Karl Kautsky

Thomas More and his Utopia


Part I.


1. Paganism and Catholicism

THE new method of production also fostered new modes of thinking and created a new content of thought. The content of mental life changed quicker than its forms; the latter long remained the ecclesiastical forms corresponding to the feudal mode of production, while ideas were more and more influenced by commodity production and assumed a secular character.

Nevertheless the traditional ecclesiastical forms could not long suffice for the new modes of thought, which could dispense with these forms the more easily as ready to hand for immediate use was a form of thought which had formerly served to express an intellectual content coincident in many respects with the new mode of thought. This form of thought was the science and art of Antiquity.

Commodity production, which supplanted the feudal mode of production, first developed in Italy, the country in which antique paganism had left many brilliant vestiges, and where its traditions had never quite died out. The thriving commercial traffic with Greece also made the Italians acquainted with the ancient Hellenic literature, which accorded better with the new mode of thought than the Roman. The Italian commercial republics, which strove to free themselves from the constraints of feudalism, both mental and material, were enchanted to find in the literature of the old commercial republic of Athens a mode of thought which resembled in so many points their own, just as the material life in both places revealed great similarities – a mode of thought which had developed to its most brilliant expression. What an infant mode of production would otherwise have had laboriously to create, a new philosophy, a new science and art, had only to be disinterred by the intellectual representatives of the new mode of production from the ruins of Antiquity.

The study of Antiquity began with the object of understanding the present and dealing a death-blow to the expiring vestiges of the most recent past. The intellectual tendency which developed under the influence of this study is known as the Renaissance (rebirth, notably of Antiquity) and as Humanism (the striving after a purely human culture, in contrast to scholastic theology, which is concerned with divine things). The former title indicates the expression of the new tendency in art, the latter in literature.

If ideas really created material conditions, and not the reverse, a resurrection of antique society ought to have proceeded from the revival of antique ideas. No mode of thinking has perhaps been adopted with such enthusiasm as were the antique ideas by the Humanists. Yet they only adopted these ideas in the degree that they corresponded with actual conditions.

In Antiquity as in the Middle Ages commodity production and commerce arose in the city republics. But what had been in Antiquity the zenith of social development was at the close of the Middle Ages the starting-point of a new society.

We have already seen how the beginnings of the capitalist mode of production fostered the growth of absolute monarchy and nationalism. Thus the Humanists became the most zealous champions of national unity under one prince, despite their enthusiasm for Demosthenes and Cicero, and despite the fact that many of them came from city republics.

The father of Humanism, the Florentine Dante (1265-1321), declared himself a monarchist and a glowing enthusiast for the unity of Italy, to accomplish which he had to appeal to the German Emperor, as the Popes of his time were tools of France. But after the return of the Popes from Avignon, they become the power around which the majority of the Italian Humanists gathered and from which they expected the unity of Italy.

Most Humanists held the view that the developing modern State required a head. But just because, in their opinion, the weal and woe of the State depended on the personality of the prince – and this opinion was in their time justified by the conditions – it was assuredly not a matter of indifference what kind of prince it was. Just as necessary as the rule of a prince in the State, just as necessary, in the opinion of the Humanists, was it that they themselves ruled the princes, that they educated and guided the princes. How far the implications of this standpoint were realised depended on the personal character of the individual. A prince was, of course, necessary for the welfare of the people, but only a good prince – that is, a prince educated on Humanist line. To offer resistance to a bad prince, to depose, even to murder him, in order to make room for a better prince, in no way contradicted the principles of Humanism, although few Humanists mustered sufficient courage to give practical effect to their teachings. Many of them were supine flatterers. But usually they asserted their claim to rule the princes intellectually. This is confirmed by the numerous Humanist publications designed to give counsel to princes as to how they should organise and govern their States, the best known work of this class being Macehiavelli’s The Prince.

Moreover, it was no empty claim that the Humanists made. They were in fact a power which the princes needed and were disposed to accept. The princes required not merely the material resources of the bourgeoisie, but also the services of its ideologists. “Public opinion” – that is, the ideas of the urban burgher population – was a force, and in the times and countries where Humanism flourished it was dominated by Humanism. The princes needed the scholars of the new movement for the business of government. No bureaucracy had yet been formed. Apart from the lawyers and the higher clergy, the only persons able to conduct administration and to act as counsellors and ambassadors of princes were to be found among the Humanists.

