7. Thomas More and the Roots of Religious Communism

With all the interactions with heady thinkers like Aquinas and Augustine, one would expect our approach to economic thought to continue to complicate itself as time moved on and more complex mathematical systems were implemented in the research and investigation of the world around us. However, our next source is actually a satiric narrative from the early 16th century by Thomas More.

More was an English philosopher, lawyer and social activist who provided multiple texts on social and economic philosophies, including criticisms of the Protestant Revolution as heretical and a direct response to Martin Luther himself. His work reflects ideas that many didn’t think were invented until post-Adam Smith.

However, the text that most people remember is actually his novel Utopia, which is considered an early rendition of communism and socialism. Originally written as a socio-political satire, the book is a collection of letters written by More himself to fictional persons who have started a new nation, called Antwerp, in the New World. During their travels, where More, his friend Peter Giles and the rather odd traveler Raphael Hythloday gather to have dinner and discuss their travels and life. The conversation eventually ends up on the contrast between the policies enacted by Utopia and those used by Europe.

It is in these dialogues that we see the absurd ideas of a utopia presented by More, albeit in a more fantastical and religious setting than his descendants Marx and Lenin. But did More desire this realm, or was he just experimenting? The fantasy author China Mieville believes that it’s somewhere in between:

Was More’s utopia blueprint, or satire, or something else? As if these are exclusive. As if all utopias are not always all of the above, in degrees that vary as much in the context of their reception as of their creation.
For Mieville, More provided the framework for all attempts at recreating a utopia, whether they be the Twelve Districts in Hunger Games or the end-goal imagined by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto. But More’s Utopia contrasts with all modern reimaginings in one very interesting way: the relevance of faith to the society’s success.

According to Hythloday, Utopia desires to embrace a more multicultural/diverse approach to faith. Rather than enacting a single Church as the official denomination of Utopia, people are allowed to follow any faith they desire, under two preconditions

  • You must treat all other faiths equally. More made a law that every man might be of what religion he pleased, and might endeavour to draw others to it by the force of argument and by amicable and modest ways, but without bitterness against those of other opinions; but that he ought to use no other force but that of persuasion, and was neither to mix with it reproaches nor violence; and such as did otherwise were to be condemned to banishment or slavery.
  • You cannot be an atheist, since atheism is a mental illness that endangers the community.

This is a rather significant contrast with Marx’s later thinking on the ‘opium of the masses’, which seems to imagine a godless society where religion is seen as an unnecessary comfort device and a painkiller rather than a tool that empowers healthy conduct.

The priests of Utopia were also expected to be upstanding examples of the morality and ethics of Utopia. Utopian priests had to be male (though exceptions could be made for a female if she proved herself to be exceptional.) The residents also had universal holidays where members practiced the historical/biblical tradition of submitting to their supposed superior and asking for forgiveness. More/Hytholoday specifically mentions that meant that wives submitted to their husbands, and kids to their parents. This idea in itself seems strange when viewed through a feminist lens, since it creates inequality between the genders in religious practices.

This change in views on religion offers a distinct contrast for More and the reasoning for the practice of public property. Hytholoday sees the removal of private property as a right as a way to eliminate conflict and encourage communal living and development. However, More himself sees this as a hindrance, since there is no longer a private reason for why an individual would not work, since he would not be required to do so in order to earn his keep, but can just mooch off of others. And if an entire community lives by this principle, then the system becomes moot.

Property was not the only aspect that was owned and used by all. The cities and communities themselves were designed with similarity in mind, as was trade. Simplicity was maintained so that travel and trade would not be hindered by long distances, and other factors that normalized and equalized any potential elements that may cause inequality.

But why was this equality so important to More or his philosophical character Hythloday? Because it provided the best chance for becoming more like Christ. According to More’s essay A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, citizens who wish to best serve the kingdom must place God as their head and act as he did. After all, Christ was the perfect example of a human’s moral conduct. Why wouldn’t we want to be him? A community made up entirely of beings like Jesus could make either a free market or a communal setting work with little fuss.

For More, religion was the tool necessary for empowering man toward a communal society. Not only did it provide the reasoning for why one would choose to abandon private property and live in utter commune with God and man, but it offered a way to pursue the truly good and challenge the European notions of challenge, conflict and tension. While More’s ideas were appealing to some, they helped provide the seeds of dissent required to start the humanistic communist society of Marx and his descendants.

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