Preface: Having read Utopia and hearing the various interpretations from both critics and friends, I noticed that the majority of people view Thomas Moore’s Utopia to take a pro-socialism approach – that is – they hold Moore’s imaginary society, Utopia synonymous to the “ideal” society. I, however, argue otherwise.
Moore, The Master of Wit
Utopia is most enigmatic upon questioning Moore’s purpose as the author. This is because an obvious dichotomy is presented in an attempt to interpret this text: whether or not Moore’s motive lies in emphasizing Pro-socialist ideals or Anti-Socialist/democratic ideals. The content itself is fairly explicit in implying pro socialist ideals that align with the common quest of many thinkers to grasp the elusive nature of an ideal society. Any theorist who sides with the former speculate that Utopia is Moore’s response to the turbulant religious and political atmosphere of England to better the english commonwealth by demonstrating the ideal polis. This interpretion is most over-represented where people go as far to deem Moore as the father of Socialism. The latter, however, is an under-represented interpretation and may require observation in rhetoric and literary techniques beyond literal content. I myself am pretty certain that the majority of potential readers and critics will side with the “this-is-a-socialist-text-because-Moore-was-humanist-and-England-was-too-mean-to-peasants” type arguments upon reading Utopia. Quite the contrary, considering both the ambiguos nature of the book and the prevalence of satire/irony, Utopia may very well be a parody of the humanist ideals discussed in the rennaissance era. While he presents the ideal polis in a positive light, they are accompanied by negative externalities. This indicates to an extent that the ideal state represented in the text is a comic parody of the impractical nature of humanist ideals and the untrustable acts of the church.
During the period in which Moore lived, stability was a term unheard of. These chaotic circumstances without a doubt influenced Moore’s writing of Utopia. In these candid times, there was extreme tension in the religious arena between Catholics and Protestants, a muddled validity in the power of the Church due to Henry VIII’s politically driven faith, the Protestant Reformation mainly driven by Luther’s Three Treatsies, and lastly a growing tension between the feudal society and heightening humanist ideals emphasizing rationality. Amidst this chaos, Moore wrote Utopia. The ambiguos nature of his book is likely a result of such unstable atmosphere. Furthermore, considering his occupation and stance, it is feasible that Utopia ridicules the church and the overly ambitious discourse of the then popular humanist ideals.
First and formost Moore was a Lawyer with wit. In the field of law, extensive training in rhetorics is crucial as is the application of unflawed logical reasoning. As an anticipated student in the path of law, I know that criterias for good law requires the law to have no negative externalities. This means that the less consequences a law has, the better it is. In the case of Utopia, lawyers do not exist. Moreover, because there are very few laws to begin with, there is less crime and less punishment. This, in a sense, is a flaw in itself. The lack of laws understates the crimes commited in a state such as Utopia. In other words, numerically, the low crime rates are a guise for the actual rate of crime commited. This problem would be solved if there was a brilliant system of punishment that would encompass most crimes in Utopia. However, punishment for criminals in this state is highly flawed. For example, Hythodaeus mentions Polyteris, a near identical polis as Utopia in order to give better examples of punishment. In Polyteris, punishment does not emphasize eliminating criminals, but eliminating crime. For example, a thief is required to give back the items he/she stole and is treated with respect, provided with food, a shelter under one condition: to provid labor for the remainder of his/her life. Moreover, the thief, now a slave is marked and is freed upon informing of another slave plotting a getaway. The major flaw in this regulation is that the freed slave, will be forever marked. It is considered unlawful to provide shelter, money, and freedom to travel for a slave. The marked slave, despite being freed is unable to proove his/her own freedom. Moreover, since all slaves are marked, there is no basis of truth and for the freed ones, there are no lawyers to appeal to court. I cannot help but think that a person with the intellect of Moore would purposefully include such contradictions.
