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More or Less: Utopia as a Meditation on Human Nature


Even a perfunctory read of Utopia is likely to give one pause. Included in More’s “truly golden handbook” are incongruities too glaring to escape notice—incongruities between the ideal appearance of that commonwealth and the quotidian and morally problematic practices of its inhabitants. To cite but one example, in Utopia, where there are no class distinctions to speak of, women are kept mired in a perpetual state of subservience.[1]

Such shortcomings typically are explained if not explained away on the grounds that More was but the product of his times. On this understanding, More inhabited a world that was so rigidly patriarchal that he simply could not envision an unpatriarchal one. By way of a typical case in point:

“That More was unable to imagine a society in which women were genuinely the equals of men thus stands as a reminder of the profound embeddedness of gender prejudice in Western society. The idea that men should be regarded as inherently superior to women was apparently for More such an obvious and natural one that it never occurred to him that gender inequality should be among the various other social hierarchies leveled in his ideal society.”[2]    

Arguments of this sort do more to expose the critics’ conceits than they do More’s.

That More inhabited a patriarchal world is plain. But to conclude on the basis of this that More was unable to imagine an unpatriarchal one is specious. Such logic reflects the tendency that Tocqueville ascribed to historians in democratic ages who are apt to “attribute almost no influence to the individual over the destiny of the species or to citizens over the fate of the people,” but instead emphasize the force of “general causes,” of which every individual is but the plaything.[3] In brief, according to this myopic mindset, the profound embeddedness of gender prejudice was simply too great for any one man to oppose.

The failure of this line of reasoning can be demonstrated by the fact that More was able to construct a society without private property, the embeddedness of which (in Western Civilization) is commensurable to that of gender prejudice. Was not private ownership a fixed feature of Renaissance Europe? What permitted More to think beyond one fixed feature (private property) but not another (patriarchy)?

The charge that More could not conceive a society in which women were the equals of men is undercut further by the fact that such a society already had been conceived. Indeed, not only had that society been devised by a thinker who inhabited an age in which gender inequality was much more firmly entrenched than it was in Renaissance England, but that society was intimately known to More. Without the Republic there would be no Utopia, which in many ways is an express response to Plato’s own effort to conjure up the ideal regime. Notwithstanding the strict social stratification of the Socratic city, its women are expressly the equals of men.[4]

By immuring More in his day, one fails to apprehend the enduring lessons of Utopia. To maintain that the idiosyncrasies of the island commonwealth are merely the result of More’s beholdenness to his age is to suggest that by updating it—by overcoming the injustices that went unacknowledged in earlier times—everything can be made right. Abolish slavery, afford women equal say, globalize an insular republic and voila! A flawed utopia becomes a veritable one. But the defects of More’s commonwealth run deep and such panaceas would do nothing to remedy them.  More clearly could have depicted a commonwealth without slavery and gender inequality, but he did not. And the question that ought to present itself, but is not likely to be explored—at least not with the diligence it deserves—by those who make More a prisoner of his time, is why? What was More getting at? To what do these incongruities point?

The miscarriages of Utopia are not incidental but intentional and they do more to reflect the limitations of the people of that best of commonwealths than they do the limitations of the thinker who conceived them thus. In essence, Utopia is very much in keeping with the Republic and should be perused accordingly—as an insight into the human soul and a meditation on human nature.

In the Presence of Plato

Utopia is a sixteenth-century neologism, “an artificially concocted proper name”[5] without which there would be no utopian tradition, strictly speaking. But if there could be no utopian tradition without More, there could be no Utopia without Plato, so that one may justifiably reword Whitehead’s celebrated quip to read: the safest general characterization of the western utopian tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.[6] To relegate More to the status of a footnote is not to discount the countless footnotes that in turn have been appended to his own name. As a Renaissance humanist, Plato’s influence upon More was prodigious and inescapable. It was during the fifteenth century that the writings of Plato and a number of other classical authors were brought to the West by scholars fleeing a moribund Eastern Empire. As they were disseminated, Plato’s dialogues—the Republic in particular—touched off a number of disputes within the intellectual circles of Western Europe.[7] To the impact of Plato’s arrival, More was not oblivious. He felt an affinity for Plato,[8] read the Republic in Greek,[9] and “while he was still a young man… worked upon a dialogue in which he maintained Plato’s principle of community in all things, even in wives.”[10]

Plato’s presence in Utopia is palpable. No other thinker is referenced more[11] and a number of ideas from Plato’s own utopian work are borrowed freely.[12] Even the dialogic form itself harks back to Plato,[13] as does the very idea of founding a utopian commonwealth—an ideal republic that exists nowhere.

None of this is to suggest that Utopia is a mere replication of the Republic, an updated version for the Renaissance marketplace. However patent Plato’s presence may be in Utopia; however tremendous may be More’s debt to the Republic, clearly Utopia is its own work, the greatness of which is self-contained. But it is no less clear that More was profoundly influenced by Plato’s “best-commonwealth exercise”[14] and More’s own utopian vision is unambiguously a response to Plato’s originary construct. This connection need not be inferred, for it is promulgated in the opening pages of Utopia. There one will find a poem from the island’s poet laureate, Anemolius, which, written in the voice of the island itself, reads (in part): “I am a rival of Plato’s Republic, perhaps even a victor over it.” Any ambiguity surrounding the question of superiority is dispelled promptly by Peter Giles who, in his letter to Jerome Busleyden, which immediately succeeds Anemolius’s hexastichon, writes: “It is known as yet to few mortals, but [Utopia] is eminently worthy of everyone’s knowledge as being superior to Plato’s republic.”[15]

The rationale for this audacious gasconade “is that Plato argued abstractly, whereas More painted a picture exhibiting the inhabitants of Utopia, their laws and resources, so skillfully that in reading the little book one felt as if one were actually living there.”[16] There is no doubt that on a purely pragmatic level, Utopia surpasses the Republic. More devotes considerable attention to mundane matters that Plato pays hardly any heed, matters pertaining to, for example, the Utopians’ eating habits, housing arrangements, and fashion tastes (or lack thereof). But that is an improvement only if utopia is to serve as a blueprint for a regime that is to be concretized in this world, rather than be forever confined to man’s imagination.

The Socratic city is chimerical and hence its abstractness does nothing to detract from it. What good are dietary rules and city planning for a fictional society that never will be, and never was intended to be, a reality? By spelling out so many of the details that Plato did not see fit to provide, More does not correct or surpass the Republic, so much as reconceive it. Or rather, he furnishes a commonwealth that is distinct from the one that Plato creates, not because it is an improvement upon it, but because it is intended to highlight aspects of human nature different from the ones prioritized by Plato.

The central concern of the Republic is justice. What is justice and what is its relationship to happiness? Is the just person happier than the unjust or, as Thrasymachus would have it, is “the one who does injustice most happy?”[17] In brief, to be just, or not to be just: that is the question. With an eye to resolving the matter, Socrates proposes building a city in speech on the premise that the city is the soul writ large. By creating a city from the bottom up and watching it come into being, Socrates and his interlocutors would be able to see its justice and injustice come into being as well and thereby would be better able to espy what the nature of justice is and whether or not it conduces to eudemonia.[18]

On the Platonic or Socratic understanding, justice is incarnated in a body politic that is properly arranged where, for the good of the whole, each member performs the function for which he or she is naturally best suited. The highest or the truly just regime is one that is ruled by philosophers, defended by guardians, and sustained by artisans and craftsmen. The city-soul analogy proves problematic for numerous reasons[19] and the feasibility of effecting the just regime turns out to be effectively nil,[20] but if the just regime ultimately has no place on earth, the just individual does. While outwardly the Republic is a work of political thought and a reflection on the limitations of politics, it is essentially an exploration of the human soul—on its constituent parts and the proper ordering of them—and an exposition on how one ought to live.

