Thomas More’s Utopia from a Socialist Point of View – Part II

It is possible that imaginable development of productive forces especially technology was limited during More’s time. Therefore, one may today visualize a higher system of socialism with more material comforts and more liberty and independent life choices. This means a Thomas More today could be different in his or her imagination.


by Laksiri Fernando

( December 24, 2016, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) This is sequel to Part I published last Sunday titled “500th Anniversary (Quincentennial) of Thomas More’s Utopia.” This month is the five hundredth anniversary of ‘Utopia’ as it was first published in Latin in December 1516. The publisher was Thierry Marten in Louvain, (now in) Belgium.

As we have already said, born in 1478 to an aristocratic and intellectual family, More was an enigmatic character. He served the King Henry VIII, but became beheaded for his persistent convictions in 1535. When he wrote ‘Utopia’ he was 38. It took just 14 months to complete this book between July 1515 and September 1516, among his official duties and family commitments, as he said. More is considered a Catholic Saint, a great Guru of the Theosophists, a Liberal and a Socialist, among other portrayals. As far as the vision and the principles of ‘Utopia’ are concerned, he is undoubtedly the first modern thinker of ‘Socialism,’ although that word does not appear in the book.

To celebrate this great book and the great writer, we publish the chapters of ‘Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka)’ by Laksiri Fernando (CreateSpace, 2014) every Sunday until the book ends, courtesy of Colombo Telegraph and Sri Lanka Guardian. This will allow the students and others who wish to leisurely read it, free access to the book at any time. The publication link to the original for those who wish to obtain a printed copy is https://www.createspace.com/4688110

What is published today is the Introduction to the book.

INTRODUCTION

Hitherto, force — from now on, sociality, a pure pious wish, the demand for ‘Justice.’ But Thomas More made this demand 360 years ago, and it has yet to be fulfilled.

Frederic Engels (1876)[1]

SOCIALISM was not a word coined by Thomas More, but Utopia was. Based on two words in ancient Greek, ‘ou’ (no) and ‘topas’ (place/land), More coined the term Utopia as a pun actuality to mean a ‘good place’ or a ‘good land.’ Since then the word ‘Utopia’ has come to stay in the English and other languages to mean an ‘ideal society’ or an ‘ideal condition.’ It has also created an adjective, ‘utopian,’ unfortunately to mean something impractical. But as far as More was concerned, he had come up with several innovative ideas and policies which are extremely practical and some of them are accepted norms today by many societies.

Conceptualization on ideal societies dates back to ancient Greece or some classical religious texts of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. That was also the case in ancient Chinese philosophy. A recurrent theme was to talk about a ‘golden age’ of yesteryears.[2] Many of these societies thought to have at least certain aspects of socialism or communism in contrast to the actual societies with class hierarchies, inequalities, discrimination, and poverty. However, many of the depictions of ideal or better societies could not avoid certain elements of actual societies and even the conditions of slavery. Even More could not avoid that predicament. Nevertheless, those utopian views in essence contributed to the development of socialist views from ancient times.

The Context

Thomas More was not the first socialist thinker who aspired for a classless society without poverty. But he was the first one to do so by presenting a strong critique against the emerging early capitalist society in England in the late 15th century and early 16th century.[3] In that sense, he was the first ‘modern socialist thinker’ with considerable repute and influence. His contemporary Thomas Muntzer (1489-1525) was a practical fighter to achieve a classless society or the rights of the poor, but could not match More in terms of ideas.

It is commonly accepted that the French word ‘socialisme’ was first used in 1832 by Pierre Leroux in his newspaper Le Globe in the present meaning. It was during the same period that Robert Owen in England used the English word ‘socialism’ in a similar meaning and rather independently. To be sure, the word ‘socialism’ did not appear in Utopia at all. But it ‘smelled the same’ as Shakespeare would have said, and More’s ideas were undoubtedly socialist.[4] If socialism can be broadly defined as a ‘social system characterized by, more or less, a common system of means of production or property’ then More’s Utopia was a socialist system. He strongly opposed the private property system. In that sense utopia was equivalent to socialism. He however was not talking about a ‘golden age’ or an ancient society, but an island and a society out there during his time, however imaginary.

There were many other aspects in that ‘ideal society’ that More advocated. Social equality, symbolized by common dress and similar housing, environmental protection, care for the old and children, exemplary public health and education, and equal education for men and women were only some. It was also a ‘knowledge society’ giving priority to intellectual pursuits, learning and education. More was against capital punishment, disliked the lawyers and advocated a system of government with minimum laws. In this sense, he was a liberal as well. In his ideal society, women were admitted to priesthood and allowed euthanasia for incurable diseases. Slavery, however, was there but as a punishment for criminals. War was despised, however he thought it was inevitable under certain circumstances. It is interesting to note that he himself was a lawyer, but a different one to the others. His biographical details reveal that he appeared for widows, orphans and children without any fee.[5]

His ideal society was Asiatic in social ethos also unfortunately with some ‘despotic’ elements. People lived in an extended family, life was transparent without much privacy, young revered the old, children their parents, wife the husband. The right to movement was quite restrictive. All these could be little conservative to today’s appetites inspired by liberal values. In that midst, however, most progressive was religious tolerance and plurality in More’s Utopia. The priests had some special place in society and they were engaged in social work. Social cohesion was part of the utopian ideal. The governing system was federal or a devolved system with exactly the same type of administration in all districts or cities through elected Magistrates and an elected Prince at the helm with two chambers of a Supreme Council and a Senate at the centre. Intellectual pursuits and discourses were highly valued but freedom of expression was not permitted outside the official channels.

