The Story of Utopias, by Lewis Mumford, , at sacred-texts.com
How something happened to utopia between Plato and Sir Thomas More; and how utopia was discovered again, along with the New World.
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THERE is a span of nearly two thousand years between Plato and Sir Thomas More. During that time, in the Western World at any rate, utopia seems to disappear beyond the horizon. Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus looks back into a mythical past; Cicero's essay on the state is a negligible work; and St. Augustine's City of God is chiefly remarkable for a brilliant journalistic attack upon the old order of Rome which reminds one of the contemporary diatribes of Maximilian Harden. Except for these works there is, as far as I can discover, scarcely any other piece of writing which even hints at utopia except as utopia may refer to a dim golden age in the past when all men were virtuous and happy.
But while utopia dropt out of literature, it did not drop out of men's minds; and the utopia of the first fifteen hundred years after Christ is transplanted to the sky, and called the Kingdom of Heaven. It is distinctly a utopia of escape. The world as men find it is full of sin and trouble. Nothing can be done about it except to repent of the sin and find refuge from the trouble in the life after the grave. So the utopia of Christianity is fixed and settled: one can enter into the Kingdom of Heaven if a passport has been granted, but one can do nothing to create or mold this heaven. Change and struggle and ambition and amelioration
belong to the wicked world, and bring no final satisfaction. Happiness lies not in the deed, but in having a secure credit in the final balance of accountshappiness, in other words, lies in the ultimate compensation. This world of fading empires and dilapidated cities is no home except for the violent and the "worldly."
If the idea of utopia loses its practical hold during this period, the will-to-utopia remains; and the rise of the monastic system and the attempts of the great popes from Hildebrand onward to establish a universal empire under the shield of the church show that, as always, there was a breach between the ideas which people carried in their heads and the things which actual circumstances and going institutions compelled them to do. There is no need to consider these partial, institutional utopias until we get down to the nineteenth century. What concerns us now is that the Kingdom of Heaven, as a utopia of escape, ceased to hold men's allegiance when they discovered other channels and other possibilities.
The shift from a heavenly utopia to a worldly one came during that period of change and uneasiness which characterized the decline of the Middle Age. Its first expression is the "Utopia" of Sir Thomas More, the great chancellor who served under Henry VIII.
In the introduction to More's "Utopia" one gets a vivid impression of the forces that were stirring men's minds out of the sluggish routine into which they had settled. The man who is supposed to describe the commonwealth of Utopia is a Portuguese scholar,
learned in Greek. He has left his family possessions with his kinsmen and has gone adventuring for other continents with Americus Vesputius. This Raphael Hythloday is the sort of sunburnt sailor one could probably have encountered in Bristol or Cadiz or Antwerp almost any day during the late part of the fifteenth century. He has abandoned Aristotle, whom the schoolmen had butchered and had made pemmican of, and through his conquest of Greek he has come into possession of that new learning which stems back to Plato; and his brain is teeming with the criticisms and suggestions of a strange, pagan philosophy. Moreover, he has been abroad to the Americas or the Indies, and he is ready to tell all who will listen of a strange land on the other side of the world, where, as Sterne said of France, "they do things better." No institution is too fantastic but that it might existon the other side of the world. No way of life is too reasonable but that a philosophical population might follow iton the other side of the world. Conceive of the world of ideas which Greek literature had just opened up coming headlong against the new lands which the magnetic compass had given men the courage to explore, and utopia, as a fresh conception of the good life, becomes a throbbing possibility.
In setting out for Utopia Sir Thomas More left behind a scene which in its political violence and economic maladjustment looks queerly like our own. Indeed, there are a good many passages which need only have a few names altered and the language itself cast
into modern English in order to serve as editorial comment for a radical weekly review.
Consider this man Raphael Hythloday, this errant member of the intelligentzia. Life as he knows it in the Europe of his day no longer has a hold upon him. The rich are fattening upon the poor; land is being gathered into big parcels, at least. in England; and turned over into sheep runs. The people who used to cultivate the land are compelled to leave their few acres and are thrown on their own resources. Soldiers who have returned from the wars can find nothing to do; disabled veterans and people accustomed to live as pensioners on the more prosperous have become destitute. Extravagant luxury grows on one hand; misery on the other. Those who are poor, beg; those who are proud, steal; and for their pains the thieves and the vagrants are tried and sentenced to the gibbet, where by dozens they hang before the eyes of the market crowds.
Just as today, people complain that the laws are not strict enough or that they are not enforced; and everyone stubbornly refuses to look at the matter through Raphael Hythloday's eyes and to see that the robbery and violence which are abroad are not a cause of bad times but a result of them.