The Republic lends itself to myriad interpretations and it would be presumptuous to claim to know just how More read it. But one aspect that presumably could not have been lost on him was this idea that the city is a magnification of the soul and that the Socratic city magnifies a very specific soul, namely the philosophic one. There are, as the Republic makes plain, other cities and other souls, but only one can be said to be ordered properly. The philosopher’s soul, wherein reason, allied with spiritedness, reigns over desire, exemplifies the distinct nature of man and the highest fulfillment of human nature. All animals desire and it is not inappropriate to speak of spirited animals (e.g., dogs or horses) nor, conversely, spiritless animals (e.g., chickens or sheep). But reason is distinct to man and it is the development of it that distinguishes him from other creatures and in some sense defines who or what he is. As Leo Strauss wrote:

Different kinds of beings seek or enjoy different kinds of pleasure: the pleasures of an ass differ from the pleasures of a human being. The order of the wants of a being points back to the natural constitution, to the What, of the being concerned; it is that constitution which determines the order, the hierarchy, of the various wants or of the various inclinations of a being. To the specific constitution there corresponds a specific operation, a specific work. A being is good, it is “in order,” if it does its proper work well. Hence man will be good if he does well the proper work of man, the work corresponding to the nature of man and required by it…. That which distinguishes the human soul from the souls of the brutes, that which distinguishes man from the brutes, is speech or reason or understanding. Therefore the proper work of man consists in living thoughtfully, in understanding, and in thoughtful action. The good life is the life that is in accordance with the natural order of man’s being, the life that flows from a well-ordered or healthy soul. The good life simply, is the life in which the requirements of man’s natural inclinations are fulfilled in the proper order to the highest possible degree, the life of a man who is awake to the highest possible degree, the life of a man in whose soul nothing lies waste. The good life is the perfection of man’s nature. It is the life according to nature…. The life according to nature is the life of human excellence or virtue, the life of a “high class person,” and not the life of pleasure as pleasure. [21]

This explains in part why so little attention is devoted to the lower classes in the Socratic city, to the artisans who represent the appetitive part of the human soul. In the philosophical city they are suppressed, much as the appetites are in the philosophical soul.

More too creates a commonwealth that reflects the human soul, but it reflects a different type of soul. In effect, Utopia inverses the prioritization of the Republic. While the Socratic city highlights the more elevated parts of the human soul, namely the spirited and rational parts, the Morean commonwealth is an embodiment of the lowest element (the appetitive) and to such an extent that the other parts are largely overshadowed in More’s ideal commonwealth. Socrates and Adeimantus also create a city in which spiritedness and wisdom (or the erotic quest for it) have no place. That elemental regime, dreamed up and disposed of early on in the Republic, is characterized by Socrates as the healthy city and by Glaucon as the city of sows[22] and it is precisely a commonwealth of this nature that More establishes in Utopia.[23]

If More does not oblige such an interpretation, he certainly invites it. More, who mastered Latin and Greek, set an etymological landmine that commences with the very title of his work.[24] With respect to the matter at hand, on Utopia, each group of thirty households elects an official known as a phylarch or as the official was called in the ancient Utopian language, a syphogrant. The word appears to be derived from the Greek words sypheos (of the sty) and gerentos (old men), so that syphogrants are effectively “pig-sty elders.”[25] Given the Platonic specter that looms over Utopia, it is reasonable to surmise that this is no coincidence. It would seem that like Socrates and Adeimantus before him, More too creates a city of sows. On this score, one also should consider the ancient name given to the Governor of Utopia, Barzane. While one reading of this word would have it mean “son of Zeus,”[26] an alternate translation would render this word “leader of cattle.”[27] All of this suggests that the Utopians are not fully human, a claim that is substantiated further by the contemporary name given to governors, Ademus. Deriving from the Greek demos and the privative a, the leaders of the Utopian people are peopleless.[28]

Before that point is expounded upon, it is worth drawing attention to other congruities between Utopia and the city of sows, congruities that are constitutional rather than etymological. In the Republic, the germinal political community hatched by Socrates and Adeimantus is characterized by a certain simplicity. It is an idyllic city, without want, penury, discord, and disease. In it, the people live modestly; owing to their modesty and to the bounty of their natural surroundings, their simple needs and wants are fulfilled evidently without fail. It is a remarkably communal city wherein each member performs a single task not for his or her benefit, but for the benefit of the whole. And the tasks to which the members of this city devote themselves are rudimentary—farming, husbandry, weaving, shoemaking, carpentry, metallurgy, and so forth. In short, it is a city of craftsmen.

Much the same could be said of Utopia. There are of course disparities between the two. For example, while there are no doctors in Adeimantus’s city, one finds doctors and hospitals on More’s island commonwealth. On Utopia, one also finds scholars. There is no indication that the members of the city of sows have any engagement with nor any knowledge of anything resembling scholarship. The Utopians train for war, though they do their best to avoid it, while the inhabitants of the healthy city appear to have avoided war so successfully that they do not even prepare for it.

Such distinctions, and they can be multiplied, do not undermine the argument that Utopia and the city of sows are constituted in a like manner. Certainly the characterization of Adaimantus’s city can be applied accurately to More’s: a communal city without discord and want where each member performs a particular trade for the benefit of the whole. Indeed the trades themselves are strikingly similar: “Besides agriculture (which is… common to all), each is taught one particular craft as his own. This is generally either wool-working or linen-making or masonry or metal-working or carpentry.”[29]

But more fundamentally and consequentially, what unites these imaginary regimes are not the features they both share, but the components they both lack. And it is upon these grounds that the claim made above—that the governor of Utopia is people-less because the Utopians are not really or fully human—can be firmly established.

When Glaucon characterizes his brother’s city as a city of sows, he is suggesting that it is unfit for people. To be sure, there is community and industry, but many animals too are communal and industrious. In Glaucon’s view, the people of pig city are uncivilized; they are unrefined. They inhabit a world that is more fit for beasts than for men.

To this characterization, Socrates briefly demurs. In Socrates’s mind, the city of sows is really the healthy city and Glaucon’s city of refinement and luxury a feverish one.[30] But with Glaucon’s basic appraisal, Socrates ultimately agrees: the inhabitants of this elemental city are not fully human; in some decisive sense they are incomplete. It is true that they lack for nothing insofar as their wants invariably are met. But as noted above, there is a hierarchic ordering of wants and the wants that the residents of the healthy city devote themselves to satisfying render them more akin to brutes than humans. The city is healthy because there is no excess and hence, no want, no poverty, no sickness, no war. But excess—really the desire for more—is an integral attribute of human nature. One may decry the distress and discord that the desire for more engenders, but it is that desire—and the striving that comes with it—that yields histories worth writing, monuments worth celebrating, and people (individually and collectively) worth honoring.

Here one is reminded of Kant’s “unsocial sociability,” that spirit of antagonism that impels people “to come together in society” and yet, when together, to behave egocentrically in such a fashion that the very fabric of society is perennially in jeopardy of being rent.  Kant acknowledges that “this propensity,” which “is obviously rooted in the nature of man,” is the “cause [of] so many evils.” But without this propensity and the resultant evils, man qua man would never have come to be.

Without these asocial qualities (far from admirable in themselves) which cause the resistance inevitably encountered by each individual as he furthers his self-seeking pretensions, man would live an Arcadian, pastoral existence of perfect concord, self-sufficiency and mutual love. But all human talents would remain hidden for ever in a dormant state, and men, as good-natured as the sheep they tended, would scarcely render their existence more valuable than that of their animals.[31]

One could contend that human beings and the world they populate would have been better off had they remained in that pastoral state of perfect concord. But one would have to accept that those beings, like the ones that roam Rousseau’s state of nature, are in fact sub-human. It is only by virtue of the pursuit of honor, prestige, justice, and intangibles of this sort that man has become the creature he is and in doing so, has distinguished himself from the other creatures that make this orb their home. Without this thirst for more, man is constitutionally deficient; he is not, strictly speaking, human.

This congenital restlessness is embraced by the Greek concept thymos, which plays a central role in Plato’s Republic. Thymos (spiritedness)[32] emblematizes one of the three components of man’s tripartite soul and it is altogether absent from the city of sows. It is only when the spirited Glaucon condemns his temperate brother’s city as being unfit for human habitation that this part of the soul comes to light. Glaucon does not simply want to live (or survive), but to live well. Life in Adeimantus’s city is beneath his dignity; it is a city fit for pigs, not people. Such a sentiment is grounded in or stems from thymos, which is the seat of, amongst other things, pride. He who is without pride may be content to live like a beast, but anyone who has a sense of his own worth will not be content to live thus.

As with Plato’s pig-people, More’s Utopians are devoid of pride. This, ironically, seems to be a point of pride for Hythloday, who characterizes pride as a “monster, the chief and progenitor of all plagues.”

