from The Collected Works
Thomas More’s Utopia and Unbounded Human Pride
[Note: This excerpt is taken from a long essay considering St. Thomas More’s writings and personality. The original should be consulted in order to appreciate its breadth, originality and nuanced thought. It strongly suggests the political and spiritual situation in Western civilization in this year 2010. —ed]
Superbia without restraint is More’s accusation against the society of his time. The problem is fundamentally the same as that of Erasmus, but More’s horizon is much wider. He recognizes the evil not only in the pleonexia of the princes but generally among all classes of the people; the lust for power and political aggrandizement is only one manifestation among others. For More’s famous description of the state of England and of Western society at large, the reader should refer to the monographic literature, or better to the Utopia itself.
Let us only recollect the lords who, after a war, release their retainers who are unfit for regular work and a plague for the country; the landowners who drive away their tenants in order to convert their estates to sheep farming; as a consequence, the propertyless beggars who fill the country and live by charity, robbery, and thievery; the cruel criminal law that punishes petty thefts of hungry people with hanging; the degradation through whoring, drinking, and gambling; the rigging of the law in favor of the upper class; the brutal exploitation of labor, and the dismissal of the aged and sick, leaving them to starvation and death; the corruption of the court society and its loafing hangers-on; the machinations for war; the kings who are not satisfied with tending to the welfare of their own country but want to conquer a second kingdom that they cannot rule anyway; the degradation of the people through excessive taxes, and the king who is not fit to rule over free men; the complete absence of a sense of social obligation and of governmental duty to repair such evils by poor laws, reform of the criminal law, provision for hospitals, building up of a native industry that will give employment to the dispossessed tenant-farmers, and educational institutions.
At the root of all these evils, More finds the institution of private property; if private property were abolished, as it is in Utopia, these evils would disappear along with it. At this point we must beware of running off at a tangent and indulging in the usual fallacy of interpreting More as a forerunner of “socialism.” Property is for More not an isolated problem. He castigates the class society resting on property, and he criticizes the misuse of economic power as well as the social irresponsibility of the propertied class; but he neither believes that property and wealth in themselves are evil nor that a communal, frugal life is anything to wax enthusiastic about.
On the contrary, he takes exception to Raphael’s [Raphael is the philosophical sailor who tells the story.–ed] ideal of the common life without the use of money because that “would radically destroy all nobility, magnificence, splendor and majesty which, according to common opinion [opinio publica], are the true graces and ornaments of a commonwealth.”18 The problem of property arises in connection with the analysis of pride and is inseparable from it. Property should be abolished because it is the principal instrument for the indulgence of superbia. Pride is the real source of the evil, for pride measures its well-being not in terms of wealth but by the misery of others. “Superbia would not want to be a Goddess unless there were wretches left for her to command and insult, by comparison with whose miseries her happiness might shine the brighter, whose poverty she might torment and incense by the display of her riches.”19 Wants and possessions might have standards and limits, but pride makes property the instrument for satisfying the lust for power and social superiority.
More is already on the way to an analysis of pride that was later continued by Hobbes for the case of religious election as the instrument of satisfying pride. And More, like Hobbes, despairs of finding the cure for the diseased souls in a reawakening of the life of the spirit. Hobbes devised the Leviathan as the external power that will repress the proud by force; and More devises the propertyless society as the external, institutional measure that will have to substitute for the cure of the souls. It is perhaps not needless to stress that the conception of this remedy is as un-Platonic as anything can be.
