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Sir Thomas More's Utopia

Like his counterpart Erasmus of Rotterdam, Sir Thomas More became a significant humanist philosopher. His fictional Utopia, published in Latin, depicted a perfect government that promoted harmony and hierarchical order. However, his description could be construed as a polemical attack on the existing governments. More’s defense of Roman Catholicism later led to his execution on the orders of England’s King Henry VIII, who had broken away from the church. Jefferson also owned the 1743 English-language edition of Utopia, printed in Glasgow by Robert Foulis.

Sir Thomas More (1478–1535)
De optimo reipublicae statu deque nova insula Utopia libri duo. . . . Cologne: Arnold Birckmann, 1555.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
(S. 2336) (36)

Trans. David S. Sullivan, Classics Librarian, University of California, at Berkeley

Of Their Trades - Pages 95-103

Page 95


The one art that is known to all, men and women alike, is agriculture, of which none is ignorant. All are trained in it from childhood, partly in school according to traditional precepts, and partly in fields neighboring the city; they learn it as though it were a game, not just by observation, but with their own physical labor. Aside from agriculture (which, as I have said, is common to all), each person according to choice takes up a particular art, the manufacture of wool or flax, masonry, blacksmithing, or carpentry. And there are no other trades that are in great repute among them. The fashion of their clothing is the same throughout the island, except that the sexes are distinguished by different styles, and also the unmarried from the married. It never varies by season, and is both attractive and adaptable to movements of the body; likewise, it is appropriate to both cold and warm weather. Each family makes it own clothes, but everyone learns one of the other trades, not only the men, but also women.

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Page 96

However, women, being weaker, deal in wool and flax, while the more laborious trades are given to men. Generally, each person is trained in the family business, as this is their natural inclination. But if a person’s talent lies in another direction, he is adopted into a family who practice the trade where his interests tend, care being taken not only by his own father, but also by the magistrates, that he be adopted into the family of a discreet and honest man. If, after someone has mastered one trade, he desires to learn another, this is allowed, according to the same procedure as before. When he has learned both, he practices whichever he prefers, unless the state needs one more than the other.

The chief, and practically the only business of the Syphogrants [elected magistrates] is to take care to insure that no one sits around idly, but that each tackles his chosen trade diligently, yet is not exhausted by constant labor from morning to night, like a beast of burden. That would be a hardship even worse than slavery (though it is the life of laborers everywhere except among the Utopians). They divide the day into twenty-four equal hours, and assign only six to work, three before mid-day, when they take their meal.

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Page 97

Then, after two hours of rest, and three given to work, they close the day with supper. Counting from noon, they go to bed at the eighth hour, and devote eight hours to sleep. The rest of their time, besides that taken up in work, eating and sleeping, is left to each person’s discretion. However it should not be wasted on luxury or sloth: freed from work, time should be directed to study of some kind. Most devote these intervals to reading. It is their custom to have public lectures everyday before dawn. Only those who have been expressly chosen for the study of literature are obliged to attend, but great crowds of both men and women gather to hear lectures of one kind or another, according to their inclinations. But if any prefer to spend this time at their trade, which many (whose minds do not aspire to the contemplation of any branch of learning) do they are certainly not prohibited from this, but rather praised as useful servants of the commonwealth. After supper, they pass one hour at leisure, during the summer in their gardens, in winter in the halls

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Page 98

where they take their meals in common, entertaining each other with music or conversation. They have never even heard of dice or any of that kind of foolish and mischievous games. They do, though, play two games similar to chess. One is a fight between two teams in which one robs the other. In the other, the battle lines are drawn up for the conflict between the vices and the virtues. In this game the dissent among the vices themselves and their unity against the virtues is elegantly represented, along with the special opposition between particular virtues and vices, as well as the methods by which vice either openly assaults or secretly undermines virtue; and how one or the other party attains victory.

But here we must inquire more closely into one matter, lest you misunderstand. Namely, since only six hours are allotted to work, it might happen that a scarcity of the necessities of life could ensue. So far is this from being the case, that this amount of time suffices not only to produce an ample supply of everything needed for the necessities and conveniences of life; it is more than enough.