Pride measures prosperity not by her own advantages but by others’ disadvantages. Pride would not consent to be made even a goddess if no poor wretches were left for her to domineer over and scoff at, if her good fortune might not dazzle by comparison with their miseries, if the display of her riches did not torment and intensify their poverty. This serpent from hell entwines itself around the hearts of men and acts like the suckfish in preventing and hindering them from entering on a better life.[33]

While this sentiment “is too deeply fixed in men to be easily plucked out,” the Utopians “have been lucky enough to achieve [a] republic” without ever having been tempted by that serpent from hell. In the commonwealth that has no place, there is no pride.[34]

Does this render the Utopians superior to humans—or superior humans? Given the unambiguously negative characterization of pride, the answer would seem to be yes. If pride is the chief plague and the progenitor of all others, “the very head and root of all sins,” “the malignant mother of all manner of vice,”[35] in short, the source of all that is bad, then he who is without it would be without bad, i.e., he would be good.

In a somewhat rueful close to the work, More professes, in his own voice, that it is easier for him to wish to see many of the features of Utopia in the countries of his day rather than have any hope of actually seeing them realized. But is there some prospect that they could be realized? Pride may be too deeply fixed in human nature to be easily plucked out, but that implies that it can be plucked out, if only with great difficulty. Thymos is not, as Plato would seem to suggest, an inextricable part of human nature. It is in the bad man, not man simply, that pride reposes.

Is Utopia then possible? Or if it remains impossible, an unattainable ideal, is it one that should be striven for; one that should be approximated as closely as possible? As a community of persons, the Republic is a pipedream—or a nightmare, depending on one’s reading of it. In either case, it “has its place in speeches” and has no place on earth.[36] But even without this concession, which comes at the very end of the Republic’s penultimate book, it ought to be apparent that as formulated by Socrates, the perfectly just regime is preposterous. To adduce one example that supports this conclusion, the just regime presupposes the marriage of wisdom and power—the ascendance of philosopher-kings.[37] Since no regime honors the philosopher enough to hand over to him the reins of power,[38] the foundation of the truly just regime hinges upon a most fanciful prospect: everyone in the city who happens to be older than ten will be sent out into the country while the children who remain will be reared in the appropriate customs and laws.[39] If the philosopher cannot persuade the people about the merit of his rule—the philosopher is “useless” in their eyes[40]—it is difficult to see how he might compel them to forsake their children and homeland.[41]

The Socratic city then is an impracticable ideal; but it is an undesirable one as well. To instantiate the just regime, one must commit acts that are flagrantly unjust. As Stanley Rosen observed:

“It is not hard to understand that this step [rustication of people over ten] could be taken only through the slaughter of all parents, but even if we take the statement literally, we must note that Socrates has no pity or concern for the expelled citizenry and no hesitation in depriving them of their children. In order to establish a just city, the ultimate act of injustice is required.”[42]

When propped upon such egregious misdeeds, the justness of a regime cannot but be called into question. Plato’s lesson appears to be that while the just city is impossible and undesirable, the just person is both possible and desirable. It is one thing to tyrannize one’s own soul; it is something else to tyrannize the souls of others.

What about the pride-less regime? What sacrifices does it necessitate? What iniquities does it invite? Does Utopia signify a paradigm to aspire to or an admonition to heed? Does it betoken an elevation of man or his diminution, if not abolition?

In the Absence of Pride

To speak of man without pride is like speaking of man without reason. Or to state it differently, to speak of man without pride is not to speak of man. Perhaps humans can be cleansed of pride; perhaps it can be dislodged from their breasts, just as, perhaps, humans one day can get on without government. But such a change would be so transformative that the being in question would cease to be human. Government is that greatest of all reflections on human nature,[43] in no small part because pride is central to that nature.[44]

More no doubt fathomed as much. It is true that as stated in Utopia, pride implicitly could be plucked out of human nature, though only with great difficulty. But that insight is Hythloday’s, not More’s, and any careful reader should know better than to conflate the two.[45] Devout Catholic and learned theologian that he was, More knew that pride was an ineradicable part of human nature. Man may have been made in the image of God, but man is fallen and that fallenness is constitutive and determinative. And it was nothing other than pride that preceded the fall. Pride is man’s original sin.[46]

Still, Utopia may serve as that model in heaven that should guide human beings going forward.  Pride may be ineradicable, but pridelessness may be an ideal to aspire to, even if it forever remain unattainable. But this interpretation too is problematic, not least because the portrayal of pride put forward by Hythloday and, one should add, More as well, is unjustly one-sided.

Certainly a host of ills stem from pride, but to suggest nothing good is born from it is fallacious. Pride is at bottom an awareness of one’s worth, an esteem for oneself, and it is hard to imagine in the absence of such esteem how there could be any honor, virtue, magnanimity and the like. A person who devalues himself is unlikely to perform on life’s stage, or at least to do so in such a manner that his performance merits acclamation. This gets to the heart of Nietzsche’s indictment of modernity, of which “the most universal sign…[is that] man has lost dignity in his own eyes to an incredible extent.”[47] Man’s “faith in [his] dignity and uniqueness…, in his irreplaceability in the great chain of being,”[48] is not entirely lost, but as modernity advances, it faded more and more, so that man himself becomes more and more degraded. At the end of this devolution lies the last man. Incapable of esteeming and undeserving of being esteemed, the last man contributes nothing to the world of lasting significance. The last man, the “most contemptible,” “most despicable man,” is man without pride.[49]

Of course that is Nietzsche and More is no proto-Nietzschean. But one need not be a Nietzschean—proto or otherwise—to conclude that pride has its virtues. A more judicious appraisal would not fail to note that “all those great actions and sentiments, which have become the admiration of mankind, are founded on nothing but pride and self-esteem.”[50] If pride is the malignant mother of all manner of vice, it is also the beneficent father of all manner of virtue. “A genuine and hearty pride, or self-esteem, if well conceal’d and well founded, is essential to the character of a man of honour and there is no quality of the mind, which is more indispensably requisite to procure the esteem and approbation of mankind.”[51]

More’s life and death are an attestation to the verity of Hume’s remark. The nobleness with which More confronted death, the steadfastness with which he maintained his faith and refused to compromise his principles would have been inconceivable in the absence of thymos. Fourteen months More spent in the Tower of London; he watched the Carthusians set out to Tyburn where they were to be “hanged, cut down and disemboweled while still alive,”[52] a fate that More very well knew might be his own. To put an end to his confinement and evade such a ghastly denouement, More had only to swear the Oath of Supremacy, “an oath that nearly everyone else of importance in the realm had sworn.”[53] No doubt that would have been the reasonable thing to do and no doubt every unthymotic soul would have done it. For those without thymos, nothing supersedes the preservation of life. More was not constituted thus; he sacrificed his life for something higher, something nobler, and in so doing, procured that which those without thymos never secure: the enduring esteem of mankind.[54]

Here one might protest that thymos is being conflated with pride, and that pride is not the sole manifestation of thymos, but one of many. The Utopians are without pride, but they are not unspirited, and the proof of this is that they not only fight to defend their land and the lands of their allies, but do so with “valor and heroism.”[55] In addition to “protect[ing] their own territory or… driv[ing] an invading army out of their friends’ lands,” they go to war “in pity for a people oppressed by tyranny, to deliver them by force of arms from the yoke and slavery of the tyrant, a course prompted by human sympathy.”[56] Surely a people without thymos would not behave in such a fashion.

As often is the case in Utopia, the outward impression cloaks a deeper and contradictory reality. When one mulls over the Utopians’ martial “virtues,” one realizes that they are not all that valorous and heroic. Or at the very least, such virtues are so far from predominant that it would be inapt to characterize the Utopians as spirited. For a people who “utterly despise war as an activity fit only for beasts,” they are surprisingly preoccupied with it. While they do not shy from conflict, they are loath to engage in battle themselves and employ a number of tactics that are designed not to prevent the spilling of blood, but the spilling of blood by and on their own hands. They are not the tactics of a spirited people, but a hypocritical one.

