Thinking Outside the Box – St. Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’


by Keith Hopkins (May 2014)

“Archa, archae” is the Latin for box. To think outside the box in our upside-down world is perhaps no bad thing. Might even be said to be de rigueur. More’s Utopia was an attempt to think extrarchally – out of the box. He went back to the basics to ask; why do we want things, why do we want anything? One answer is: we want things because we lack, or feel we lack (they are not necessarily the same thing), the thing desired. The thing itself is nothing without the desire for it. It is also undoubtedly true that we can desire that which is, objectively speaking, harmful to us having gone to extreme, even insane, lengths to obtain it. Wishing or desiring is part of the will, so belong to our inner faculties. In Aristotle’s view, human beings are only truly happy when they more perfectly live the inner life. That is because “what is best and most pleasant for each creature is what intimately belongs to it.” It is the higher faculties which constitute man’s essential being or which most intimately belong to him. Therefore we are happiest when we live the life of the mind. The Latin phrase nihil proxima mihi (nothing closer to me than myself) is not a declaration of self-indulgence but a realization that we need to possess our possessions, those things that truly belong to us at the deepest level. We live the life of human beings, not the life of objects. So the desire for objects can only be an immeasurably lesser thing than the ‘stand-alone’ desire for the good and the happiness of our inner being. That, in summary, is the philosophy that animates and informs St. Thomas More’s great classic. Utopia is not a political treatise. It is a classical (and philosophical) examination of who we are and what we want. It seeks to answer the age old questions: what is the good life, how should I live and who is my neighbour. President F. D. Roosevelt commenting on ‘Lend-Lease’ observed that it was like loaning your neighbour a hosepipe to put out the fire on his property to stop it spreading to yours. We cannot avoid desiring our neighbour’s good as well as that of our own and which also happens to be in our own self-interest.

In Utopia the traveller, Raphael Hythlodaeus (in Greek the surname may mean ‘speaker of falsehoods’), recounts a visit he made to a mythical or ‘nowhere’ island. He depicts a society where the desire for things and the desire for the higher things has been decisively broken. This ‘Utopia’ is a kind of mirror of the ideal society of Plato. More suggests that the things of the mind are more ‘real’ than the things around us which only distract and deceive. In religion, the Utopians are polytheistic. They believe in a divine power:

“…unknown, everlasting, incomprehensible, inexplicable, far above the capacity and reach of man’s wit…”

This is the first of numerous surprises in the book. More, the hard-line papist, is proposing a society without Church or church. He seems to imagine a time when religious differences do not, or are not allowed to, disturb the peace of the commonwealth. He acknowledges the value of religion for purposes of governance and ethical conduct but is far from any intolerant partisanship. The two books of Utopia were written in 1514-15 and so can thus be firmly placed in More’s humanist phase. The king of Utopia is tolerant and acts like the exemplar of a humanist monarch – benign, relaxed, and unwilling to enforce religious obedience and uniformity. Another surprise is More’s pragmatic approach to politics. All you can do, he says, is just do the best you can:-

“… And that which you cannot turn to good, so to order it that it be not very bad… for it is not possible for all things to be well, unless all men were good, which I think will not be yet this good many years.”

But it is in his analysis of economics and particularly in the growth of a money economy that More’s titanic intellect surfaces.

More grasped a point, five hundred years ago, that seems to have eluded the notice of thinkers as profound as Hegel, Kant, and Marx. Money (or too much money) destroys organized religion. To understand this we need to review a little history. At the outset of the sixteenth century, a huge revolution was underway in England. Landowners were enclosing land for sheep, creating rural distress. Those unable to prove legal title to land they cultivated, and relying only on customary, unwritten rights, went to the wall. A cash economy of immense dimensions, unknown to medieval England, was created. Wealthy landowners, asset rich with large holdings under their control, disposed of huge income streams from the sale of the produce of the land (principally, wool) in an orgy of conspicuous consumption; houses, retainers, sumptuous clothes, horses, weaponry. True, this stimulated the economy, but More was aghast at the effect on the country at large. Crowds of impoverished labourers and their families choked the roads and byways of England. The charitable offices of monasteries and churches up and down the country were overwhelmed. More nailed the problem. With the growth of a money-based economy everything began to be denominated in hard currency. This is because money represents, or is, actual demand in a commercial society. The more money, the more objects to supply that demand, because, as More grasped, money serves to MULTIPLY the objects it is designed to represent. Conspicuous consumption follows with more money. Every (economic) wish can be indulged. The need for money becomes insatiable and begins to corrupt everything. No sooner is one demand satisfied than another mysteriously appears from nowhere. The danger lights were flashing. Avarice becomes a god (Keynes used that very phrase).The link between man and the material world is immeasurably strengthened. The cause of religion is undermined. Man’s inner peace and harmony is destroyed. Not even Marx really understood how serious the situation was. He certainly did not grasp the profound point More was making. More is the first philosopher of the consumer society. With the financialization of western economies in recent years, his thinking on consumerism, the economy and the cash nexus is brought emphatically up to date.

