The fantasy island of minimalists dreamt up by an advisor to Henry VIII

An island

There is very little that is new about minimalism.

Owning few possessions has been a tenet in many faiths for millennia.

And two thousand years ago, the Stoics were teaching that you only truly own one thing in life: yourself. Practising a healthy detachment from your belongings was a key part of the philosophy.

As someone trying to get better at owning fewer things, I take an interest when I find the idea of living with less cropping up in books, films or music from years gone by.

So reading Thomas More’s Utopia, a book now more than 500 years old, proved pretty interesting recently.

More was a public figure in 16th-century England, rising from humble roots to serve as a personal advisor for Henry VIII and Speaker of the House of Commons.

But he was charged with high treason and beheaded in 1535 after refusing to take an oath recognising the King as sole head of the church, instead of the Pope, and sanctioning his divorce from his first wife.

A grim story, no doubt, but a little book More wrote 20 years earlier while working on the continent shows his humorous side.

The comic tract imagines a fantasy island – albeit a ridiculous one at times – where human society is ordered in a near-perfect way.

Some of the workings of Utopian society haven’t dated well.

The use of slavery would sound pretty horrific to a modern reader, as would the subjugated role of women, who must kneel before their husbands once a month to confess their sins and beg forgiveness.

But other parts, which discuss the Utopians’ attitude towards wealth and possessions, are some of the same topics being discussed by minimalists today.

Here are a few passages from the book, translated from the original Latin by Paul Turner:

“In Utopia they have a six-hour working day – three hours in the morning then lunch – then a two hour break – then three more hours in the afternoon, followed by supper. They go to bed at 8pm and sleep for eight hours.

“All the rest of the twenty-four they’re free to do what they like – not to waste their time in idleness or self-indulgence, but to make good use of it in some congenial activity.

“Most people spend these free periods on further education, for there are public lectures first thing every morning. Attendance is quite voluntary, except for those picked out for academic training, but men and women of all classes go crowding in to hear them.”

“They have no tailors or dressmakers, since everyone on the island wears the same sort of clothes – except that they vary slightly according to sex and marital status – and the fashion never changes.

“These clothes are quite pleasant to look at, they allow free movement of the limbs, they’re equally suitable for hot and cold weather – and the great thing is, they’re all home-made.”

“Since they only work a six-hour day, you may think there must be a shortage of essential goods. On the contrary, those six hours are enough, and more than enough to produce plenty of everything that’s needed for a comfortable life.

“And you’ll understand why it is, if you reckon up how large a proportion of the population in other countries is totally unemployed. First you have practically all the women – that gives you nearly fifty percent for a start. Then there are all the priests, and members of so-called religious orders – how much work do they do? Add all the rich, especially the landowners, popularly known as nobles and gentlemen. Include their domestic staffs – I mean those gangs of armed ruffians that I mentioned before. Finally, throw in all the beggars who are perfectly hale and hearty, but pretend to be ill as an excuse for being lazy. When you’ve counted them up, you’ll be surprised to find how few people actually produce what the human race consumes.”

“Then think how much labour they save on clothes. Their working clothes are just loose-fitting leather overalls, which last for at least seven years.

“When they go about in public, they cover these rough garments with a sort of cloak, which is always the same colour – the natural colour of wool. Thus not only is their consumption of woollen fabric the lowest in the world, but so are their production costs for this material. Linen is even easier to produce, and therefore more often used – but, as long as the linen is white and the wool is clean, they don’t care how fine or coarse the thread is.

“So whereas in other countries you won’t find anyone satisfied with less than five or six suits and as many silk shirts, while dressy types want over ten of each, your Utopian is content with a single piece of clothing every two years. For why should he want more? They wouldn’t make him any warmer – or any better looking.”

“When the head of a household needs anything for himself or his family, he just goes to [the] shops and asks for it. And whatever he asks for, he’s allowed to take away without any sort of payment, either in money or in kind.

“After all, why shouldn’t he? There’s more than enough of everything to go round, so there’s no risk of his asking for anything more than he needs – for why should anyone want to start hoarding, when he knows he’ll never have to go short of anything.

“No living creature is naturally greedy, except from fear of want – or in the case of human beings, from vanity, the notion that you’re better than people if you can display more superfluous property than they can. But there’s no scope for that sort of thing in Utopia.”

“They’ve devised a system which, while perfectly consistent with their other conventions, is diametrically opposed to ours – especially to the way we treasure up gold. So you’ll probably think it incredible, until you’ve actually seen it for yourselves.

“According to this system, plates and drinking-vessels, though beautifully designed, are made of quite cheap stuff like glass or earthenware. But silver and gold are the normal materials, in private houses as well as communal dining halls, for the humblest items of domestic equipment, such as chamber-pots. […] In fact they do everything they can to bring these metals into contempt. This means that if they suddenly had to part with all the gold and silver they possess – a fate which in any other country would be thought equivalent to having one’s guts torn out – nobody in Utopia would care two hoots.

“It’s much the same with jewels […] If they happen to come across one, they pick it up and polish it for some toddler to wear […] This curious convention is liable to cause some equally curious reactions, as I realised most vividly in the case of the Flatulentine diplomats. […]

“Oh, but you should have seen the faces of the older children, who’d grown out of things like pearls and jewels, when they saw the ones on the envoys’ hats. They kept nudging their mothers and whispering: ‘I say, mother, just look at that great baby! Fancy wearing jewellery at his age!’”

“In Utopia, where everything’s under public ownership, no-one has any fear of going short, as long as the public storehouses are full. Everyone gets a fair share, so there are never any poor men or beggars. Nobody owns anything, but everyone is rich – for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?”

It makes interesting reading, even though I remain very sceptical of the idea of an ideal society.

While I would probably be content wearing only clothes that are “the natural colour of wool”, I recognise that it would be other people’s idea of hell. I also dislike his puritanical streak and scorn for “idleness or self-indulgence”.

But just as it was designed to make 16th-century Europeans reflect on their own society and its shortcomings, I think it can still have the power to do the same for us now.

7 thoughts on “The fantasy island of minimalists dreamt up by an advisor to Henry VIII

  1. laura ann says:

    As a retiree, we have passed down family items to nieces, second cousins. other household items went to several group homes near by. Cannot figure out why older people want cluttered up houses/apts of stuff they never use or need. So freeing and lots easier now to clean and organize. I never was one to want clutter piling up. Causes stress.

  2. I just stumbled across your blog and wanted to mention that I find your writing style to be brilliant. The design is excellent, the topics offer a different perspective on simple living and I have enjoyed your thought provoking essays. I never heard of this historical piece before,

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