What can a man of intelligence do in such a world?
More's friend, Peter Giles, who is represented as the sponsor for Raphael, wonders why a man of Raphael's talent does not enter into the service of the kingin short, go in for politics. Raphael answers that he does not wish to be enslaved; and he cannot try to fetch happiness on terms so abhorrent to his disposition, for "most princes apply themselves more to the affairs of war than to the useful arts of peace, and are more
set on acquiring new kingdoms right or wrong than on governing those they possess." There is no use trying to tell them about the wiser institutions of the Utopians: if they could not refute your arguments they would say that the old ways were good enough for their ancestors and are good enough for them, even though they have willingly let go of all the genuinely good things that might have been inherited from the past.
So much for the help an intelligent man might give on domestic problems. As for international affairs, it is a mess of chicane and intrigue and brigandage. While so many people of influence are advising preparedness and "how to carry on the war," what chance would a poor intellectual like Hythloday have if he stood up and said that the government should withdraw their armies from foreign parts and try to improve conditions at home, instead of oppressing the people with taxes and spilling their blood without bringing them a single blessed advantage, whilst their manners are being corrupted by a long war, and their laws fall into contempt, with robbery and murder on every hand.
More, through the tongue of Raphael Hythloday, is painting a picture of the life he sees about him; but in it we seem to see every feature of our own national countenance.
This unhonored and disoriented intellectual is the very emblem of some of our best spirits today. Rack and ruin have gone too far to admit of any sort of repair except that which proceeds from the bottom up; and so Hythloday freely admits that "as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily; not justly, because
the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable." In short, says Hythloday, there is no salvation except through following the practices of the Utopians.
So the new world of exploration brings us within sight of a new world of ideas, and the beloved community, whose seed Plato had sought to implant in men's minds, springs up again, after a fallow period of almost two thousand years. What sort of country is it?
Geographically viewed, the island of Utopia exists only in More's imagination. All that we can say of it is that it is two hundred miles broad, shaped something like a crescent, with an entrance into its great bay which lends itself to defence. There are fifty-four cities in the island; the nearest is twenty-four miles from its neighbor, and the farthest is not more than a day's march distant. The chief town, Amaurot, is situated very nearly in the center; and each city has jurisdiction over the land for twenty miles around; so that here again we find the city-region as the unit of political life.
The economic base of this commonwealth is agriculture, and no one is ignorant of the art. Here and there over the countryside are great farm-houses, equipt for carrying on agricultural operations. While those who are well-adapted for rural life are free to live in the
open country the whole year round, other workers are sent by turns from the city to take part in the farm-labor. Every farmstead or "family" holds no less than forty men and women. Each year twenty of this family come hack to town after two years in the country; and in their place another twenty is sent out from the town, so that they may learn the country work from those who have had at least a year's experience.
Agricultural economics is so well advanced that the countryside knows exactly how much food is needed by the whole city-region; but the Utopians sow and breed more abundantly than they need, in order that their neighbors may have the overplus. Poultry-raising is also highly advanced. The Utopians "breed an infinite multitude of chickens in a very curious manner; for the hens do not sit and hatch them, but vast numbers of eggs are laid in a gentle and equal heat, in order to be hatched"in short, they have discovered the incubator!
During the harvest season the country magistrates inform the city magistrates how many extra hands are needed for reaping; a draft of city workers is made, and the work is commonly done in short order.
While every man, woman, and child knows how to cultivate the soil, since each has learned partly in school and partly by practice, every person also has some "peculiar trade to which he applies himself, such as the manufacture of wool or flax, masonry, smith's work or carpenter's work"; and no trade is held in special esteem above the others. (That is a great jump from the Republic where the mechanic arts are considered base and servile in nature!) The same trade usually passes down from father to son, since each
family follows its own special occupation; but a man whose genius lies another way may be adopted into a family which plies another trade; and if after he has learnt that trade, he wishes still to master another, this change is brought about in the same manner. "When he has learned both, he follows that which he likes best, unless the public has more occasion for the other."
The chief and almost the only business of the magistrates is to see that no one lives in idleness. This does not mean that the Utopians wear themselves out with "perpetual toil from morning to night, as if they were beasts of burden," for they appoint eight hours for sleep and six for work, and the rest of the day is left to each man's discretion. They are able to cut down the length of time needed for work, without our so-called labor saving machinery, by using the services of classes which in More's time were given for the most part to idlenessprinces, rich men, healthy beggars, and the like. The only exception to this rule of labor is with the magistrateswho are not in the habit of taking advantage of itand the students, who upon proving their ability are released from mechanical operations. If there is too great a surplus of labor, men are sent out to repair the highways; but when no public undertaking is to be performed, the hours of work are lessened.