More is a transitional figure. He stands at the end of the Middle Ages and the onset of the early modern world. He affirmed the tripartite division of philosophy that was common coin in the ancient world and was only starting to be dissolved in his own time. Man’s thinking and activity at its highest level was oriented to the spiritual; what was our relation to the eternal verities, to goodness, to justice, to the whole Platonic realm of ideas or the supernatural. Next, came the political. How did we organize ourselves as communities, who took the leading decisions, how did we relate to other states, what were our laws. Finally, very important, but at the bottom of the other two, was the economic realm: how did we earn our bread, provide for ourselves and our families. More saw this pyramid being inverted in his own time with the state privatizing spiritual matters. Economics was becoming all-important. Unbridled avarice was, in fact, destroying even politics itself. The monarchy was becoming the shadow cast by parliament and powerful economic interests (this was to lead to civil war in the next century).

The tragedy became a catastrophe twenty years after More wrote Utopia when King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. The so-called Tudor revolution in government then took hold of the country. A revolution steeped in money; the getting and the spending of it. The Tudor monarch took seriously Marx’s injunction. Who cared about understanding the world? What mattered was to change it. Henry VIII bequeathed a dynamiter’s charter to posterity. All that mattered was, well, matter, the material world and self-gratification. Huxley’s Brave New World is the logical successor to this new philosophy that aimed at, no less, than the creating of a new man and a new woman. In Huxley’s savage satire, self-indulgence (of the sensual variety) has literally destroyed civilization and de-humanized man, who is not even aware how enslaved he has become.

It is at this point that More’s profound insight morphs into fantasy. In Book Two of Utopia (Book Two was probably written before Book One) More essays what looks like a political credo. If money corrupts, then abolish money. Man will then be free to live the virtuous life and the empire of the mind. This is the argument of Book Two. A kind of paternal socialism. More tears aside the veil of the economic order of things. The stark realism of Book One of Utopia has translated in Book Two into a wholesale rejection of worldly values and what amounts to a spiritual, and economic, revolution. Every family brings produce and manufactured items into barns or houses. From where people take what they need, “without money, without exchange … pawns or pledge.” Everyone will be happy because all problems are caused by greed which is “fear of lack” that causes “covetousness.. (and).. pride.” Utopia is a communist society. But this is More at his most ironic and playful (More himself kept a fool, Henry Pattenson, who features in Holbein’s portrait of the family). Rich, powerful and successful – at that time – More would have banned himself from his own socialist commune. The whole thing was imaginary. “Like those things” Hythlodaeus says “that Plato imagined in his Republic.” Utopia is a nowhere place, a vehicle for More’s biting satire on the folly and savagery of his times.

The Tudor revolution and the new money men such as Thomas Cromwell collided with this mild philosophic vision with all the brute force of historical materialism. More tried to stem the tide at the cost of his own life. But perhaps (a unique and enigmatic man) he had always lived in a world elsewhere. Unlike Cromwell, he did not seek for a means of controlling the future. As Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper puts it; “he looked to philosophy for a means to end history: to end it altogether.” Utopia has no history because since the time when it was founded with its constitution nothing had happened – and nothing would happen in the future. Time has been frozen. But when a revolution is underway, time accelerates. You either get with it or you go under. More could aptly be described as a counter-revolutionary in search of a quantum of solace. When the crisis came, he knew that he could not find what he was looking for in this world. But, on the evidence of Utopia, he had never located it here anyway.

In many ways, More, who believed deeply in the importance of values, is no bad philosopher for the conservative cause.

We have cause, I think, to celebrate the approaching 500th anniversary of the writing of this great and enigmatic work.




Keith Hopkins is an historian and lawyer (solicitor). In 2007 he won the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust award for a review of 'The History Plays.'

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