Is It Practical?

The above is not a summary of his discourse but some glimpses. A repeatedly asked question about Utopia is whether it is practical as a whole or in good measure. The people might not completely agree, or even resist, at least some aspects of that kind of a society today, while some other features like universal education, social welfare and rights for women are already being implemented. On the downside of the discourse, the life was too orderly and may be boring at least to an extent. The daily chorus was the same. Although the Utopians worked only for six hours per day, they probably worked all seven days. No mention about holidays. While all the amenities were supplied by the Magistrates or the social organization, people were restricted to the basics, of course voluntarily.

It is possible that imaginable development of productive forces especially technology was limited during More’s time. Therefore, one may today visualize a higher system of socialism with more material comforts and more liberty and independent life choices. This means a Thomas More today could be different in his or her imagination. But Thomas More yesterday is undoubtedly an inspiration for today. There are many humorous and enjoyable aspects of More’s discourse which we will reveal and explain at the right movement in this book. It is important now to turn to more mundane and essential matters of an introduction to a book.

According to records, Thomas More had taken only fourteen months to complete the book as a semi-fiction and it was written and published in Latin in Louvain, Flanders, in December 1516 reportedly edited by Erasmus of Rotterdam and Peter Giles of Antwerp. One can speculate that the sections on religion was largely edited by Erasmus, with of course More’s consent, not to appear largely contrary to the Catholic doctrine of that period yet it gives a picture of religious plurality, quite unknown to or unaccepted in Europe at that time. Both More and Erasmus were however different to the orthodox Catholicism, at one time advocating a ‘Third Way’ between Catholicism and Protestantism. Utopia was never printed in England during More’s life time for obvious reasons of censorship or possible reprisal. The first English translation was by Ralph Robinson in 1551 and then edited in 1556. Before that, French and German editions/translations were printed in Paris and Vienna.

The text of “Thomas More’s Utopia” presented here in Part II of this book, edited mainly by separating it into more chapters, paragraphs and sentences for readability with subheadings etc., is taken from Ideal Commonwealths published by P. F. Collier & Son, New York, in 1901, which was released to the public domain in July 1993 without copyright. This Part II consists of two books as in the original, titled “The Best Condition of the Commonwealth” and “The New Island of Utopia” respectively. This is also what is used in Part I for my own interpretation of Utopia titled “Utopia and Ceylon.” The purpose of incorporation of More’s text in Part II is for the readers to go through it themselves and make their own assessment or interpretation if they so wish. This will also be useful for further studies and for the students of particularly Political Science.

Interpretation

The main thrust of the present book is Part I. It is my own interpretation of Utopia, focusing on several themes relevant to today’s context, of course benefitting from many interpretations given before, but not necessarily taking anything from any of those interpretations or writers unless otherwise mentioned. It begins with the argument that the island of Utopia was Ceylon of that time, in Chapter 1 titled, “Ceylon, the Dream Island.” The description of the island, its proximity to the (sub) continent, its capital, rivers and the major harbour are taken as evidence. Moreover, among the countries – the Philippines, Kerala, Persia and Ceylon – which were mentioned in the dialogues in Book I of More, for example, the latter is the proper island that comes closer to the description. However, the society of Utopia was different to Ceylon even of that time, although some of the social aspects, way of life, history and religious ethos are similar. The society depicted in Utopia was largely imaginary and futurist.

Chapter 2 of my interpretation is the “General Philosophy of Utopia.” It begins with the way Utopia’s Book I begins by sketching the dialogue between Thomas More, Peter Gills and of course Raphael Hythloday in Antwerp. The first philosophical question that they tackle is the advisability or inadvisability of counselling the Kings or rulers by intellectuals. The general conclusion is not to do so since most Princes or rulers are more disposed to war than to the useful art of peace. Then the dialogue develops into the questions of crime and issues of social justice. The solutions proposed and prescriptions given are fundamentally socialist. The chapter also presents More’s critique of capitalism or emerging capitalism in England. There is a particular purpose to this chapter to promote socialist views in Sri Lanka based on More’s Utopia highlighting his advocacy of equality, basic needs, justice, welfare and good governance. As it would reveal, socialism is something goes along with environmental protection, preservation of agriculture and prudent way of living.

“Utopian Political Economy” in Chapter 3 explains the economic structure of the island of Utopia. It is socialist or communistic without private property, based primarily on an agricultural system or means of production. There are trades to produce industrial goods. The economy is precisely planned through the political system. The land or housing does not belong to anyone but to the whole society. People are all tenets and no landlords. There is a perfect balance between country and town, and environmental protection is extensively cared for. The economy is based on full-employment and labour is mobilized on a collective manner without a managerial class. The chapter also explains the system of exchange and trade, and the innovative aspects of aid.

