefferson, Gassendi, Giordano Bruno, and many many others. The controversy surrounding the book is in my opinion frequently absurd, generally overblown, and it comes to us from the kind of people who out of one side of their mouths praise the Medieval period as one of great learning and humanity, and who out of the other side heap accolades on men like Thomas Aquinas (who advocated murdering heretics), and who downplay the sanguinary history of Christianity as it concerns the Inquisition, the Witch-hunts, the Crusades, and much more besides.

    I personally prefer the audiobook, expertly read by Edoardo Ballerini and available on Audible--and I can say honestly that I return to it often and always with delight.

  • Thank you for all that information Joshua! It seems clear now that More definitely provides us a good example of the issues involved in mixing incompatible views.

    Unfortunately we have lots of those examples to choose from and too few of the Frances Wright variety who in the main stuck to Epicurus.

    While some of what More is saying could possibly be described as Platonic or Aristotelian friendliness to some amount of pleasure, sounds like he is clearly aware of the Stoic hostility to the word and his utopians would clearly fail any test of Stoicism.

    Again thanks for all those cites.