In 1561 Thomas Morus (Sir Thomas More) published his famous book De optimo rei publicae
statu deque nova insula Utopia. In it he gives a description of the best of all possible states,
whose people enjoy perfection in government, law, and social life on an imaginary island. Life
is governed entirely by reason. The word Utopia, derived from the Greek not+place,
was coined by Thomas More. His book has given rise to a number of speculative writings that seek
to describe the optimal form of human society. The following text is a translation from the
original into modern American English in 1964.
But now, it seems, I must explain the behaviour of the citizens toward one another, the nature
of their social relations, and the method of distribution of goods. Since the city consists of
households*, households as a rule are made up of those related by blood. Girls, upon reaching womanhood
and upon being settled in marriage, go to their husbands' domiciles. On the other hand, male
children and then grandchildren remain in the family and are subject to the oldest parent,
unless he has become a dotard (i.e. person weak of mind) with old age. In the latter case
the next oldest is put in his place.
But that the city neither be depopulated nor grow beyond measure, provision is made that no
household shall have fewer than ten or more than sixteen adults; there are six thousand such
households in each city, apart from its surrounding territory. Of children under age (i.e. 22 for men,
18 for women), of course, no number can be fixed. This limit is easily observed by transferring
those who exceed the number in larger families into those that are under the prescribed
number. Whenever all the families of a city reach their full quota, the adults in excess of that number
help to make up the deficient population of other cities.
And if the population throughout the island should happen to swell above the fixed quotas,
they enroll citizens out of every city and, on the mainland nearest them, wherever the natives
have much unoccupied and uncultivated land, they found a colony under their own laws. They join with themselves
the natives if they are willing to dwell with them. When such a union takes place, the two parties
gradually and easily merge and together absorb the same way of life and the same customs,
much to the great advantage of both peoples. By their procedures they make the land sufficient for
both, which previously seemed poor and barren to the natives. The inhabitants who refuse to live according
to their laws, they drive from the territory which they carve out for themselves. If they
resist, they wage war against them. They consider it a most just cause for war when a people
which does not use its soil but keeps it idle and waste nevertheless forbids the use and possession
of it to others who by rule of nature ought to be maintained by it.
If ever any misfortune so diminishes the number in any of their cities that it cannot be made up out
of other parts of the island without bringing other cities below their proper strength (this
has happened, they say, only twice in all the ages on account of the raging of a fierce pestilence),
they are filled up by citizens returning from colonial territory. They would rather that the colonies should
perish than that any of the cities of the island should be enfeebled. (c. 510 words)
* The emphasis on the family as the foundation of the state marks a radical difference between
Utopia and Plato's Republic.
Source from: Sir Thomas More, Utopia (1518), ed. E.Surtz, London, 1964
1. What different social groups or units are there in the state?
2. What value is ultimately attached to the possession and settlement of colonial territory?
3. Compare family life today with Thomas More's view of an ideal family. Take into account recent
ideas and practices. What is your personal opinion?
4. In More's view the marriageable age for men is 22, for women 18. Do you share his view? Investigate
the pros and cons.
5. Do you think that Thomas More's solutions to the problem of overpopulation can be applied
today? Give reasons.
6. Why do you think Thomas More outlined his views of an ideal state in the form of a 'Utopia'?