One of their preferred stratagems is to place a bounty on the heads of those whom the Utopians “regard as responsible for the hostile measures taken against them.”[57] Tabling the fact that there is no assurance that the Utopians know who is responsible on such occasions,[58] these tactics smack more of perfidy than bravery. Outside Utopia, this practice is “condemned as the cruel deed of a degenerate nature,” but the Utopians contend that it “reflects great credit, first on their wisdom because they thus bring to a conclusion great wars without any battle at all, and secondly on their humanity and mercy because by the death of a few guilty people they purchase the lives of many harmless persons who would have fallen in battle.”[59] The contention is untenable. A people whose prince is assassinated along with his subordinates is not likely to witness a peaceful transition of power. When assassination attempts do not succeed, the Utopians “sow the seeds of [internal] dissension… and… strife” and, should that fail, “stir up and involve the neighbors of their enemies by reviving some forgotten claims to dominion.”[60] The coups, revolutions, and incursions that are likely to result from such methods are not liable to be bloodless affairs. As a result, their favored tactic is not merciful and humane so much as it is self-serving. It spares them the violence that they abet.

Their want of thymos is exemplified further by another favored approach to fighting (i.e., not fighting) wars: the use of mercenaries. The moral dubiety of this practice will be explored at some length below, but for now suffice it to note that throughout history, spirited peoples have fought their own battles and did not rely on others to fight for them. When a people did come to depend on others, as was the case with Rome, its spiritedness dwindled, thereby sealing its decline. It may be necessary or at least expedient to employ mercenaries, but to utilize them as an initial as opposed to last resort is not the sort of tactic to which truly spirited peoples revert.

To be fair, on occasion the Utopians enter the fray and do so with boldness and resolve. In battle, “their spirit [is] exalted and disdainful of defeat” and “is so stubborn that they would rather be cut to pieces than give way.”[61] But given the tenacity with which they avoid conflict and their apparent effectiveness at doing so, one wonders when occasions ever would arise for such spiritedness to be put on display. Given the lavish bounties they place on the heads of their enemies and the ease with which “bribes incite men to commit every kind of crime,”[62] it is safe to infer that their favored approach is a highly successful one. In those instances when it fails, they foment internal dissension and encourage invasions by foreign peoples, practices that also, it is reasonable to assume, enjoy good deal of success. When these efforts come up short, “they hire and send to war soldiers from all parts,”[63] though their go-to mercenaries are the Zapoletans, a people who “are born for warfare and zealously seek an opportunity for fighting[, which,] when they find… they eagerly embrace.” As “the only trade they know in life is that by which they seek their death”[64] and since the Utopians invariably are the highest bidder for these services, rare would be the occasion when Zapoletans failed to do the Utopians’ fighting for them. But evidently such occasions do arise. When the Zapoletans are indisposed or otherwise unavailable, Utopians “employ the forces of the people for whom they are fighting and then auxiliary squadrons of all their other friends. Last of all they add a contingent of their own citizens.”[65] With a military strategy of this sort, it is difficult to envision when the Utopians would have the chance to flaunt their vaunted courage. But even when the opportunity does arise, it does so only after the Utopians have gone through considerable lengths to avoid engaging in conflict and strategically put other people in harm’s way. Are those the machinations of a courageous people? The captain of a sinking ship who first orders all luggage to be jettisoned overboard and then orders women and children to follow suit only to find such measures to no avail so that he too is obliged to go down with the ship—what moral compass would show that captain to be brave?

The Utopians are not spirited so much as they are calculating. It is difficult not to be struck by the fact that for a people who despise war, they seem to be involved in it, however tangentially, a great deal. Of the three reasons given for engaging in war, the one that is most justified (“to protect their own territory”) seems to obtain the least. The other two reasons are to repel invading armies from their friends’ lands and liberate oppressed people from tyranny. Perhaps the most glaring problem with the presumptively peace-loving Utopians justifying belligerence on these latter grounds is that while liberating people from oppression may be humane and just, the appropriateness of the Utopians assuming the mantle of liberators is suspect. Their ostensible benevolence, pacifism, and enlightenment obscure a number of troubling practices, not the least of which concerns the Utopians’ colonizing endeavors. As a matter of policy, when the island population exceeds its quota, the Utopians seize neighboring uncultivated land which will be used to house the excess population. The natives who live on the appropriated land can be incorporated into Utopia, should they choose to do so. Those who refuse are driven from the land and those who resist are assailed and presumably killed or enslaved.[66] That those who reflexively perpetuate this policy might regard themselves, and be regarded by others, as the enemies of tyranny and liberators of the oppressed is farcical.

Unmitigated hypocrisy temporarily aside, one detail that ought to strike the reader is the enormous sums of money that the Utopians have amassed—700,000 ducats to be precise. This astounding sum, “three times the total income of the crown under Henry VII”[67] has been acquired “little by little from various sources,”[68] suggesting that the Utopians are far more militaristic and opportunistic than they appear at first blush. For a people that disdains gold and silver and denigrates material wealth, money plays a surprisingly large part in the Utopians’ military escapades, not only in terms of the wages they pay to wage war and the profits they reap for winning those wars, but with respect to the pretexts for going to war. Oddly, the Utopians seem more troubled by the mistreatment of their friends’ merchants than the depredation of their friends’ lands.[69] One would think that the latter would generate greater umbrage, until one takes into account that Utopia’s is a mercantilist economy. Though they import hardly anything (“practically the only thing [they are] lacking is iron”), they export a great deal and do so for profit. One seventh of their exports are given freely to the poor of those nations with whom they have commercial relations and the remaining six-sevenths is sold “at a moderate price.”[70] If the Utopians were as magnanimous as they are portrayed to be and disdained wealth as much as the reader is (mis)led to believe, inversing this proportion—or at least tilting the balance appreciably—would seem appropriate. What these policies intimate is a naked self-interest. Utopians safeguard the merchants of their trading partners so that their markets will be preserved. They hire mercenaries to fight wars that have enriched them inordinately. In fact, the Utopians’ primary expenditure is mercenaries. That is, the Utopians amass monies to hire mercenaries to fight wars that will yield the Utopians more money. As a result of these practices, “they keep a vast treasure,”[71] which is to serve as “a bulwark in extreme peril or in sudden emergency.”[72] Given that Utopia possesses so much money and weathers so little peril, it is difficult not to be cynical about the motives of its people—a people who appear very calculating and not all that spirited.

In the Absence of Philosophy

A component of the Platonic tripartite soul is missing from the Utopian equation, but that does not necessarily entail that the soul inclines downward. The third part of the soul, the part to which the majority of the Republic is devoted and upon which the Socratic city rests and for which it exists is nothing other than the calculating part. Might Utopia then be a manifestation of the highest city rather than the lowest? A city of sages, not of sows?

This is how Utopia has been presented to posterity. Among the prefatory materials appended to the work are a tetrastich composed by Peter Giles and Anemolius’s aforementioned hexastich which depict Utopia as a “philosophical city” that rivals Plato’s.[73] This sentiment is echoed by Giles in his letter to Jerome de Busleyden,[74] as well as by the Venetian Renaissance scholar, Niccolò Leonico Tomeoin, in a letter to Reginald Pole. To Pole Tomeo writes, “the Utopian Republic, in my opinion, should be certainly assigned a place higher than any other similar description made by any ancient writer…. Would that in some place or other in the world there might really exist a true republic of philosophers!”[75] But the problem with this portrayal—one that to this day still persists[76]—is that Utopia is not a republic of philosophers. Indeed, it would not be going too far to say that there is not a single genuine philosopher to be found anywhere on the island.

The penchant to conflate reason and philosophy likely leads scholars astray on this score. Reason may be an integral component of philosophy, but it is a no less integral part of science. But, as the divorce between science and philosophy signals, philosophy and science are not equatable and, by extension, neither are reason and philosophy. Philosophy—understood in the Socratic/Platonic sense—aims at something with which reason and science are unconcerned. Or to put it differently, reason is a tool employed by philosophy and science for different ends. To live by reason is not necessarily to be a philosopher. The Utopians live by reason; the Utopians are not philosophers.

