How do we reconcile and understand Tao Yuanming’s ambivalence towards a personal afterlife with his utopian imagining of a unchanging Peach Blossom Spring? How does this compare and contrast to Thomas More’s outlook on life and his imagining of a perfect state?

Across the annals of the world, great thinkers and writers have bemoaned the state of affairs of their times, and cast their minds beyond the political and economic barriers that confound their current situation to imagine a radical, better existence. In doing so, they have shaped the course of intellectual thought for centuries on the way states and societies should function. In this essay, we analyse how the backgrounds of Tao Yuanming  and Thomas More give rise to their convergent and divergent outlooks on life and society, as exemplifed by their works.

Tao Yuanming was one of the foremost poets of the Six Dynasties period of Chinese history. Initially an aristocrat-bureaucrat, Tao was disenchanted with the complications and corruption of court life, and dreamed of a simple, rural life, eventually retreating to the countryside to farm and write Georgic poetry in seclusion. Despite losing his wealth and resigning from his court appointed duties, he was widely admired for giving up the material trappings of the magistrate to pursue the life of a sage-poet and silently protesting the political shenanigans that caused great social ills.

Through his works, we notice Tao was both optimistic and pessimistic about a personal afterlife. On one hand, he often writes of the fleeting nature of one’s presence in the world. In “After an Ancient Poem”, Tao reflects: “There’s no one to tend crumbling tombs. And where are those wandering spirits now?” (Hinton, 1993, pg. 31) He felt that once people passed away, they no longer exist, not as ghosts or in the memories of the people who remain. We see further possible elements of pessimism in the “Form Addresses Shadow” , where he says “There’s no doubt about it, death’s death. Once you see that, you’ll see that turning down drinks is for fools.”(Hinton, 1993, pg. 39) Clearly, Tao believed strongly that death is final, and people should enjoy life as it is while it lasts, not seeking “drinks” or looking for glories, but simply accepting boons as they appear. On the other hand, in “Shadow Replies”, Tao takes an opposing stance and suggests that despite being forgotten, one should work hard for the benefit of future generations, to show one’s love for them (Hinton, 1993, pg. 40). Finally, in “Spirit Answers”, Tao concludes that since excessive drinking, his literary metaphor for excessive hedonism, brings about early death (or suffering), and public hard work might go unnoticed or unappreciated (Hinton, 1993, pg. 41), it is better to do spend one’s days without “never-ending analysis”, or “fear or delight” (Hinton, 1993, pg. 42), and just live life simply. In essence, while Tao opined there was no reward or punishment waiting for people in the afterlife, he did not see this fact as good or bad. Indeed, in his introduction to his 3 part poem Form, Shadow, Spirit, he states that it’s “such delusion” that “people are all busy clinging on to their lives” (Hinton, 1993, pg. 31), the word “lives” here referring not to their health or lifeforce, but the evidences of their existences. Instead, he simply deemed being in the present as more important than worrying about creating a lasting impact on the future.

This gives us some insight into why his utopian imagining is the way it is. In Peach Blossom Spring (Hinton, 1993, pg. 70 – 73), Tao Yuanming conceptualised a natural idyll full of peach blossosms where everyone worked and played in harmony. By hiding away from the political turmoil, they were “happy, more than content, no one worried over highbrow insights.” (Hinton, 1993, pg. 72)This echoes the concepts of harmony and contentment introduced in his other writings. However, he understands that it is a difficult concept for most people to accept. As alluded to in the ending of the prose, others could not follow the way as “they were soon lost and finally gave up the search.” (Hinton, 1993, pg. 71) In fact, we realise that the fisherman, an allegory for the everyman, did not find it methodologically, but by drifting unknowingly into a perfect eden. Thus the fisherman’s journey can be seen as a mirror to how Tao Yuanming himself achieved enlightenment and made up his mind on the right way to live. Although Tao frequently used alcohol to achieve a state of serenity, the enduring idea here is for others to follow his example of serendipitious pondering, thus “riding the wind in search of his own kind” (Hinton, 1993, pg. 73), looking for likeminded people who are content and peaceful, rejecting the political turmoil and glory-seeking of their own times.

