A Slave State: Society in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia

by | Jan 12, 2004 | POLITICS

Sir Thomas More’s Utopia lays out several important ideas that help us understand the political thought of both now and the Renaissance as well as providing us with a look into the conditions of sixteenth century Europe. The book primarily acts as a vehicle for More to explore several issues, ranging from the advising of […]

Sir Thomas More’s Utopia lays out several important ideas that help us understand the political thought of both now and the Renaissance as well as providing us with a look into the conditions of sixteenth century Europe. The book primarily acts as a vehicle for More to explore several issues, ranging from the advising of Kings to the role of private property in society. More, who acts as a character of himself in the book, is told of the New World island of Utopia by Raphael Hythloday, the last name meaning “expert in nonsense,” which acts as a land of contrast and similarity to the Tudor England More had grown up in. More concludes rather contrarily at the end of the book, that while “quite a few of the laws and customs [Hythloday] had described as existing among the Utopians were really absurd,” (110) he “freely confess[ed] that in the Utopian commonwealth there are many features that in our own societies [he] would like rather than expect to see.” (111)

Working from the Robert Adams translation of the March 1518 Basel edition of Utopia it is fairly clear that More is making several arguments not only about contemporary political policy, but about the nature of government and the earlier attempts of Plato and Aristotle at crafting ideal states. Utopia is broken into two books; the first is a dialogue between Thomas More, Hythloday, and Peter Giles, who acts as the liaison between More and Hythloday. The second book is primarily Hythloday’s narrative description of the laws, customs, and people of Utopia. The first book is important though as an overt commentary on contemporary Europe and England specifically.

The main debate More and Hythloday have first revolves around the question of why Hythloday doesn’t advise Kings, a question More was dealing with at the time he wrote the book, as he had been invited to advise King Henry VIII. Hythloday objects because he would not be listened too, for Kings were only interested in using advisors for immoral and dishonorable deeds. (xxii) This presents a major philosophical and political issue, mainly, are expedient and moral action in conflict with one another or are they capable of being one and the same? The very fact that the second book doesn’t answer this question shows that perhaps More never came to a conclusion on the matter before his premature death.

The other question which emerges in this first dialogue concerns the punishment of thievery in England during More’s time, which was usually a trip to the gallows. Hythloday contends that the punishment is far too harsh and that it doesn’t deter anyone because the cause, poverty, is left unaddressed. His solution is to abolish private property and then make the punishment severe, but not death. Giles and More disagree with him insofar as they don’t think abolishing private property is appropriate, and this question is also not decided within the confines of the book, though More does take up the argument that abolishing private property would cause the collapse of civilized society. (40) The first book ends on this note and acts generally as an introduction to Hythloday, who will be the sole source of knowledge about the island.

The Utopian Government isn’t a unique one as far as literature or history goes in terms of its aims. The Utopians are concerned with societal well-being and instituting policies to maintain social harmony. The whole government is constructed with these goals in mind and thus the society of Utopia is highly planned, King Utopus (the first King) planned the whole city of Amaurot (the city Hythloday focuses on), and managed in order to assure that these goals are achieved in a number of ways. (47)

This is apparent in the realm of economics; the Utopian government is actively involved in the process of making sure everyone is working at one task or another. “Farming is the one job at which everyone works, men and women alike, with no exception,” (50) and this makes sense for the reasons that there is no private property or money in Utopia and therefore one has to gather food or starve. A telling aspect of the Utopian economy is encapsulated in Hythloday’s description of how the Utopians come to do the other jobs that people need to do if they are going to live in a civilized society, “Every person (and this includes women as well as men) learns one of the trades I mentioned. As the weaker sex, women practice the lighter crafts, such as working in wool or linen; the heavier jobs are assigned to the men.” (50) The point of interest is the word “assigned” as it points to the level of governmental management, as men are told what tasks they must perform. This is reinforced by the fact that the main function of their elected officials is to “manage matters so that no one sits around in idleness, and to make sure that everyone works hard at his trade.” (51) To be fair the Utopians only have to work a six hour day, but even their “free” time is restricted in that, “The other hours of the day, when they are not working, eating, or sleeping, are left to each man’s individual discretion, provided he does not waste his free time in roistering or sloth but uses it properly in some occupation that pleases him.” (51) Although is may be perfectly pleasing to just sit around and not do anything, this isn’t possible for one’s “free” time and is indicative of the planned economy of Utopia that is designed to maintain social order, which idleness undermines.

