Waterstones unfortunately didn’t have much in the way of Aristotle’s writings, so I settled on Thomas More’s Utopia. It’s a paperback of just 150 pages, including Professor Baker-Smith’s notes. However, it’s not an easy read: Though the language was simple, I found myself actually disagreeing, in places, with humanist ideas that I know were based on rationality.
Given More was educated and a very devoted Catholic, I expected his work would borrow rather heavily from Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and Plato, and indeed all three were mentioned in places, and as I anticipated, More challenged the professed idealism of Christian society by contrasting that with the the reality of the European culture in which the Church actually was dominant.
A statement in the closing pages sums up the theme of the book:
‘[…] when I survey and assess all the different political systems flourishing today, nothing else presents itself – God help me – but a conspiracy of the rich, who look after their own interests under the name and title of the commonwealth.‘
And so More examined the nature of true commonwealth, and envisioned an economic, social, political and religious system with that as its primary goal. And as I read the book, it seemed that More was presenting another question: How much are we actually willing to sacrifice in order to achieve such a society, given that he appeared to argue that commonwealth and private property (and possibly by implication individuality) are mutually exclusive?
This is expanded on further in Appendix I, in which More made references to what seemed a common adage among Socrates, Cicero, Erasmus and Euripides: ‘Between friends all is common’. I read this as an assertion that private property is at the root of all conflict, that commonwealth is therefore necessary for lasting peace. But this seems unattainable. As multiple failed attempts to implement Marxism were to demonstrate, there would always be a minority who guard their wealth, power and status jealously. Appendix II might have been added to make the point that true commonwealth is only found in primitive societies.
The First Book
It’s quite possible the foundations of this work were decided upon during a real world conversation between Thomas More and his friend Peter Giles, while they were in the Netherlands.
Roughly in the style of Plato’s Atlantis, Book One opens with an account of how More met a traveller called Raphael Hythloday, who told him of some undiscovered nation of Utopia. Raphael, in turn, recounts a fictional debate between himself and Bishop John Morton. Raphael speaks as someone who cares little for status or wealth, and as someone with a pretty low opinion (mainly contempt) of the political class, landowners and aristocracy.
If every political system is a conspiracy of the rich, where better to start than with the European justice system? This fictional debate started with a criticism of the idea of returning a crime of theft with the death penalty, the general point being that crime (or certain crimes) is driven by poverty, poverty in turn is caused by the inequality of power between the labourers and land owners, and therefore the existing laws were ineffective and unjust. Not only that, but in returning theft with more severe punishments, More argued (through the character of Raphael, of course), this form of justice caused more damage than the original crime.
Raphael also pointed out that such a law set a precedent that undermined its moral position: ‘[…] where human law permits the death penalty, then what’s to prevent men from settling among themselves just how far rape, adultery and prejury ought to be tolerated?‘
And that argument is still relevant today. Too often society fails to uphold the sanctity of life and basic freedoms as principles, and masses of protestors and campaign groups lobby today for legislation without examining why such laws should be considered progressive or detrimental in the long term.
Throughout the conversation, Utopia is sporadically used as an ideal that the existing contemporary political and economic solutions are contrasted with. But it turns out this idyllic place isn’t so idyllic after all. Raphael goes onto describe Utopia in greater detail, and thereby Thomas More explains that the eradication of inequality and irrationality comes with a price…
The Second Book
In the second book we are presented with Utopia, a society in which all things are held in common – it is a true commonwealth. What isn’t there to like about this system of government?
Firstly, humans are irrational, and we’re all driven by the need for personal gratification. One of our tendencies is to acquire and store wealth, which is, of course, the beginning of inequality. Utopia was designed from the start to eliminate this.
Reading through this section, one gets the impression that the state of Utopia is so delicately balanced that it requires conformity and micro-management to keep itself in existence. Although there are relatively few laws, which aren’t interpreted in the legalistic way we’re familiar with in the real world, almost every aspect of the citizens’ lives are regulated. Even the clothing is uniform among most the citizens, quotas determine whether a citizen would live in whichever city, and their activities are governed by the state schedule.
Despite all this planning and regulation, meticulously envisioned by More, it isn’t long before the beginnings of another class system, and inequality of privilege, become apparent – though to a barely noticeable degree compared to the inequality that exists in the real world. Deference is given to the leaders, some of them getting better food, and priests distinguish themselves by wearing more colourful clothes – and yes, the state religion is used as one method of controlling the citizenry. Utopia also retains an underclass of slaves, who are held in such contempt that they’re made to wear gold as a method of devaluing it. Notably, the slaves are made to do the jobs too gruesome for the citizenry of Utopia. To a lesser extent there is the distinction between the manual workers and those selected for promotion to the ranks of intellectuals from which the state officials are drawn.
I definitely recommend having a look at this book, in which you’d find much more in the way of argument against the current establishment, a few explanations of why politicians make decisions that are seemingly bad, and also the absurdity of extreme rationalism. All of it’s still very relevant today.