Thomas More’s Design for a Communist Society — Part VII

The most important characteristic of the Utopian society is peoples’ social and moral satisfaction; and all were content with whatever they had. They all were employed and engaged in some useful labor.


by Laksiri Fernando

( January 29, 2017, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) Establishing equality in society, even within a broad spectrum, has always been a theoretical enigma since Plato’s time or even before. Eric Fromm called this effort ‘standardization of man.’ For this purpose, More in the early 16th century invoked a kind of a utilitarian theory based on pleasure in his Utopia, but ‘pleasure in moderation.’ He derived his equality principle also from natural justice and argued ‘no man should seek his own pleasure to prejudice others.’

More’s ideas have a contemporary relevance, whatever the intermittent weaknesses, as Oxfam has revealed that eight billionaires in the world today have more wealth than half of the world’s population. The effort to build reasonable social equality in Sri Lanka in contemporary times came with the philosophy of Sama Samaja (equal society) which is now almost abandoned for political expediency.

With the above few introductory words, we turn to know what More exactly said on this matter by publishing Chapter 5 of ‘Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka)’ by Laksiri Fernando. This is part of a series to celebrate the five hundred years of Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ (December 1516) courtesy of Colombo Telegraph and Sri Lanka Guardian. The publication link to the original is https://www.createspace.com/4688110

A COMMUNIST SOCIETY

“Just as modern mass production requires the standardization of commodities, so the social process requires standardization of man, and this standardization is call equality.” ~ Erich Fromm[1]

Utopian society is based on a certain philosophy; justice and equality being the main corner stones. Nonetheless it is not dogmatic but pragmatic. According to More, there are various arguments on moral issues among the Utopians that are freely discoursed. The society however is based on a general agreement on what they have achieved (or could achieve) concerning ‘on what the happiness of man consists of.’ According to More, “They inquire into the nature of virtue and pleasure; but their chief dispute is concerning the happiness of a man, and wherein it consists? Whether in some one thing, or in a great many? They seem, indeed, more inclinable to that opinion that places, if not the whole, yet the chief part of a man’s happiness in pleasure.”

“Yet they do not place happiness in all sorts of pleasures, but only in those that in themselves are good and honest.”

Pleasure in moderation is the concept. There is no clear social contract theory pronounced in More’s social philosophy like what advocated by Thomas Hobbes or John Locke later in England. But society is seen as a natural evolution of man’s effort to pursue happiness which leads to different forms of societies. Utopia is the ideal form of society which is based on a moral and an ethical foundation which is just and equal to every member of society. For this purpose “they make use of arguments even from religion, notwithstanding its severity and roughness” but their main disposition is to be based on “natural reason, since without that they reckon that all our inquiries after happiness must be bit conjectural and defective.” “They also observe that in order to our supporting the pleasure of life, nature inclines us to enter into society,” More argues.

Utopians derive their equality principle (or Sama Samaja) from natural justice “for there is no man so much raised above the rest of mankind.” No one can be the favourite of the nature, More argued. The nature places all on a common level. “Upon this they infer that no man ought to seek his own conveniences so eagerly as to prejudice others.”

Equality

More apparently found it difficult to give a rational or more sophisticated explanation to equality. What is most symbolic about Utopian equality is their dress or housing. Compared with many other sophisticated propositions by More, this appears to be quite immature and stereotypical. Utopians wear similar garments without attention to fashion or beauty. What is wrong with ‘fashion or beauty’ is difficult to understand in More’s socialism. It looks like that he advocated an unnecessary ‘uniformity’ in socialism. This is what it says.