Chapter 4 is about the ‘political system’ but titled as “Utopia, but Despotism in Politics” to highlight a glaring defect in More’s political discourse. There are good as well as bad aspects of this discourse. Although the Utopian society is socialist, the political system is a ‘kingdom’ based on the elected principle. The country is divided into 54 districts for its political system and elected magistrates and senators are entrusted with both economic and political management. All districts are alike with fair distribution of resources and economic benefits and devolution of power. The chapter also explains the way the decisions are made diligently in the districts and at the centre, governed by a Supreme Council. As it reveals, there are elements of despotism and curtailment of certain freedoms. All of them are not hunky dory.

Consonant with Samasamajism?   

Chapter 5 is about the social system in Utopia which is by and large “A Communist society.” It is based on a concept of happiness, but humanitarian rather than materialistic. The common good and welfare are two major pillars of society. Equality or Samasamaja[6] (equal society) is the main character of the Utopian society but obsessed with almost uniformity in dress and housing which are quite unnecessary in modern society. More fails to develop a functional conception on equality rather than a structural stereotype. There are however very many good things in the Utopian society; welfare for the old and children, considerable equality for women and caring for the sick as the chapter explains. Social ethos is based on the respect for the seniors and self-discipline which are considered traditional values of many Asian societies. Moreover, the Utopian society is a ‘knowledge society’ with emphasis on intellectual pursuits; knowledge and education.

Chapter 6 on “Funny Things” is designed to take the pressure out of the readers of reading this book if at all continuously. It is also the pleasure of the author. More is undoubtedly a witty writer who took great pleasure out of pun and even riddles in explaining things. This short chapter explains some of the humorous episodes related by him on marriage and obsession for gold and jewellery, nevertheless with social or even philosophical significance.

Although the “Opposition to War” is the title of Chapter 7, More’s discourse is not pacifist like, for example, Tolstoy’s. It is more subtle and controversial. The chapter explains the way a ‘theory of war’ is developed in Book I and evolved into a rather a ‘just war theory’ in Book II or in the Utopia proper. In explaining a theory of war, socio economic reasons as well as power ambitions of rulers are emphasised. A just war theory in contrast is based on more of pragmatic reasons relevant for a people and their protection. Utopia is the example.

Chapter 8 talks about “Religions of the Utopians.” Freedom of belief and conscience is the norm. People are allowed to believe and practice whatever they like without harming others. Utopia is a multi-religious society unlike Europe during More’s time. There are several religious practices explained by More very much similar to the situation of Ceylon at that time with Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam practiced alongside each other. Even there were people who didn’t believe anything after life. There were people who believed god Mithra, several gods or just rebirth after life. There were high ethics in all these beliefs coordinated by the socio-political system. The chapter explains in detail the religious beliefs and practices, and also funeral rituals, the types of priests, rather confirming the fact that at least some of the information came from Ceylon.

Chapter 9 on “What is revealed in the Letters?” is a peculiar chapter, the readers might think. This is about three letters that were published in the original publications of Utopia. Two of these letters are by More and one by Peter Giles. This chapter is sequence to the chapter on “Funny Things” also explaining further the ‘wit and pun’ used in Utopia by Thomas More. Most importantly, amidst all these ‘wit and pun,’ there are several clues given by More as to the Island of Utopia and the source of information. It is in this sense that this chapter is important for my argument that the island was Ceylon and the information perhaps came from a traveller or most probably a travel monograph.

“Was it Really Ceylon?” is the culminating Chapter 10. It begins on the premise that information about the 15th century Ceylon or the reign of Parakramabahu VI (1415-1467) could have been considered, by and large, an egalitarian and a just society. Therefore, any travel monograph based on that period must have reinforced Thomas More’s socialist imagination. The society was pre-capitalist and Asiatic in the Marxist sense. The chapter also supplies two possibilities about the origin or the source of such a monograph. It also examines the circumstances under which Utopia was authored to argue that a travel monograph must have intervened.

The crucial task for any reader however would be how to appreciate More’s Utopia in the present-day context. The present book resolves that socialism perhaps is the just and the most rational solution to many of the social ills of our society, like in More’s time, if it could be embedded with liberal values and principles in the political sphere. In its political form, Utopia does carry unfortunately certain elements of Asiatic despotism.

A final word about the language of this book. The text that was used for the interpretation of Thomas More’s Utopia and reproduced in Part II, although considerably edited, largely carries the old English of the 16th century. This is in a sense beneficial to preserve the flavour of More’s historical times. In consequence, the language used for the interpretations in Part I also may resemble at times that influence.

 End Notes

[1] Frederick Engels, Preparatory Writings for Anti-Duhring, 1875

[2] Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2000.

[3] This was early capitalism nevertheless based on private property and enclosure movement, before industrialization. 

[4] “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare,  Romeo and Juliet, 1600.

[5] Henry Morley, ‘Introduction,’ Utopia, Gutenberg eBook Project

[6] Samasamaja was the name affixed to the first socialist party in Sri Lanka in 1935. Even before, the concept was propagated to mean a future equal society.

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