Utopia (Thomas Moore) Essay, Research Paper
In his book Utopia, Thomas More examines a society that seems to be the ideal living situation for human beings. The main thesis of Utopia is his solution to many of the problems that are being faced in English society in the early 16th century.
In forming his ideas for the country of Utopia, More points out many of the problems that he sees in English society. One of the most striking examples of English social problems that More points out is the punishment of thieves. In England, thieves are punished with death. There is no distinction between the severity of crimes in the justice system and a man who steals a loaf of bread is given the same sentence as a man who kills. According to More, “this method of dealing with thieves is both unjust and socially undesirable.” (More, 44) More sees the system of capital punishment to be unfair to the perpetrator and by no means an effective deterrent to the crime of theft.
In order to prevent theft, More feels that the people need to be given a way to exist that alleviates the need to steal. He says ” …no penalty on earth will stop people from stealing, if it’s their only way of getting food.” (More, 44) This argument seems to be a direct attack on the English class system. Because English society is made up of mainly two classes, the wealthy and the peasantry, it seems next to impossible to make a society in which all people are able to exist comfortably. More points out that people are compelled to steal because of their environment. In England in the 16th century, many peasant farmers were being driven from their land because wealthy land owners were turning cultivated land into pastures in order to raise more sheep, which in return the wool would produce a lager profit than the crops yielded from the land. More describes this process as follows; “Each greedy individual preys on his native land like a malignant growth, absorbing field after field and enclosing thousands of acres in a single fence. Result-hundreds of farmers are evicted.” (More, 47) Without land, people have no means of supporting themselves and are forced to either turn to begging and lose all of their self respect or steal to survive and More says “theft comes easier to a man of spirit”.(More, 48) More sums up his feeling on the matter by saying “Thus, a few greedy people have converted one of England’s greatest natural advantages into a national disaster.” (More, 48)
When examining the problems of English society, More points out that another of the main contributing factors is the centralized kingship of the country. More says, “it is generally agreed that a king can do no wrong, however much he may want to, because everything belongs to him, including every human being in the country…”. (More, 61) Because the king has so much power over his country and his land, there is nothing to assure that the people under his command can lead happy and healthy lives.
One of the main points More focuses on in Utopia is the kings powers and how he uses them. Kings have the ability to make war, but More questions why anyone would want to go to war in the first place by saying “I don’t see how it can be in the public interest to prepare for war, which you needn’t have unless you want to, by maintaining innumerable disturbers of the peace-when peace is so infinitely more important.” (More, 46) Kings have the power to send their people off to fight and lose their lives perhaps because he just feels like war or because he is land hungry. More feels that the kings should simply focus on the land and subjects he has rather than dividing his attention between his duties and his ambitions. He also feels that what kings fail to realize is that they are creating crime and then punishing people for the wrong doing. By allowing war to occur, they are creating an environment of lower moral standards in their kingdom. People are hungry and since the king is so wrapped up in his petty war he is too busy to realize that his people have to resort to theft in order to survive. Instead he punishes them for theft and continues his campaign for more land. More feels that being a king is a full time job. He asks of a king “why do you suppose they made you king in the first place? Not for your benefit, but for theirs.” (More, 61) A king is not supposed to keep his people poor in order to maintain peace, for those who are not content with their environment are more likely to rebel against their leader than those who are happy and healthy. More believes a true king is one who leads the rich and prosperous, not one who resorts to reducing his subjects to poverty in order to keep them in check. (More, 61-62)
As an answer to the various problems seen with English society, More gives a complete description of an ideal society which he refers to as Utopia. More’s model of Utopia seems to be an early model for a communistic society. It shuns almost all aspects of the English capitalistic society alluding to the idea that under this system there will never be social harmony.
In Utopia, there is no private property. Everything is owned by everyone and there is no need for anyone to want more that another person because everyone in the society works together to supply ample provisions for the whole community. More gives one example of this by describing the agricultural system of Utopia. The Country of Utopia is not completely agrarian, but all inhabitants must contribute to the agrarian aspect of the culture. Every person in the community must work for two years on the farms of the country which ensures that there is always an ample supply of food for the people. (More, 70-71)
Once a persons term of agrarian labor is completed, he is taught a useful skill, whether it be masonry, blacksmithing or wool refinery. Many people follow in the same trade as their family members, but there is no law that says a person cannot learn another trade and every effort is made to accommodate the person while they learn a trade from another person. Because there is no class system in Utopia, a person is not restricted to the trades they may practice and everyone, women included, is educated equally. If a person is of superior intellect, they may obtain permission to excuse themselves from manual labor in order to continue to refine their minds. (More, 75-77)
All people of Utopia are given the same provisions to ensure equality. Everyone wears the same clothing and are given the same quality of food. Material wealth is not seen as important, and in fact items such as gold and silver are used to ornament slaves rather than show privilege. If a person does become greedy and resorts to theft, they are not put to death, but rather are enslaved. Utopians feel that a man does more good alive than dead and therefore their criminals are put to work to improve society.
There is not one ruler in Utopia, but rather a system of elected persons who ensure the welfare of their community. This eliminates the dictorial kingship system and allows people to voice an opinion in their community affairs. There is no monetary value placed on anything so if a person desires something he is granted it. More says that “no living creature is naturally greedy, except for fear or want-or in the case of human beings, from vanity.” (More, 80) The English idea of private property and wealth is completely eliminated creating a monochromatic existence. Because everyone in Utopia is granted everything equal, there exists no concept of superiority and those elected officials are there to assure that things remain equal.
Utopians do however declare war, but not without good reason. Utopians engage in war merely to avenge wrongdoing to themselves or their allies. However, unlike the English, Utopians almost never engage in the battles themselves. They hire soldiers to fight for them because war would risk the lives of Utopian citizens and nothing is worth the death of a Utopian. (More, 110-111)
More also points out that the main purpose of Utopians is pleasure. They work as little as possible to ensure they have adequate provisions and spend the rest of their time expanding their minds and maintaining their health, for without a healthy body how can one truly experience pleasure? Unlike England, everyone in Utopia is allowed to feel pleasure, not just the wealthy. (More, 95-98)
Thomas More seems to have a good idea of what the perfect society would be like, however whether it would really work is another matter. Whether greed is a product of capitalism or not is still a question, but it does exist and people are driven to accumulate wealth. England may have been a society that strictly enforced a class system and was driven by capitalism, but could a society really survive under More’s model?