“Throughout the Island they wear the same sort of clothes without any other distinction, except what is necessary to distinguish the two sexes and the married and unmarried. The fashion never alters; and as it is neither disagreeable nor uneasy, so it is suited to the climate, and calculated both for their summers and winters. Every family makes their own clothes.”[2]

In preparation of their clothes very little work is spent on them and they wear causally, and they last several years. They wear one type for work but when attending public events, “they put an upper garment, which hides the other” and these are all of one color. They wear the same for the summers and the winters and their concern is only for cleanliness. Then More criticizes the practice in other places and says, “while in other places, four or five upper garments of woollen cloth, of different colors, and as many vests of silk, will scarce serve one man; and while those that are nicer think ten are too few.” But in the case of Utopia it is different “every man there is content with one, which very often serves him two years. Nor is there anything that can tempt a man to desire more; for if he had them, he would neither be the warmer nor would he make one jot the better appearance for it.”[3]

The above may appear completely ‘out of fashion’ today. People may like, especially the younger generations, different fashions and different clothing. Garment industry is one of the largest in the world employing millions and millions of workers especially from the Third World. In a system of capitalism, the abandonment of the garment industry might spell disaster for those workers and the countries that they live in.

But there is also an economic plus and a social logic in what More says. If people are satisfied with the basic needs and if unnecessary industries are abandoned or scaled down, then the work time that people need to spend in society is less which could be utilized for more and more intellectual development. There are people even in our present day society who prefers simple and sometimes uniform garments. They only change the fashion occasionally.

Another symbol of equality in the Utopian society is housing. All houses are the same with equal facilities. More was describing a situation in the city. “Their buildings are good, and are so uniform that a whole side of a street looks like one house.” They were adjoining the streets of ‘twenty feet broad,’ for a carriage to drive. “There lie gardens behind all their houses and these are large but enclosed with buildings that on all hands face the streets.” “Every house has both a door to the street and a back door to the garden.” This is very much similar to the townhouse system in many Western countries today and the “backyard gardens are of particular importance to leisure, pleasure and day to day crops of fruit and flower.” As More said,

“They cultivate their gardens with great care, so that they have vines, fruits, herbs, and flowers in them; and all is so well ordered, and so finely kept, that I never saw gardens anywhere that were both so fruitful and so beautiful as theirs.”

There is also an element of emulation and competition between the inhabitants to keep their gardens well in order and useful. “And this humour of ordering their gardens so well is not only kept up by the pleasure they find in it.” It is also “by emulation between the inhabitants of the several streets, who vie with each other.” Moreover, “there is indeed nothing belonging to the whole town that is both more useful and more pleasant.”

But in respect of the architecture of the houses, they were rather monotonous like the dress. There is an argument in Utopia that houses should be built for generations. “The building or the repairing of houses among us employs many hands, because often a thriftless heir suffers a house that his father built to fall into decay,” More argues. “It frequently happens that the same house which one person built at a vast expense is neglected by another, who thinks he has a more delicate sense of the beauties of architecture; and he suffering it to fall to ruin, builds another at no less charge.”

At the same time there are instances where More acknowledges that there should be improvements and even aesthetic considerations in respect of housing. He says that “they were at first low and mean, like cottages, made of any sort of timber, and were built with mud walls and thatched with straw. But now their houses are three stories high.” According to this latter description, the fronts of them are faced with stone or plastering. They also use great quantities of glass for decoration of windows. They glaze their windows and decorate with thin linen cloth oiled or gummed to both prevent wind and to allow free admission of the light. There are some innovative aspects too. “Their roofs are flat, and on them they lay a sort of plaster, which costs very little, and yet is so tempered that it is not apt to take fire, and yet resists the weather more than lead.” Most interestingly, between the walls of lined houses they use the space to throw in their rubbish, perhaps for the time being for the community collection later.

Common Dining 

Utopia is mostly a communist society. They lived together, worked together and most of the time ate together. “Every city is divided into four equal parts,” as we have discussed before, sometimes called a town and “in the middle of each there is a marketplace.” That is where they supplied their produced to the public consumption, and that is where they obtained their goods for the private or family consumption. First, the community halls are served for their necessary provisions. Then “no man is hindered to carry provisions home from the market-place; for they know that none does that but for some good reason.”  A town is divided into several sections or quarters and the houses are situated along the wide streets. In the middle are their common dining halls.

“In every street there are great halls that lie at an equal distance from each other, distinguished by particular names. The [Magistrates] dwell in those that are set over thirty families, fifteen lying on one side of it, and as many on the other. In these halls they all meet and have their repasts.”