With the exception of certain German provinces, where the rulers practically ignored the Humanists, every prince sought to attract to his Court as many Humanists as possible, and almost princely honours were bestowed on an eminent scholar. Scholars were then the chosen friends of princes. It is partly to this circumstance that Henry VIII’s behaviour to More is to be ascribed.

The Humanists were no more logical in their religious views than in their political. While, on the one hand, they combined enthusiasm for the antique republicans with devotion to the monarchy, on the other hand, they were largely Pagan in their outlook and yet remained staunch Catholics withal. As the new mode of production was opposed to the feudal mode, so the new outlook contrasted with the feudal outlook. The more the old mode of production decayed, the more boldly the Humanists thrust all traditional obstacles aside, mocking the family and marriage forms of the Middle Ages as much as its religion.

The emancipation of woman signifies her partial freedom from household duties, which is possible only if the heavy household labours become public services. It could, however, also be achieved if the housewife were able to shift the work of the household on to others. This would emancipate one section of women at the expense of others.

The first kind of emancipation is essentially a matter for the future. The second kind has been realised ever since the ruling class has intensified its exploitation of the working class to the point of releasing both men and women of the upper class from the necessity of labour.

An example of women’s emancipation through exploitation is afforded by the Roman Imperial age, and to the same category belong the modern emancipation of the middle-class woman and also the female emancipation of Humanism.

The individual household, and also a certain degree of monogamy, were economic necessities for the artisan and peasant. It was almost impossible to conduct farming or handicraft enterprise that was not connected with a well-ordered household, the latter needing a supreme mistress as much as the industrial concern a supreme master.

A peasant could keep neither labourers nor maids, a master no apprentices, without a household, without a housewife; for apprentices and labourers belonged to the family, ate at the same table with the head, and lived in his house.

The merchant made different arrangements. As his business was independent of a household, it was of little importance whether he had a housewife or not. Marriage and a household became a luxury for him, whereas it had been an economic necessity. If he were frugal, he need not marry at all, unless he took a wife not – as a housekeeper, but as an heiress. If his trading profits were large enough, he could transfer the management of his household to hirelings.

Thus, in consequence of the unlimited profits of trade, the wives of merchants, and to some extent of professional men, were freed from household duties, as well as from work generally, in the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They found time to interest themselves in questions outside their former mental horizon. But concomitant with this emancipation, the traditional form of marriage tended to become an article of luxury in mercantile and Humanist circles, resulting in a loosening of sexual ties, above all in Italy, the home of Humanism. With the impetuosity of youth the upper middle class burst the bonds of the patriarchal family, of monogamy, but just as in Imperial Rome the emancipation of woman changed her from a necessary worker into a superfluous exploiter, so something of the licentiousness of a decadent class was mingled in the new sexual standards.

Such were the elements which imparted its peculiar character to the female emancipation of Humanism. Moreover, it was restricted to a smaller social circle than modern woman’s emancipation.

Just as modern champions of woman’s emancipation seek to justify this change on physiological and legal grounds as something enjoined by nature and justice, and not as a special phase of history, so the Humanists at first appealed to religion, although traditional ecclesiastical doctrine was emphatically opposed to the equality of the sexes.

The boldness of Humanism in the sphere of sex was carried into the religious sphere. At the outset Pagan scepticism still wore an ecclesiastical vestment, but it became more and more open in the course of time, and would have led to complete atheism (of the Humanists, not of the masses), had not the development been checked by the Reformation.

2. Paganism and Protestantism

Ecclesiastical abuses were vigorously attacked by all Humanists, and monkery in particular was the chosen target of their ridicule.

But however sharp these attacks were they stopped at a certain point. The logic of facts imposed illogical thought on the Humanists.

