Karl Kautsky

Thomas More and his Utopia


Part IV.


1. Politics

THE mode of production, the household, the family, and marriage are the most important spheres in which a particular communistic system can display its characteristic features. The political and ideological superstructure seems to us of less importance. There is not much to be said about politics generally in a communistic community. And as regards the ideas which will prevail therein, it must be admitted that it is easier to imagine institutions which deviate from ours than ideas and mental qualities. The religious and philosophical discussions in Utopia are remarkably daring for the time, and throw a vivid light on More. But whereas his economic assumptions are often revolutionary even for to-day, his philosophy, where it is not obsolete, has become commonplace, and might be endorsed by the most timid Liberal. Consequently, the philosophy and religion of Utopia have mostly interested our Liberal historians, who have devoted long treatises to this subject, while dismissing the communism with a few phrases as vain imaginings. The philosophy and religion of Utopia constitute an important corroboration of Mores literary and scientific attitude, as discussed by us in a previous chapter, but they have no organic connection with the communism of his ideal commonwealth.

We shall therefore only repeat what is most important in the long discussions upon these subjects contained in Utopia and limit our criticism to what is most necessary to be said.

First let us see how More elaborates the political constitution of Utopia. “Thirty families choose every year a magistrate, who was anciently called the Syphogrant, but is now called the Philarch; and over every ten Syphogrants, with the families subject to them, there is another magistrate, who was anciently called the Tranibor, but of late the Archphilarch. All the Syphogrants, who are in number 200, choose the Prince out of a list of four, who are named by the people of the four divisions of the city; but they take an oath, before they proceed to an election, that they will choose him whom they think most fit for the office. They give their voices secretly, so that it is not known for whom everyone gives his suffrage. The Prince is for life, unless he is removed upon suspicion of some design to enslave the people. The Tranibors are new chosen every year, but yet they are for the most part continued. All their other magistrates are only annual. The Tranibors meet every third day, and oftener if necessary, and consult with the Prince, either concerning the affairs of the State in general, or such private differences as may arise sometimes among the people; though that falls out but seldom. There are always two Syphogrants called into the council-chamber, and these are changed every day. It is a fundamental rule of their government, that no conclusion can be made in anything that relates to the public, till it has been first debated three several days in their council. It is death for any to meet and consult concerning the State, unless it be either in their ordinary council, or in the assembly of the whole body of the people.

“These things have been so provided among them, that the Prince and the Tranibors may not conspire together to change the government, and enslave the people; and therefore when anything of great importance is set on foot, it is sent to the Syphogranta; who after they have communicated it to the families that belong to their divisions, and have considered it among themselves, make report to the Senate; and upon great occasions, the matter is referred to the council of the whole island.”

Each town sends annually three of its wisest elders to Amaurot, the Capital, to conduct the public busi-ness of the island. As we know, the function of this Senate is to compile statistics of the requirements and produce of every town, and to adjust superfluities and shortages.

“The chief, and almost the only, business” of these officials, “is to take care that no man may live idle, but that every one may follow his trade diligently.”

We read in another place: “If any man aspires to any office he is sure never to compass it. They all live easily together, for none of the magistrates are either insolent or cruel to the people; they affect rather to be called fathers, and, by being really so, they well deserve the name; and the people pay them all the marks of honour the more freely because none are exacted from them. The Prince himself has no distinction, either of garments or of a crown; but is only distinguished by a sheaf of corn carried before him; as the High Priest is also known by his being preceded by a person carrying a wax light.

“They have but few laws, and such is their constitution that they need not many. They very much condemn other nations whose laws, together with the commentaries on them, swell up to so many volumes.”

The foreign political relations of the Utopians are as simple as their internal relations. They do not make treaties with foreign peoples, as they know that such treaties are kept only so long as they are advantageous. They rely upon themselves and upon the economic dependence of neighbours upon them.

“They detest war as a very brutal thing, and which, to the reproach of human nature, is more practised by men than by any sort of beasts. They, in opposition to the sentiments of almost all other nations, think that there is nothing more inglorious than that glory that is gained by war; and therefore, though they accustom themselves daily to military exercises and the discipline of war, in which not only their men, but their women likewise, are trained up, that, in cases of necessity, they may not be quite useless, yet they do not rashly engage in war, unless it be either to defend themselves or their friends from any unjust aggressors, or, out of good-nature or in compassion, assist an oppressed nation in shaking off the yoke of tyranny ...” They regard it as a just cause for war when “one neighbour makes an inroad on another by public order, and carries away the spoils, but also when the merchants of one country are oppressed in another, either under pretence of some unjust laws, or by the perverse wresting of good ones.”

