More's Good Place (eu-topos), But No Place (ou-topos)
Everyone dreams of a utopia. It is almost as if we have a born instinct to create some kind of utopia as a counteraction to our perception of reality. However, while our versions of utopia tend to come to a halt at being an abstract and momentary illusion that flashes into our minds as a mere expression of complaint or dissatisfaction towards real life, the Right Honourable Sir Thomas More of England during its Renaissance era coined the word ‘utopia’ to this ideology as well as providing his own notion of it. More does this by pointing out and criticising problems in contemporary European society (of then) through Book I: Dialogue of Counsel and illustrating the fictional island of Utopia in terms of specific categories where these ‘problems’ are no longer ‘problems’ in Book II: Discourse on Utopia.
In the form of correspondence between himself and the traveler Raphael Hythloday, four main issues that modern Europe of his day was facing is described in Book I. First, More blames the increasing number of beggars, robbers and vagrant wanderers on sheep. (‘Sheep, which are usually so tame and so cheaply fed, begin now, according to report, to be so greedy and wild that they devour human beings themselves and devastate and depopulate fields, houses and towns.’, p.24 lines 20-24). Sheep farming, that is, the enclosure of common land, leads to the downfall of feudatory and snatches the workload from the hands of people who previously were farmers. Hence, land should be alienated back to people who wish to reform and restore rural and agricultural communities while monopoly and oligopoly of rich individuals is to be restricted at all costs. Furthermore, unlike Plato and more like Augustinus, More argues that soldiers and robbers are alike at heart and that rather than having a ready force of feudal lords’ soldiers at hand, farmers and technicians can actually be a military advantage.
Secondly, punishment is thought to be extreme and unlawful. A thief and a murderer are to receive the same penalty of execution and according to More, ‘since the robber sees that he is in as great danger if merely condemned for theft as if he were convicted of murder as well, this single consideration impels him to murder the man whom otherwise he would only have robbed’ (p.30 lines 20-24). This sort of punishment is both unfair and inefficient in that it only worsens and increases crime. Thus, the danger to commonwealth that is implied in the excessive cruelty of punishments should be resolved by condemning theft to hard labor and hard labor only – no insult nor injury. Convicts’ service to the community not only honors the words of God in ‘Thou shalt not kill’ but brings benefit to the public treasury.
Social inequality between the unstable and poorly lives of laborers or beggars and the privileged lives of landlords, merchants as well as all others such as councilors that rely on the injustice of law is also strongly disapproved of. More shows what seems to be almost an aversion at the unrighteous laws that are perverted with loopholes and favors for the privileged which are constantly justified and legitimated by the king’s councilors and judges that consider their interests more than reason, justice and dignity by using expressions of satire and exclamations such as ‘For such a judge it is enough that either equity be on his side or the letter of the law or the twisted meaning of the written word or, what finally outweighs all law with conscientious judges, the indisputable royal prerogative!’ (p.45 lines 10-14). And since the counsels are bound to be dishonest and dangerous for the king and his commonwealth, it is none other than his own responsibility and duty to better amend his own indolence or arrogance and ‘take more care for the welfare of his people than for his own, just as it is the duty of a shepherd, insofar as he is a shepherd, to feed his sheep rather than himself’ (p.46 lines 3-7). Though in a more macroscopic sense, the people’s welfare is also the king’s welfare for his very honor and safety dwells on the people’s resources.
More then extends his perspective on social inequality and claims that its fundamental cause lies in matters larger than that which can be extinguished by the king’s conscious efforts to even out welfare. By declaring ‘I have my doubts that the latter could ever be preserved where the individual’s possessions are his private property’ (p.53 lines 21-23), he stresses the influence of private property on poverty and misfortunes that cannot be removed entirely while the system lasts. It is interesting to see his philosophy on economy and property in general for, while he mentions the inexpediency of private property in consideration of universal lust and greed for goods and money, he does not necessarily advocate common property either in that he believes life cannot be satisfactory where all things are common. Nonetheless, his utopia, being a ou-topos (no place), supports communal ownership in contrast to reality.