One way to appreciate this distinction (and disjunction) is to consider the original divorce between Socratic and pre-Socratic philosophy or between political philosophy and natural philosophy. What accounts for Socrates’s singular place in history is that it was he who, in Cicero’s memorable words, “first brought down philosophy from the heavens, placed it in cities, introduced it into families, and obliged it to examine into life and morals, and good and evil.”[77] The heavenly philosophy of the pre-Socratics was not concerned with politics and peoples. Instead of examining life and morals, good and evil, the pre-Socratics directed their attention to the nature of reality. What is the basic element of life? What is motion? What is matter? What is being? With Thales’s postulation that water is the principal material of which the cosmos is composed and Democritus’s atomic theory of nature, which held that atoms are the basic building blocks of life, no attention was given to what becomes the central concern of Socratic philosophy: what is the good life or how ought one to live? This neglect on the part of his predecessors impelled Socrates to embark on his second sailing, away from the heavenly realms of the pre-Socratics to the sublunary realms in which human beings are fated to conduct themselves. Socrates once “was wonderfully keen on that wisdom which they call natural science”[78] and involved himself in the physical investigations of the sort that the pre-Socratics carried out, but grew weary of and disaffected by them in large part because those investigations had nothing to say about “the best and worst” and “common good for all.”[79] While the physical investigations of his precursors might reveal something about the nature of the material world, they had very little to say about man’s place in it, to say nothing of the nature of man himself, which is, as Socrates makes plain time and time again, not reducible to matter.[80]

To the political world—understood capaciously as that sphere in which man, the uniquely political animal, operates—Socrates devoted himself. It is true that the philosopher contemplates the transcendent world beyond the cave, but always with the awareness that he will return to his fettered brethren below. “The best natures” are compelled not only to behold the light outside the cave, but more momentously, to return to the subterranean realm so that they may better illumine it and “care for and guard the others” who are destined to live cavernously.[81] Herein lies the significance of the Socratic revolution and the abiding legacy of Socratic philosophy.

When Socrates commands “you” in applying the cave image, he marks the founding moment of Socratic-Platonic political philosophy, for his words forge his ultimate alliance, with the philosophers of the future. From our privileged late perspective, it is possible to see that alliance stretch across millennia as the long history of Platonic political philosophy…. Socrates’s going down aims to permanently alter philosophy’s place in the city, to be the fountainhead of philosophy as socially responsible, philanthropic in a knowing way.[82]

As Socrates presented the matter in his Apology, he is a divine gift “given to the city”—Athens in particular, though in view of Socrates’s lasting influence, one justly could say the city as such.

“[I have] been set upon the city… as though upon a great and well-born horse who is rather sluggish because of his great size and needs to be awakened by some gadfly. Just so, in fact, the god seems to me to have set me upon the city as someone of this sort: I awaken and persuade and reproach each one of you, and I do not stop settling down everywhere upon you the whole day…. I always do your business, going to each of you privately, as a father or an older brother might do, persuading you to care for virtue.[83]

This ever is the mission of the genuine philosopher, a mission that has no place in Utopia.

This verity can be grasped by imagining what would happen to a Socrates were he transposed to that insular commonwealth to carry on his divine mission—awakening and reproaching the Utopians; always persuading them to care for virtue. Is there any doubt that the Utopians would not hesitate to dispatch summarily an individual who vexed and provoked them thus? In part, what substantiates the charge that the Utopians are deficient in such a manner that they incline downward toward the brutes (the city of sows) rather than upward toward the divine (the philosophical city) is that speech—what differentiates man from beast and what the philosophical quest is predicated on—is conspicuously wanting in Utopia.

The Utopians are not mute, of course, nor are they illiterate. They are, in fact, highly intelligent. But on the Aristotelian understanding of what distinguishes man, they are lacking in speech. Other animals no doubt communicate and some, such as bees and ants, are communal. But none of them are political because none use their voice to deliberate about what is right and wrong. “It is peculiar to man as compared to other animals that he alone has a perception of what is good and bad and just and unjust and other things [of this sort].”[84] What defines man essentially, what distinguishes him from other animals is his deliberative spirit. It is only by dialectically trafficking in the proverbial marketplace of ideas that man approaches an understanding of what is just and unjust. This quest for justice “constitutes the highest good for human beings.”[85]

On this understanding, the Utopians are not political animals but apolitical ones. They do not speculate about what is good and bad, just and unjust. speculations of this nature are all but proscribed. “To take counsel on matters of common interest outside the senate or the popular assembly is considered a capital offense.”[86] It is true that that Utopians do engage in philosophical debates on questions of morality. “They discuss virtue and pleasure” and “inquire into the good: of the soul and of the body and of external gifts.” However their principal concern is not justice, but happiness and for the Utopians, “the whole or the chief part of human happiness”[87] consists of pleasure and physical or bodily pleasure at that. Thus even in their philosophical deliberations, the Utopians betray a declivitous proclivity. What distinguishes man from beast is that he alone perceives what is just and unjust. The ability to distinguish the pleasant from the unpleasant is more elemental and is present in apolitical animals; “for their nature has come this far, that they have a perception of the painful and the pleasant and indicate these things to each other.”[88]

To this line of reasoning one might rejoin that the Utopians are not deficient human beings but perfected ones. They do not deliberate about justice because they already know what it is. They have not simply apprehended justice but have established it as well. If speech is used to elucidate the just and unjust and the Utopians already have acquired a knowledge of what justice is, would not speech, on this Aristotelean understanding, become superfluous? And so too spiritedness? “Thymos is frustrated when evils are present and at ease when they are absent.”[89] But Utopia is a world without evils and hence a world in which thymos has no place; a world in which thymos has been at ease for so long that it has atrophied. The absence of thymos and lack of deliberation are, in the case of the Utopians, signs of an advanced people, not a retrograde one.

This rejoinder cannot withstand scrutiny. For one, thymos is intrinsic to the human soul; and it is vital not only to the proud and combative, but to the humble and pensive as well. To appreciate the integrality of thymos to a laudable existence, one must comprehend its place in the tripartite soul. In the Republic, Socrates shows that thymos is distinct from desire and reason by recounting the story of Leontius.

Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was going up from the Piraeus under the outside of the North Wall when he noticed corpses lying by the public executioner. He desired to look, but at the same time he was disgusted and made himself turn away; for a while he struggled and covered his face. But finally, overpowered by the desire, he opened his eyes wide, ran toward the corpses and said, ‘Look, you damned wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.’[90]

In Leontius’s soul there is a conflict. “He experienced simultaneously desire to see the corpses and revulsion that turned him away and made him cover his eyes—his soul suffered opposites at the same time in relation to the same thing.”[91] This conflict is not simply between two competing desires, for in that case there would be no justification for Leontius’s anger. (Whether he gazes upon the corpses or not, he gets what he wants, i.e., desires.) Nor is it strictly a conflict between reason and desire because reason presumably does not get angry. (Reason determines the rightness of an action; it does not feel pride when one follows that action or shame when one fails to do so.) As the story of Leontius shows, there is a part of the human soul that is distinct from reason and desire; a part that accounts not just for belligerence or hubris, but “high-minded anger or indignation as well.”[92] It is the part of the soul that impels people to do what is right,[93] and it is needed not only to fight injustice in the world beyond oneself, but to combat it within oneself as well; to oppose the baser desires and free oneself from the command of the vulgar appetites that lurk in the recesses of every soul, so that one may be more properly or fully human. This component appears to be stunted in if not altogether absent from the Utopian soul. 

On the face of it, this argument does not refute the claim that thymos has no place in Utopia because in that insular commonwealth there are no evils to be found. Harmonious moderation is the order of the day everyday on Utopia and as a result, there are no internal excesses to combat, no external abuses to correct. The sort of indignation that one feels when one fails to live up to one’s standards is never experienced in Utopia because the people there know what is right and do what is right. They are, in a word, enlightened.

But the perusal of Utopia reveals that the Utopians are not enlightened, so much as they are obtuse—morally obtuse—and that obtuseness is betrayed on numerous occasions. Thymos is a party to justice not only because it impels people to do the right thing when their desires would have them do otherwise, but because it impels them to search for what is right when their customs have habituated them to do what is wrong. The ability to question one’s convictions and reconsider one’s faiths requires no small amount of courage, as the cases of Socrates and a host of other reformers who have obliged people to (re)examine the falsehoods they mistook for truths attest. There is no indication that Utopians engage in such soul-searching and again, not because they are enlightened and their souls are pure, but because they are obtuse and their souls incomplete.

