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The invention of Utopia and its self-confutation

“More must be looked upon rather as the last of the old than the first of the new”
William Morris, foreword to ‘Utopia’

The presentation of a realistic depiction of an ideal world by Thomas More gave birth to a new literary genre, the “utopian”. Drawing from Plato’s Republic and Christianity, he imagined, in 1516, an ideal state in a faraway, unexplored country called Utopia, an insular country that does not exist (“u-topia” means “non-place” in Greek). He describes this state through the words of one Raphael Hythlodaeus, an imagined inhabitant of Utopia and explorer, whose testimony he presents in the form of a dialogue between him and Morus, an alter ego for the author. Hythlodaeus’ positions are posited in such a way that they come in contrast with 16th century’s British society.

Thomas More (1478-1535), portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527 (photo)
Thomas More (1478-1535), portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527 (photo)

More describes a series of activities and perceptions of a democratic society, starting with crime punishment and, therefore, the problem of justice. Hythlodaeus says that the death penalty for the crime of theft is not fair, as it is too harsh to fit the crime and does not avert future such crimes. On the contrary, it can become a motive for an escalation in crime, since, if someone has stolen, then it’s in his favor to murder the victim of the theft so that there will not be any possible witnesses in case he’s caught. The punishment will be the same anyway. The death penalty seems to only serve the thirst for revenge of the wronged ones, without looking out for the general good. It’s like the teachers who hit their students with more fervor than they have when actually teaching.

Moreover, if theft is not accompanied by violence, the thieves should not even be imprisoned, but forced to penal labor and otherwise live freely. And, since their work will benefit the society, they should be fed adequately. This should not be the cause of much surprise, since labor in countries other than Utopia is a kind of slavery anyway, and since the Utopian thieves are put to hard manual labor. The only intrinsic punishment for these kinds of crimes in Utopia is the feeling of shame forced on them, as it cannot be forgiven that anyone would be raised in such an ideal country with all the comforts and opportunities one could wish for, to end up doing such immoral acts.

Lawyers are obsolete in Utopia (note that More was a lawyer himself), since the laws are very few and written in such a way as to be easily understood by everyone and so that anyone could represent themselves in court, where they are called simply to explain their case, as they would to a lawyer. Why should there be an intermediary who usually has in mind to blur the argumentation and use holes in the legislature to satisfy the interests of each client? Most laws are written by the rich anyway, to protect their wealth and not the interests of the public (one might add here that laws are also written by lawyers who make them complex and incomprehensible enough so that their employment is necessary). Modern societies, says Hythlodaeus, are conspiracies by the rich against the poor.

In Utopia, the working hours are six a day, three in the morning and three in the afternoon. The rest of the hours of the day are spent for increasing one’s knowledge and for attending public lectures. These hours are enough to produce all necessary commodities for a good life, given that in Utopia whoever is able to work is able to find employment, and there are no slackers. We can understand this by observing how many unemployed usually consist a part of any society. Women did not work in More’s times (therefore 50% of the population was not employed) and if we count the rich, who don’t work, their servants, who are not needed in Utopia, the priests, who don’t produce anything, and all those who, pretending to be helpless, beg for money (in contrast to people actually unable to work) we will see that, in reality, only a tiny fraction of the population works hard and the rest benefit from their labor.

Depiction of Utopia island, in the original edition of 1516 (photo)
Depiction of Utopia island, in the original edition of 1516 (photo)

Fanciful clothing and shiny jewels are not appreciated in Utopia. Why would they be impressed by the shining of a stone, when they can marvel at the night’s stars? Why should they be seduced by the foolish idea that someone is worse for wearing lower quality clothes? Only children wear jewelry, but when they grow up they forsake them as they do their toys, as something useless, as an immature avocation.

“Restrict the right of the rich”, Hythlodaeus continues, “to buy up everything and then to exercise a kind of monopoly. Let fewer people be brought up in idleness. Let agriculture be restored and the wool manufacture revived, so there will be useful work for the whole crowd of those now idle”. Until all these happen we have no right to talk about justice and punish thieves, since it is the conditions that force them to steal. We cannot punish someone who, since he was a child, was destined to commit crimes because of our own inability to organize a just society. We create the thieves and then punish them for committing theft!

