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Sir Thomas More’s Utopia

Sir Thomas More’s penultimate work Utopia may be considered as one of the first treatise on the conception of an ideal state during the peak of the age of exploration and the gradual entry toward the period of enlightenment. Taking from classic philosophical context such as Plato’s The Republic, More does not only attempt in the conception of an ideal state but an entire country, which social practices and norms share slight similarities but are altogether unusual in context with the traditional or accepted social practices.

The distinction between these practices remains similar in its general context or on its function as a natural human convention including religion, government, laws, and many others. But in context with utopian society, these practices are modified so as to promote a certain ‘perfection’ or an ideal. First, it must be clarified that the characters mentioned in the book reflect the physical names of real historical characters such as Sir Thomas More, Peter Giles, and John Morton.

These characters however, as found in the book, are fictional and therefore act as symbolic representation rather than direct interpretation of the real character themselves. Thus, the ideas presented by More as a character necessarily reflect the author’s own views. More, ambassador for England and King Henry VIII, travels to Flanders, and eventually Antwerp as a diplomat. He sees Peter Giles, one of his learned friends, talking to a man with a long beard who he immediately assumed to be a sea captain.

The man was named Raphael Hythloday and Giles introduced him as a traveler and a philosopher. As a young man, Hythloday had distributed his shares amongst his siblings and joined noted explorer Amerigo Vesupucci. He had traveled in search of the Americas, south of the equator, and Asia. After the usual civilities, More invites Giles and their newfound friend to his home and Raphael talks about his travels, from the aforementioned, eventually leading to the island of Utopia. The Errors of Man

First, we take into context the division of the book in two parts, the first being the current context of the pervading times during the book’s publication. More, Giles, and Hythloday narrate different arguments on the existence of social problems that, according to them, continue to plague the development of a perfect society. Problems such as capital punishment, political power play, thievery, and common property, among others continue to uphold a constant cycle of repetition rather than progressive growth.

The second part is the detailed narration of Utopia itself; its structure, government, culture, practices, etc. Both parts will finally refer to the argument that Utopia remains a Utopia; an ideal state where ideal practices are practiced yet may never be realistically possible. Hythloday, being introduced as a traveler as well as a learned man, Giles and More suggest that he enter the service of kings and monarchs in order to provide advice on how states of power should be properly managed.

I wonder, Raphael, how it comes that you enter into no king’s service, for I am sure there are none to whom you would not be very acceptable; for your learning and knowledge, both of men and things, is such, that you would not only entertain them very pleasantly, but be of great use to them, by the examples you could set before them, and the advices you could give them; and by this means you would both serve your own interest, and be of great use to all your friends.

(More, 2000, p. 14) However, Hythloday disagrees with the offer, first arguing that he had no desire for any more personal gain; that he had distributed fairly and equally his family shares among his siblings and therefore, the need for material wealth is of no importance. As explained in the following passage:

For most princes apply themselves more to affairs of war than to the useful arts of peace; and in these I neither have any knowledge, nor do I much desire it; they are generally more set on acquiring new kingdoms, right or wrong, than on governing well those they possess: and, among the ministers of princes, there are none that are not so wise as to need no assistance, or at least, that do not think themselves so wise that they imagine they need none; and if they court any, it is only those for whom the prince has much personal favour, whom by their fawning and flatteries they endeavour to fix to their own interests; and, indeed, nature has so made us, that we all love to be flattered and to please ourselves with our own notions. (More, 2000, p. 20) Second, Hythloday’s reluctance to act as an advisor among royalty is justified through the desire of the monarchs to wage war instead of campaigning for peace. Their aims are to conquer and occupy new lands and territory rather than making ways of improving their own governance on their lands.

And as part of a multitude of advisors for a single monarch, it would evidently play a part where each would give their own opinion, regardless of right or wrong, just as long it favors the monarch. Thus, favoritism plays a better role than the concept of right and wrong. The aforementioned conversation between the three characters serves as the introduction to the first part of the book regarding the current state of affairs during the 15th century England. As such, the historical context of the book is essential since it gives way to the formation of the ‘imperfect’ society where Utopia strives to be a ‘better idea’ than the current norms and practices in their present social strata. From their arguments, it eventually leads to several discussions on thievery, capital punishment, and common property.

