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Commonwealth in “Utopia” by Thomas More Essay

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Updated: Aug 9th, 2021

Introduction

Utopia, written by ancient politician Thomas More, is a book illustrating the ideal model of the state and the structure of society, for which all people and nations should strive. There is no doubt that in his book More relies on Plato’s work The Republic, which he had always been fond of since student days. However, More used The Republic only as the foundation for his book, and was concerned more about the nascent industrial capitalism and its consequences. Utopia, published in 1516, gave the name to the whole genre. “A truly golden little book, no less beneficial than entertaining, of a republic’s best state and the new island Utopia,” as More first named it (Achten et al. 1, 2017). The impetus for the writing of this book were undoubtedly More’s impressions from the complicated village life in England and the moral state of urban society, distorted by excessive interference of academic philosophy.

The commonwealth that is described in the book seems to be beneficial for people, community and a state. Nevertheless, there are issues raised in Utopia that might influence the contemporary state of people’s life. This paper will discuss the statement, “The commonwealth of Utopia turns out to be a highly attractive place in some ways, but a highly unattractive one in others” (More 12, 2000). The comment presents an issue of Utopia, the controversy of More’s discussion that affects the commonwealth of the state that will be analysed to argue that the statement is true. Further, the reasons for this argument will be discussed and cases that can support the assertion of Utopia as being both an attractive and unattractive place to live for different citizens will be presented.

The Overview of the Book

In the first part of Utopia, Thomas More criticises modern England: especially the ruining of peasants, which the rich were pushing from the land and giving fields for pasture for sheep. The humanist More opposes Royal despotism, wars and the death penalty. In the second part of the book, the author tells about the structure of the fantastic island of Utopia, where it is possible to build an ideal state. Utopia includes fifty-four cities, each of which is home to six thousand so-called “families” (More 79, 2000). In the “family,” there are ten to sixteen adults who are engaged in a particular craft.

Around the cities village families live, where each citizen is obliged to work for at least two years. All men and women in the country are engaged in agriculture. Moreover, everyone learns some craft that is passed down from one generation to another. If someone does not enjoy the family business, this person is transferred to the family which is engaged in a more suitable craft. If the cities are overpopulated, the citizens of Utopia are relocated to colonies and vice versa. In the centre of each town, there is a market where goods and food are taken. Everyone can take as much as needed: everything is available in abundance.

Utopia is a country located on an island that has ever existed, but people have not gotten to it yet; however, theoretically, they can. All utopians are primarily concerned with spiritual development, but do not forget to work effectively for the benefit of society (More 90, 2000). In science and art, utopians have reached great achievements. If foreigners visit them, the citizens of Utopia get acquainted with their culture and sciences in detail, quickly comprehend them and develop them at home. The life of utopians consists of virtue and the pleasures of body and spirit. Citizens help the weak and take care of the sick. Health is one of the chief pleasures; beauty, strength and agility are also appreciated.

Utopia is an absolute monarchy with a Council of elders. Utopians work three hours before lunch and three hours after. Six hours is enough to serve for all social needs because the requirements of individuals are minimal: free time is given for spiritual development and education, and, for example, everyone’s clothes are the same (More 88, 2000). Ordinary types of work citizens execute consecutively, one by one. The exception is possible only if a person has extraordinary achievements in science or art. Thomas More could not decide what to do with those types of labor that in any society were considered dirty (for example, if you have to deal with garbage), and that is why the author introduces the institution of slavery. Slaves can be citizens convicted of adultery (the victim of a family had the right to get a divorce), or foreigners who were exiled to Utopia or were captured there (More 146, 2000). Slave labor is better than the execution of people. Money is abolished in Utopia, and night pots are made of gold.

Citizens choose officials in Utopia; for high positions, public authorities are only selected among scientists. These wise men form the city Senate, and they choose the King. An enlightened monarch reigns for life unless he is convicted of despotism. In Utopia, there is no private property because Thomas More considered it evil. Therefore, there is almost no crime, no need for complex laws, as the author suggests it. Utopia is not at war with anyone; nevertheless, it is ready to defend itself. Commonwealth tolerates freedom to choose any religion, but atheism is prohibited.