They have community dining at these places, but anyone can choose to have their own meals at home if they so desire. “Both dinner and supper are begun with some lecture of morality that is read to them; but it is so short, that it is not tedious nor uneasy to them to hear it.” In addition, “It is ordinary to have public lectures every morning before daybreak; at which none are obliged to appear but those who are marked out for literature; yet a great many, both men and women of all ranks, go to hear lectures of one sort or other, according to their inclinations.”

At the hours of diner and supper, the whole community being called together by the sound of trumpet. Then they meet and eat together, except those who are in the hospitals or lie sick at home. What is important is the rationality that More attributes to this common eating. “It is both ridiculous and foolish for any to give themselves the trouble to make ready an ill dinner at home, when there is a much more plentiful one made ready for him so near at hand.” These halls are run by every family taking tasks in turns.  “All the uneasy and sordid services about these halls are performed by their slaves; but the dressing and cooking their meat, and the ordering their tables, belong only to the women.” Here comes again the use of slaves, though convicts, for ‘uneasy and sordid’ tasks and women for cooking!

More however explains quite in detail the meticulous way that everything is organized in these common dining halls. “They sit at three or more tables, according to their number; the men sit toward the wall, and the women sit on the other side, that if any of them should be taken suddenly ill, which is no uncommon case among women with child, she may, without disturbing the rest, rise and go to the nurses’ room, who are there with the sucking children, where there is always clean water at hand, and cradles in which they may lay the young children, if there is occasion for it, and a fire that they may shift and dress them before it.” They are all extremely health conscious. All facilities are supplied to care for the sick, children and the ailing.

Order and Care

Every child is nursed by its own mother under normal circumstances. However, if serious sickness does intervene then in that case the Philarchs’ wives come into the picture. They find a nurse quickly, which is no hard matter. There are competent ones in nursing that offers to do so cheerfully. They do it as charity and “so the child considers the nurse as its mother.” He further explains the arrangements and it is an interesting scene that he pictures.

“All the children under five years old sit among the nurses, the rest of the younger sort of both sexes, till they are fit for marriage, either serve those that sit at table or, if they are not strong enough for that, stand by them in great silence, and eat what is given them; nor have they any other formality of dining.”

The description goes on. The arrangements at the diner hall are well orderly and systematic. “In the middle of the first table, which stands across the upper end of the hall, sit the Philarch and his wife; for that is the chief and most conspicuous place.” Then “next to him sit two of the most ancient” to mean the most elderly. “If there is a temple within that community, the Priest and his wife sit with the Philarch above all the rest.” Then in rest of the tables “there is a mixture of old and young, who are so placed, that as the young are set near others, so they are mixed with the more ancient.” The purpose is clear as “they say was appointed on this account, that the gravity of the old people, and the reverence that is due to them, might restrain the younger from all indecent words and gestures.”[4]

“Dishes are not served up to the whole table at first, but the best are first set before the old, whose seats are distinguished from the young, and after them all the rest are served alike. The old men distribute to the young any curious meats that happen to be set before them, if there is not such an abundance of them that the whole company may be served alike.”

Thus, old men are honored with a particular respect and it is not clear whether this derives from ‘feudal’ values or socialist. As explained before, both dinner and supper are begun with some lecture of morality. But thereafter “old men take occasion to entertain those about them with some useful and pleasant enlargements. But they do not engross the whole discourse so to themselves, during their meals that the younger may not put in for a share. On the contrary, they engage them to talk, that so they may in that free way of conversation find out the force of everyone’s spirit and observe his temper.”

“They dispatch their dinners quickly, but sit long at supper; because they go to work after the one, and are to sleep after the other, during which they think the stomach carries on the concoction more vigorously.”

