Utopia: Novel Summary: Book II – Of the traveling of the Utopians

Book II – Of the traveling of the UtopiansSummary
If a Utopian wants to visit friends in another town, he can obtain a passport for travel from the Syphogrant and Tranibors, provided that he is not needed for work in his own town. If he stays in any place longer than a night, he has to practice his trade there.
At the council in Amaurot, the Utopians work out which towns have surpluses of certain goods and which have shortages, and distribute the goods according to need. They store enough goods for two years in case of unforeseen shortages, and export the rest. They stipulate that a seventh part of the exported goods must be given free to the poor of the importing country. Utopia is mostly self-sufficient, and imports only iron. All the gold and silver that foreign countries pay to the Utopians for their exported goods is put into a treasury and used either to loan to needy countries or to pay mercenaries in the event of war. Because money is of no use in Utopia, they do not value it any more than it deserves. They prefer iron to gold and silver, as it is more useful.
To ensure that the Utopians are not seduced by the attractions of gold and silver, they make their eating and drinking vessels from glass and earthenware, and their chamber pots and chains for slaves from gold and silver. If they find pearls or precious gems among their rocks, they give them to their children. Hence gems are thought of as childish playthings that one grows out of.
Once, ambassadors came to Utopia from a distant country, adorned with silk, gold and gems because they were unaware that these are despised by the Utopians. To the Utopians, these things are the badges of slavery or childhood. Thus the most richly dressed of the party attracted only ridicule from the children and the same lack of respect from the adults that would be due to slaves. The Utopians cannot understand why in other countries, a man of bad character is esteemed and courted simply because he has a large stock of gold.
All Utopians, even those who are not market out for intellectual pursuits, are taught to spend their leisure hours in reading. Utopians have independently made the same discoveries as the ancient Greeks in music, logic, arithmetic, and geometry. They are knowledgeable about astronomy, but they do not believe in astrology. They have no concept of the abstract speculations that the young men of Europe are expected to study.
With regard to philosophical debate, they are most interested in the question of what constitutes happiness, and believe that pleasure is at its root. They base their arguments on religious principles. Though not Christians, they believe that the soul of man is immortal and that God intended it to be happy, and that God therefore rewards virtuous behavior and punishes vice in the afterlife. They do not pursue pleasures that result in pain or which hurt others, but only those that are honest. They define virtue as living in accord with the laws of nature, and believe that the best guide in living thus is their reason. They believe that the first thing that reason teaches is love for God, who is the source of all that they have. Nature, in the form of our bodies and minds, prompts people to seek pleasure, and this is a good thing as long as those pleasures are not obtained at the expense of anyone elses pleasure. People are encouraged to put the good of others before their own, since the knowledge that they have done a good action, and the reward that will come to them when the favor is returned, will contribute greatly to their own pleasure. They look upon those delights which men mistakenly call pleasures as obstructions to happiness.
These include fine and rich clothing. Utopians do not believe that anyone deserves respect just because they are wearing fine clothes or gemstones. In Utopia, everyone wears the same clothes and no one cares for gems. They do not bow or take their hats off to other people, as such gestures of respect mean nothing. They reject the notion of nobility based on the idea that one is descended from people who have had great wealth for many generations. Similarly, they think it foolish to accumulate wealth and not put it to use. Other pastimes that Utopians do not see the point of are games of dice, and blood sports, which they think cruel. They believe in killing animals only when necessary.
The Utopians think that all these activities are not true pleasures, but rather that they tickle the senses of people whose tastes have become corrupted by bad habits.
Those things that the Utopians believe to be true pleasures include knowledge, satisfying the needs of the body by eating or drinking, music, and good health. Health is seen as the most important pleasure because without it, it is difficult to enjoy any other pleasure. They disapprove of fasting and other austere practices that weaken the body, as it is cruel to oneself.
The Utopians are healthy because of their moderate lifestyle. They are also experts in improving poor soil by application of manure. They plant woods for timber close to their towns or next to rivers to avoid the problem of transporting the wood overland.
Because they love learning, the Utopians were eager to hear about ancient Greek civilization from Hythloday. They also learned the ancient Greek language and were delighted with the Greek books that Hythloday left with them. Hythlodays party was able to teach them something of the skill of paper making and printing; before this, they did not have books.