So much for the daily industrial life of the Utopians. How are the goods distributed?
Between the city and the country there is a monthly exchange of goods. This occasion is made a festival,
and the country people come into town and take back for themselves the goods which the townspeople have made; and the magistrates "take care to see it given to them." In back of this direct interchange of goods between town and country, between household and household, there are doubtless regulations; and it is simply our misfortune that Raphael Hythloday did not think it necessary to go into them. Within the cities, we must add, there are storehouses where a daily market takes place.
As with the business of production, the family is the unit of distribution; and the city is composed of these units, rather than of a multitude of isolated individuals. "Every city is divided into four equal parts, and in the middle of each there is a market-place; what is brought hither, and manufactured by the several families, is carried from thence to houses appointed for that purpose, in which all things of a sort are laid by themselves; and thither every father goes and takes whatever he or his family stand in need of, without either paying for it or leaving anything in exchange. There is no reason for giving denial to any person, since there is such plenty of everything among them; and there is no danger of a man's asking for more than he needs; they have no inducements to do this, since they are sure they shall always be supplied."
More goes on to explain this direct system of exchange, and to justify it. "It is the fear of want that makes any of the whole race of animals either greedy or ravenous, but besides fear, there is in man a pride that makes him fancy it a particular glory to excel others in pomp and excess. But by the laws of the Utopians there is no room for this. Near these markets
are others for all sorts of provisions, where there are not only herbs, fruits, and bread, but also fish, fowl, and cattle. There are also, without their towns, places appointed near some running water for killing their beasts, and for washing away their filth."
In addition to the monthly apportionment of goods by the local magistrates, the great council which meets at Amaurot once a year undertakes to examine the production of each region, and those regions that suffer from a scarcity of goods are supplied out of the surplus of other regions, "so that indeed the whole island is, as it were, one family."
Taking it all together, there is pretty much the same standard of well-being that we found in the Republic. More recognizes the instinct for self-assertion and the exhibitionist element in man's makeup; but he does not pander to it. The precious metals are held in contempt: gold is used to make chamberpots and chains for slaves; pearls are given to children who glory in them and enjoy them while they are young and are as much ashamed to use them afterwards as they are of their puppets and other toys. Gaudy clothes and jewelry are likewise out of fashion in Utopia. The shopkeepers of Bond Street and Fifth Avenue would break their hearts here; for it is impossible to spend money or to spend other people's labor on articles which lend themselves solely to conspicuous display, and are otherwise neither useful nor beautiful. Contrast More's Utopia with St. John's vision of heaven, and the worldly Utopia seems quite naked and austere. A hundred years later, in Penn's city of Philadelphia, we might have fancied that we were walking about the streets of Amaurot.
The town life of the Utopians, as I have explained, rests upon rural foundations; there is such a mixture of town and country as Peter Kropotkin sought to realize in his sketch of "Fields, Factories, and Workshops." Let us conjure up the town of Amaurot and see in what sort of environment the townspeople spend their days. Our Utopian city, alas' reminds us somewhat of its rivals in latter-day America; for Raphael tells us that he who knows one of their towns knows all of them.
Amaurot lies on the side of a hill; it is almost a square, two miles on each side; and it faces the river Anider which takes its rise eighty miles above the town, and gets lost in the ocean sixty miles below. The town is compassed by a high, thick wall; the streets are convenient for carriages and sheltered from the winds; and the houses are built in rows so that a whole side of the street looks like a single unit. (It was so that the great people built their houses in eighteenth century London and Edinburgh, as Belgrave Square, Portland Square, and the great Adelphi Mansion designed by the Brothers Adam show us.) The streets are twenty feet broad; and in back of the houses are gardens, which everyone has a hand in keeping up; and the people of the various blocks vie with each other in ordering their gardens, so that there is "nothing belonging to the whole town that is more useful and more pleasant."
In every street there are great halls, distinguished by particular names, and lying at an equal distance from each other. In each hall dwells the magistrates
of a district, who rules over thirty families, fifteen living on one side and fifteen on another; and since a family consists of not more than sixteen and not less than ten people, this magistrateor Philarch as he is calledis the "community leader" of some four hundred people.