Collective harmony must be maintained through population control measures, as overpopulation will mean discomfort and under population will mean a labor shortage. The Utopian government “decreed that there shall be six thousand households in each [city], with each household containing between ten and sixteen adults.” (55) If a house has too few or too many adults in it or a city has too few or too many in aggregate then the extra adults are transferred to the deficient house or city. (56) The numbers they pick here seem totally arbitrary though and Hythloday doesn’t explain what gives the state the right to shuffle adults around like pawns on a chessboard. Not to mention this would require a great deal of bureaucrats to enforce the moving of people around. This policy characterizes a further micromanaging effort of the Utopian economy as labor is one the most fundamental aspects of any economic system. All of this merely reflects though upon the ethical code of the Utopian state to ensure collective well being without regard for the rights of mere individuals.

Travel for Utopians is a difficult and formidable task, requiring the equivalent of the infamous “travel papers” of totalitarian regimes to move about. Hythloday says that, “Anyone who wants to visit friends in another city, or simply to see the place itself, can easily obtain permission from his syphogrant and tranibor [elected officials], unless for some reason he is needed at home.” (60) The important part here is the fact that one needs permission to leave a city, which is described as easy, but if any of the economic planners or the Prince decides that one is needed at home then one cannot leave. Even if one does gain permission from the Prince one receives a letter from him “fixing a day of return.” (60) Not only can one not travel without permission, but one must also state the day that they will return. If someone decides to leave without permission and is caught they are “treated with contempt, brought back as a runaway, and severely punished.” (60) This is indicative of a collectivist society, the mere fact that one leaves a community without telling anyone is seen as a crime, not only that, but one that needs to be “severely punished.”

The moral code of the Utopian government or people, though the latter is a somewhat dubious concept (because if the Utopian people naturally agreed with all of these things what would be the need for all of the restrictive laws to force compliance, as shown in the previous example of not being able to travel?), is put succinctly when Hythloday says, “To pursue your own interests is prudence; to pursue the public interest as well is piety; but to pursue your own pleasure by depriving others of theirs is injustice. On the other hand, deliberately to decrease your own pleasure to augment that of others is a work of humanity and benevolence, which never fails to reward the doer over and above his sacrifice.” (70) Self-sacrifice is the value of the government, which is perfectly consistent with all of the other laws to this point. One can do nothing unless it is “useful” to the community, or leave without permission from the community, or sit around and do nothing, because one would then be hurting the community. In other words, selfishness is systematically being attacked in Utopian law and government. The order of morality isn’t self-evident though and Hythloday relays no justification for it other than, “God will recompense us for surrendering a brief and transitory pleasure here with immense and never-ending joy in heaven.” (71) This is reminiscent of Christian metaphysics and morality, even in a non-Christian nation like Utopia. The point here is simply for More to show that Christian morality can be derived by non-Christians through reason, thus vindicating it, somewhat similar to St. Thomas Aquinas’s attempts to prove the existence of God through the use of Aristotelian logic.

Yet another regulated facet of Utopian life is marriage, beyond the mere realm of contract enforcement. Women must be eighteen and men must be twenty-two before they can be married and “Clandestine premarital intercourse, if discovered and proved, brings severe punishment on both man and woman; and the guilty parties are forbidden to marry for their whole lives, unless the prince by his pardon mitigates the sentence.” (81) What happens for overt premarital intercourse? This sounds funny, but the punishment here is incredibly tyrannical, especially for such a highly enlightened people, as Hythloday claims them to be. But it doesn’t end here, “They punish [second offense] adulterers with the strictest form of slavery.” (83) Enslavement? Adultery is certainly a bad thing, constituting a breach of the marriage contract at the least, but can it warrant enslavement? This is especially amusing given Hythloday’s earlier excuses for thievery in contemporary England. Granted, thievery doesn’t warrant death, but his vaunted Utopians enslave adulterers, plus more broadly, have slavery! The slavery of Utopia is for those who break the law and prisoners taken in war, but it seems rather ironic that in a place without property people are held as such by the state.

Hythloday goes on to tell More and Giles that the Utopians, “Think it completely unjust to bind men by a set of laws that are too many to be read or too obscure for anyone to understand.” (85) This almost seems at odds with the previous accounts of economic planning, travel restrictions, and slavery unless one thinks of the English constitution and the common law. Though there are a great many things the government can and does do in those cases the actual number of codified laws was actually quite small as Hythloday says it is in the case of Utopia. This allows for a much easier changing process for any instances where the collective well-being is somehow subverted through some legal loophole. This is mere speculation though as the text merely says that there are few laws, but given that the number of things the state in Utopia does is quite large, it seems quite reasonable for there to be some sort of un-codified legal justification in place of written law.

