Thomas More, could the utopia of some become the dystopia of others?

by Deborah Liebart. First appeared on DisputatioMagistrorum. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.3254425

This week after listening to speeches at the Brussels Economic Forum, I decided to write about utopia. In Belgium, on June 18, 2019, the question was how to build a more inclusive society through new technologies to make the world fairer and to reduce poverty … If you have seen my previous writings and my research topics, you already know that I have a certain « tenderness », critical sometimes, for utopian attempts throughout history.

  The issues discussed during the BEF make me want to talk to you about Thomas More and his sometimes satirical, sometimes touching remarks, of the England of his time : criticism of land appropriation by the nobility and the clergy, rising taxes, civil wars, crumbling agriculture in favor of the raising of wool beasts for which capitalists monopolize the land, development of begging, vagrancy, food shortages… Problems that power resolves through jail sentences and / or executionner.

   In 1516, Thomas More wrote De optimo rei publicae statu, de la nova insula Utopia, in which Utopus conquered Abraxa, (in reference to the city of madmen of Erasmus of Rotterdam in the Praise of Folly). After having humanized a rough and savage population to form a people surpassing all others in civilization, he transformed the city into island. Science, philosophy, morality, industry and arts encourage progress.

   The territory provided with streets, sewers, fortress walls, is governed by the rational mathematical laws guaranteeing equality. After having described, in the first book, the society in which he lives, its injustices, its inequalities, its miseries, More imagines an ideal society tending towards more equality and justice, built in an ultra-rational way : 54 administrative units also dividing on equal portions of territories where private property and monetary value are abolished, all belonging to the community. Education is public, common and open, the daily working time is determined by law. Unlike the communities of the nineteenth century who borrow from More the bases of foundation of their colonies, in Utopia, the communities do not live totally independently, but are governed by a main central authority.

  The inhabitants of Utopia devote themselves largely to agricultural work (idleness being forbidden), both for their self-sufficiency of food and to sell their surpluses on neighboring markets, and produce a large quantity of chickens. In order to increase the number of units produced, and to reduce the incubation time, they innovate by placing the eggs in places with moderate artificial heat. “Besides agriculture, which is so common to them all, every man has some peculiar trade to which he applies himself; such as the manufacture of wool or flax, masonry, smith’s work, or carpenter’s work1”… Children are generally trained in the craft of their parents, “but if any man’s genius lies another way he is, by adoption, translated into a family that deals in the trade to which he is inclined; and when that is to be done, care is taken, not only by his father, but by the magistrate, that he may be put to a discreet and good man: and if, after a person has learned one trade, he desires to acquire another, that is also allowed, and is managed in the same manner as the former. When he has learned both, he follows that which he likes best, unless the public has more occasion for the other2”.

  Working time is legal, (6 hours / day), the free time can be used either by following the public courses or in hours of additional work to the minimum defined by the law, or in arithmetic games3

  Denouncing idleness and the luxury industry, More defends the utopian model of six hours of work : in reality, his idea is to use workers for tasks that are really necessary, not superfluous, and to do so in a rational way. If all the workers are engaged in necessary tasks, the increase in the number of workers makes it possible to reduce daily working time, which gives them time to devote themselves to study and leisure. Despite this short working time, the productivity is sufficient,  » so that it frequently happens that, for want of other work, vast numbers are sent out to mend the highways ; but when no public undertaking is to be performed, the hours of working are lessened. The magistrates never engage the people in unnecessary labour, since the chief end of the constitution is to regulate labour by the necessities of the public, and to allow the people as much time as is necessary for the improvement of their minds, in which they think the happiness of life consists4« .

  All the inhabitants are dressed in the same way, distinguishing men and women, single and married individuals, probably simplifying the recognition of the individual social statuses and evoking a certain idea of equality but allowing especially to save in linen5.

  Concerning the political organization, meetings outside the senate and assemblies of the people are a crime punishable by death, in order to prevent the prince and the magistrates, from conspiring together against freedom and to oppress the people by tyrannical laws by changing the form of government. A magistrate who has failed in the public good can be reinstated to the working class.

