New World Fantasies
Digital History ID 54
Sir Thomas More
The European voyages of discovery of the late fifteenth century played a critical role in the development of modern conceptions of progress. From the ancient Greeks onward, western culture tended to emphasize certain unchanging and universal ideas about human society. But the discovery of the New World threw many supposedly universal ideals into doubt. The Indians, who seemingly lived free from all the traditional constraints of civilized life--such as private property or family bonds--offered a vehicle for criticizing the corruptions, abuses, and restrictions of European society.
In 1516 the English humanist Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) published Utopia, his description of an ideal society where crime, injustice, and poverty did not exist. Writing just twenty-four years after Columbus's first voyage to the Caribbean, More located his perfect society in the Western Hemisphere. More's book, which is written in the form of a dialogue, pointedly contrasts the simplicity of life in Utopia with contemporary Europe's class divisions. In Utopia, property is held in common, gold is scorned, and all inhabitants eat the same food and wear the same clothes. And yet several features of More's Utopia strike a jarring note. For one thing, his book justifies taking land from the indigenous people because, in European eyes, they did not cultivate it. And secondly, the prosperity and well-being of More's ideal society ultimately rests on slave labor.
....When I consider with myself and weigh in my mind the wise and godly ordinances of the Utopians, among whom with very few laws all things be so well and wealthily ordered, that virtue is had in price and estimation, and yet, all things being there common, every man hath abundance of everything.
....No household or farm in the country hath fewer than forty persons, men and women, besides two bondmen, which be all under the rule and order of the good man, and the good wife of the house, being both very sage and discreet persons.... For they dividing the day and the night into twenty-four hours, appoint and assign only six of those hours to work....
In this hall all vile service, all slavery, and drudgery, with all laboursome toil and business, is done by bondmen....
Source: The Utopia of Sir Thomas More. Translated by Ralph Robinson with an introduction and notes by H.B. Cotterill. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1908, Second Book, pp. 67, 75, 79-80, 83-84.
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