The Review of Life Presented in Utopia

When analysing T. More’s ideas about the political structure of society, it can be emphasized that utopian democracy contrasts sharply with the system of government of feudal absolutist states, based on the appointment of officials from above and the dominance of bureaucracy. The author considered the operation of Utopia the best for the human interests of people. The religion that survives in Utopia is purged of all that have no scientific explanation: superstition and fiction. More challenged the dominant Catholic church by introducing a system of elective priests in the perfect state.

The politician goes much further than Plato when defining the perfect state. Utopia is not a city state that is self-sufficient, but a nation-state, occupying a territory about the size of England, and living, in contrast to other commonwealths, the complete national life. Plato’s republic was only a small aristocratic society that was dependent on the labor of slaves and peasants; communism was spread only among the ruling class. The communism of the utopians, based on abundance and security, surpasses the equalization of the bourgeois socialists, who do not see that the equation can only appear after the destruction of classes.

According to More, Utopia is a society without classes consisting of a majority that is free from exploitation. However, in designing an equal organization, Thomas More seems to be inconsistent, allowing the existence of slaves in Utopia. Slaves on the island are deprived category of the population, burdened by heavy labor duties. They are chained and continuously at work without joy that is a prerequisite of Utopia. Slaves were needed to save citizens from the most challenging and dirty work. It can be stated that slavery is the weak side of More’s utopian conception.

The existence of slaves in an ideal state is contrary to the principles of equality on which More has based the perfect social order of Utopia. However, the proportion of slaves in the social production of the country is insignificant because the leading producers are still citizens. Slavery has a specific character in the book; in addition to its economic function, it is a measure of punishment for crimes and a means of re-education.

The ideal outlined in Utopia is made with the idea that people are created for normal human labor and that it is achieved only by the elimination of private property. Thomas More did not disclose in Utopia plans how the transition to the future system will be conducted. He rejected the path of reforms from above but did not encourage revolutionary changes. It can be stated that his attitude to popular movements was controversial. It is hard to say if More was afraid of revolutionary movements or not. Nevertheless, in Utopia, the humanist expressed the view of the rebellious spirit of the oppressed as a noble spirit and endowed the perfect state with the function of helping other folks to overthrow tyranny in their countries.

More’s Commonwealth and its Controversy

A utopia is a place where there is no conflict, no envy of more successful people (no private property), no competition (everyone is the same, not only in clothes but also in their needs and aspirations). There is no arbitrariness of power (it is wise and perfect), a short working day and confidence in themselves and loved ones (More 73, 2000). In this sense, the place is attractive for people who want to live in the perfect commonwealth. The socialism that Thomas More suggests building seems to be not feasible for scientists as they argue that the economic system described in the book cannot be achieved (Mangeloja 78, 2019). Thus, the state of Utopia cannot be attractive for people as it has fundamental structural failures.

However, there are crucial issues around this state that make it unbearable for living and impossible to establish. The structure of society in Utopia seems fair, but the individual preferences and desires of utopians are not taken into account. For example, in most cases, citizens learn the craft in which their parents were engaged, and it is hard to switch to other work. Officials and clergy are chosen from those who are already exempt from physical labor. Such privileges for a narrow circle, in any case, lead to an increase in social tension, tranquility in such conditions is impossible.

As socialist ideas gained public acceptance, a sharp ideological struggle broke out around More’s socialism. There are two main dimensions of the discussion: one was to prove that socialism is not More’s ideal, and the other was to show that this ideal is bad. A prominent place in the interpretation of Utopia belongs to Catholic literature (Wilde 101, 2016). Having beatified More’s view for propaganda reasons, the Catholic church had to dissociate itself from socialism. The ideologists of the church tried in various ways to prove the idea that communism is not More’s conviction. They said that the meaning of Utopia is only in the abstract preaching of brotherly love, the spirit of collectivism and the liberation of souls from the instinct of acquisitiveness.

The second trend of More’s critics, on the contrary, connects his ideas with socialism, not only with the perfect one but also with the scientific. The main reasoning of the critics is the danger of utopias in general, their potential to become a reality and the threat they pose to the natural development of people without interruption. Thus, it can be stated that the concept of Utopia brings not only attractive opportunities, but the danger of structured commonwealth lies in the chance to turn the idea around and harm the freedom of people.

