Essay, Research Paper: Utopia Of More

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In his famous work Utopia, Sir Thomas More describes the society and culture of
an imaginary island on which all social ills have been cured. As in Plato’s
Republic, a work from which More drew while writing Utopia, More’s work
presents his ideas through a dialogue between two characters, Raphael Hythloday
and More himself. Hythloday is a fictional character who describes his recent
voyage to the island of Utopia. Throughout the work, Hythloday describes the
laws, customs, system of government, and way of life that exist on Utopia to an
incredulous and somewhat condescending More. Throughout the work, Hythloday
presents a society organized to overcome the flaws of human nature. This society
has been carefully thought out by More—as the author of the work—to help
avoid the problems associated with human nature. Individual human appetites are
controlled and balanced against the needs of the community as a whole. In other
words, More attempts to describe a society in which the seven deadly sins are
counterbalanced by other motivations set up by the government and society as a
whole. I believe that by providing the answer to the timeless question of
overcoming man’s inherent evils in such a way More creates a perfect society
to be modeled after. Many of the ideals in More’s Utopia are, as the name
implies, based on ideal situations and not reality. They would work well in a
civilization of automatons, but would be abolished quickly in a human situation.
Nevertheless, we can apply the ideals held by the Utopians to our own societies
since the ideals themselves are attainable even if a perfect society is not.
More seems to think that the seven deadly sins will be fairly easy to overcome.
Pride, for instance, is counterbalanced in several ways in his social system.
For instance, he makes sure that all people wear the same clothing, except that
the different genders wear different styles, as do married and unmarried people.
More also makes individuals fairly interchangeable within the social
system—one carpenter, for instance, seems to be more or less like another to
him, and can find work anywhere that carpenters are needed. He also says that
the Utopians encourage their citizens to think of the good of the state as a
whole in addition to their individual good. Without a sense of individuality as
highly developed as the one to which modern Americans are accustomed, pride
should present less of a problem to the Utopians. Gluttony is another deadly sin
that Hythloday claims is easily overcome. According to him, the source of
gluttony is fear of a future lack of something, especially a necessity of life
such as food. As Hythloday explains to More, why would he be likely to seek too
much, when he knows for certain that his needs will always be met? A man is made
greedy and grasping either by the fear of need (a fear common to all creatures)
or else by pride (in man alone), which thinks it glorious to surpass others in
superfluous show. “This kind of vice has no place at all in the ways of
Utopians.” (More 59) Others of the deadly sins are to be overcome, as are
pride and gluttony, by encouraging the practice of their corresponding virtues.
Sloth is to be overcome by requiring the practice of industry; covetousness by
the practice of generosity (in addition to the abolition of private property);
envy through respect; pride through humility; gluttony through modesty; and
lechery through continence (the Utopians punished extra- or pre-marital sexual
intercourse harshly). Wrath, which seems to be the lone exception, is to be
treated not through the general practice of its corresponding virtue,
peacemaking, but by removing the things that enrage people in the first place.
Though we can not rid our society of these sins, we can use More’s methods to
prevent them. Some of the ideals presented in Utopia are abundantly present in
today’s society. These include having a commodity in one culture be totally
worthless in another, communal living within cities, and euthanasia as a means
of release from burden. There are commodities in the world today that are
totally worthless in America, but serve as a main staple in many other
countries. In Utopia, gold was the most worthless metal. It wasn’t as strong
as iron and was seen as a sign of servitude. Having large tracts of land is a
sign of wealth and clout in our country, but in Japan, where land is scarce
having large amounts of land is socially seen as a sign of overindulgence and is
actually frowned upon. This appears to be a direct parallel to Utopia, but truly
it isn’t. If gold is acquired in Utopia, it is used to make shackles for the
slaves, a very unimportant use. In Japan, If one does have land, he will
probably try to hold on to it despite what society thinks. In Utopia, there is
no difference between what society thinks and what the individual thinks,
however reality is somewhat less black-and-white. In reality there is always a
difference between what society believes and what the individual believes.
Communal living may be the most widely realized ideal from Utopia. In the modern
day this can be displayed through the beliefs of Karl Marx. He believed in this
ideal, his dream was ultimately realized through communism. Though communism is
not acceptable in America, it is practiced in many countries around the globe.
The difference is that Utopia’s community was a bit too communal for reality
to deal with. The communist governments, on the other hand, share the value and
wealth of the property with the whole of the people, meaning that all people
benefit from the whole of the nation’s resources (they don’t actually live
together). This is a much more palatable and liberal way of living than that
which was practiced in Utopia. Finally, euthanasia is a topic that has always,
and still does, create an immense amount of controversy, but not in Utopia.
Everyone rationally sees the killing of ones-self as a release from pain and
burden to the rest of the community. Once again, it doesn’t work that way in
the real world. Mercy killing is an especially debated topic in today’s
society. It will never be as clear to the world as it seems to be in Utopia, but
we can strive to attain a more universal understanding of it. Even now,
mercy-killing has two very distinct sides to its debate-those who vehemently
oppose it and those who are proponents of it. This may seem simple to us today,
but it did not exist on the island of Utopia. Like Plato, who wrote before him,
More believes that human beings are essentially rational and will choose the
greater good if it is made clear to them—that evil is a form of ignorance, at
least in some cases. Like Skinner, who wrote later than him, More believes that
the upbringing and circumstances of a person’s life determine the way in which
that person will act, at least in large part. And like Marx, who wrote after
him, More believes that the actions of individuals are, in many ways, shaped by
the economic system in which they live. More combines these beliefs in Utopia to
create a system that presents the greatest ethical good as the ideal that
society works to ensure that citizens choose in any given circumstance. For
instance, by removing the temptation associated with gold and silver and holding
all property in common, and by making sure that everyone has enough of
everything to meet their basic needs, More intends to eliminate human greed.
This is to occur by making it unnecessary (and undesirable) and by removing the
circumstances that lead to it— private property and lack of bounty, in this
case. It seems to me that this belief that More inherited from Plato—that
people will choose the best option, if it is only made known to them—is the
weakest point of More’s utopian social system. People do not always choose
rationally. Even if the greatest ethical good is presented as the most desirable
choice in any given circumstance, and even if alternative choices are harshly
punished, there will always be those who choose the alternatives. Humans, like
donkeys, are not always persuadable, even if both the carrot and the stick are
used. One of the faults of Utopia is that More omits the fact that in some cases
man is driven by a passion for power. There are certain individuals who are not
accounted for on the island of Utopia. In fact, More fails to describe any
characters on the island well enough that the reader can get a sense of their
motivation, but only discusses motivation in general and in the abstract. It
seems to me that there will always be evil within a society. There will always
be those who knowingly (or uncaringly) make bad bargains—despite all of the
efforts of those who, like More, seek to instill a sense of social
responsibility. Some will always attempt to seek power over others at the
expense of those who are content to remain at a lower level of a social scale or
do not have the means to proceed upward. More might reply (as Skinner almost
certainly would) that the drive for knowledge and power is conditioned by the
society, in which we live. More’s Utopia presents a nice theory, but one too
abstract, too Platonic, too rationalistic, and with too little understanding of
real human motivations to be workable. However, it is hardly a useless or
worthless work—it contains many profound psychological insights, quite a bit
of humor, and many very good points. Much should be learned from his practical
ideals, though More’s Dream society could never work as a complete social
system. It is based on ideals and not reality, unattainable ideals that only
exist in our minds and on paper.
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