His uncommonly finely drawn discussions upon war, of which we have only given the commencement, are mostly nothing more than scorching satire upon the war spirit of his time, in which the Swiss, who appear under the name of Zapolets, are specially singled out. These discussions are based on the assumption that his communistic commonwealth is surrounded by States at the same level of civilisation, while possessing social and political institutions opposed to those of Utopia. More had scarcely a glimmering of the international solidarity of modern Socialism, which regards the social transformation to which he aspired as the necessary product of the capitalist mode of production, and therefore assumes that it will extend to all the countries in which this mode of production prevails.

The discussions upon the internal political organisation of Utopia are more closely related to communism than the discussions upon war. It is an entirely democratic community, in which the functions of the authorities, apart from composing disputes, consist almost exclusively in the direction of labour. More stands here on the ground of modern Socialism, in predicting that with the abolition of class antagonisms, the political functions will dwindle, and the community will be transformed from a political State into a co-operative commonwealth.

It is characteristic of More that he could not imagine such a community without a prince. It is true the latter has nothing to do except to avoid coming under suspicion of striving for absolute power.

2. Science

Let us now consider the place which Science occupies in Utopia: “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 another, according to their inclinations.”

These few lines contain one of the most important principles of modern Socialism: the abolition of the privilege of science and literature for a caste. Science and literature are rendered equally accessible to all citizens of the commonwealth, women as well as men, and one of the most important, perhaps the chief, aim of the commonwealth consists in allowing everybody to share in intellectual labour. “ The chief end of the constitution,” it is stated in Utopia, “is to regulate labour by the necessities of the public, and to allow the people as much time as is necessary for the improvement of their minds, in which they think the happiness of life consists.”

This is quite a modern idea which formed no part of primitive or of Platonic communism. Primitive man was debarred from the enjoyment of scientific activity.

The impulse to such activity would arise, on the one hand, when the elements of society were caught up in a more rapid development, when hostile classes came into existence, when social changes entered upon a development independent of the human will, and social struggles provoked men to reflection upon their meaning, when mankind received a history; on the other hand, only when man was freed from the umbilical cord of nature, when nature confronted him as something objective. Both foundations of the need for scientific research developed with sufficient strength only in the towns; and there also developed simultaneously the conditions which made scientific research possible, the creation of a class, which, freed from the necessity of physical labour, could apply itself wholly to intellectual activity.

Labour and science in the days of Antiquity seemed to be two incompatible things. Consequently, even in the Platonic Republic science is the privilege of the ruling and exploiting class.

More’s communism, resting as it does on equal obligation to work, and therefore on universal equality, must also, like primitive communism, admit the equal right of all to share in enjoyment. This must be the case all the more with the greatest and most lasting of enjoyments, which only appeared with the decay of primitive communism, the enjoyment of mental labour. Upon this More must perforce lay special stress as a Humanist, for a life without intellectual activity did not seem worth living. And as the conditions for the liberation of all citizens from mind-killing physical work without restricting wants did not yet exist, More preferred the latter alternative. We have already discussed this point, and know that More was compelled by the technical backwardness of his age to create two classes, insignificant in numbers it is true, whose existence contradicts the principles of Utopia: a class of scholars, freed from the general obligation to work, and a class of slaves, de-barred from intellectual activity. It must, however, be emphasised that the scholars do not enjoy any material advantages over the other citizens. And More did not consider it necessary to raise this question.

It must not be inferred from the stress which More lays on the enjoyment of intellectual labour that he despises sensuous enjoyments. The common suppers in Utopia are not marked by ascetic simplicity.

They eat well, there is no lack of sweetmeats, music and scents stimulate the senses. Moreover, the Utopians’ outlook on life is serene and joyous.

We find this set out in a lengthy excursus which forms the conclusion of the chapter on The Travels of the Utopians. This excursus is very important for the light it throws upon the position of science in Utopia; the contempt shown for the purely speculative sciences which played so great a part in Mores time, and the respect shown for the natural sciences, are especially noteworthy. We cannot better conclude our discussion of science in Utopia than by citing a few passages from this chapter.