There are aesthetic values cultivated among the people, and “they never sup without music.”  There is always fruit served up after meat. While they are at table, some burn perfumes and sprinkle about fragrant ointments and sweet waters. This is very much similar to Hindu or Asian practices. In short, they want nothing that may cheer up their spirits. They give themselves a large allowance that way, and indulge themselves in all such pleasures as are attended with no inconvenience. That is the way of life of people who mainly live in towns as described by More. But in the country, where they live at great distance, everyone eats at home.

Social Ethos

The most important characteristic of the Utopian society is peoples’ social and moral satisfaction; and all were content with whatever they had. They all were employed and engaged in some useful labor. “They content themselves with fewer things.” And as a result, “there was great abundance of all things among them” as it was explained in the previous chapter. The Magistrates never engaged people in unnecessary labor, “since the chief end of the constitution is to regulate labor by the necessities of the public.” The most important was the system that allowed “all people as much time as is necessary for the improvement of their minds, in which they think the happiness of life consists.”

More argues for equality very strongly saying that by nature there are no differences and all are place on the same level playing field. There are no favourites of nature and in fact rejects the theory of survival of the fittest. In other words, he supports a system where ‘all those that belong to the same human species’ are ‘placed on the same level of work, comforts, pleasure and happiness.’ But that level can be a reasonable social band and not a uniform line or a point as More advocated. There can be reasonable differences.

But he argued differently. “Upon this” he infers “that no man ought to seek his own conveniences so eagerly as to prejudice others.” Therefore, More thinks that laws ought to be kept which people have consented without oppression or tyranny “for distributing those conveniences of life which afford us all our pleasures.”

Marriage and Family 

Utopian social practice is not to have free love/sex or women as common property. This is largely a misconception about communism or what More advocated.[5] The society is based on family and marriage and what More seemed to advocate is rather conservative practice compared to many societies today. A prominent place is also preserved for the males than the females.

“As their cities are composed of families, so their families are made up of those that are nearly related to one another. Their women, when they grow up, are married out. But all the males, both children and grandchildren, live still in the same house, in great obedience to their common parent, unless age has weakened his understanding and in that case, he that is next to him in age comes in his room.”

In Utopia, the family is more or less a self-contained entity. Every family attends to its necessities unless given by the community. “Every family makes their own clothes” without depending on dress makers. The families are regimented as do the cities. Utopians are very concerned about the population balance. “Any district should become either too great, or by any accident be depopulated, provision is made that none of their district may contain above 6,000 families.” The concept of family is also different, not completely dependent on the same parenthood. The children could be exchanged.   “No family may have less than ten and more than sixteen persons in it. But there can be no determined number for the children under age. This rule is easily observed, by removing some of the children of a more fruitful couple to any other family that does not abound so much in them.” If that were possible one could speculate whether new forms of family or marriage were possible as advocated by the gay and lesbian movement today. Most probably More would have approved it, if he were living today.

“But to return to their manner of living in society, the oldest man of every family, as has been already said, is its governor. Wives serve their husbands and children their parents, and always the younger serves the elder.”

The family is Asiatic in nature. “The whole Island is, as it were, one family,” More has already said.

Care for Health 

Utopia gives priority for health. “They take more care of their sick than of any others,” More says. The sick are “lodged and provided for in public hospitals they have belonging to every town four hospitals.” The hospitals “are built without their walls, and are so large that they may pass for little towns.” “By this means, if they had ever such a number of sick persons, they could lodge them conveniently, and at such a distance, that such of them as are sick of infectious diseases may be kept so far from the rest that there can be no danger of contagion.”

“The hospitals are furnished and stored with all things that are convenient for the ease and recovery of the sick,” More assures. At the same time the services are superb. “Those that are put in them are looked after with such tender and watchful care, and are so constantly attended by their skillful physicians.” And also “that as none is sent to them against their will, so there is scarce one in a whole town that, if he should fall ill, would not choose rather to go thither than lie sick at home.”

According to More, the system takes special care of “those who are taken with fixed and incurable diseases, they use all possible ways to cherish them, and to make their lives as comfortable as possible. They visit them often, and take great pains to make their time pass off easily.”

