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Slavery in Utopia is not a question of race, ethnicity, or belief. It is a question of moral behavior. Only criminals can become slaves, and the children of slaves are born free. The slavery that exists in Utopia does not, then, contain all of the moral repugnance we rightfully associate with slavery. The fact that slavery could be conceived of as existing even within a fictional, ideal society is a sign that ideal societies are products of their times, subject to the beliefs and prejudices of the world from which they spring.
Similarly, the description of hospital care is revealing of the state of medicine in the early sixteenth century. The idea that a very sick person would not want to go to a hospital seems unusual to a modern reader, but during a time when it might be said that the only thing more dangerous then being sick was getting treated by a doctor, it is understandable. The Utopian practice of not only allowing but even encouraging euthanasia seems at odds with religious doctrine of the time, which believed suicide was a sin that would send its perpetrator to hell.
However, euthanasia was a topic touched upon and supported by Erasmus, and Thomas More was certainly aware of that fact.
The marriage practices of the Utopians are called absurd by Hythloday and More, and seem absurd to the reader. It is not entirely clear what should be made of these practices, as they exist in what is supposedly an ideal society.
A number of possibilities seem viable. Perhaps the marriage rites are another indication of the fact that while Utopia is near perfect, it is not actually an ideal society. Perhaps the marriage rites are supposed to be taken seriously, as an actual rational proposal. Perhaps they are simply a joke, since Thomas More was known to be fond of jokes. The text gives very little clue. The issue of divorce is a more concrete matter, and similar to that of euthanasia. The Catholic Church frowned on divorce even in the case of adultery, but Erasmus believed divorce was acceptable and necessary in certain situations. That divorce is allowed in Utopia is another indication that Utopian society was a realization of Erasmus’s Humanist beliefs and arguments.
Visible in the rules guarding against adultery, pre-marital sex, and those abolishing campaigning for office is the Utopian understanding that mankind’s baser instincts of lust and greed will never disappear. Utopian laws, for this reason, are formulated so as to powerfully discourage the vices inherent in human nature. These laws demonstrate that Utopia is not a society full of ideal people. Rather, it is a society that is formulated so that the inherent faults of man are contained as stringently as humanly possible.
Utopians hate war and try to avoid it at all costs. They find no glory in the practice of killing, though they do constantly train and if pressed prove a mighty enemy. They engage in warfare only to protect themselves, their friends, or to free oppressed peoples.
Utopians would rather use cunning to win wars than brute strength. They consider strength to be a trait belonging to all animals, while only humans are intelligent. Thus, manly victories come through intelligent maneuverings rather than direct attacks. When a declaration of war is made, the Utopians first rely on propaganda; they secretly put up posters in enemy territory offering huge rewards for the assassination of the enemy leaders. They offer similar rewards to any of those leaders who betray their fellows. Other nations condemn this behavior as dishonorable; the Utopians defend it with the argument that they are in fact humane, ending massive wars with very little bloodshed. Other tactics include causing dissension by, for example, promising the throne to an enemy ruler’s brother if that brother will support the Utopian cause. In helping their friends, Utopians do not like to risk their own citizens, but they are unstinting in providing money and material.
When it is necessary for the Utopians to fight, they hire mercenaries, the Zapoletes, at unbeatable prices, and send their own generals to lead them. As a last resort, the Utopians themselves will fight. No Utopian is ever forcefully conscripted except in the case that Utopia itself should be invaded. Wives are allowed to accompany their husbands to war, fighting side by side. In battle, Utopians are dogged and tireless, buoyed as they are by the Utopian values instilled in them from childhood. In the event of victory, the Utopians never let things degenerate into a massacre. While fighting, they act to the best of their ability not to destroy the enemy’s land or soil.
The Utopian methods of war seem insane and dishonorable to More, Giles, and virtually everyone who comes in contact with them. Yet the Utopian hatred of war and unorthodox tactics have an origin in Erasmus’s treatise condemning the legitimacy of warfare, Sweet is War. In the Utopian view, only reason separates man from animals, so cunning tricks that save lives are in fact more ‘manly’ than a love of the glory of battle. It is interesting to note, however, that the Utopian means of winning war is entirely dependent on their ideal situation, situation meaning their isolation and ability to generate a great surplus in trade. The Utopians can thus follow their inclinations in warfare to perfection, using their money to hire mercenaries, distribute propaganda, and sow dissension in the enemy. But without this trade imbalance, which was created by Thomas More with a stroke of his pen, it is hard to see how the Utopians’ war making methods could be successful. Still, perhaps it is not the success of the Utopian methods that is ultimately important. It is, rather, that in Utopia an alternative to standard European war practices is offered. These practices seem like folly, but it is the argument of Erasmus and Thomas More that the more closely something accords with Christianity, the more like folly it will seem, even though it is in fact quite wise.
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