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Page 99

And you will readily understand this, if you consider how great a part of the people in other countries passes the time completely idle. First, there are practically all women, fully half of the total; and wherever women are engaged in business, usually the men snore away their days in their place. Add to the women, that great and lazy crowd of priests and—as they are called—men of religion! Add all the rich men, especially those that lord over estates, who are commonly called nobles and gentlemen. Join to this sum their hangers-on, that sewer of esquires and wastrels! Join to these all those hale and hearty beggars, making some disease or other the excuse for their laziness! You will find them many fewer than you might have thought, those by whose labors all things are supplied for men’s use. Now consider how few of even these are employed in necessary labor. Indeed, where we measure everything by money, it surely must be the case that many trades are practiced that are futile and superfluous, servants only of luxury and lust. For if all the mass of those who work were devoted to those few trades that are needed for the requirements of nature, there would be such an abundance of necessities,

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Page 100

that their prices would sink so low that tradesmen could not live on their gains. And if all those who now are employed in useless trades, and the whole rabble who languish away in sloth and idleness (every one of whom consumes as much as any two men that are at work) were forced to do useful labor, you can easily see how little time would be needed to supply everything demanded by the rule of either necessity or comfort—and even for pleasure, that is for real and natural pleasure—in abundance and even excess. The very facts make this obvious in Utopia, for there, in the whole city and the territory surrounding it, scarcely five hundred out of the whole number of men and women whose age and strength permit are exempted from labor. Among these are the Syphogrants, who, even though the laws release them from labor, do not excuse themselves, to offer by example to the others an invitation to toil. The same immunity is enjoyed by those whom the people, persuaded by the recommendation of the priests, and by the secret votes of the Syphogrants, grant permanent immunity from labor to apply themselves wholly to study.

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Page 101

But if one of these fails to fulfill those hopes that were first conceived for them, he is thrust back into the ranks of laborers. The opposite case occurs frequently, when a laborer applies his leisure hours so intently to study, and makes considerable progress through his diligence, that he is advanced into the class of scholars, exempted from his trade. From the order of scholars they choose their ambassadors, priests, Tranibors [high elected officials], and even the prince himself, whom they originally called in their language Barzanes, but who is now known as the “Ademus.”

As to all the rest of the populace, since it is neither idle, nor occupied by useless work, it is easy to imagine how much good (in addition to what I have mentioned) they accomplish in a few hours. And there is this additional efficiency, that in most necessary trades they exert less effort than other nations. As one example, consider the erection and the repair of dwellings. Everywhere else, this requires the assiduous work of many: what a father has built, a thriftless heir allows to fall gradually into decay, so that what could have been preserved at a minimal cost must be restored anew at great expense by his successor. Indeed, it often happens that one man has built a house with a great outlay of money, and then another, of a more refined taste

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Page 102

despises it, and when, after a period of neglect it is on the verge of ruin, erects another elsewhere at no less cost. But among the Utopians, all things are so regulated, and the commonwealth so constituted, it happens very rarely that a new lot is selected for locating houses; not only are current damages promptly remedied, but those in the future are guarded against. The result is that their buildings last for an extremely long time, with the least amount of work. And so those in the building trade often have scarcely anything to do, unless it is to hew timber in their homes and square up and fit blocks of stone so that, if the need arises, a new building may be quickly raised. As to their clothes, observe how little effort they expend: first, when they are working, they are clad casually in leather and skins, which last for seven years. When they appear in public, they put on an over mantle, a garment that covers the rougher clothing beneath it. Throughout the island, it is the same color, namely the natural one of the cloth. Thus, not only does much less woolen cloth suffice for them than elsewhere, but it is much less expensive. And since linen requires less work to weave, it is worn more commonly. And in linen, they regard only its whiteness, and in wool, only its cleanliness,

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Page 103

putting no value on the fineness of the thread. And so, while elsewhere four or five woolen shirts in different colors, and an equal number of silk vests barely suffice (and for the more refined, not even ten!), in Utopia every man is happy to have one, which usually lasts for two years. Nor is there any reason for him to desire more, since if he got them he would neither be more protected from the cold, nor would he seem a bit more neatly dressed. And so, because they are all employed in some useful trade, and because they content themselves with fewer things, you will not be surprised to learn that, because there is an abundant supply of every kind of goods, they send out an immense crowd to repair the public roads (if they happen to be worn out). But more often, when there is no occasion for any works of this kind, they publicly announce a cutback in working hours. For the magistrates never exercise the citizens against their will in superfluous toil, because the sole aim of the constitution of this commonwealth (insofar as public necessities permit) is to preserve for every citizen the utmost freedom from bodily servitude for the cultivation of the mind, in which they consider the happiness of life consists.