Utopian foreign policy, especially the Utopian war machine can be sparked by surprisingly little; Hythloday says that, “If one of their own is maimed or killed anywhere, whether by a public official or a private citizen, they first send envoys to look into the circumstances; then they demand that the guilty persons be surrendered; and if that demand is refused, they are not to be put off, but at once declare war.” (88-89) This seems somewhat amusing considering how little regard the Utopian government pays its individual citizens while in Utopia, but if one is harmed in another land, even by what could be a random nutcase, war is considered an appropriate action if they aren’t given the perpetrator. What an odd rationale for declaring war. It’s one thing if a foreign government is either killing one’s citizens or condoning their killing, but to declare war on a country that would like to try and punish its own murderers seems absolutely irrational. The travel restrictions are starting to make a little sense. If the Utopian government wasn’t controlling how many people were leaving, to where, and for how long, they could find themselves at war with many different countries at once if any of their citizens were killed in multiple countries around the same time. Such a conflagration of conflict certainly wouldn’t help in their population control efforts very well, unless of course they had the enemy leaders assassinated (93) or hired a large army of savage mercenaries to fight their war for them. (91)

Free speech protection, being an individual right, doesn’t garner much respect in Utopia, not surprisingly given that the aim of the government is not individual, but collective, rights. It is mentioned early on that, “It is a capital offense to join in reaching private decisions on public business,” (49) and this seems quite injurious to anyone unlucky enough to be caught discussing and deciding on any open political affairs. Though this law is designed to halt any Catiline from conspiring against the government, it is easy to see how people might be scared of sending the wrong impression to the wrong people and therefore not discussing important public issues in private. Hythloday relates the story of a Utopian who recently converted to Christianity who, “condemned all others [religions] as profane, leading their impious and sacrilegious followers to the hell-fires they richly deserved. After he had been going on in this style for a long time, they arrested him. He was tried on a charge, not of despising their religion, but of creating a public disorder, convicted, and sentenced to exile.” (97) The man was warned that he was breaking the law and he was condemning the religious beliefs of others, an offensive act surely, but certainly not worthy of exile, especially as it isn’t explained how exactly how he was creating a “public disorder.” The man’s exile is consistent with European intolerance of free speech against state religion or just the state. But where is Hythloday’s condemnation? To him thievery deserves sympathy, but a person merely voicing their opinion on the stupidity of another religion can be justly exiled for it? Hythloday says King Utopus, who conquered the island of Utopia and gave it his name, recognized how divisive religion could be and thus established a precedent of religious toleration. (97) This is presented as the justification for exiling the man, but the only reason religion was divisive was because governments were favoring one religion or another as was the case for England’s religious divisiveness. Individuals don’t have to tolerate any contrary religions or opinions, and as long as they don’t initiate force against the contrary thinkers it doesn’t matter anyway. This is yet another example of the Utopian government putting the desire of the many to not have their beliefs offended or insulted before the right of an individual to speak out.

Hythloday concludes his description of the Utopian people by pointing out their greatest triumph over Europeans, saying, “And yet when these insatiably greedy and evil men have divided among themselves goods which would have sufficed for the entire people, how far they remain from the happiness of the Utopian Republic, which has abolished not only money but with it greed! What a mass of trouble was cut away by that one step! What a thicket of crimes was uprooted! Everyone knows that if money were abolished, fraud, theft, robbery, quarrels, brawls, seditions, murders, treasons, poisonings and a whole set of crimes which are avenged but not prevented by the hangman would at once die out. If money disappeared, so would fear, anxiety, worry, toil, and sleepless nights. Even poverty, which seems to need money more than anything else, would vanish if money were entirely done away with.” (109) Hythloday and the Utopians see money as the root of all evil, but they never ponder the question, “What is the root of money?” Money is only a medium of exchange by which people can voluntarily exchange amongst themselves for other goods. How it could be the cause of all brawls, quarrels, robberies, seditions, murders, treasons, and poisonings isn’t established at all and sounds absolutely absurd as a result. Money hasn’t been around forever so for this assertion to hold up there would have to have been none of these events before it was invented, a highly implausible occurrence.

Why did More write Utopia? Could he have thought this was a perfect society? Perhaps not, as More writes at the end about those things he had found absurd; “These included their methods of waging wars, their religious practices, as well as others of their customs; but my chief objection was to the basis of their whole system, that is their communal living and their moneyless economy.” (110) It is also notable, if More was serious, that he, like Plato and other Utopia writers conceived of circumstances that didn’t exist and then theorized how it would work, without any observable data to support it. The underlying premise of More’s Utopian state, the well-being of the society and not the protection of individual rights, has been made the stated goal of many states in the twentieth century and with policies very similar to the Utopians. Had Sir Thomas had access to this data four hundred years ago would he have been nearly as uncertain as to how to answer many of the questions he posed in his book? Given his intelligence it seems rather unlikely.

Alexander Marriott is currently a graduate student of the early republic at Clark University in Worcester, MA. He earned his B.A. in history in 2004 from the University of Nevada - Las Vegas, where he was an Op-Ed columnist for the UNLV Rebel Yell. Marriott grew up in Chicago and lived in Saudi Arabia for four and a half years and has resided in Las Vegas since 1996.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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