A Critical Essay On Sir Thomas More
’s Utopia Essay, Research Paper
As its title hints, the essay which follows is not the history but biographical of an idea. The idea for the book called Utopia. Like all ideas for books it was born and had its whole life span in the mind of an author. Like all such ideas it ceased to be when the printed book Utopia became a black-on-white reality. Although there is no accurate record of its birth date, it seems to have been born in the mind of Sir Thomas More. As the writer I shall have to take into account the environment in which our subject passed its life and that environment was the mind of Sir Thomas More. To establish the lineaments of the idea for Utopia we shall perforce, for lack of better sources of information, rely on the book called Utopia We ourselves shall have to look very closely to separate the thinkers thought from the literary tricks of the trade.
More’s intentions in Utopia, must remain mysterious. A little more difficult to accept is the general implication of the review that the mysteriousness of the author’s intent in Utopia is somehow a point in his favor, that the obscurity of his meaning enhances the merit of his work. The one point of unanimous agreement about Utopia is it is a work of social comment. Since Utopia is a work of many ideas, it is impossible of course to expand the book unless one has some notion of the hierarchy of conception in it. A caretul reading of Utopia does seem to me to reveal clearly the hierarchy of it author’s ideas at the time he composed the book. Although the interpretation of Utopia which follows has no pretension to substantial novelty, but rather disavows it, my approach to the problem may seem singular and eccentric. The account of such an analysis will necessarily be a little dull, so I shall have to request the forbearance of the reader without being able to promise for his patience any large reward in the shape of a brand new insight.
The inconsistency between the prospectus in the curious paragraph and the subject matter that follows in the printed version of Utopia becomes intelligible if we make a few assumptions about the development of the books composition. The conclusion various scholars have come to about More’s attitude toward the institution of property coincides to a remarkable degree with their own pre-dilection on that point, or with their notion of what More should have thought. In Utopia More put the only criticism of community of property and the only defenses of private property into his own mouth. For there is no defense of private property at all in the Utopia of More’s first intention. Perhaps the best way to evaluate this contentions to set down next to each other those two defenses of private property.
Now there is an enormous difference between these two critiques of community of property and goods. The second argument is serious and consequential. Not one of those contemporaries would have maintained for a moment that what mattered in a commonwealth were splendor, magnificence, and majesty. More’s contempt for earthly magnificence, and splendor appears not only in his earnest direct denunciations of it in Utopia, and in his elimination of all pomp from his ideal commonwealth except in connection with religious worship, but also in his humorous asides, and particularly in his autobiographical aside about the mission of the ambassadors of Anemolia to Utopia. Indeed More’s revulsion against pomp and display is embedded in levels of his being deeper than his discriminating intellect and rational consciousness. Now if anyone honestly wanted to uphold private property, surely he would rest his case with a mature, not with a palpably silly and insincere argument. Of course More could not put this serious argument against community of property at the end of Book II, because he had already used it near the end of Book I. It is a curious tactic for a man committed to the defense of private property, and one that surely calls for explanation. The argument against community of property at the end of Book I is neither novel nor remarkable, but it is venerable and durable. It raises two classical problems of egalitarian socialism: the problem of incentives and the problem of order and authority.
We need not seek to evaluate these arguments against egalitarianism and the community of property ourselves; we need only to try and learn how More evaluated them. But what of the dire consequences that the argument in Book I against the community of property ascribes to such social arguments? Indeed it is the rather sour cream of the jest that it is not Utopia but sixteenth century Europe, with its well rooted institutions of private property, that is running to ruin with scarcity, idleness and crimes of violence. At this point to demonstrate the sincerity and seriousness of More’s aversion to private property may seem supererogatory. Having tidied up this little point, which we will have to untidy later, writers in the hagiographic tradition either dismiss Utopia as one of More’s lesser works with no serious intent or concentrate their attention on the section dealing with Utopian philosophy and religion almost to the exclusion of those on Utopian social an economic policy. Yet to regard the section on religion and philosophy as the key to the interpretation of Utopia and to the intent of its author is in effect to surrender at the outset any hope of determining what that intent was.