Consider Utopia’s aforementioned colonization policy. The Utopians are proto-Lockeans who justify their actions on the grounds that uncultivated land is effectively waste, belongs to no one, and can be rightfully appropriated by the rational and industrious.[94] In one form or another, this logic frequently was used to vindicate the colonizing efforts of European powers, as well as the westward expansion of a nascent America, and while the troubling implications and exemplifications of such policies are evident today, it is a little disingenuous to condemn outright the actions of those who lived half a millennia prior on the basis of current norms. As R.W. Chambers noted, “We can only understand Utopia if we remember the Europe for which it was written.”[95] But as indicated at the outset, logic of this sort too often is used not simply to condemn the shortcomings of the Utopians, but to excuse them. “Yes there is something problematic about the Utopians’ approach to colonization, but they did not know any better. We are all but products of our times, and the Utopians were conceived in the benighted sixteenth century, not the enlightened twenty-first.”

This approach prevents one from seeing that there is something inherently wrong with the Utopians. It is not that they did not know better because More and the people of his day did not know any better. The Utopians exhibit no capacity for critical self-reflection; no aptitude for the sort of introspection that permits a people to see the errors of its ways and overcome them. In the case of colonization, those errors are manifest. The Utopians did not “only settle where there is ‘much waste and unoccupied ground,’ and… admit to full citizenship the natives who care[d] to join them,” as Chambers falsely suggests.[96] They drove from the land those who refused to live under Utopian law and waged war against those who openly resisted. When Chambers remarks that “it would have been well if all Sixteenth-Century colonization had been equally humane,”[97] one justly could retort that it nigh was. How is it that amongst this reputedly enlightened and humane populace there is nowhere to be heard a voice of conscience imploring the Utopians to reconsider their policies? To those who would contend that it would be unreasonable to hear such a voice given the period in which Utopia was penned, one need only proffer the names of Domingo de Soto, Fernando Vázquez, and Francisco de Vitoria—the Spanish jurists and theologians who shared More’s age and were neither blind to, nor silent about, Spain’s New World enormities. The silence on this score ought not to be imputed to the spirit of the age, but to the spirt—or spiritlessness—of the Utopians.

Even more troubling is the Utopians’ policy toward the Zapoletans, those “fearsome, rough, and wild” people who are “born for warfare,”[98] something that the Utopians routinely hire them to engage in, notwithstanding the Utopians’ ostensible opposition to war. That policy, as has been noted elsewhere, is genocidal.[99]

When need requires, they thrust [the Zapoletans] under the tempting bait of great promises into greatest perils. Generally a large proportion never returns to claim payment, but the survivors are honestly paid what has been promised them to incite them again to like deeds of daring. The Utopians do not care in the least how many Zapoletans they lose, thinking that they would be the greatest benefactors to the human race if they could relieve the world of all the dregs of this abominable and impious people.[100]

It is always an abominable and impious race that a genocidal people aspires to extirpate. To insist that the Utopians achieve what no genocidal people has, namely legitimating the genocide they seek to effect, would be troubling to say the least. In any event, the Utopians themselves appear to have no compunction about their policy and again, one fails to detect a single voice of conscience amongst this race of putatively compassionate sages.

The moral turpitude with which such policies are tainted has been extenuated by others on the grounds that these are foreign policies.

It is not accidental that the most serious problems of Utopia, and the ones to which More insistently draws attention, are problems of foreign relations.  This is always a problematic area in the best-commonwealth exercise, simply because of the systemic nature of its approach to constitutional design.  Since the point of the exercise is to secure the good life for those within the system, there must always be differences between those inside and those outsides its boundaries.[101]

What this position implies is that if Utopia were a world-state instead of an isolated island one, there would be no serious moral dubieties, or at least the seriousness of those dubieties would be allayed considerably. But what it also suggests is that intra-state moral quandaries are comparatively trifling, if they exist at all; that the ideal state has blood on its hands only because it abides and must abide in an unideal world and that within its own borders, there is no immorality to behold.

This is patently false and nothing makes the falseness of this view more evident than the institution of slavery.  On Utopia, there are three types of slaves: prisoners of war, criminals (both native- and foreign-born; the latter predominate); and drudges from other nations who would prefer to be slaves in Utopia than indigents in their native countries. While the majority of slaves come from outside the boundaries of Utopia, the institution itself exists squarely within those boundaries and the fact that it does is troubling. The gravity of this problem tends to be abated on the pretense that the Utopian “system of slavery [is] mild, humane, permissive of manumission, and not very extensive.”[102] But it is a system of slavery all the same and its existence on Utopia ought to give one pause.

On purely pragmatic grounds, one cannot help but wonder why a people who pride themselves on laboring, do so six hours a day, and in doing so produce “all that is required by necessity or comfort”[103] would have any need of slaves. It is true that in the case of criminals—those who commit “the worst offenses” —slavery is more contributive to the commonwealth than capital punishment (“their labor is more profitable than their death”) and serves as a more effective deterrent (“their example lasts longer to deter others from like crimes”).[104] But slaves of this sort—the domestic criminal variety—constitute but a minority of the slave population. Their numbers are eclipsed by non-native criminals who are brought to Utopia where they are enslaved. Why would a people that has no need of laborers import slaves and do so in what appear to be considerable numbers?[105]

Those eager to pardon the Utopians are quick to point out that no one is born a slave in Utopia. As Dominic Baker-Smith put it, “people either opt for [slavery] or they deserve it.”[106] But this sort of exculpation seems rather short-sighted. Incontrovertibly some opt for slavery (the foreign drudges) and one can argue that some deserve it (the native criminals and the prisoners of war), but what of those non-native criminals of whom many are brought to Utopia? They have not opted to become slaves; that they deserve to become slaves is at least open to question. It is true that these are people who have been “condemned to death elsewhere for some offense,”[107] but to presume that they have been condemned justly—that is, to presume that their execution is merited—is either woefully naive or shamefully callous and underhanded, particularly for a people who are as astute and altruistic as the Utopians are alleged to be.

One might be inclined to exonerate the Utopians by arguing that they really are being humane: the enslaved foreign criminals not only are spared the death that but for the Utopians they certainly would have met; they moreover are afforded the possibility of winning their freedom at some point in the future. But the humanitarian argument runs into insuperable difficulties, not the least of which is the just mentioned claim that there is no guarantee that the foreign criminals are in fact criminals—that they actually have committed a crime, one that warrants death no less—and the Utopians do absolutely nothing to corroborate their guilt. Moreover and in some ways more problematically, while Utopian slavery appears mild in many ways, there is something fundamentally inhumane about it. The point made above, that the Utopians have no need of importing laborers because virtually every Utopian labors, was in some ways inadequate. It is true that virtually all Utopians work, but there are some labors that the Utopians are proscribed from performing. For example, as Hythloday informs his listeners, “[the Utopians] do not allow their citizens to accustom themselves to the butchering of animals, by the practice of which they think that mercy, the finest feeling of our human nature, is gradually killed off.”[108] Rather than sully their own hands, the Utopians force slaves to do their sordid work for them and by doing so, destroy in the enslaved the capacity for mercy, the finest feeling of which human nature is capable. Who could honestly characterize such actions as humane?

On this matter, Karl Kautsky absolves the Utopians because they lacked the requisite technology to render such objectionable work obsolete. “Only modern large-scale industry provides the full opportunity for adjusting the various kinds of work, and so simplifying the residue of unpleasant work as to permit of its alternate performance by all capable of labour, thus abolishing any special compulsion upon an unfortunate class of workers.”[109] But logic of this sort is misguided. The slaughtering of animals is not merely unpleasant; it is, in the eyes of Utopians, morally repugnant. Kautsky contends that removing “the degraded [i.e., slave] class entirely was impossible for [More], given the technical foundation of his speculation,”[110] but slavery in Utopia cannot be acquitted on a technicality. Those slaves do not perform an economic function nor for that matter an aristocratic one (in the sense of affording the Utopians greater leisure, of which they already have a surfeit). They serve a strictly moral or rather immoral purpose. To obviate the need for them, it is Utopian morality, not technology that needs to be advanced. This practice in particular makes plain—or ought to make plain—the astonishing degree to which the Utopians are morally obtuse, if not depraved. For what this practice amounts to is the conceit that by forcing others to behave immorally, the Utopians preserve their own moral integrity. Adolf Eichmann (in)famously maintained his innocence on the pretext that he was ordered to carry out the crimes that he did. But the argument that the Utopians are putting forward is far more flagitious. It would be the sort of defense that someone higher up on the SS chain of command might proffer as proof of his innocence. “I am no criminal because I did not commit any crimes. I merely ordered others to commit them for me.”