Euthanasia

More also takes up the issue of euthanasia. When someone “is taken with a torturing and lingering pain, so that there is no hope, either of recovery or ease” and after taking all other measures they can contemplate the ending of their life at will, “if they themselves want to end their lives.” That is also only after if the Magistrates and Priests are convinced that “they are now unable to go on with the business of life, are become a burden to themselves and to all about them, and they have really outlived themselves.”

Utopia, however, did not approve people committing suicide. “So if any man takes away his own life without the approbation of the priests and the Senate, they give him none of the honours of a decent funeral, but throw his body into a ditch.”

Education and Intellectuals

Education took an equal prominence in More’s scheme of a new society. It is not only education, but knowledge with practice. Children are instructed in agriculture “partly by what they learn at school and partly by practice.” In schools “they being led out often into the fields, about the town, where they not only see others at work, but are likewise exercised in it themselves.” What is available in Utopia is more than mere formal education; it is a system of complete intellectual life.

More has been talking about an intellectual class in Utopia, sort of elite, although it is not that elaborate. This appears to be an influence of Plato who talked about ‘philosopher kings’ and a special role for the intellectuals in his Republic. According to More, this class however is not privileged but serving the society on equal terms as others. In Utopia, even the Philarchs, and that means the bureaucrats, ‘though excused by the law, yet do not excuse themselves, but work,’ because by their example they may excite the industry of the rest of the people.

But there is an exception. An “exemption is allowed to those who, being recommended to the people by the Priests [and selected] by the secret suffrages of the Philarchs.” They are the intellectuals or the trainee intellectuals. They are exempted from labor, for a period, that they may apply themselves wholly to study. They are selected very carefully. There are two ways of selecting them. Some are selected from those who have “an extraordinary capacity and disposition for letters.” Others are selected, from proven interest in intellectual pursuits even later in life on the basis of their willingness and capacity. However, “if any of these falls short of those hopes that they seemed at first to give, they are obliged to return to work.”

They are not selected from any particular family or class. “And sometimes a mechanic, that so employs his leisure hours, as to make a considerable advancement in learning, is eased from being a tradesman, and ranked among their learned men.” It is out of these groups of people that they choose their ambassadors, their priests, their Archphilarchs, and the Prince himself. This is supposed to be different to what was in practice in England during the 16th century.

But the learning and studies of others are not neglected. Strangely, More has forgotten to mention about their schooling system in any detail except few references. However it is mentioned that “they have all their learning in their own tongue.” More says “which is both a copious and pleasant language, and in which a man can fully express his mind.” It is lingua franca in that part of the world as “it runs over a great tract of many countries, but it is not equally pure in all places.” It is possible that his imagination was Sanskrit or Pali. As we have already mentioned, it is ordinary to have public lectures every morning before daybreak in their community halls at which none are obliged to appear. It is perfectly voluntary. Yet it indicates the importance given to the intellectual life in Utopia.

There is another merit, for them to be a knowledge society. “They do not in all things agree among themselves,” both mundane and philosophical. Not only on “the causes of the saltiness of the sea, of its ebbing and flowing” but also on “the origin and nature both of the heavens and the earth; they dispute of them, partly as our ancient philosophers have done, and partly upon some new hypothesis, in which, as they differ from them.”

 

[1] Erich Fromm, The Art of Living.

[2] Dress is another example for the argument that More was talking about a tropical Island, Ceylon at that time. He said the ‘same sorts of cloth’ could be ‘calculated to suit both for their summers and winters.’

[3] One may argue that More’s Utopia came closer to what Pol Pot tried to practice in Cambodia or the other way round. In the enforced community living in Cambodia, a person was given one pair of trouser and a tunic which could be collected from the dormitory.

[4] More placed great attention to ‘mixing young with the old’ believing that otherwise the young might go astray without the gravity of the seniors. This description also appears when he talks about attending temples.

[5] However there is contradictory evidence. Erasmus refers to a lost dialogue where More was in support of ‘community of wives’ as advocated in Plato’s Republic. Tommaso Campanella also advocated a ‘community of wives’ in his The City of the Sun (1602).   

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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