“These and such like notions has that people imbibed, partly from their education, being bred in a country whose customs and laws are opposite to all such foolish maxims, and partly from their learning and studies; for though there are but few in any town that are so wholly excused from labour as to give themselves entirely up to their studies, these being only such persons as discover from their childhood an extraordinary capacity and disposition for letters; yet their children, and a great part of the nation, both men and women, are taught to spend those hours in which they are not obliged to work in read-ing: and this they do through the whole progress of life. They have all their learning in their own tongue ... They had made the same discoveries as the Greeks, both in music, logic, arithmetic, and geometry. Yet they far exceed our modern logicians; for they have never yet fallen upon the barbarous niceties that our youth are forced to learn in those trifling logical schools that are among us; they are so far from minding chimeras, and fantastical images made in the mind, that none of them could comprehend what we meant when we talked to them of a man in the abstract, as common to all men in particular (so that though we spoke of him as a thing that we could point at with our fingers, yet none of them could perceive him), and yet distinct from every one, as if he were some monstrous Colossus or giant. Yet for all this ignorance of these empty notions, they knew astronomy, and were perfectly acquainted with the motions of the heavenly bodies, and have many instruments, well contrived and divided, by which they very accurately compute the course and positions of the sun, moon, and stars. But for the cheat, of divining by the stars by their oppositions or conjunctions, it has not so much as entered into their thoughts. They have a particular sagacity, founded upon much observation, in judging of the weather, by which they know when they may look for rain, wind, or other alterations in the air; but as to the philosophy of these things, the causes of the saltness of the sea, of its ebbing and flowing, and of 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, so they do not in all things agree among themselves.

“As to moral philosophy, they have the same disputes among them as we have here: they examine what are properly good both for the body and the mind, and whether any outward thing can be called truly good, or if that term belong only to the endowments of the soul. They enquire likewise 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; and, what may seem more strange, they make use of arguments even from religion, notwithstanding its severity and roughness, for the support of that opinion so indulgent to pleasure.

“They define virtue thus, that it is a living according to Nature, and think that we are made by God for that end; they believe that a man then follows the dictates of Nature when he pursues or avoids things according to the direction of reason; they say that the first dictate of reason is the kindling in us a love and reverence for the Divine Majesty, to whom we owe both all that we have, and all that we can ever hope for. In the next place, reason directs us to keep our minds as free from passion and as cheerful as we can, and that we should consider ourselves as bound by the ties of good-nature and humanity to use our utmost endeavours to help forward the happiness of all other persons.

“But of all pleasures, they esteem those to be most valuable that lie in the mind; the chief of which arises out of true virtue, and the witness of a good conscience. They account health the chief pleasure that belongs to the body; for they think that the pleasure of eating and drinking, and all the other delights of sense, are only so far desirable as they give or maintain health ... They think, therefore, none of those pleasures are to be valued any further than as they are necessary; yet they rejoice in them, and with due gratitude acknowledge the tenderness of the great Author of Nature, who has planted in us appetites, by which those things that are necessary for our preservation are likewise made pleasant to us.”

3. Religion

Let us turn from the Pagan rather than Christian philosophy to the religious institutions of the Utopians.

“There are several sorts of religions, not only in different parts of the island, but even in every town; some worship-ping the sun, others the moon, or one of the planets; some worship such men as have been eminent in former times for virtue, or glory, not only as ordinary deities, but as the supreme God: yet the greater and wiser sort of them worship none of these, but adore one eternal, invisible, infinite, and incomprehensible Deity; as a Being that is far above all our apprehensions, that is spread over the whole universe, not by His bulk, but by His power and virtue; Him they call the Father of All ... And indeed, though they differ concerning other things, yet all agree in this, that they think there is one supreme Being that made and governs the world, whom they call in the language of their country Mithras ... One of their most ancient laws is that no man ought to be punished for his religion. At the first constitution of their government, Utopus having understood that before his coming among them the old inhabitants had been engaged in great quarrels concerning religion, by which they were so divided among themselves, that he found it an easy thing to conquer them, since, instead of uniting their forces against him, every different party in religion fought by themselves; after he had subdued them, he made a law that every man might be of what religion he pleased, and might endeavour to draw others to it by the force of argument, and by amicable and modest ways, but without bitterness against those of other opinions; and such as did otherwise were to be condemned to banishment or slavery.