A country where money does not exist, where no one bothers to distinguish himself with fine clothes or gems, and where no man bows to another, may be seen as uniform, restrictive, and grimly communistic by some modern readers, but as liberating by others. In Thomas Mores time, money and finery determined a persons class. The class system in turn was rigid. It defined many aspects of a persons life, such as with whom he socialized, whom he married, the clothes he wore, the leisure pursuits he followed, the education and trades that were open to him, and the level of respect he commanded from others. The class system could even be a matter of life or death, when starvation and poverty threatened a large section of the laboring classes. It is understandable therefore that the Utopian concept of doing away with the outward marks of rank and the concept of hereditary nobility would have been welcomed by many people of Thomas Mores society and seen as dangerously radical by the ruling class.
Some modern readers may be shocked by the idea that Utopians have to obtain official permission for travel, just as people did in Tsarist (pre-revolutionary) and Soviet Russia, and that if they spend more than one night away from home, they have to work. However, these restrictions are balanced by the shorter Utopian working day (which leaves people with far more free time than most people in affluent nations enjoy today) and the absence of any incentive to overwork.
The Utopians enjoyment of healthy and educational life habits such as music and reading, and their total lack of interest in vices like gambling and getting drunk, raises the question to what extent their enlightened society could work in the real world. The lifestyle of the Utopians, with its emphasis on improving and honest activities, has much in common with the monastic lifestyle. Indeed, Thomas More himself lived in a monastery for some years after graduating from university and seemed to be attracted to the lifestyle. But many people lack the self-discipline of the monk or nun, or the quiet tastes of the intellectual. They might prefer a drunken revel to a quiet evening of reading. This raises the question: how can people be taught to be good Utopians? Thomas More places his faith in the excellence of the Utopian education system, which emphasizes moral as much as intellectual development, to produce citizens with values that uphold the Utopian quality of life. How effective this would be in our society is open to debate. It has never been tried in a systematic manner outside of a few specialist schools, and even then, the values taught have may not have been supported by society as a whole.
The author gives an example of moral education in showing how the Utopians create a culture in which the vanity of precious metals and gems are despised. They use psychological conditioning, making chamber pots and slave chains out of gold and silver, and giving gems to children as playthings in the knowledge that they will be tossed aside as the child grows up. For such conditioning to work, however, it would need to be consistent across the whole of society, demanding a cohesion of purpose that is hard to imagine in todays society. Again, such cohesion is common in monastic communities that are united by a common ideal – but people with the natural inclinations of the monk are rare. It is fair to ask how practical Thomas More believed the Utopian ideals were in society as it was, and is. His naming of his ideal state after the Greek for “no place” indirectly answers this question. It is probable that he himself would have preferred to live in such a society, but he was aware, as Hythloday points out in Book I, that most of mankind is inclined in a completely opposite direction.
Thomas More is extraordinarily far ahead of his time in making the Utopians disapprove of blood sports. Such sports as bear baiting and cock fighting were popular among all classes in his day, and hunting on horseback with dogs or birds of prey was a favorite pursuit of royalty, the aristocracy, and the gentry. Only since the mid-1800s have some governments begun to ban certain blood sports on animal welfare grounds.
Some critics have speculated as to the significance of the fact that the Utopians are not Christians, especially given that Thomas More was a devout Catholic who was martyred for his refusal to bend his religious beliefs in line with the newly emerging Protestantism. However, the Utopians believe in God and make all their decisions with reference to that belief; they think that God means them to be happy; and they think that he has planted appetites in man for good and healthy things in order to guide him to live happily. It may be that Thomas More was making a satirical point in showing how, through the exercise of reason but without the benefit of Christianity, the Utopians manage to live their lives in tune with God, whereas contemporary European society, while nominally Christian, was characterized by greed, vanity, and corruption.
Another important aspect of Utopian belief is that its rationality and foundation in the best aspects of human nature mean that all Utopians agree on the basis of their faith. Thomas More pointedly remarks, through his mouthpiece Hythloday, that they do not argue amongst themselves about the abstractions that occupied the intellectuals of his day. The implication is that he believed such arguments to be a waste of time. His life and writings testify to his conviction of the value of religious unity in creating a politically stable state. Thus it is arguable that the exact religious denomination of the Utopians mattered less to him than the fact that they agreed on a rational faith in God that fostered their happiness. It should be remembered that Thomas More was a humanist who, with his friend, the Dutch scholar Erasmus (c. 1466-1536), believed that the Bible and Church Fathers benefited from being interpreted in the light of the classical Greek philosophers and writers – who, being pre-Christian, were pagan. Humanists led the revival of Greek and Roman philosophy and literature. They questioned tradition and gave priority to reason and human dignity in suggesting political and religious reforms.