We have seen in the preceding chapter that the ruling and exploiting classes of the Romance countries, especially of Italy, had a great interest in maintaining the power of the Papacy. The ideologists of the new social forces in the Romance countries were obliged to give expression to this Papal sentiment, whether it fitted into their system or not. As a fact, nearly all the Humanists – the more important without exception – attacked not the institutions of the Church, but the persons o£ its members and the spirit which animated them. The existing forma of the Church should be retained, but new wine should be poured into the old bottles. While remaining a comprehensive and omnipotent institution, the Church should become a Humanist Church, the Humanists being her priests (and holders of her fat benefices), and the Pope the supreme Humanist. As such, he should rule princes and peoples through the agency of Humanists, and promote Humanist objects.

An illustration of this is the Rabelaisian ideal monastery of the Thelemitea. In chapters 52 to 57 of Gargantua, Rabelais describes the imaginary abbey of Thelema, which is run quite on Humanist lines. In our view the description of the monastery is informed by just as serious a purpose as More’s Utopia. It shows us the way in which Humanism would reform the Church. The exploitation of the masses by the Church would continue – even the abbey of Thelema is inconceivable apart from exploitation – but Humanists will take the place of the monks, and freedom of enjoyment and science will reign instead of ascetic rules of conduct.

The peculiar position of Italy, from whose soil Humanism germinated, impelled Humanism to adopt a friendly attitude towards the Papacy, which was not only in contradiction to its theoretical basis, but also to the needs of the social forces outside the Romance countries, to which it purported to give expression. Humanism went to pieces on this rock once the superior position of Italy vanished.

In Italy Humanism responded to real interests, but this was not the case in the Teutonic countries, where it remained an exotic plant which could strike no roots in the soil. German Humanism had therefore every reason for close union with Italy, whence came all science and art. Only by continuing this connection could the Humanists hope to get the better of the Northern barbarism and win the support of the powerful classes. Separation from Rome signified the shattering of their hopes, and the victory of barbarism over civilisation. Consequently, they opposed the Reformation and remained Catholic precisely because they stood at a higher level of development than the Protestants, who were the bitter opponents of the new science and art.

This was not only the case with the Northern Reformers; the Reformation movement in Italy also proceeded from the semi-peasant lower clergy. Take, for example, Savonarola. In one of his sermons he said: “The sole good that Plato and Aristotle have accomplished is that they have adduced many arguments that can be turned against heretics. Yet they and other philosophers remain in hell. An old woman knows more of faith than Plato. It would be a good thing for faith if many books otherwise apparently useful were destroyed. If there were not so many books and not so many disputes, faith would grow more quickly than it has hitherto done.” Who does not remember Luther’s outburst against the “Whore Reason”! The pious Savonarola caused hundreds of copies of Boccaccio’s Decameron to be burnt, until the Church put an end to his activity and executed him as a heretic.

Papal exploitation was threatened, not by the sceptics who spoke to the educated, but by the pious-minded who addressed the masses. Sceptics, like Rabelais, who poured the most scornful mockery on the Church and the faith, were spared by bishops and Popes, and not infrequently encouraged. The Catholic fanaticism of the Papacy was not a fanaticism of faith, but a fanaticism of avarice clothed in ecclesiastical forms.

When fighting on the Catholic side, in order to defend the threatened civilisation, the learned ideologists of Germany and England forgot, however, one thing: that this Catholic culture, the high status of science and art in Italy, the grandeur of the Papacy, were based on the ignorance and exploitation of the masses, the ignorance and exploitation of the whole of Germany; that the Papacy was obliged to keep Germany poor and illiterate in order to promote science and art in Italy; that it was a barbarism artificially maintained by the Popes themselves which overthrew Catholic culture during the Reformation; that the historical situation was of such a nature that only the victory of German barbarism over Romance civilisation could liberate Germany from barbarism and make possible her further economic and mental development.

The Humanists were alive only to the injury to science and art which the Reformation would inflict, at least temporarily, in the Northern countries. They had another reason for adhesion to Catholicism. The Reformers appealed to the masses, to the whole people. In the various countries of the Reformation the entire people confronted the Papacy as a single class, the exploited class. With the exception of England, where the Reformation assumed a peculiar character, the Reformation countries were economically backward lands, where absolutism had not developed to the point it had reached in the Romance countries, where peasants and knights still possessed a certain degree of power. If the princes and the money powers eventually derived the greatest advantage from the Reformation, it is none the less true that the latter began as a popular movement, as a brave revolt of the whole people against Papal exploitation, a revolt which did not stop with the overthrow of Papal rule, but led to fierce struggles between the various classes, draining their strength and preparing the way for the victory of princely absolutism.