In Conclusion

At best, the Utopians are profoundly unreflective; at worst, deeply depraved. Anyone who would seek to amend Utopia by updating it or excusing its shortcomings on the grounds that they merely evince the limitations of More’s age fails to grasp the gravity of the defects with which More imbued his Utopians. The problem with Utopia is not technical nor historical, but constitutional—not in terms of their institutions but with respect to their souls. The Utopians are flawed in essence. How easy it would have been for More to do away with the need for slaves on Utopia.  He had only to have his Utopians abstain from eating animal flesh, which would be the appropriate course of action for a truly enlightened people that objected to the slaughtering of animals. To suggest that More was unable to conceive the Utopians as vegetarians is to ascribe to him a rather limited acquaintance with history and an even more limited imagination. That More chose to mold the Utopians in the manner that he did suggests that Utopia is not a model to be emulated but a warning to be heeded.

Far from constituting an advance, the Utopians signify a retrogression of sorts. They are not elevated human beings but profoundly deficient ones. And that deficiency is visible to anyone who ponders the Utopian soul.  At bottom, that is what Utopia, like the Republic before it, is: a meditation on the human soul. On the surface, Utopia exhibits a number of meritable features, but ultimately it is inhabited by a spiritless people who lack the capacity for critical self-reflection so thoroughly that they are unable to overcome their shortcoming because they are incapable of perceiving them. This inability is more indicative of sows than sages.

That the Utopians favor what is common to animals above what is distinctive to humans is revealed further by the end to which they devote their lives: pleasure. In and of itself, a life devoted to pleasure is not necessarily an indication of a diminution or abandonment of what is distinctly human, as the case of Epicurus makes plane. But the hedonism of the Utopians is an unabashedly debased Epicureanism. For while Epicurus stressed the pleasures of the mind, the Utopians dedicate themselves predominantly to those of the body. The Utopians do, according to Hythloday, esteem the pleasures of the mind “as the first and foremost of all pleasures,”[111] but, as others have noted, the Utopians devote far more attention to bodily pleasures than mental or intellectual ones.[112] In doing so, they betray their kinship to the lowliest of the Platonic cities, rather than the noblest.[113]

Man and man alone elevates the pleasures of the mind above those of the body and man alone is willing to sacrifice pleasure’s pursuit for loftier ones. Surely the quest for wisdom involves the renunciation of pleasure and no small amount of suffering, something to which the Utopians are doggedly averse.[114] The distress that comes with ascending the cave cannot elude the notice of any attentive reader of the Republic, as More no doubt was, just as the distress that attended More’s own life cannot elude any attentive student of Utopia.

As John Gueguen judiciously observed: “Like the Platonic tradition which it renovates and enriches, the Utopia is so open, wide, and deep that it surely takes an overly bold commentator to insist that he has found its one and only meaning.”[115] The interpretation put forward here is not that of an overly bold commentator; nonetheless, the interpretation is not only tenable, but—given the spirit of the day—timely as well. The animating aim of the present age is, in the words of a thinker who arguably plumbed that age more deeply than any other, “to abolish suffering.”[116] This includes not just physical suffering, but the mental and spiritual suffering that inevitably comes with striving to fulfill the Delphic command: know thyself. The Utopians abhor suffering and by and large have abolished it. And today’s exponents of progress for whom utopias have become platitudes…? The abolition of suffering may be far off, but the abhorrence of it…?

Plato’s Republic is undesirable for obvious reasons, but More’s Utopia enjoys a more widespread attraction in no small part because it appeals to a more common attribute of human nature. While those who devote themselves to wisdom’s pursuit are rare, devotees of pleasure are not. If it is utopia for which the children of modernity have set their course and to which they hasten, it would behoove them to know that their material gains may be eclipsed immeasurably and irrevocably by their spiritual losses.



[1] ‘”But to return to the dealings of the citizens. The oldest… rules the household. Wives wait on their husbands, children on their parents, and generally the younger on their elders.” Thomas More, Utopia in The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Vol. 4, eds. E. Surtz and J.H. Hexter, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), 137. (All quotations and page references from Utopia are from this edition.)

[2] Keith M. Booker, “Woman on the Edge of a Genre: The Feminist Dystopias of Marge Piercy,” Science Fiction Studies, 21 No. 3 (1994), 338.

[3] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, tr. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 469.

[4] Plato, Republic, tr. Alan Bloom, (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 129-36 (45Id –457b). This comprises the so-called first wave of the Republic, regarding the equal treatment and education of men and women.

[5] Leszek Kolakowski, “The Death of Utopia Reconsidered” in Modernity on Endless Trial, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 131.

[6] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, (New York: Free Press, 1978), 39.

[7] See Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), Part I, Chapter 3, especially 104-12.

[8] Manuel and Manuel, Utopian Thought, 99.

[9] Ibid., 121.

[10] J. Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish, The Western Intellectual Tradition, (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993), 52.

[11] “More explicitly refers to Plato five times, more often than any other man of letters. Four of his five references are to Plato’s political views, and all those four are to the Republic.” J.H. Hexter in Utopia, cx.

[12] On Plato’s influence on More, see George M. Logan, The Meaning of More’s Utopia, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), especially chapter 3.

[13] It is true that as J.H. Hexter noted, on the whole, Utopia is much more monological than dialogical. J.H. Hexter, More’s Utopia, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952), 27. But while Book II. and therefore the bulk of the work, consists of “an uninterrupted discourse by Hythloday,” Utopia, like the Platonic dialogue, is not a treatise and as with any dialogical arrangement, the dramatic element is not immaterial. Who says what – and when, how, where and why they sat it—matters. The fact that Utopia is presented monologically rather than founded dialectically may be a key to comprehending it. On the importance of Raphael Hythloday’s character to understanding Utopia see Thomas S. Engeman, “Hythloday’s Utopia and More’s England: an Interpretation of Thomas More’s Utopia,” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Feb., 1982), 131-149.

[14] Logan, The Meaning of More’s Utopia, 136.

[15] “It is known as yet to few mortals, but [Utopia] is eminently worthy of everyone’s knowledge as being superior to Plato’s republic.” Utopia, 21.

[16] Manual and Manual, Utopian Thought, 120.

[17] Plato, Republic, 22 (344a).

[18] Ibid., 45 (368c-369a).

[19] One problem with this approach is that while the animating question of the dialogue concerns the happiness of the individual, by analogizing the individual soul to the city, the individual’s happiness loses all significance. As Socrates affirms, in founding a city, they are concerned with the happiness of the whole, not with that of any one part (420b, 519e-520a). Thus, Socrates invites the paradoxical possibility of creating a happy city comprised of unhappy people.

[20] Because, in spite of the noble lie, a city cannot really be autochthonous (the noble lie is, after all, a lie), in order to bring into being the just regime the philosophers will need to take over an existing city and banish from it everyone over the age of ten (541a) so that they can wipe the slate clean (501a). “The feasibility of such a feat is, at best, dubious. In the long arc of history, the pen may be mightier than the sword, but swords would be needed to take over a city and dispossess its denizens and the prospect of a band of sword-wielding philosophers besieging a city is so farcical that, on the face of it, the scenario is more befitting a Monty Python sketch than a Platonic dialogue.” David A. Eisenberg, “On the Foundations of Western Civilization,” The Dorchester Review, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Spring/Summer), 69. (Reprinted at VoegelinView, July 19, 2020 (

[21] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 126-7.

[22] Plato, Republic, 49 (372d-e).

[23] The connection between the city of sows and Utopia was illustrated by Eva Brann, “‘An Exquisite Platform’: Utopia,” Interpretation, Volume 3, Issue 1 (Autumn 1972), 1-26.

[24] Affixing the adverbial prefix ou (no) to the Greek word topos (place), utopia literally means no place. But in the aforementioned poem by Anemolius, the word eutopia is used (eu – happy or fortunate), so that utopia might be understood as a happy place that is no place.