  Equalitarian by education, the Utopian citizen is ready to infiltrate enemy nations in order to provoke internal decompositions of the established order, when it is necessary… Dichotomy of being fair and good in its border but cruel out of its territory ? … Exacerbation of the patriotism of the author ? Spirit of revenge especially towards France ? Result of Machiavellianism in full expansion ?

  Behind this orderly, pacified system driven by mathematics, it is a system in which slavery exists, slaves are chained and hindered by gold, because this metal represents little for the Utopians6. The diplomatic visit of the Aménolians ambassadors shows the roughness of a coercive system7.

  Slaves, unlike citizens are forced to exercise certain professions, those prohibited to the Utopians : slaughterhouse, butchery8 (activities forbidden to citizens so as not to deprive them of their humanity acquired by the strict education of the island), but also the preparation of daily meals shared by the citizens and domestic duties attached9 , the driving of wagons and oxen10… They are also allowed to hunt animals, one of the most degrading activities in the eyes of the Utopians, because “the killing and tearing of so small and miserable an animal can only attract the huntsman with a false show of pleasure, from which he can reap but small advantage. They look on the desire of the bloodshed, even of beasts, as a mark of a mind that is already corrupted with cruelty, or that at least, by too frequent returns of so brutal a pleasure, must degenerate into it11”.

  If citizens enjoy free education and unlimited access to knowledge, some social mobility either by choice or merit, or by lot, slavery is reserved for prisoner of war, for citizen guilty of great crimes, and for the condemned to death who belong abroad and that the Utopians buy at low price and sometimes for free12. All are chained subjected to continuous work, the most despised being the native who has received the virtues of education and has chosen to break the rules. The same goes for adulterous spouses13. In Utopia, it is considered that slavery is not enviable to death but is more advantageous to the state because a working man is more useful than a corpse14. The example of a permanent torture inspires terror in a way much more durable than a legal massacre, nevertheless, if the slaves revolt they are killed like “ferocious beasts”. A contrario, those who endure their fate are not absolutely hopeless if they express a true repentance after years of hard slavery. Intention without acting out and real acting are the same for the repressive and incentive judicial system of Utopia which also punishes religious fanaticism and intolerance15.

  Poor laborers from neighboring countries who voluntarily offer their services are an another category of slaves. They are treated like citizens but work a little more, since they are used to tiring work.

  In addition to enslavement of certain sections of the population, either as an exemplary model of legitimate violence or rationalization of the use of labor in neighboring territories, Utopian’s citizens respect for the human being also finds a limit in its relationship to others countries16, especially when it comes to its relationship to the people « barbaric, fierce and savage of the Zapoletos people”, that Utopia uses as a mercenary during the wars in order to preserve its policed population from the horrors of the conflict. Utopia engage them and expose them to the most dangerous positions. Most of them perish there and never come back. Thomas More specifies that Utopians “ are not at all troubled how many of these happen to be killed, and reckon it a service done to man-kind if they could be a means to deliver the world from such a lewd and vicious sort of people, that seem to have run together, as to the drain of human nature17”.

  As an educated and expert scholar of Hellenistic and more largely ancient culture, More ends the second book of Utopia by realizing, as in the first book, a critical of contemporary society by comparison with the republic of Utopia and questions his reader about central issues like justice, sharing wealth, luxury and idleness and draws a harsh criticism of the state of his century, emphasizing the likely benefits of the community of life and goods without money trading practiced in Utopia, far from the magnificence of the nations of his time.

  Today some discourses, thanks to the use of the new technologies (AI, robotics …), discuss the possibility to make great utopias the daily human life … The completion in facts and not only in words, far from being limited to a reflection on the tools to be mobilized and their actual and future uses, must be part of a fundamental discussion about central ethical issues in order to determine the real possibilities, an equilibrium which could be find between using technologies and viable societal models built with and for people.

…To be continued…

1More, T., De optimo rei publicae statu, deque nova insula Utopia, Louvain, 1516, p. 61.



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