The Humanists detested popular movements. Any government except by a prince, any influence over the State save that exerted through the person of a prince, seemed to them utterly perverse. Usually they had little sympathy with or interest in the needs and aspirations of the people. They regarded with horror a movement which unchained all the abominations of civil war.

Under these circumstances, it is easy to understand that in most Teutonic countries their partisanship for Catholicism set them in antagonism to the whole people; that they were branded as renegades by the Reformers, and finally disappeared without leaving a trace of their influence on the people.

The Reformation also sounded the death-knell of Humanism in Italy. The sea route to India round the Cape of Good Hope was already discovered, and the new trade routes which connected India with Europe until the opening of the Suez Canal were already being used. Commerce passed from the coastwise Mediterranean countries to the countries on the Atlantic seaboard. Simultaneously the Teutonic countries broke out in rebellion against the Papacy, and the huge sums of money which year by year had flowed over the Alps to Rome were no longer forthcoming. The sources of Italy’s wealth dried up and her intellectual greatness suffered eclipse. Trade and exploitation had been the material basis of Humanism, and as they dwindled, so Humanism disappeared. But not entirely. Its tendencies were revived in Jesuitism. Jesuitism is Humanism at a lower mental level, robbed of its spiritual independence, rigidly organised and pressed in the service of the Church. Jesuitism resembles Humanism as the Christianity of the Imperial age resembled Neo-platonism. It is the form in which the Catholic Church embraced Humanism and brought herself up to date, abandoning the feudal outlook for the outlook which dominated society from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Jesuitism became the most formidable power of the reformed Catholic Church because it was more in harmony with the new economic and political conditions. It wrought its effects by virtue of the same forces that Humanism had made use of: by the superiority of classical education, by influencing princes and paying heed to the financial powers. Like the Humanists, the Jesuits fostered absolute power, but only in the case of the princes for whom they laboured. Like the Humanists, they did not think it incompatible with their monarchical sentiments to remove princes who did not suit their purposes.

With regard to money, however, the Jesuits went further than the Humanists. They became the greatest trading company of Europe, with branches in all parts of the world. They were the first to perceive how the missionary could be utilised as a commercial traveller; they were the first to establish capitalist undertakings, such as sugar factories, overseas.

3. Scepticism and Superstition

Humanism led logically to a complete denial of the medieval philosophy, to pure scepticism. But instead of this, there appeared at the close of its career, as its heir, a fiercer religious fanaticism than the Middle Ages ever knew, and this in its own native land, in Italy, as well as in the countries where it had never gained a footing.

This is to be ascribed not alone to the economic eclipse of Italy, and the embitterment of the struggle between the exploiting Italians and the exploited nations, which transmuted the fanaticism of avarice into the fanaticism of faith, faith being the title by virtue of which this exploitation was carried on. The strengthening of religious life towards the close of the epoch of Humanism was grounded more and more in the contemporary conditions. One of the roots of religion in the age of Humanism was somewhat perished, but from the second root there sprouted luxurious shoots.

The intellectual roots of religion, the causes of religious thought and feeling lie in the existence of superhuman and incomprehensible forces, in face of which man is helpless, whose operations he can neither control nor foresee, and which exert such a decisive influence upon his weal and woe that he feels the need of propitiating them.

These forces are either natural or social forces.

Under primitive communism the social forces play no part. There the fate of mankind is settled by economic conditions, so far as they depend upon social co-operation. At this primitive stage man is all the more dependent upon nature. He still feels himself to be part of nature, like an animal, he has not yet broken away from nature’s umbilical cord, and so dreams his days away. Of religion there is as yet little mention. Slowly, as a concomitant of technical progress, there arises in man the need to subdue Nature to his will; he breaks away from her, and she becomes an object distinct from him, to investigate which is his task. But man’s first experience as he travels this path is a sense of impotence in face of nature; an enormous epoch must pass away, a long historic development must work itself out, before man begins to understand Nature, perceive her laws, and make deliberate use of her forces.