“This law was made by Utopus, not only for preserving the public peace which he saw suffered much by daily contentions and irreconcilable heats, but because he thought the interest of religion itself required it. He judged it not fit to determine anything rashly, and seemed to doubt whether those different forms of religion might not all come from God, who might inspire men in a different manner, and be pleased with this variety; he therefore thought it indecent and foolish for any man to threaten and terrify another to make him believe what did not appear to him to be true. And supposing that only one religion was really true, and the rest false, he imagined that the native force of truth would at last break forth and shine bright, if supported only by the strength of argument, and attended to with a gentle and unprejudiced mind; while, on the other hand, if such debates were carried on with violence and tumults, as the most wicked are always the most obstinate, so the best and most holy religion might be choked with superstition, as corn is with briars and thorns; he therefore left men wholly to their liberty, that they might be free to believe as they should see cause; only he made a solemn and severe law against such as should so far degenerate from the dignity of human nature as to think that our souls died with our bodies, or that the world was governed by chance, without a wise overruling Providence ... They never raise any that hold these maxims, either to honours or offices, nor employ them in any public trust, but despise them, as men of base and sordid minds; yet they do not punish them, because they lay this down as a maxim that a man cannot make himself believe anything he pleases; nor do they drive any to dissemble their thoughts by threatenings, so that men are not tempted to lie or disguise their opinions. They take care indeed to prevent their disputing in defence of these opinions, especially before the common people; but they suffer, and even encourage them to dispute concerning them in private with their priests and other grave men, being confident that they will be cured of those mad opinions by having reason laid before them.”

These discussions, so far as they relate to the toleration of all creeds, are more suggestive of the age of “Enlightenment” than of the Reformation, more in harmony with the age in which Nathan the Wise was written than the age in which Calvin burnt Servetus, immediately before the bloodiest wars of religion that the world has ever seen, and they seem to us all the more generous as not coming from an unbeliever, who actually stood above religions, but from a profoundly religious spirit, a man who found in religion the sole medium which his age offered for giving expression to his enthusiastic love of mankind, for whom irreligiosity was synonymous with lack of common sense. The Materialism of the sixteenth century arose, in fact, not among the exploited, but among the exploiting classes. Those who disbelieved in God and immortality were Popes and cardinals, princes and courtiers; their contempt for religion was concomitant with their contempt for the people. This must be borne in mind, in order to understand why More excluded Material-ists as common egoists from the political administration.

While More was akin to the eighteenth century in his tolerance, he anticipated the Reformation in the organ-isation of his ideal Church.

“Their priests are men of eminent piety, and therefore they are but few, for there are only thirteen in every town, one for every temple ... They are chosen by the people as the other magistrates are, by suffrages given in secret, for preventing of factions; and when they are chosen they are consecrated by the college of priests. The care of all sacred things, the worship of God, and an inspection into the manners of the people, are committed to them. It is a reproach to a man to be sent for by any of them, or for them to speak to him in secret, for that always gives some suspicion. All that is incumbent on them is only to exhort and admonish the people; for the power of correcting and punishing ill men belongs wholly to the Prince and to the other magistrates ... The education of youth belongs to the priests, yet they do not take so much care of instructing them in letters as in forming their minds and manners aright; they use all possible methods to infuse very early into the tender and flexible minds of children such opinions as are both good in themselves and will be useful to their country. For when deep impressions of these things are made at that age, they follow men through the whole course of their lives, and conduce much to preserve the peace of the government, which suffers by nothing more than by vices that rise out of ill opinions. The wives of their priests are the most extraordinary women of the whole country; sometimes the women themselves are made priests, though that falls out but seldom, nor are any but ancient widows chosen into that order.

“Though there are many different forms of religion among them, yet all these, how various soever, agree in the main point, which is the worshipping the Divine Essence; and therefore there is nothing to be seen or heard in their temples in which the several persuasions among them may not agree; for every sect performs those rites that are peculiar to it, in their private houses, nor is there anything in the public worship that contradicts the particular ways of those different sects. There are no images of God in their temples, so that every one may represent Him to their thoughts, according to the way of his religion ...

“The last day of the month, and of the year, is a festival ... before they go to the temple, both wives and children fall on their knees before their husbands or parents, and confess everything in which they have either erred or failed in their duty, and beg pardon for it. Thus all little discontents in families are removed, that they may offer up their devotions with a pure and serene mind.”

What an advance this Utopian Church marks upon Lutheranism and even Calvinism! It agrees with both in the abolition of aural confession, of priestly celibacy, of the worship of images, and with Calvinism in providing for the election of the priests by the people. But More goes further. He abolishes, for instance, the coercive powers of the priesthood, and admits women to the priesthood. He does not shrink from recommending suicide to incurable invalids. In the common divine service of all creeds and the relegation of special services to the home, More is in advance of every Church of his age. This is in the language of the sixteenth century the same principle that modern Socialism has adopted, in declaring religion to be a private matter.

We see how revolutionary Utopia was: revolutionary not only in reference to a remote future, but also in relation to the burning questions of its time. It attacks not only private property, not only the policy of princes, not only the ignorance and laziness of the monks, but even the doctrines of religion.


Last updated on 23.11.2003