Utopia: Novel Summary: Book II – Of their slaves, and of their marriages

Slavery exists in Utopia, but the slaves are prisoners of war taken in battle or criminals, who are sentenced to slavery. Some are criminals who have been sentenced to death in other countries and who are bought by Utopian merchants. Other slaves are the poor of other countries, who prefer the life of a slave in Utopia to that of a pauper in their own country.
Terminally ill people are encouraged by the priests and magistrates to choose euthanasia. If they agree, they starve themselves to death or take a lethal dose of opium. If they do not agree, they are well looked after. Suicide without the approval of the priests and Senate is disapproved of, and people who commit suicide are denied a dignified funeral and cast into a ditch.
Women are not allowed to marry before they are eighteen, and men before twenty-two. Pre-marital sex is severely punished, but a man and woman who intend to marry are allowed to see each other naked before committing themselves. Divorce is allowed in cases of adultery or “insufferable perverseness,” but is forbidden in cases where one partner becomes ill. Adulterers are condemned to slavery.
The death penalty is used only for slaves who persist in rebelling against the work they have been set. Slavery is thought to be the best punishment even for the most serious crimes, since the labor done by slaves is of more benefit to the state than their death would be. Criminals who genuinely repent may have their sentences shortened or be restored to liberty by the Prince.
The Prince is not distinguished from other men from his dress, but by a sheaf of corn being carried before him.
Utopia has few laws, partly because they have a strong constitution, and there are no lawyers. Utopians believe that every citizen should know and understand the laws. Everyone accused of a crime pleads his own cause before the judge.
Some of the neighboring countries have asked for Utopian magistrates to govern them. Because these men will soon return to Utopia, where there is no use for money, they cannot be bribed.
Utopians never enter into treaties with other countries, since if humanitarian principles fail to bind men together, treaties will have no effect. They are confirmed in this view by the widespread deceits and abuses surrounding treaties in other societies. In other societies, too, there is a double standard of justice: one that belongs to the lower classes, who must remain bound by the restraints imposed on them; and another that applies to princes, who measure what is lawful only by what is in their interest. Such nations believe that they have a right to harm other countries provided that no treaty specifically forbids it. Utopians, in contrast, believe that no man is an enemy if he has never injured them.
Slavery is perhaps the most controversial element of Utopian society. However, it must be considered in the context that Utopian slaves are criminals who in other societies would have been put to death or left to rot in prison, often in inhumane conditions. Thomas More points out that poor people from other countries volunteer to be slaves in Utopia as it offers them a better life than they would have at home. This is a severe criticism of the desperate conditions in which many poor people lived in his time. Another factor to be taken into consideration in judging Utopian slavery is the common practice in modern democratic countries of putting prisoners to work in penal labor schemes. Whether such schemes help to rehabilitate the prisoners or are a form of institutionalized abuse must depend largely on the conditions of labor. In Utopia, these are demanding but not harsh. Like modern prisoners in many countries, Utopian slaves can have their sentences shortened or ended through good behavior.
This section satirizes the widespread abuse of treaties in sixteenth-century Europe. Thomas More, through Hythloday, notes that the Utopians “think leagues [treaties] are useless things, and believe that if the common ties of humanity do not knit men together, the faith of promises will have no great effect .”
The author, who was himself a lawyer, also attacks the complexity and inequity of European laws by drawing a contrast with those of Utopia. Lawyers do not exist in Utopia, since the laws are few and easy to understand, and everyone defends himself in court. This is as radical an idea now as it was in Thomas Mores time. It is clearly in the interest of the common people rather than that of the powerful rulers and the wealthy, who can afford the cleverest lawyers.
Another radical suggestion for Thomas Mores time is that people intending to marry one another can inspect each other naked first. While modern couples in the West would expect to do this and more, to ensure they were making a sound choice, it would have been thought scandalous in sixteenth-century England. Then, as Thomas More points out, people were expected to choose a mate for life based on seeing a few square inches of face, the only uncovered part.
Utopian divorce laws may seem harsh to the modern reader, since in Utopia, divorce is only available for adultery or insufferable behavior. But this is a much more lenient arrangement than was available to the ordinary person in Thomas Mores time, when divorce was virtually impossible unless you were royalty; even then, it needed the Popes permission. It was not until the nineteenth century that divorce became more widely available, though it was still difficult to accomplish. Moreover, divorce carried a strong social stigma until the middle of the twentieth century, whereas in Utopia, a stigma only attaches to those guilty of adultery and not to the injured party.
Thomas Mores suggestion of euthanasia for the terminally ill was remarkable for his time: religious edicts condemning suicide as a sin made no exceptions for terminal illnesses. Today, euthanasia remains a controversial topic.