Religion becomes a human need from the moment man begins to ponder upon nature until the rise of the natural sciences.

The religions created by this need, the nature religions, are serene, joyous, and tolerant, like the men in whose minds they grew; natural phenomena are bountiful and divine rather than awe-inspiring and devilish.

The rise of commodity production brought into existence social forces which man cannot control, and thus the second root of religion germinated. In the small communities of Antiquity and the Middle Ages this second root remains quiescent. The economic conditions may there be more easily surveyed, and luck and mishap appear usually as the result of personal conduct, explicable without calling in a superhuman force. Social phenomena must become mass phenomena before men become aware of the social forces and realise their impotence in face of them, before the social forces can captivate the imagination and the reason and exercise a decisive influence on the character of religion.

The nature religions are essentially local; the social religions that supplanted them are from the start mass religions, world religions.

For such a religion the Roman world-empire prepared the soil. The social phenomena then existing were eminently favourable to its rise. Mass poverty and mass disease side by side with the pride and avarice of a few excessively rich persons, the depopulation and decadence of the whole Empire-under these auspices Christianity came into being. Anxiety and despair, enmity and sanguinary lust seized hold of men. The serene deities of Paganism were transformed into horrid demons, the Creator and Judge of the world became sinister and relentless, the slightest fault was punished with everlasting torture, the whole world became a forecourt of hell, filled with devils greedily seeking whom they might devour.

Into this burst the primitive Teutons, who inspired Christianity with their joyous spirit. Their gods were indeed changed into demons and devils, but the devil lost his terrors. The devil of the Middle Ages was a good-humoured, harmless devil, with whom one condescended to play, and whom one mocked with impunity. The Crucified One with the crown of thorns receded into the background, and the benevolent Saviour, the Good Shepherd, became the favourite figure of the Church, and after him the Blessed Virgin, a feminine ideal, invested with all the tenderness which Germans revere in their women.

The elaboration of ecclesiastical dogmas received a check in these “dark ages,” but the Church festivals were the more zealously observed.

It is a remarkable fact that as Humanism evolved towards freethought, the popular religion tended to lose its earlier character and reverted to the Christianity of the Imperial age. This is only explicable in the light of the economic transformation that was then proceeding.

It is true that commodity production and commerce promoted the natural sciences, and these two factors reciprocally influenced each other. Intercourse with the East brought to the West not only the commodities, but also the learning of antique civilisations. But this had very little influence on religion at the time.

Humanism developed primarily under the stimulation of the classical, antique literature, from which natural science had little to glean. Very few scholars educated on Humanist lines devoted their attention to the departments of science in which the Arabs had done pioneer work – anatomy, chemistry, and astronomy – in order to investigate the laws of nature methodically, and thus prepare the great scientific discoveries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most of those who devoted themselves to the natural sciences did so with an eye to the immediate use they could make of such studies. And where the transmitted knowledge was inadequate, it was eked out by speculations and hypotheses, supported by quotations from the old writers.

Men did not turn to the study of the human and animal body and its functions, but strove to acquire magic formulas for curing disease. Anatomy made slow progress, but quackery spread with lightning rapidity. The herding of the people in large towns, exhibiting the extremes of riches and poverty, prepared the soil for epidemics and diseases.

As with medicine, so with chemistry. It had mastered the art of resolving bodies into their elements and reconstituting them out of their elements. What easier than to exploit it for the manufacture of that metal after which everyone panted – gold? Chemistry was degraded into alchemy.

Astronomical knowledge spread rapidly among the scholars in the age of Humanism and of the Reformation.

In navigation it could be applied to practical purposes. Without it, overseas commerce would have been impossible, and so it was cultivated with zeal. The laws of astronomy, taken over from the ancients, were almost the only natural laws then known at all widely; but they too were soon enlisted in the service of exploitation and superstition. As the orbits of the planets could be calculated and men suspected that they influenced the earth, endeavours were made to predict earthly fates from their positions. The more uncertain their futures, the greedier men were to explore them. The stars became their consolation in that revolutionary time when the firmament seemed the only fixed point. But it, too, was eventually revolutionised.