Property as the means of satisfying pride is More’s target. In this sense must be understood More’s characterization of the society of his time as a “conspiracy of the rich” (conspiratio divitum).20 The rich pretend to represent the interest of the commonwealth; and under this pretext they take care of their own interests. They devise legal tricks for keeping safely what they have gained unjustly, as well as for exploiting the labor of the poor for as little money as possible. Moreover, they add insult to injury by making general rules that operate for their profit, and then calling them the law of the land that is the same for the rich and the poor.21
In brief: More condemns a state of society and a practice of government that two centuries later, in a more progressive age, found its approval and theoretical sanction through Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government. In contrast with Locke, the less enlightened More believes that the satisfaction of pride through acquisitiveness as a principle of social and political order destroys the idea of the commonwealth. For how can one speak of a commonwealth when everybody is only after his private wealth (res publica, res privata)? The propertyless Utopian society, on the other hand, is truly a commonwealth, for here “where nothing is private, everybody is concerned about the public business.”22
We have the elements of More’s construction in hand and can now appraise its political meaning. First of all, More was not a socialist. He constructed a socialist commonwealth in order to show what a society looks like when the principal instrument for the satisfaction of pride is removed. The elimination of pride was his primary problem, not the elimination of property.
The question then arises whether he actually believed that the “wise institutions” of his Utopia would remedy the evil. This question must be answered in the negative. As a conscious Christian and trained theologian, More knew that superbia cannot be abolished by institutional devices. If he knew it, the next question must be, why did he indulge in this game? Here we touch the center of More’s problem, that is, his spiritual weakness and pessimism; but here we touch also a fundamental problem of modern politics.
Once More had diagnosed the evils of the time as a rampage of superbia, the Christian answer would have been the restoration of spiritual order, for instance through a reform of the church.23 Like Machiavelli, however, More seems to have had no confidence in this possibility. In this impasse of sentiment we have to look for the origin of the half-serious play with the idea of a society in which the evils of superbia are removed through wise institutions. The goodness of the institutions substitutes for the goodness of man; a technical device solves the problem of the substantive order in the soul.
More himself still had enough substance to know that such stuff can lead only to Nowhere [Erehwon ]. Nevertheless, he indulged in the play; and the results of the play do not differ from the results at which the thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries arrived when the spiritual weakness of More had degenerated into spiritual impotence. The overall result is the renunciation of spiritual order both in the soul and in society. The spiritual order is replaced by the social ideal.
The “ideal” gains its supreme importance in modern politics because it seems to open the way toward a stable social order through pragmatic devices instead of through the sanctification of life. It is, on principle, already the situation that T. S. Eliot has castigated as the dream of “an order so perfect that no one will need to be good.” Still, the “ideal” must have a content. And here again, More has pointed the way toward a hedonistic ratio, without spiritual guidance, that will provide the idea of a moderate economic existence for everybody, with a hundred great books thrown in for culture.
But here we reach the parting of the ways between More and the later moderns; for More not only knew that the realization of the ideal presupposed the impossible (that is, the abolition of superbia) but also had enough joy of the world himself in order to see that the ideal existence was a somewhat drab affair. A definite number of independent fallacies follow when the balance in which More kept his dream is disturbed. The political thinker — if by courtesy we may so call him — may understand that ideal institutions will not work unless the superbia is really abolished; hence, he will embark on its abolition as the prelude to the establishment of the perfect realm. This is the way of the activist mystics — from the paracletes of the Reformation to the paracletes of Positivism and Communism, that is, to Comte and Marx.
Or he may accept unlimited superbia as an ineradicable part of human nature and devise political institutions that will either suppress its drive by absolute force, as in the Hobbesian Leviathan, or let the individual drives balance each other, as did Locke, Hamilton, and Madison. This latter system has achieved considerable practical importance in politics because it works quite well as long as there are human and natural resources to be exploited so that there is enough to go around for satisfying the “democracy of cupidity” — as this system recently has been characterized.
And then, of course, there are the innocents of the Pelagian persuasion who would take an ideal at its face value, who believe that man is good and that with effort and persuasion the perfect state will ultimately be realized. In spite of their futility, their social importance is considerable, for they provide the muddiness that enables the less innocent to catch their fish.
Published Essays, 1940–1952,
CW Vol 10,
§3, pp 209–213.
18. Utopia, ed. Lupton, 308.
This quote is taken from a collection of brief Voegelin quotes which can be found HERE