On the subject of capital punishment, even with its strict implementation there remains a growth in number of thievery: “There are dreadful punishments enacted against thieves, but it were much better to make such good provisions by which every man might be put in a method how to live, and so be preserved from the fatal necessity of stealing and of dying for it” (More, 2000, p. 22). According to Hythloday, this scenario is ironic, since punishment is in contrast with the real definition of justice and does not entirely benefit the public. The idea of death does not hinder the hungry or the poverty-stricken from stealing and bringing food to the table.

Hythloday mentions several factors that continue to propagate thievery, starting with the country’s military force wherein it creates soldiers that steal or pillage in times of trouble or hardship. Second, the nobility exploits the peasantry in their lands through hard labor and they barely survive with little benefits provided by their feudal lords. And lastly, lands that are suited for farming are bought by the rich and transforming them to private property (oligopoly), taking away opportunities for farmers and simultaneously raising the prices of commodity. Hythloday also criticizes the idea of capital punishment itself, wherein the penalty for both stealing and murder is death, thereby a thief is no better than a murderer and vice-versa.

The classical notion of the ideal state as espoused by the Greek philosopher Plato, ideal society should be ruled by philosopher-kings; a selfless person concerned of searching for the ‘good’ that will benefit the state. However, Hythloday disagrees: “But Plato judged right, that except kings themselves became philosophers, they who from their childhood are corrupted with false notions would never fall in entirely with the counsels of philosophers” (More, 2000, p. 32). He subsequently upholds his rejection of the first offer of becoming a counsel; the idea of a philosopher-king does not entirely limit himself as one, rather the two are separate functions.

A king cannot be a philosopher, let alone hear advice from one and philosophers in turn, are not such base individuals to entertain the idea of becoming kings. Plato’s notion of the ideal city-state in his dialogues The Republic, argue for the formation of communal property wherein each individual of the state benefit from one given land: On common property, I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily: not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable. (More, 2000, p. 39)

More rejects the idea of common property arguing that it will discourage people to work, since the idea of personal incentives would be taken away. Also, there would be no concept of authority and would further heighten disagreement and conflict. It is necessary to mention the first arguments concerning the current state of affairs in the book’s context in order to understand the idea of perfection regarding the state of Utopia. The different social problems such as private property, government and authority, laws of punishment, etc. serve as the basis of improvement which may be found on the land of Utopia. Each detail of the argument in the first part is countered with an interpretation of how such problems would be averted, and possibly, perfected.

Utopia: A Perfect Society? The island of Utopia is located on the far reaches of the south; a crescent island protecting itself from destructive weather because of its arch. The arch produces a large bay, which serves as a huge port for the entire island. Large rocks are scattered on the bay, the location known only to the inhabitants that serve as protection from external attack and consequently provides a way for traveling. The island was first called Abraxa and was inhabited by savages and barbarians until a general named Utopus conquered the island and reformed the uncivilized culture unto a good form of government bordering on politeness, stating;

Having soon subdued them, he designed to separate them from the continent, and to bring the sea quite round them. To accomplish this he ordered a deep channel to be dug, fifteen miles long; and that the natives might not think he treated them like slaves, he not only forced the inhabitants, but also his own soldiers, to labour in carrying it on. (More, 2000, p. 49) Thus, Utopia is formed, containing more than 50 cities, all uniform in terms architecture, language, property, culture, laws, among others. Each city has only a small distance between the other and Amaurot serves as it capital city. Every city has three senators and for every family exceeding thirty, a magistrate governs them.

Every year, the cities send their senator to the capital in which they talk about their concerns. The jurisdiction of a city is limited by 20 miles but they do not expand their territories for the Utopians think that they are merely tenants of the land rather than real owners. Thus, the concept of common property is present. Architecturally, buildings are constructed in uniformity, three stories tall, with gardens that lay behind the houses. Front doors are always opened since there is no notion of private space or property. Thus, there is no classification of wealth according to the look or grandeur of a home. Their ‘grandeur’ is transcended to garden keeping, the only differential factor for each inhabitant of the house.

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