More nevertheless takes considerable pain by mean of two devices to draw the Utopian commonwealth as near to Christianity as his literary form will let him. More is in a sense recapitulating, in a sense reversing, the historical development of the Christian faith itself More’s reconstruction of a philosophy and a religion for his Utopian based on natural reason, and attaining what was probably to his mind the highest perfection that natural reason could reach. This is not the place to enter into the details of the long controversy over the nature, history, and origin Christian humanism: but my classification of More’s intellectual position as Christian humanist obliges me briefly to describe and defend the rubric. Two essential elements of Christian humanism bear on the question of the relation Utopian religion and philosophy to Thomas More’s own opinion. More probably intended for Utopian philosophy and religion to represent the nearest approach natural reason can make to Christian truth. How this curious situation affects our capacity to deduce More’s philosophic and religious ideas from those ascribed to the Utopian will be nicely illustrated. In the methodical and complete annihilation of the foundation of a money economy in Utopia More achieves a true masterpiece of constructive imagination.
More’s originality then lay not in the bare idea of a community property and goods; it lay in the exactness, the precision, and the meticulous detail with which he implemented his underlying social conception. Both in the detailed penetrating diagnosis of contemporary ills and in the detailed prescription of requisite remedies, More surpassed the usual limits limitations of traditional social satire and of humanist social criticism. Therefor& thus prescription, in the rare instance when anything so specific is suggested, are mere analgesics and plasters, not radical remedies. At a first approximation it is clear that More found bond among the particular social ills of his time in the organization of society itself, especially in its economic aspect. Thus Karl Kautsky was led to observe that More thought along Modem lines. There can be no serious objection to describing the Utopian economy as socialist , but Kautsky has a modem socialist explanation for these reactionary features of Utopia.
The idea of labor-saving had not taken deep roots in the early sixteenth century. Yet More certainly did not take the view common to all present day social thought that that maximum leisure and minimum labor as such are proper goals of economic organization. More unquestionably did not impose obligatory bond labor on certain Utopians out of need for a work force to do the dirty jobs in the economy, as Kautsky suggests. A society that imposes bond service on some of its own citizens for absenteeism and contentiousness among other things may be the best state of the commonwealth to More’s mind. If compulsory labor was an integral element in the pattern of More’s social thought, (the frugality of the Utopians, the restrictions of wants) was even more so.
We are better equipped to discover what those ends are now that we know that bond labor, abolition of markets and money, and restrictions of wants by enforced community of consumption are of a piece with the abolition of private property and profit and with the obligation to toil-indispensable motifs in the total pattern of More’s best state of the commonwealth. More simply did not believe that all the evil men do can be ascribed to the economic arrangements of society. Although he was convinced that the institutions of the society that he knew provided the occasion for the evils he saw, he did not believe that the evils were totally ascribable to the institutions. The best known passage of Utopia is directed against the “inordinate and insatiable covetousness” of landlords and engrossers.
The Utopian philosophy then is based on a diagnosis of the ills of sixteenth century Christendom. Unless we recognize it, we cannot rescue More from the ideologically motivated scholars of the Left and the Right. Both of these formulations-that of the Left and of the Right-are subject to a number of weaknesses. They are both based on conceptions of economic development and social stratification in the sixteenth century and earlier more coherent than correct, and largely mythological in many respects. Now this paradox is amenable to one of two possible explanations. The first would require us to assume that More’s thought was so contradictory, disorderly, and illogical as to justif either of these interpretations or both, although in reason and common sense they are mutually contradictory. The second possibility is that either point of view can be maintained only by an unconscious but unjustifiable underestimate of the weight of the citation and data offered in support of the opposite point of view.
Once we recognize that More’s analysis of sixteenth century society led him to the conclusion that pride was the source of the greater part of its ills, the pattern of the Utopian commonwealth becomes clear, consistent, and intelligible. In a society where no man is permitted to own the superfluities that are the marks of invidious distinction, no man will covet them. Above all idleness, the great emblem of pride in the society of More’s time, is utterly destroyed by the common obligation of common daily toil. Since More does not explicitly speak of pride very often in Utopia, my emphasis on its role in his social thought on both the critical and constructive side may seem exaggerated.
The disciplining of pride, then, is the foundation of the best state of the commonwealth. And more than that, it is pride itself that prevents actual realms from attaining to that best state. If the sector of thought covered in my paper on Utopian philosophy and religion was-as it has sometimes been treated4he key to More’s meaning in the whole of Utopia or in the Utopia of his first intention, we would have on our hands a work so contrived by the author that its central ideas were bound to elude the reader’s grasp.