Essay Review: Utopia by Thomas More

Warning: Utopia is written by an able, hetero, upper class, middle aged, English white man, whose love for Christianity borders on fanaticism even if he writes otherwise.

In Utopia Thomas More describes what an ideal commonwealth is constitutive of and how it operates because “while people talk of a commonwealth, every man only seeks his own wealth” (pg. 71).

In Utopia there is no individuality or private sphere; it is the collective/public good that matters. By extension there is no private land among the Utopians for everyone is equal in every sense of the word[1] . The economy is agriculture based[2]; every citizen has to work productively for “ ‘only six hours’ ” (pg.11) a day, while the slaves “ ‘are kept at perpetual labour’ ” since it “ ‘is no hard task to [them]’ ”(pg.41). Religion is also another important element that constitutes their commonwealth. A pluralist approach to religion is preached and practiced. Though not because all religious belief are equally true but because “ ‘the native force of truth would at last break forth and shine bright’ ” (pg.61) and all would worship the “ ‘Divine Essence’ ” (pg.68). In short, the ideal commonwealth is a gerontocratic, agriculture based, communist (but also very much an Imperialist) state where, above all, the Utopians disregard anything that might be unfavorable to the Public Good of the Utopians.

But what is the public good and who decides? This is a question that More answers obliquely; in the form of how the commonwealth operates.

First, and foremost, is the idea of the ‘public/common/collective’. While there are rigid hierarchies in place, the Prince, and the magistrates, etc, all the citizens of Utopia are very much equal to each other in their life styles and habitats thus effectively materializing a community consciousness and an ideal nation-state; an area where the state’s sovereignty is coincident with the shared cultural/historical experience of the population.

They are a collective unit so much so that “ ‘they account it piety to prefer the public good to one’s private concerns’ ” (pg. 30), and this particular kind of collectivism is there to curb pride, ambition, and individuality because “ ‘having rooted out … the seeds both of ambition and faction, there is no danger of any commotion … which alone has been the ruin of many States’ ” (pg.74) and have plagued mankind since Adam and Eve’s exile from Heaven. With the “ ‘infernal serpent’ ” (pg.74) of ambition, to which individuality gives birth, gone there can be peace and prosperity.

The public good then is the homogenization of mankind; of their needs, skills and status. There are some who have more of a say in the public good, more this is a society where the maximum do unto your neighbor what you would want to be done unto yourself, holds.
 However the door to individuality is not completely shut; the gardens that the Utopians have are the places where individuality can manifest itself, because it is there where they “ ‘vie with each other’ ” (pg. 6). If there truly was no individuality and consequently “ ‘no property among them’ ” (pg. 6), then there would be no need to compete with each other since everyone already is provided for and equal. (Apparently even in ideal societies this is not the case.)

However, to reinforce this idea of equality and the collectivity Utopians are assigned only six working hours a day. Despite this scarcity of time the Utopians are not short food exactly because they are a collective (everyone shares) and they are equal (they all work; even the women). This method of arrangement is so useful that there is “ ‘rather too much [food]’ ” (pg.12).

Furthermore, this is made possible because the fundamental principle on which their economy, and social activities, is based is that there shall be no idleness. Everything, and everyone, must be productive. As such there is “ ‘no idle persons among them’ ” (pg.21) unlike other “ ‘great part[s] of all other nations [are]’ ” (pg.12). And taking this ideology of being productive for the public good to the extreme “ ‘they [Utopians] almost universally agree that health is the greatest of all bodily pleasures’ ” (pg.31) thus “ ‘a voluntary death … is very honourable’ ” (pg.42) when a body which is too old to enjoy the pleasures of life, or is tormented by some disease or “ ‘become[s] a burden to themselves and to all about them’ ” it is “ ‘very honourable’ ” (pg.41) to die. Eugenics through endogamy is also another characteristic of the Utopians.

There are other facets of Utopia which I would love to explore, like how More talks about colonizing and its logical justification because when the native “ ‘inhabitants have more soil than they can well cultivate, they [Utopians] fix a colony’ ” (pg.15). Or how much of an Orwellian society this is where “ ‘If any man has a mind to visit his friends that live in some other town, or desires to travel and see the rest of the country, he obtains leave … [and] carry[s] with him a passport from the Prince, which both certifies the licence that is granted for travelling, and limits the time of his return.’ ” (pg.21). Or how the Utopians “ ‘made the same discoveries as the Greeks’ ” (pg.27) and just might be a “ ‘Greek colony’ ” (pg. 38). But, I am tired, and I do not have enough brain cells to sacrifice right now. So, a bit about the rhetorical mode used is also important to if we are assess how well structured, and why, is More’s Utopia written.

Narration and description are the dominant mode of rhetoric in Utopia because it is through these rhetorical modes in order to tell a story (narrative) can be told effectively, i.e. concretely (description). There is the constant use of hyperbole, and flying in the face of conventional wisdom, which leads me to categories it as satire because the title, Utopia, itself signifies this fictional and hyperbolic element. This make it difficult to decide and decipher where, and how, is More being satirical which creates this a sweet temptation to think of it as purely fictional and brush it all off. After all it is just some fantasy.

However, it is imperative that we be critical of satire instead of just brushing it off as a work of pure fiction. In fact, the whole point of satire is that it provokes one into thinking; if a piece of satire can be just brushed off then it has failed.

Satire is used to further some social cause for the betterment of the society by deploying different rhetoric strategies such as hyperbole, irony, ethos masquerading as logic, etc, that are critical and make pointed observation of that same society. And the need to use rhetoric in such an underhanded, and overhanded, manner is because otherwise it will not ignite the reader’s imagination and rise the blood pressure[3]. That is what More is doing.

However, as mentioned before contextualization is extremely vital because when More exaggerates about living in simple clothing and houses which are not grandiose, the common good — in all its intangibleness — above all, equality among the Utopians, division of the soul and the body, the pain-pleasure principle, eugenics, renouncing the gold economy, etc these are exaggerations of the beliefs that the orthodox Christian doctrine espouses in some form, or from Plato’s teachings. Similarly, More suggest that the state should be secular, i.e. adopt a political doctrine that takes a specific stance towards religion (Bilgrami, 2014)[4] which runs in opposition to the actual fervor about the state, and the nation, being formed and influenced by anything other than an orthodox Christian doctrine that More himself has subscribed to and gets beheaded protecting for. This is what, I believe, that which makes Utopia a tame piece of satire. Time and space have done much to dampen the shock value.

Nonetheless, the acknowledgment and praise that More gives to the farmers is immensely important in this day and age when we consciously forget, and marginalize the poor. Similarly, living simply without all the frills, silk and colour; moving off the gold (legal tender now) standard; populating cities and circulating their populations so the cities do not die out; social cohesion and public good; and reading to improve one’s mind are all ideas that resonate with me, are not so much utopian rather than hyperbolic, and extremely important.

[1] But of course More does write “[women] who are the half of mankind” (pg.12), justifies colonialism, enslavement, ableism, etc. After all, everyone is not equal.

[2] That is the dominant and lucrative economic base in the 16th century.

[3] Although More giving women a prominent space in his book is cause enough during the 16th century in England.

[4] Bilgrami, A. (2014). Secularism: Its Content and Context. Journal of social philsophy.