With the issues of reality still in mind, Book II is a frighteningly realistic and highly elaborate description of More’s fictional world, Utopia. Geography-wise, Utopia is an island shaped like a new moon, of two hundred miles width and consisting of fifty-four city-states all of which can be reached within a day’s walk. Lands are well assigned to the cities and no city wishes to expand their domains since it is their notion that they are harmonious tenants rather than the dominant masters of the island. Each city-state has about six thousand households with identical language, traditions, customs and laws. Every rural household has around forty men and women, who are to be redistributed throughout households and towns when needed. In case of overpopulation, colonies are set up on the mainland and when underpopulated, colonists are recalled. Natives of the mainland are welcome to stay or return as they please.
In terms of politics and administration, thirty households each annually pick a magistrate called the phylarch. The archphylarch is the magistrate overseeing ten phylarches and the households subject to them. The archphylarches meet every third day in the capital city of Amaurotum to discuss affairs of common interest to the island. All phylarches take an oath and then participate in an anonymous vote to choose four princes. The princes govern each city for life. Two phylarches are selected each day to be in the council-chamber which is the only place that people are allowed to discuss matters concerning the state. Decisions and conclusions are made only after three days of different phylarches in council.
Agriculture is their basic source of production in economy and everyone is instructed in it from childhood but besides agriculture, each individual is taught one particular craft as his own such as wool-working, linen-making, masonry, metal-working or carpentry. All occupations are honored and none are considered to be superior nor inferior to another. Even their clothes are of the same simple type and no dressmaker makes fine apparel. As brought up above, there is no private ownership and thus forth people live a communal life by dining together, rotating houses every ten years and so on. Every able inhabitant works together despite their social class, which increases the amount of work getting down while shortening the time consumed in labor for all utopians to six hours. Sleep claims eight hours and the rest of the days are left to every individual’s discretion – mostly intellectual disciplines. A notable feature of their labor schedule is that it is only agreed as a mandatory process to the point of the society’s requirements and the people are free to do whatever individualistic act they wish to do for the rest of the time. Even the intervals in labor are left to each individual’s decision.
As for their manner of living in the utopian society, the oldest man is always the governor. The husband is served by the wife, the parents by their children, and in the general society, the elder is always served by the younger. Free special care is given most foremost to the sick inside well-furnished public hospitals, but apart from that everything is distributed equally in proportion to the people’s numbers though the elders get first pick out of respect. In addition, slaves remain a prevalent part of Utopia as there are two slaves in each of the households. Not of war nor by heritage but the slaves in Utopia are the ones condemned to slavery for the commission of some crime or those who were condemned to die but were redeemed. Slavery is the greatest punishment for crimes as husbands have the power to correct their wives, parents to chastise their children and it is not necessary, in most cases, to stir terror into others with public penalties. There is no official court of justice nor lawyers but only the most basic of laws that every individual may use to plead their own cause and trust it to the judge as masters of their own liberties. All utopians are able to choose their religion amongst several but atheism was prohibited since disbelieving in a power that exceeds his would imply a difficulty in being part of the society.
All in all, Thomas More’s work was based on a combined form of humanistic and christian ideals of a modern civil society. In his utopia, all labor was appreciated as opposed to the negligence and indolence of the privileged; a fair and trustworthy system of justice that worked to the favors of all the people; and people willingly chose (‘service not servitude’ (p.16-17)) to cooperate with each other and have an understanding of a communal life as a base line for pursuing individual interests instead of being contentious like the European society of More’s time. It was a eu-topos, a good place. Nevertheless, as he admits in Book I, many of his ideals cannot be simultaneously achieved in one society. Even though he gives us an utmost clear blueprint to his utopia, after all these years we still seem to not have been able to recreate it. We examine ideologies of utopia and attempt to apply it to real life as a means of lessening the gap between our utopias and reality. Not to mention, there are potential problems that More deliberately glides over too such as the slave issue or the permission to euthanasia in his utopia. Ergo, utopia is a ou-topos, a no place at all. :)