Instead of a king trying to expand his rule on larger lands, it would be better if he took care of his subjects in the land he already rules over. Larger lands mean more subjects and greater difficulty in dealing with already existing problems that will grow bigger due to the land expansion. There is no grandeur in ruling many beggars –true grandiose consists of ruling prosperous and happy citizens. One should “rather be a ruler of rich men than be rich himself”. Utopia has no expansive intents; land is not considered a commodity but a resource, like the fertile ground available for agriculture.

Hythlodaeus supports that there can be no real justice and prosperity as long as there is private property and everything is judged with a monetary measure. In Utopia there is no money, since that is a cause of corruption, theft, bribery and poverty. As long as there is private property and money, the majority will live with the burden of poverty, tyranny and misery. There might be reliefs, like instituting higher limits for wealth, but there is no hope to cure the problem of poverty and oppression for however long private property remains.

Commodities are more than enough and they are allocated freely to those who obey the laws and the morals of the country. Every citizen has the right to ask from the state whichever commodity he thinks he needs, and the state will provide it without payment, neither a monetary one nor in kind. There is no need of payment since all goods are in abundance, and there is no danger in someone trying to concentrate wealth or goods since he knows that whatever he needs, all he has to do is ask for it. Even for food, everyone goes to public kitchens and no one needs to cook for himself, as it is both a useless expense and a timely one. Education is freely available to everyone and the hospitals are as big as cities.

Thomas More presents us with an ideal society, or rather an idealized one. We could hardly think of Utopia as a reality, even if we bear in mind Hythlodaeus’ narration of its founder, Utopus. He was a king who used untold wisdom to establish this society, but, naturally, not enough information is given on him or on how he accomplished his feat. Several aspects of the country’s infrastructure sound as if they came out of nowhere, and the text, around 150 pages, does not illuminate on this. Free education, free food, four giant hospitals in every city, absence of bureaucracy, wise citizens, minimal criminality, no poverty and abundance for everyone? How should we suppose all these privileges were acquired?

Cover of “Utopia”, along with More’s friend Erasmus’ “Epigrammata” – 1518 (photo)
Cover of “Utopia”, along with More’s friend Erasmus’ “Epigrammata” – 1518 (photo)

Scattered in the text, Hythlodaeus mentions the existence of slaves (“those who make all the difficult and dirty jobs”), but even they are not to be imagined as we have known them in actual history. These slaves are neither prisoners of war nor born slaves nor bought from slave merchants in foreign countries. They are sentenced Utopians (or citizens of other countries sentenced and sold cheaply to Utopia), who are condemned to hard manual labor. They are also foreign workers who voluntarily move to Utopia to become slaves. They are free to leave whenever they want, but hardly anyone does, since slavery in Utopia is better than the harsh environment they come from in their countries of origin that made them flee. The text is a rather moralizing one, as the author looks to find Christian values even in a society where Christianity is absent, and Morus insists to commend on Utopian values to the degree that they remind him of the “Christian values” of Britain. But More is not late to show the hidden totalitarian and self-complacent character of his vision. Let’s see how their sense of justice and moral high ground distort the peaceful and law-abiding nature of the Utopians.

The Utopians consider peace treaties among countries useless, since the fact itself that countries consist of people is enough for each to consider the others friendly. The existence of any treaty makes people see foreigners as inherently hostile, as someone who is made a friend only through the signing of a piece of paper, and any dishonorable action that is not clearly stated as such in the treaty can therefore be performed without guilt. But if they find a people they consider immoral, where the citizens easily make “debauchery of the most squalid sort”, the Utopians feel free to exploit them for their own interests without a second thought. They use them as mercenaries and “thrust them into positions of greatest danger by offering them immense rewards. Most of these volunteers never come back to collect their pay”. Those who do come back are paid according to their promises so that other “worst possible men” like them will be used in the future in the same manner. The Utopians say that “they would deserve very well of all mankind if they could exterminate from the face of the earth that entire disgusting and vicious race” (referring to the Zapoletes, a race of such squalid people).

A sample of Utopia’s alphabet, as imagined by More’s friend, Peter Giles, in the 1518 edition (photo)
A sample of Utopia’s alphabet, as imagined by More’s friend, Peter Giles, in the 1518 edition (photo)

We saw above that the Utopians have no expansive interests because they deem land to be a resource and not property. But on the other hand, war is deemed completely justified in the case when a country denies the natural right of Utopia to exploit the part of its land which it itself does not use but still considers it its property and keeps it without allowing any benefit from its use. So, within a paragraph, More (or, rather, Hythlodaeus) manages to both excuse and forgive killing and destruction, as well as the expansive policy of a country that is rather too sure of itself and of its cultural superiority.

