Summary and Analysis
Book II: The Discourse on Utopia: Philosophy
The learned men of Utopia are given to disputing over various questions of moral philosophy, but their chief concern is in trying to determine the source and nature of happiness. The prevailing opinion among them is that pleasure is the basis of that happiness.
They seldom engage in philosophical discussions without introducing religious considerations into their speculations. One of the beliefs at the heart of their religion is that man's soul is immortal and that it is subject to the punishments of hell for vicious acts and to the rewards of heaven for a life of virtue. A definition of virtue that is commonly accepted among their philosophers is living according to the laws of nature. Reason serves as a guide toward the goal of conformity to nature's rule. It is reason, they say, that counsels first of all a reverence for Divine Majesty, and next that we keep our minds free from passion. Finally, reason directs that we strive to promote the happiness of all persons. Though nature prompts people to seek pleasure as a goal of life, it also sets limits to that purpose, namely in the avoidance of acts depriving others of their pleasures. Furthermore, they believe that to deprive oneself of pleasure for the benefit of others' pleasure produces a satisfaction constituting a new kind of pleasure, a pleasure of the mind.
Every action or condition, whether of body or of mind, which nature provides for our delight is defined as pleasure, but to distinguish between true and false pleasures, we call upon reason. Among false pleasures, in their opinion, are pride in fine clothes, pride in "nobility" of lineage, and pride in property and jewels. They also regard hunting as a false pleasure and, likewise, games of chance.
Among the true pleasures, they recognize first simple sensory or bodily pleasures — eating, drinking, and performing the act of love as being sanctioned by nature. These actions, necessary for the preservation or propagation of life, are ordained by providence to be pleasurable. To those sensory pleasures may be added music, which makes its appeal to both body and mind. They also add to the list of true pleasures the sense of well-being and those high spirits that derive from good health.
Bodily pleasures are valued only to the extent to which they fulfill necessities; ". . . yet they rejoice in them, and with due gratitude acknowledge the tenderness of the great Author of Nature, who has planted in us appetites, by which those things that are necessary for our preservation are likewise made pleasant to us."
The pleasures of the mind are held in higher esteem than those of the body. They show themselves eager in their pursuit of knowledge in almost every field. Hythloday and his companions taught some of their good scholars to read Greek, in which study they proved very apt; when Hythloday's party left the country, he gave the Utopians the books he had with him, much to their delight. These were works of Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Plutarch, Herodotus, Thucydides, Hippocrates, and Galen.
The Utopians are especially studious in matters of health and medicine, even though as a race they are exceptionally healthy. It is their belief that God approves of those who inquire into and admire the complexities of His creation.
Hythloday and his friends taught the Utopians to make paper and introduced them to the techniques of printing, which they soon mastered so that they began producing copies of the books they had on a very considerable scale.
The ideas presented in this philosophical discussion raise an interesting question. Do they express opinions held by More? Critics differ in their responses to the problem. Hythloday indicates at the opening of the passage that these are views supported by some of their philosophers; but as the discussion progresses, he no longer refers to some thinkers and thus gives the impression that they are beliefs commonly held by Utopians. Clearly, Hythloday himself is in sympathy with those doctrines.
If we are to ascribe this philosophy to More, we must acknowledge that it is More the humanist, not More the strict Christian, who is speaking. The heart of this philosophy, though not necessarily anti-Christian, is predominantly Greek, hence pagan. "The chief aim of life is pleasure," they say. That bare statement, taken alone, sounds like pure hedonism or epicureanism. A further reading in the text reveals qualifications of that blunt assertion, making the doctrine more respectable — that is, avoiding depriving others of their pleasure in trying to gratify your own, and prizing the pleasures of the mind above those of the body. A more satisfactory label for this philosophy might be "naturalism." Tune your life to conform to the dictates of nature, which manifests God's plan. The corollary to that injunction is to receive joyously those experiences which nature has determined to be both necessary and pleasurable, whether at table or in bed, at a concert, or reading Greek.
It is interesting to note that Montaigne, who espoused the naturalistic position almost a century later, expressed these same sentiments in almost identical phrasing in his essay "Of Experience." Actually the views presented here were widely circulated among intellectuals during the Renaissance, whether or not they were More's.
Another Renaissance attitude attributed to the Utopians by Hythloday was that inquiries into the secrets of nature, in matters of anatomy and medicine, for example, were permissible since they could be beneficial to mankind and also could lead to a greater appreciation of the complexities of God's creation.
The inclusion of the long list of Greek authors whose books Hythloday gave to his hosts serves as an example of the enthusiasm of the age for classical culture. Altogether, this section of the book stamps it as a representative product of the Renaissance. Even the mention of introducing the Utopians to the craft of printing conveys something of the sense of pride in the achievements of the age. Remember that printing was a fairly recent invention, scarcely 50 years old, and that it was still in its infancy in England when Utopia was written.