Summary and Analysis
Book II: The Discourse on Utopia:
More's Concluding Observation
After Hythloday has ended his long discourse on the Utopian commonwealth, More offers some final observations, not to Hythloday and Peter Giles as part of their discussion but as author to reader. He says that many things in Hythloday's report seemed strange to him, even absurd; for example, the customs, the methods of warfare, the religion, but especially their arrangement of communal living without the exchange of money. These aspects of their system eliminate any recognition of nobility, any show of magnificence, splendor, and majesty — features of civilized society which are, according to common opinion, the true glory and ornaments of the commonwealth.
More tells us that he realized Hythloday was weary after his lengthy discussion, and so he thought it best not to raise any new questions or to engage in an argument with him at that time. He merely offered a few words of praise for the way of life described and said that he would like to talk further on the subject at a later time.
The author's final remark to the reader is to the effect that he could not agree with everything that Hythloday had related; "however, there are many things in the Commonwealth of Utopia that I rather wish, than hope, to see followed in our government."
This final statement by More presents a puzzle that has led to a major controversy over whether or not he subscribed to the plan for a society such as he had described in the book. Those who believe that the scheme of Utopia does not represent More's serious philosophy theorize that in describing that fictitious country and its government he was merely letting his fancy range through some uncharted regions of his mind. They have his explicit statement to support their interpretation: ". . . many things occurred to me, both concerning the manners and the laws of that people, that seemed very absurd. . ." They can also point to More's later career, in which he played an energetic role in the less-than-perfect government of Henry VIII, plus the fact that his allegiance to the Roman Catholic church was so firm that he faced a martyr's death.
The opposing school of critics supports the interpretation that More was in large measure serious about the Utopian plan. They doubt that an author would devote an entire book to a proposition that he regarded as absurd. The radical concept of utopists, it may be recalled, was that to create a design for an ideal society, one must discard the existing one and start afresh. It is true that More, as a practical man, was willing to serve an imperfect society, hoping to effect some improvements, since he realized full well that it could not be abruptly overhauled. Time after time, throughout the book, comparisons are drawn between Utopia and Europe, always at the expense of Europe and its "Christian nations," a fact that indicates his admiration for a good deal in the Utopian plan.
If one is to accept this interpretation, he has to find some way of reading the final statement by More himself, labeling many things in the Utopian scheme as absurd. It would involve a claim that this passage is not to be taken literally, that the author, for purpose of irony, was assuming the role of a reactionary who is incapable of considering any manner of change with an open mind. That is the kind of ploy often adopted by Swift. It is hard to believe that More was wholly serious in his objection to ". . . their living in common, without the use of money, by which all nobility, magnificence, splendor, and majesty, which according to the common opinion, are the true ornaments of a nation, would be taken away . . ." Surely this is meant ironically.
In the last sentence of the book there is a summation which seems to ring true. What it says in essence is that he would like to see many, though not all, of those practices adopted in Europe but that he has little hope of that happening.