Upon examining Utopian virtues, a paradox is evident. During the era in which Moore wrote his book, Platonic ideals of virtue was a big part of the humanist discourse. Likewise, Utopia itself extensively alludes to Plato’s idea of a highly structured autonomous state inhabited by virtuos residents who specialize in what they do best. A significant difference between Plato’s polis and Utopia lies in their definition of virtue. While Platonic virtue revolves around a harmonious triparte soul, and an individual commiting to his/her own specialized task, Utopian virtue is held synonymous with pleasure.
“They also argue about such things as virtue and pleasure. But their chief subject of dispute is the nature of human happiness – on what factor or factors does it depend? Here they seem rather too much inclined to take a hedonistic view, for according to them human happiness consists largely or wholly pleasure….Not that they identify pleasure with every type of pleasure- only with higher ones. Nor do they identify it with virtue- unless they belong to a different school of thought. According to the normal view, happiness is the summum bonum towards which we are naturally impelled by virtue which in their definition means following one’s natural impulses.
” (p.71 & p.72 Hythodaeus’s narrative on Utopian Virtues)
The quote above indicates that pleasure in Utopia is derived from following one’s natural impulses where they “regard the enjoyment of life– that is pleasure – as the natural object of all human efforts, and natural, synonymous with virtuos.” So where exactly is the paradox in Utopian virtue? On the surface, one may easily be fooled by Utopia; a society where hedonistic happyness is pursued while having “very few laws.” However, below the surface of Utopian society lies an inconsistency that implies that happyness emphasized in Utopia isn’t really the happyness its ethics states.
If travelling freely gives one pleasure, he/she should do so because in Utopia, it is considered virtuos. If wearing a particular type of style of clothing, hats, accessories gives one pleasure, he/ she should do so because in Utopia, it is considered virtuos. If talking about capital issues gives one, or many pleasure(s), they should do so because in Utopia, it is considered virtuos. As long as an indivual’s pleasure is not at the expense of another, the individual has the freedom to do so in Utopia. The paradox of No Place comes into full effect here because in reality Utopian society is structured to inhibit the very virtue the state stands for.
“Now for the system of local government. The population is divided into groups of thirty households, each of which elects an official called a Styward evey year. Styward is the Old Utopian title – the modern one is District Controller. For every ten Stywards and te households they represent there is a Bench-eater, or Senior District Controller. Each town has two hundred Stywards, who are responsible for electing the Mayor. They do a secret ballot. Every three days the Bencheaters have a meeting with the Mayor, at which they discuss public affairs, and promptlly settle any private disputes. They always invite two Stywards, a different pair each day. It’s capital crime to discuss such questions anywhere except in the Council or the Assembly.” ( P54, Hythodaeus’s narration on Utopias gov.)
The system of local government of Utopia has an eerie resemblence to the feudal system Moore disliked. The Mayor is the King, the Bencheaters are the nobles/bishops, the Stywards are the Lords who oversee the residents of Utopia, or the “peasants.” The fact that all residetns of Utopia have an obligatory six-hour working day where the Stywards, whose “business is to see that nobody sits around doing nothing,” indicates a slave like system. Even Moore states “That’s just like slavery” in the point of view of Hythlodaeus. In a sense, Utopia is a gigantic prison where slavery is under the guise of “virtue.” The residents afterall fail to be virtuos as they cannot possibly derive pleasure from “natural impulse” under conditions where work is mandatory, “discussing public affairs considered a capital crime,” and travelling is prohibited.
On a glance, Utopia may seem to be pro-socialism. However, I believe that Moore’s mastery of wit, ambiguity, irony, and satire, produced Utopia that emphasizes a democratic system while critisizing highly idealistic values of humanism. For example, his choice of words such as Bencheaters indicate the loss of freedom where bench symbolizes freedom. Moreover, the name of the narrator, hythlodaeus is derived from latin origins meaning nonsensical. All of these subtle clues are incorporated in Utopia. The reason Moore employed Ambiguity is perhaps to avoid prosecution by the Church, or to prevent the then strong humanists from condeming him. All in all, Moore is a genius.