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Of Their Trade and Commerce - Pages 104 to 112

Page 104


But now I think it is time to explain the mutual intercourse of the citizens, their commerce, and the regulations by which all property is distributed among them. Just as each of their cities is composed of households, so each household is made up (for the most part) of near relatives. Women, once they have matured, leave home to settle in the houses of their husbands. But males, children and grandchildren alike, remain in the household, in obedience to the oldest of their relatives, unless age has weakened his mind. In that case, the next in age takes his place. Precautions are taken lest any city either becomes unpopulated or grows beyond its proper bounds, to wit: no household (of which there are six thousand per city, not counting the countryside) may have fewer than ten, nor more than sixteen adult members. But no definite limit can be set on the number of children under age. This rule is easily maintained by reassigning to less numerous households those who grow up in more numerous ones. And if it chances that the whole city is more populous than proper, they use the excess to mend the depopulation of other cities. But if throughout the whole island

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Page 105

the population swells more greatly than is right, drawing citizens from each city, they plant a colony under their own laws on the neighboring mainland, wherever arable land is far in excess of the native population, and lies fallow, asking the natives of the land to join them, if they wish to live together with them. And where the natives join them willingly under the same constitution and the same customs, they easily grow together, and this is a benefit to both peoples. For the Utopians, under their institutions, cause the land to be sufficiently abundant for both peoples, even if for one or the other it might have seemed either too small or barren. But if the natives refuse to live in conformity to the Utopians’ laws, they drive them out of the boundaries they have set for themselves. If the natives fight back, they wage war against them and put them to flight. For they consider it a very just cause for war when any people hinders others from possessing a part of their land of which they make no use, but rather let lie idle and uncultivated, because every man has, by a decree of nature, the right to nourish himself from it. If some misfortune has so diminished any of their cities that it cannot be restored by an influx of citizens from other parts of the island (preserving the just measure of the other cities)—this has happened only twice in all time, when savage plagues struck—it is replenished by recalling citizens from the colonies. For they will rather allow the colonies to perish, than

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Page 106

let any of the cities of the island to be depopulated.

But let me return to their manner of civil life. The oldest man of every household, as I have said, is its governor. Wives act as servants to their husbands, and children to their parents, and in sum, the younger serve the elder by birth. Each city is divided into four equal parts, and in the middle of each part is a market for every kind of goods. The produce of each household is brought thither to distinct houses, and thence each sort of article is distributed into special storehouses. From them, the head of each household goes to fetch whatever they need, and takes it away without paying any money or leaving anything in exchange. For why would anything be withheld, since there is such satisfactory abundance of all things? Further, there is no fear that someone would choose to demand more than he needs. For why would anybody imagine that a man would try to get superfluous things, since he assuredly knows that he shall never want for anything? Is it not the fear of going without that makes any animal greedy and rapacious? But in the case of mankind, it is pride alone that produces greed, pride that imagines it glorious to excel others in the vain display of possessions. This species of vice has absolutely no place among the Utopians because of their institutions. Near the markets that I have discussed, there are markets for provisions,

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Page 107

to which not only vegetables, the fruits of trees, and bread but also fish and cattle and all kinds of edible birds are transported. There are places outside of the town appointed near running water to wash away the filth of slaughter. From these sites, they take the slaughtered beasts after they have been cleansed at the hands of their slaves. For they do not allow their citizens to become accustomed to the killing of animals, thinking that if they did, clemency, the most humane emotion of our nature, tends gradually to perish. Nor do they allow anything foul or unclean, by whose decay the air might convey disease, to be brought into the city. In every street there are roomy halls set apart at equal intervals, each known by its own name. The Syphogrants dwell in these; to each of them are assigned thirty households, fifteen on either side, to take there meals there. The stewards of each hall come together at a certain hour in the market to gather food according to the number of their households. But the first share is for the sick, who are taken care of in public hospitals. They have four hospitals near the city, a little outside the walls, so capacious that they could be taken for so many small towns.

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Page 108

So, first of all, any number of the sick can be lodged without crowding or discomfort; and secondly, so that those who are suffering from some disease can be separated from contact with the others, unlike what normally happens, when contagion spreads from one person to another. These hospitals are equipped and stocked with everything needed for the recovery of the ailing; and such tender and dutiful care is given them, and the presence of the most skillful physicians is so constant, that, just as no one is sent to the hospital against his will, equally practically no one in the whole city would prefer, in the event of ill health, to lie at home rather than in the hospital.

After the steward for the sick has gathered provisions for them in accordance with the doctors’ instructions, then the best things remaining are distributed equally among the halls in proportion to their numbers, except that preference is given to the Prince, the Chief Priest, and the Transibors, along with ambassadors and any foreigners, (who, if there are any, are few and far between). For them, special dwellings are provided and furnished. At the appointed hours for dinner and supper, the whole Syphogranty comes together into the halls, summoned by a bronze trumpet, except for those in the hospital or lying sick at home.