It might also be stated that despite its concept, Utopia, as a state described by different humanists and philosophers, stays the idyll that cannot be achieved. Scholars highlight that Thomas More’s commonwealth included and organized various crucial issues needed for human beings, such as justice, distribution of resources, truth, shared goals and shared things (Corman 9, 2018). In this sense, articles clearly support the view that Utopia might be an attractive place to live in. However, scientists subconsciously assume that Utopia is not a reality because such an attractive place to live cannot be created as there always are issues that disrupt the perfect functioning of the state.

Shared society and economy that exist in Utopia fulfill the concept of helping those who are on the periphery of the state. The unattractiveness of this concept lies in the fact that while trying to remove the line between public and private space, socialism pursues a goal of a person’s depersonalization. Scholars argue that “the elaborate ideology of status and custom that provided a time honoured justification for the unequal distribution of wealth in society, is accompanied by an equally comprehensive social framing of identity” (Hall 34, 2016). This article supports the view that a commonwealth in Utopia may have an adverse effect on society and repel people from living there.

Uniformity in living, including food, clothes, homes; standardization in crafts and family occupation; homogeneity in personal expression and aspirations; drive a decrease in individualization and aim to get a unified society. The threat can be seen due to the uniformity of people that may lead to the easiness of control and management of people that may lack rational consciousness. One can highlight the alarming situation in Utopia that may be affected by the dominant ideology that undermines the commonwealth that has created public space and destroyed the private one. The author does not explicitly state how the issue of tyranny that may arise in the homogeneous state can be addressed and handled correctly.

More’s commonwealth that is based on specific political and economic system encourages readers to consider the options of saving or destroying the private property. Scholars claim that the discussion around this action is still relevant in the modern states as there is an inconsistency among countries on the view of the efficient development of society and the achievement of idyll (Arfi 1220, 2016). Thus, scholars also highlight the controversy that contributes to the argument that Utopia can be both beneficial and unfavorable for people. Nowadays, one can state that socialism has not proved its efficiency. At the same time, capitalism thrived in many countries and suggested that the commonwealth described in Utopia may not be beneficial for citizens of the state.

Conclusion

Thomas More was not only the founder of the utopian socialist movement but also the founder of its democratic direction, which presents socialism as a rational organization of society and as a means of solving social contradictions, the abolition of social inequality and exploitation. More also supports democracy in the sense that he built the perfect political system on the principles of freedom, equality and respect for a human. More sought to establish clear boundaries and relations between religion and mindfulness to make society more humanistic and open, avoiding both the complete denial of worship and a variety of superstitions.

More does not give a reader a ready-made recipe for how to rebuild society but roughly outlines the path that can lead people to happiness and prosperity. The unsolved problem of the transition to socialism is mainly affected by the utopianism of More’s views, associated with an uncertainty of the possible historical development. It is not a coincidence that More wrote his work in a debatable form to leave the question open to future generations. Although Utopia is an ideal model, it reflects the ideas and positions that each state should strive for in its development based on social justice and universal well-being.

The author emphasizes that domestic policy should be of a higher priority over foreign policy because it is primarily concerned about the lives of its citizens and their well-being. Nevertheless, there are specific issues raised in the book that need to be addressed to avoid the negative consequences of uniformity of society. Thus, the ambiguity of the commonwealth’s appeal to people will be in discussion due to differences and continuous changes in countries that pursue the specific public policy.

Works Cited

Achten, Bouckaert, et al. A Truly Golden Handbook: The Scholarly Quest for Utopia. Leuven University Press, 2017.

Arfi, Ikram. International Journal of Humanities and Cultural Studies, vol. 2, no. 4, 2016, pp. 1212-1227, Web.

Corman, David. “Utopia and Contemporary Human Society: A Model for Sustainable Continuance.” The NCHC Journal of Undergraduate Research & Creative Activity, vol. 6, 2018, pp. 1-12, Web.

Hall, Sam. Shakespeare’s Folly: Philosophy, Humanism, Critical Theory. Routledge, 2016.

Mangeloja, Ovaska. Economic Affairs, vol. 39, no. 1, 2019, pp. 65-80, Web.

More, Thomas. Utopia. Edited by George M. Logan, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Wilde, Lawrence. Thomas More’s Utopia: Arguing for Social Justice. Routledge, 2016.

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