We also saw that thieves are met with reasonable, fair punishment, without resorting to the barbarity of England. But the sentence for any serious crime is slavery (however better than the one we are accustomed to) and, if the convicts do not comply with this punishment, or “if the slaves rebel against their condition, then, like savage beasts which neither bars nor chains can tame, they are put instantly to death”. They can only hope to lighten their slavery or remit it altogether if they are patient and show regret; and only if a prince decides to pardon them -or sometimes by popular vote.

As for religion, on the island they have many, all of them equal and with freedom of expression. Most inhabitants, over time and after contact with other countries, started embracing Christianity, since it is the “most rational” religion of all, and monotheism the most logical view of the world. Utopus banned proselytizing apart from reasonable discussion in a calm manner, and gave everyone the freedom to believe whatever they wanted. Except that he prohibited the citizens to consider that the soul dies along with the body, or that there is no life after death where we are neither rewarded for our beneficence nor punished for our sins. Therefore, the atheist doesn’t seem to have a place in Utopia, since its inhabitants cannot even recognize him as a Utopian citizen, nor do they deem him “worthy to be called a human being”. The Utopians, of course, can only be as wise as More can fathom, and they illustrate such limits with their consideration that if someone does not expect divine punishment for his wrongdoings he will have no issue with breaking the communal laws for the sake of some private advantage, if he thinks he might escape the authorities. Bearing in mind that More was a devout Christian who reached the point of applying corporal punishment on a child, caned in front of his family for heresy regarding the Eucharist, and on a “feeble-minded” man, who was whipped for disrupting prayers (as he wrote in his Apology, 1533), one should not be surprised at such lighthearted abjuration of the unbelievers. He did encourage dialogue with atheists, by way of incorporating it in the Utopian state, only to the degree that he expected them to change their minds after acknowledging “the force of superior arguments”, as long as they refrained from speaking to children about ungodly issues.

Finally, the idolizing of labor and the sense of communal responsibility, as well as the total condemnation of every expression of idleness, results in the infringement of basic human freedoms, such as the freedom of movement. In Utopia, if you find yourself outside your base area without a pass, you are considered to be a defector, and if you repeat the crime the punishment is slavery. But if you want to wander in the local countryside you are free to do so, as long as you have the permission of your father or your wife. You might also freely visit nearby cities, with the relevant permit, but you can’t be idle there either. You are obligated to work on your profession during your stay there, where your colleagues will greet you warmly.

The apparent dreamscape More paints, quickly falls apart, many times within the same page. Social responsibility leads to slavery, the prohibition of every kind of wasteful behavior to expansionism and the revulsion for idleness to a degree of control of privacy that looks dangerous, to say the least. The citizen is merely a member of the state, utterly subjected to it -there is limited room for individuality, and the civilian is seen as part of the whole.

But even in his better moments, what does More offer us other than a fantasy? Anyone can fantasize a world without immorality, but no one can illustrate how to transform an existing society into such a reality. But this is the paradox of every utopia, and the only hint of an answer in More’s Utopia is the wise founder, Utopus. A deus ex machina to whom we might resign ourselves for him to take care of us, for whom we should forsake our liberties with the exchange of solving problems we must recognize we cannot solve on our own. This temptation to succumb to a wise leader or a benevolent dictator is today still persistent.

The idea itself of a utopia –any utopia- is rather problematic. It implies a sense of incapability, of resignation, of driving to a dead end –a tendency to flight towards imagined landscapes. Three years before More published his book, in 1513, Machiavelli had published The Prince, where he faced straight on this pessimism which the two writers seem to share on political affairs. But Machiavelli does not shy away from it -he accounts for the laws of politics in the here and now, giving cynical advice (or ironic, according to the reader) to a prince about how to maneuver in the real world and play the game of the ruling forces. Machiavelli offers us an explanation of the polity, More only an elusive dream.

utopia 5

However, we might as well be wrong to criticize More so harshly. His intensions are not quite so specific. The narration of Utopia’s achievements is made only by Hythlodaeus, a name that means “dispenser of nonsense”. Many readers do not fail to discern a diffusive levity in the protagonist’s overoptimistic narrations –and it is this levity that averted Marxists to bother with this, one way or the other, charming book. In reality, we cannot be certain whether Hythlodaeus’ Utopia parades in front of us as a realistic goal that a society should have or if it simply constitutes an illustration of the insipid nature of utopian thinking.

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