Shifting our gaze across continents and over a millenia in the future, we find a man cut from the same cloth as Tao Yuanming. Thomas More was a great English statesman of the 16th Century; a man of God first and of law; a close second. So staunch was he in his faith that More seriously considered giving up his promising legal career and becoming a monk, and even after deciding against joining the order, he kept their ascetic ways. Like Tao Yuanming, More served his duties during political turmoil and treachery, but unlike Tao, More received significant support from his wealthy and powerful patrons. Consequently he rose to the lofty appointment of Lord Chancellor under King Henry VIII, having achieved his great status through his own industriousness and strength of character.

With respect to the afterlife, we know little about what Thomas More thought of it, but we may guess that as More was a devout Catholic, Utopian ideas of the afterlife would bear similarity to Christian conceptions of the afterlife. Hythloday provides a brief recount in Book 2 of Utopia, that Utopians believe in an immortal soul, and “rewards are appointed for our virtues and good deeds, punishments for our sins” (Logan, 2016, pg. 69). Utopians reason that that no sane person would “pursue harsh and painful virtue, give up the pleasures of life, and suffer pain from which you can expect no advantage. For if there is no reward after death, you have no compensation for having passed your entire existence without pleasure, that is, miserably.” Since there is an afterlife, and good deeds lead to rewards in the afterlife, then Utopians would do good deeds to earn a better afterlife, while enjoying the pleasures of mortal life. This is in line with Catholic teachings and thus More’s attitude towards the afterlife; that salvation is concomittant with good works. Correspondingly, his good friend Erasmus of Rotterdam testifies of More’s character: “No one is sent away in distress, and you might call him (Thomas More) the general patron of all poor people. He counts it a great gain to himself, if he has relieved some oppressed person, made the path clear for one that was in difficulties, or brought back into favour one that was in disgrace. No man more readily confers a benefit, no man expects less in return. And successful as he is in so many ways-while success is generally accompanied by self-conceit, I have never seen any mortal being more free from this failing.” (Smith, 2017, Letter 28) Hence, it is entirely reasonable for More, a most virtuous man himself, to confabulate a world of ideal (Utopian) citizens, whose genial nature would cause them to be a most excellent people and a happy commonwealth.

Thusly, we can clearly see points of contrast and similarities between More and Tao’s ideal societies: More’s Utopians would “zealously serve the welfare of others or the common good.” (Logan, 2016, pg.78), as “God will requite the loss of a brief and transitory pleasure here with immense and never-ending joy in heaven”, while Tao and his works advocate simply living harmoniously in the moment, because he did not believe in a life after death. More’s Utopians are not content with being as they are, nor content with their current spiritual standing, but are actively seeking to confer boons upon others to increase their overall pleasure, now and in the promised afterlife.

Their ideal socieities are also clearly shaped by their different backgrounds: Thomas More, a politically powerful individual with powerful friends and patrons, enjoyed greater freedom of expression, and as a pious Catholic, was unafraid to die with his reward secured in heaven through his good works; ipso facto he was executed for his refusal to deny papal supremacy. Throughout Utopia and his greater oeuvre, More’s manner of writing was one of direct criticism through satire, biting wit, and often directly addressed issues of authority, governance and law, whereas Tao, who lacked political power or wealth, and did not believe in an afterlife, could not directly oppose those in power without fear of retribution or death. Tao would not directly criticise policies of the present government, but instead steered readers’ imagination towards the beauty of nature and the peacefulness of a rural life, and subtly allow readers to observe for themselves the stark difference between present society and the ideal world, and conclude for themselves the social ills and political forces responsible that Tao himself could not point out.

In conclusion, both Thomas More and Tao Yuanming carry on the ancient and solemn philosophical tradition of sharp commentary on the moral declines of society. Though their methods of dealing with social issues differ due to their outlooks on afterlife and the various constraints they were under, they each leave an indelible mark on successive generations of writers and thinkers.

Their undying legacy entreats us:

O erudites! Despair not in the face of evil;

Scholars, defend the innocent!

For by your pen you may yet turn the tide.

This essay was first written for as the final research essay for my Global Humanities class in Fall 2022.