Socialist ideals have appeared in literature from Plato to Marx. In its midst is Sir Thomas More's Utopia, which links ancient and modern Utopias. Hythloday's fantasy island draws heavily on the Greek republic, and yet influenced Marx. What values do they hold in common, and which ideals are unique?
Life in Utopia
In More's classless society, everyone does the same work, is equal, has the same rights, and must work at least 6 hours every day at whatever they do best. As Utopia is an agricultural society, all people work the land. This creates the same conditions for everyone and ensures ample supplies to suppress the animal fear of want.
All clothing is plain, simple, and designed for utility and practicality. Finer material would give no better protection from the cold or make people appear better dressed. To prevent ostentation, Utopians exchange homes every 10 years and eat in mess halls. Hereditary distinctions are unknown, for children move from household to household, depending on which skill they want to learn. Since there is little distinction in occupation, dress, lodging, riches, or use of free time, pride is almost non-existent.
Utopia's collective agriculture displays the division of labor. Everyone learns the rudiments of agriculture to better serve the common good. "No one will have to do this hard work against his will for more than two years, but many of them ask to stay longer because they take a natural delight in farm life."(1) This ensures Utopia's food supply and gives everyone access to civilized life. If an excessive surplus is produced, a holiday is declared so that no one works without purpose.
Utopia's separate groups (e.g., magistrates and the prince, priests and intellectuals) are not a social or economic class. The syphogrants and the prince are elected autocrats. Their power derives from-and can be removed by-the people. Specialists are not isolated, but rather leaders in an institution in which all can participate. Learning is valued and respected as a means of fully developing one's specific capacities, not as an indication of social standing.
Why Is Utopia Desirable?
One of More's reasons for suggesting a Utopia was to end exploitation. More was most likely revolted by the luxury of sixteenth-century Europe's ruling class, which he saw as a result of the peasantry's impoverishment. If poverty were to be excluded from Utopia, luxury must suffer the same fate. More saw no benefit to the common good if peasant labor benefited only a very small minority.
As a classless society cannot have pride, Utopians consider it a social vice and pass this view on to their children at an early age. As Hythloday says: "Men and animals alike are greedy and rapacious from fear of want. Only human pride glories in surpassing others in conspicuous consumption. For this kind of vice there is no room whatsoever in the Utopian way of life."(2) Lack of pride rids Utopia of class and potential social discord, for a commonwealth without pride is like a single united family.
An even division of labor and a lack of pride clears the way for life's pleasures. There can be no better good than striving for the maximum happiness of all, at the least cost or disadvantage to oneself and society. More believes that money, a symbolic capital that people desire, is the problem, and so Utopia has no money or capital. Thus freed from worrying about food, bills, and other necessities, they enjoy such physical pleasures as fine dining, eating, drinking, and merrymaking (though without alcohol). There is music, a pleasure to the mind and body. For similar reasons, each house has a large garden into which much love and leisure time goes. Their desire to have the best garden, the most pleasing sanctuary, is perhaps the only competition among families.
Pride is replaced by spiritual fulfillment. They pursue philosophy and religion in their quest for virtue and contemplation of the truth, respectively. Their society's primary virtue is natural reason: the reasons for humanity's creation. For them, living according to nature is to be humanitarian. More mentions this: "As nature bids us mutually to make our lives merry and delightful, so she also bids again and again not to destroy or diminish other people's pleasure in seeking our own."(3)
Religion gives great satisfaction to most Utopians. This is unique to More, for neither Plato nor Marx accept religion. Utopia's king decreed that all citizens should believe in at least two things: the soul's immortality and the existence of rewards and punishments in the next life. In religion, Utopians find peace and contemplation of the truth. As education is the most efficient way to overcome corruption and crime, it is entrusted to priests. As a result, few laws are needed and existing ones require only the most obvious and easiest interpretation.
Utopia's government consists of magistrates and a prince who handle the country's affairs. This does not contradict communism, as government's sole purpose is to maintain the status quo and prevent idleness. The government is designed in the most responsible way. All matters must be considered for a day and cannot be passed without 3 days of contemplation. It is a capital offense to consult together on public affairs outside the senate or the people's assembly. Raphael says: "They take care to deliberate wisely rather than speedily ... considering the public good."(4)
More's Utopia has a major failing: it is static and unchanging, instead of evolving, and allows no place for growth and development. Thus only a miracle or a prince gifted with a measure of divine power could bring it into existence. More understood that his Utopia was not a possible solution, but had no idea of the historical process that might lead to a future socialism.
Utopia is only put forward so that readers will understand that Utopian values are really the fundamental values of human nature, and that the world is imperfect. As Hythloday says at the end: "I must confess that there are many things in the Utopian Commonwealth that I wish rather than expect to see among our citizens."(5)
More does not call for a revolution, nor is he a leader of the proletariat who wants to overthrow the bourgeoisie. Instead, More is like his Utopians, simply contemplating what would be nice, a daydream maybe. While More's Utopia anticipates the characteristics of a modern classless society, he proposes no means by which to obtain this blissful paradise.
- Thomas More, Utopia, ed./trans. H.V.S. Ogden (Illinois: ARM, 1949), 29.
- Ibid., 38.
- Ibid., 48.
- Ibid., 33.
- Ibid., 83.