In his famous work Utopia, Sir Thomas More describes the society and culture of an imaginary island on which all social ills have been cured. As in Plato’s Republic, a work from which More drew while writing Utopia, More’s work presents his ideas through a dialogue between two characters, Raphael Hythloday and More himself. Hythloday is a fictional character who describes his recent voyage to the island of Utopia. Throughout the work, Hythloday describes the laws, customs, system of government, and way of life that exist on Utopia to an incredulous and somewhat condescending More.
Throughout the work, Hythloday presents a society organized to overcome the flaws of human nature. This society has been carefully thought out by More—as the author of the work—to help avoid the problems associated with human nature. Individual human appetites are controlled and balanced against the needs of the community as a whole.
In other words, More attempts to describe a society in which the seven deadly sins are counterbalanced by other motivations set up by the government and society as a whole. I believe that by providing the answer to the timeless question of overcoming man’s inherent evils in such a way More creates a perfect society to be modeled after. Many of the ideals in More’s Utopia are, as the name implies, based on ideal situations and not reality. They would work well in a civilization of automatons, but would be abolished quickly in a human situation. Nevertheless, we can apply the ideals held by the Utopians to our own societies since the ideals themselves are attainable even if a perfect society is not.
More seems to think that the seven deadly sins will be fairly easy to overcome. Pride, for instance, is counterbalanced in several ways in his social system. For instance, he makes sure that all people wear the same clothing, except that the different genders wear different styles, as do married and unmarried people. More also makes individuals fairly interchangeable within the social system—one carpenter, for instance, seems to be more or less like another to him, and can find work anywhere that carpenters are needed. He also says that the Utopians encourage their citizens to think of the good of the state as a whole in addition to their individual good. Without a sense of individuality as highly developed as the one to which modern Americans are accustomed, pride should present less of a problem to the Utopians. Gluttony is another deadly sin that Hythloday claims is easily overcome. According to him, the source of gluttony is fear of a future lack of something, especially a necessity of life such as food. As Hythloday explains to More, why would he be likely to seek too much, when he knows for certain that his needs will always be met? A man is made greedy and grasping either by the fear of need (a fear common to all creatures) or else by pride (in man alone), which thinks it glorious to surpass others in superfluous show. “This kind of vice has no place at all in the ways of Utopians.” (More 59) Others of the deadly sins are to be overcome, as are pride and gluttony, by encouraging the practice of their corresponding virtues. Sloth is to be overcome by requiring the practice of industry; covetousness by the practice of generosity (in addition to the abolition of private property); envy through respect; pride through humility; gluttony through modesty; and lechery through continence (the Utopians punished extra- or pre-marital sexual intercourse harshly). Wrath, which seems to be the lone exception, is to be treated not through the general practice of its corresponding virtue, peacemaking, but by removing the things that enrage people in the first place. Though we can not rid our society of these sins, we can use More’s methods to prevent them.
Some of the ideals presented in Utopia are abundantly present in today’s society. These include having a commodity in one culture be totally worthless in another, communal living within cities, and euthanasia as a means of release from burden. There are commodities in the world today that are totally worthless in America, but serve as a main staple in many other countries. In Utopia, gold was the most worthless metal. It wasn’t as strong as iron and was seen as a sign of servitude. Having large tracts of land is a sign of wealth and clout in our country, but in Japan, where land is scarce having large amounts of land is socially seen as a sign of overindulgence and is actually frowned upon. This appears to be a direct parallel to Utopia, but truly it isn’t. If gold is acquired in Utopia, it is used to make shackles for the slaves, a very unimportant use. In Japan, If one does have land, he will probably try to hold on to it despite what society thinks. In Utopia, there is no difference between what society thinks and what the individual thinks, however reality is somewhat less black-and-white. In reality there is always a difference between what society believes and what the individual believes. Communal living may be the most widely realized ideal from Utopia. In the modern day this can be displayed through the beliefs of Karl Marx. He believed in this ideal, his dream was ultimately realized through communism. Though communism is not acceptable in America, it is practiced in many countries around the globe. The difference is that Utopia’s community was a bit too communal for reality to deal with. The communist governments, on the other hand, share the value and wealth of the property with the whole of the people, meaning that all people benefit from the whole of the nation’s resources (they don’t actually live together). This is a much more palatable and liberal way of living than that which was practiced in Utopia. Finally, euthanasia is a topic that has always, and still does, create an immense amount of controversy, but not in Utopia. Everyone rationally sees the killing of ones-self as a release from pain and burden to the rest of the community. Once again, it doesn’t work that way in the real world. Mercy killing is an especially debated topic in today’s society. It will never be as clear to the world as it seems to be in Utopia, but we can strive to attain a more universal understanding of it. Even now, mercy-killing has two very distinct sides to its debate-those who vehemently oppose it and those who are proponents of it. This may seem simple to us today, but it did not exist on the island of Utopia.
Like Plato, who wrote before him, More believes that human beings are essentially rational and will choose the greater good if it is made clear to them—that evil is a form of ignorance, at least in some cases. Like Skinner, who wrote later than him, More believes that the upbringing and circumstances of a person’s life determine the way in which that person will act, at least in large part. And like Marx, who wrote after him,
More believes that the actions of individuals are, in many ways, shaped by the economic system in which they live. More combines these beliefs in Utopia to create a system that presents the greatest ethical good as the ideal that society works to ensure that citizens choose in any given circumstance. For instance, by removing the temptation associated with gold and silver and holding all property in common, and by making sure that everyone has enough of everything to meet their basic needs, More intends to eliminate human greed. This is to occur by making it unnecessary (and undesirable) and by removing the circumstances that lead to it— private property and lack of bounty, in this case. It seems to me that this belief that More inherited from Plato—that people will choose the best option, if it is only made known to them—is the weakest point of More’s utopian social system. People do not always choose rationally. Even if the greatest ethical good is presented as the most desirable choice in any given circumstance, and even if alternative choices are harshly punished, there will always be those who choose the alternatives. Humans, like donkeys, are not always persuadable, even if both the carrot and the stick are used.
One of the faults of Utopia is that More omits the fact that in some cases man is driven by a passion for power. There are certain individuals who are not accounted for on the island of Utopia. In fact, More fails to describe any characters on the island well enough that the reader can get a sense of their motivation, but only discusses motivation in general and in the abstract. It seems to me that there will always be evil within a society. There will always be those who knowingly (or uncaringly) make bad bargains—despite all of the efforts of those who, like More, seek to instill a sense of social responsibility. Some will always attempt to seek power over others at the expense of those who are content to remain at a lower level of a social scale or do not have the means to proceed upward. More might reply (as Skinner almost certainly would) that the drive for knowledge and power is conditioned by the society, in which we live.
More’s Utopia presents a nice theory, but one too abstract, too Platonic, too rationalistic, and with too little understanding of real human motivations to be workable. However, it is hardly a useless or worthless work—it contains many profound psychological insights, quite a bit of humor, and many very good points. Much should be learned from his practical ideals, though More’s Dream society could never work as a complete social system. It is based on ideals and not reality, unattainable ideals that only exist in our minds and on paper.
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