Astrology, alchemy, and quackery were the forms in which the natural sciences in Europe were first known to the masses, and even to the majority of educated people at the close of the Middle Ages. This kind of “natural science” was not calculated to undermine the need for religion.

The scepticism of the Humanists, in fact, was merely the outcome of the absurdity of existing beliefs or of indifference; it did not arise from a scientific insight into the processes of nature.

While the natural sciences failed to kill one of the roots of religion, its other root received a powerful stimulus from the economic development.

The economic props of the lower classes were vanishing, chief among them being the village communities which had carried the people through the storms of the Middle Ages. New class struggles broke out, of a more fearful kind than those of feudal times. The latter were mostly concerned with increasing or reducing rights and duties, but now the nascent and the declining classes were locked in life-and-death grapples. The oppression and impoverishment of the peasants, misery and vagabondage, increased. Attempts to put down the mishandled classes assumed an increasingly brutal and bloody character, the convulsive efforts of the tortured peoples to shake off the yoke of bondage became ever more violent. Hatred, anxiety, and despair were permanent guests in the cottage and in the palace. Everybody trembled at the future, lamented the past, and grappled with the present. War became a vocation, slaughter a handicraft. The discharged soldier was compelled by necessity to continue the usages of war in time of peace, and those he threatened were driven to hunt him like a wild beast. And simultaneously plague and syphilis raged through Europe. Everywhere was insecurity, misery, constant anxiety in face of the irresistible social forces, forces which did not operate within the narrow limits of the village community, but swept through mankind with the devastating breath of an international scourge.

This situation powerfully stimulated the religious need, the longing for a better hereafter, the impulse to recognise an omnipotent God, who alone seemed able to make an end of the universal misery. At the same time religion lost its serene and benevolent character, and developed its darker and crueller sides. The devil reappeared, and men’s imaginations were busy painting him in the blackest colours. The torments of hell were revived and partially realised on earth in the cruelties inflicted upon the living. Witch hunting and witch burning were concomitants of the bloody legislation against beggars and vagabonds.

This transformation was long preparing in the minds of the masses, and it was the Reformation that first brought it to light. That movement not only shattered the tradition of the old popular religion; it also fired all the class antagonisms which had hitherto been simmering beneath the surface of society, and thereby released the tendencies of the age of the primitive accumulation of capital which have been described above. Superstition and fanaticism, cruelty and bloodthirstiness, developed to insane lengths. From the Peasant War to the Peace of Westphalia (1525 to 1648) Europe resembled a madhouse.

During this century, what we know to-day as religion was evolved – the various Protestant sects and Jesuitical, Tridentine Catholicism. The old Catholicism of feudal times, as practised by the people and not by the Papal Court, has disappeared, and only in a remote mountain village is there to be found some faint traces of the joviality and joyousness of Teutonic Christianity.

The leaders of the Enlightenment movement of the eighteenth century found in the new religion their most dangerous enemy, and the greatest obstacle interposed between them and the people on the one hand and the monarchy on the other hand. In its contest with this religion the Enlightenment movement became great. Historians who followed in the paths marked out by the Enlightenment philosophy described all religions and the Christianity of all ages in terms of the religion with which the Enlightenment movement grappled. They misunderstood the Teutonic-Catholic popular religion of the Middle Ages all the more readily as the character of early Christianity exhibited a striking similarity with the Christianity of the Reformation period, and only scanty material was available concerning the popular religion of the Middle Ages which was intermediate between the two.

To persist in this error, however, would lead to an entirely wrong estimate of the Middle Ages. In particular – and this is the reason for our discussion – it would lead to a wholly one-sided conception of Thomas More. To Voltaire, for instance, More seemed a narrow-minded, fanatical barbarian on account of his obstinate adherence to Catholicism.

More died as a martyr to Catholicism. To understand him we must know what kind of Catholicism he adhered to. We must therefore keep constantly in mind the difference between the old, feudal, popular Catholicism and the modern Jesuitical Catholicism. More was one of the last representatives of the former, so far as he was a Catholic at all, neither a hypocrite nor an intriguer, but a man in the best sense of the word.

Having described the general historical situation in which More grew up, we will turn to the circumstances of his career.


Last updated on 22.11.2003