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Page 109

However, no one is prevented from taking provisions home from the market once the halls have been supplied, for they know that no one would do this heedlessly. And even though no one is forbidden to eat at home, no one does so willingly, first because it is considered dishonorable, and then, too, it would be foolish to take the trouble to prepare a worse meal at home when there is a splendid and sumptuous one ready made in the nearby hall. In the hall, slaves tend to whatever is somewhat laborious or sordid, but all the duties of cooking and preparing the meal and serving the feast are performed by the women of each household in turn. They take their places at three or more tables, depending on the number of guests, the men near the wall, the women on the outside, so that if any of them are taken sick, as sometimes happens among pregnant women, they can get up without disturbing the general order, and go to the nurses. These are seated apart with the children who are still at breast in a special dining room appointed for that purpose, where there is always a hearth burning and clean water, along with cradles where they can lay the infants down, and when they wish, undress them before the fire and refresh them in play.

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Page 110

Every mother nurses her own offspring, unless death or disease prevents it. When that happens, the wives of the Syphogrants’ quickly look for a nurse, which is no hard task, since all who can offer this service do so more readily than any other, and all pursue a praiseworthy reputation for this mercy. The one who is thus raised acknowledges his nurse as a parent. All children under the age of five sit in the nurses’ chamber; the rest of those who have not come of age, however many they are, and those of either sex who are of marriageable years, either serve those at table, or if they are not yet old enough to do so, stand aside, in utmost silence, and eat whatever is offered to them by those sitting down—they have no separate time to take their meal. The Syphogrant and his wife sit in the middle of the first table, which is the place of honor. Since this table is turned sidewise at the highest point of the dining room, the whole gathering can be viewed. Joining them are two of the oldest by birth, as four are seated at each table. And if there is a temple located in a Syphogranty, its priest and his wife sit with the Syphogrant,

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Page 111

and preside over the meal. Younger people are seated on either side, then again elders, and likewise throughout the hall, so that equals are joined, yet are still mixed with those of other ages. They say this custom was instituted so that the gravity of the elders and the reverence due them might restrain the younger from improper license of speech or gesture (since nothing said or done can escape the notice of the neighboring tables). Dishes of food are not set down at the first place, but the best dish is first brought to the elders (who have the places of honor) before all others, and then what is left over is served in equal shares to the rest. The older men share their delicacies, when there is not enough to be apportioned to the whole company, at their will to those who sit around them. Thus the elder by birth preserve their honor, while a sufficiency comes to all. Every dinner and supper is begun with some reading promoting good morals, but it is short, so as not to be an annoyance. Then, the elders take the lead in sound conversation, neither too solemn nor without charm.

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On the Utopians' Travels - Pages 112 to 113

Page 112

And they do not occupy the meal with long discourses, so that the youth listen with pleasure, and are summoned by them to speak, so that they may make experiment of the mettle and spirit of each, every one putting himself forward in the freedom of the banquet. Their dinners are rather short, their suppers somewhat longer, since they go to work after the one, while sleep and the silence of night succeeds the other, which they consider more conducive to healthy digestion. No supper passes without music, nor does the second meal lack for desserts. They burn incense and scatter perfume and leave nothing undone that might cheer their fellow diners. To this end, they are somewhat indulgent, so that they do not consider any kind of pleasure (save that which is indecent) to be forbidden. This is the manner of entertaining in towns, but in the countryside, where they live more widely apart, all eat in their own homes. No household lacks any sort of victual, since all of the kind on which the city folks feed comes from thence.


If anyone wishes to visit friends staying in another town, or wishes to see the rest of the country,

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Page 113

he can easily gain the consent of his Syphogrant and the Tranibor, unless some needed task prevents it. He is sent out with a passport from the Prince that bears witness to his permission to travel and prescribes the day of his return. He is given a wagon and a public slave to drive the oxen and care for them. However, unless he has women in his company, the wagon is sent back as a needless burden. Throughout the journey, although they carry nothing with them, nonetheless they do not lack for anything, for they are, so to speak, at home everywhere. If they stay in any place longer than a day, each exercises his own trade, and is treated very well by those of his own trade. If anyone wanders beyond his own boundaries on his own authority and is apprehended without his prince's passport, he is treated shamefully, and returned to his own land as a fugitive and severely punished. If he dares to do the like again, he is condemned to slavery. But if someone is seized by a desire to wander through the fields of his own city, so long as he has his father's permission and the consent of his wife, it is allowed. But when he arrives in any rural place, he is given no meal before he completes the morning shift (or whatever period is customary for working there before the mid-day meal). Under these conditions, travel is permitted for anyone to go about the precincts of his city.

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