[25] Brann, “‘An Exquisite Platform,’” 12. See also Ward Allen, “Speculations on St. Thomas More’s Use of Hesychius,” Philological Quarterly 46 No. 2 (April 1962), 156.

[26] Hebrew bar (son) plus Greek Zanos.  See Utopia, 411.

[27] Barion (“cattle”) plus zanides (“one who leads”). See Allen, “Speculations,” 157.

[28] Utopia, 411.

[29] Utopia, 125.

[30] Plato, Republic, 49 (372e).

[31] Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” in Kant: Political Writings, ed. H.S. Reiss, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 44-5.

[32]Thymos is the principle or seat of anger or rage. It might well be translated by that pregnant word ‘heart,’ which mirrors the complexity of the Greek.’ Alan Bloom in Plato, Republic, 449.

[33] Utopia, 243, 245.

[34] Brann affords the arresting insight that the Utopians have never been tempted by the serpent from hell, because they are not descendants of Adam. Whereas man is tainted by original sin, the Utopians reside in a state of “original sinlessness.” This further substantiates the argument that the Utopians “do not share the human condition.” Brann, “An Exquisite Platform” 14.

[35] Thomas More, The Four Last Things: The Supplication of Souls; A Dialogue on Conscience, (New York: Scepter Publishers, 2002), 36.

[36] Plato, Republic, 274 (592a-b).

[37] Ibid., 153-4 (473c-e).

[38] Ibid., 167-8 (488a-489b).

[39] Ibid., 220 (540e-541a).

[40] Ibid., 168 (489b).

[41] See note 20 above.

[42] Stanley Rosen, Plato’s Republic: A Study, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 301.

[43] James Madison, The Federalist Papers, #51.

[44] Hobbes understood this well when he affixed to his state the biblical appellation Leviathan, who is, per the Old Testament, “king over all the children of pride.” Job 41:34.

[45] There are numerous instances where More and Hythloday do not see eye to eye on matters of consequence, (e.g. the role of philosophy in public affairs, the value of asceticism and the common ownership of property).  Eva Brann goes so far as to note that of “almost every feature that is fundamental” to Utopia, “More expressed disapprobation.” Brann, “An Exquisite Platform,” 3.

[46] “The first thing [man] coveted inordinately was his own excellence; and consequently his disobedience was the result of his pride. This agrees with the statement of Augustine, who says (Ad Oros [Dial. QQ. lxv, qu. 4) that ‘man puffed up with pride obeyed the serpent’s prompting, and scorned God’s commands.’’’ Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Volume IV – Part III, First Section, tr. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (New York: Cosimo, 2007), 1856.

[47] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, tr. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 16.

[48] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, tr. Walter Kaufmann, (New York: Modern Library, 1992), 591 (Third Essay, Section 25).

[49] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra in The Portable Nietzsche, tr. Walter Kaufmann, (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 129. It merits mentioning that the people of Motley Cow are not last men, and it is to their pride that Zarathustra appeals (unsuccessfully) when warning them about the coming of “what is most contemptible.”

[50] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 599.

[51] Ibid., 598.

[52] R. W. Chambers, Thomas More, (London: Jonathan Cape LTD, 1976), 326.

[53] Richard Marius, Thomas More: A Biography, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 475.

[54] “[More’s] glory has always been the outward serenity and courage with which he faced death.  Had he not died so nobly, we would not remember him so well.” Marius, Thomas More, xxiii.

[55] Ibid., 203.

[56] Ibid., 201.

[57] Ibid., 205.

[58] Doubts about the justness of the Utopians’ military escapades and whether or not they fight on the right side are introduced in the recounting of the war that the Utopians waged “on behalf of the Nephelogetes against the Alaopolitans. The Neophelogetic traders suffered a wrong, as they thought, under pretense of law, but whether right or wrong, it was avenged by a fierce war.” Ibid., 201 (emphasis added). On this matter, see Logan, The Meaning of More’s Utopia, 239-40; Engeman, “Hythloday’s Utopia,” 140.

[59] Ibid., 205.

[60] Ibid., 205.

[61] Ibid., 211.

[62] Ibid., 205.

[63] Ibid., 207.

[64] Ibid., 207.

[65] Ibid., 209.

[66] Ibid., 137.

[67] Engeman, “Hythloday’s Utopia,” 140.

[68] Utopia, 215.

[69] “They take the final step of war not only when a hostile inroad has carried off booty but also much more fiercely when the merchants among their friends undergo unjust persecution under the color of justice in any other country….” Ibid., 201.

[70] Ibid., 149.

[71] Ibid., 151.

[72] Ibid., 149.

[73] Ibid., 19, 21.

[74] Ibid., 21.

[75] Quoted in Edward L. Surtz, The Praise of Wisdom, (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1957), 6.

[76] See, for example, Ibid., 7. “More simply describes a philosophical city in order to bring Christians back to their religious principles.” For a more recent example, see Dominic Baker Smith, More’s Utopia, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 170. “The Anemolian ambassadors with their silk-clad retinue represent the intrusion of European standards into the rarefied atmosphere of a philosophical state.”

[77] Cicero, Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: Also Treatises On the Nature of the Gods, and On the Commonwealth, tr. C. D. Yonge, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1877), 166.

[78] Plato, Phaedo in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 83 (96a).

[79] Ibid., 85 (98b).

[80] “Socrates saw that the previous philosophers’ accounts of things in terms of their components failed to explain human actions, because such accounts left no room for choice or purpose.” Zuckert, Plato’s Philosophers, 185.

[81] Republic, 198 (519d, 520a).

[82] Laurence Lampert, How Philosophy Became Socratic: A Study of Plato’s Protagoras, Charmides, and Republic, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 372-3.

[83] Plato, Apology in Four Texts on Socrates, tr. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 82 (30e-31b).

[84] Aristotle, The Politics, tr. Carnes Lord, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 37 (1253a).

[85] Mary P. Nichols, Citizens and Statesmen: A Study of Aristotle’s Politics, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1991), 15.

[86] Utopia, 125.

[87] Ibid., 161.

[88] Aristotle, Politics, (1253a).

[89] Harvey C. Mansfield, Manliness, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 208.

[90] Plato, Republic, 119 (439e-440a).

[91] Lampert, How Philosophy Became Socratic, 296-7.

[92] Eva Brann, The Music of the Republic, (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2004), 162.

[93] In an unhealthy soul, it can align itself with the desiring part in opposition to the rational part and spur people to do wrong, e.g., in the case of an alcoholic who vehemently defends his right to have another drink.

[94] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, Chapter 5.

[95] Chambers, Thomas More, 143.

[96] Chambers, Thomas More, 142.

[97] Ibid., 142.

[98] Utopia, 207.

[99] Logan, The Meaning of More’s Utopia, 229.

[100] Utopia, 209.

[101] Logan, The Meaning of More’s Utopia, 244.

[102] Surtz, The Praise of Wisdom, 269.

[103] Ibid., 131.

[104] Ibid., 191.

[105] Ibid., 185. “They carry away many of them [i.e. criminals who have been condemned to death elsewhere].”

[106] Baker-Smith, More’s Utopia, 164.

[107] Utopia, 185.

[108] Utopia, 139.

[109] Karl Kautsky, Thomas More and His Utopia, (New York: Russell and Russell, 1959), 208.

[110] Ibid., 208.

[111] Utopia., 175.

[112] Edward Surtz, The Praise of Pleasure, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), 11. See also Brann, 19.

[113] Consider Engeman’s perceptive observation: “Hythloday is a hedonist. While in the ascetic Republic a dinner is promised but not eaten, Raphael’s account of Utopia is begun and ended at the table.” Engeman, “Hythloday’s Utopia,” 141 (n. 16).

[114] Utopia, 177, 179.

[115] John Gueguen, “Reading More’s ‘Utopia’ as a Criticism of Plato,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, vol. 10 (1978), 53.

[116] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil in Basic Writings, 343 (#225).

David EisenbergDavid Eisenberg

David Eisenberg

David A. Eisenberg is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Eureka College. He received his B.A. from Trinity College in Connecticut and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University. His online writings have appeared at The Fortnightly Review, Front Porch Republic, Merion West, Public Discourse, and The Agonist, among other places. His first book, provisionally entitled All Things Being Equal: Nietzsche and Tocqueville on Humanity's Democratization, is slated to be published in 2021 (Lexington Books).

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