In these halls everyone meets and takes his principal meal. The stewards go to the market place at a particular hour, and, according to the number of people in their halls, carry home provisions. The people who are in hospitalswhich are built outside the walls and are so large they might pass for little townsget the pick of the day's food. At the hours of dinner and supper the whole block is called together by a trumpet, and everybody joins company, except such as are sick or in hospital, just as the students and fellows to this day eat their principal meal in an Oxford college. The dressing of meat and the ordering of the tables belongs to the women; all those of every family taking their place by turns. In the same building there is a common nursery and chapel; and so the women who have children to care for labor under no inconvenience.
The midday meal is dispatched unceremoniously; but at the end of the day music always accompanies the meals, perfumes are burnt or sprinkled around, and they "want nothing that may cheer up their spirits." Bond Street and Fifth Avenue may weep about the absence of conspicuous waste in Utopia; but at supper time, at any rate, William Penn would be uncomfortable. There is the odor of an uncommonly good club in the description of the final meal of the day: the smell of the barracks or the poorhouse, which we should find later in Robert Owen's common halls, does not intrude for an
instant. More, when you examine him closely, does not altogether forget the mean sensual man who dwells occasionally in all of us!
Now that we have laid the foundations of the material life, we must observe the limitations that are laid upon the daily activities of the Utopians. This brings us to the government.
The basis of the Utopian political state, as in the economic province, is the family. Every year thirty families choose a magistrate, known as a Philarch; and over every ten Philarchs, with the families subject to them, there is an Archphilarch. All the Philarchs, 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. The Prince is elected for life, unless he be removed on suspicion of attempting to enslave the people. The Philarchs are chosen for a single year; but they are frequently re-elected. In order to keep their rulers from conspiring to upset the government, no matter of great importance can be set on foot without being sent to the Philarchs, "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."
Recollect that each household is an industrial as well as a domestic unit, as was usual in the Middle Age, and you will perceive that this is an astute combination of industrial and political democracy on a genuine basis of common interest.
The greater part of the business of the government relates to the economic life of the people. There are certain other matters, however, which remain over for them; and these affairs constitute a blot on More's conception of the ideal commonwealth. One of them is the regulation of travel; another is the treatment of crime; and a third is war.
It is interesting to note that on two subjects which More is mightily concerned to rectify in his own countrycrime and warhe establishes conditions which are pretty far from being ideal or humane in his Utopia. A. E. has well said that a man becomes the image of the thing he hates. Everything that Raphael brings up against the government of England in the Introduction to Utopia could be brought with almost equal force, I believe, against the very country which is to serve as a standard.
While any man may travel if there is no particular occasion for him at homewhether he wishes to visit friends or see the rest of the countryit is necessary for him to carry a passport from the Prince. If he stay in any place longer than a night he must follow his proper occupation; and if anyone goes out of the city without leave or is found wandering around without a passport, he is punished as a fugitive, and upon committing the offense a second time is condemned to slavery. This is a plain example of unimaginative harshness; and it is hard to explain away; indeed, I have no intention to.
Apparently More could not conceive of a perfectly happy commonwealth for the majority of men if they still had to perform certain filthy daily tasks, like the slaughtering of beef; and so he attempts to kill two
birds with one stone: he creates a class of slaves, and he fills this class by condemning to it people who have committed venial crimes. In doing this, he overlooks the final objection to slavery in all its forms; namely, that it tends to corrupt the master.
Since we are discussing the conditions that undermine More's commonwealth, we may remark that war, too, remains; the difference being that the Utopians attempt to do by strategy, corruption, and what we should now call propaganda what less intelligent people do by sheer force of arms. If the Utopian incubator anticipates the modern invention, their method of conducting war likewise anticipates our modern technique of undermining the enemy's morale: these Utopians, in the good and the bad, are our contemporaries! Among the just causes of war the Utopians count the seizure of territory, the oppression of foreign merchants, and the denial of access to land to nations capable of cultivating it. They take considerable pains to keep their "best sort of men for their own use at home, so they make use of the worst sort of men for the consumption of war." In other words, they regard war as a means, among other things, of weeding out undesirable elements in the community.
It is a relief to turn away from these residual iniquities to marriage and religion!
In marriage there is a curious mixture of the personal conception of sexual relations, which is the modern note, with a belief in certain formal specifications which was the distinctly mediæval quality. Thus on one hand the Utopians take care that the bride and the bridegroom are introduced to each other, in their nakedness, before the ceremony; and the grounds for
divorce are adultery and insufferable perverseness. When two people cannot agree they are permitted to escape the bond by mutual agreement under approval granted by the Senate after strict inquiry. On the other hand, unchastity is sternly punished, and those who commit adultery are condemned to slavery and not given the privilege of a second marriage.
In religion there is complete toleration for all creeds, with this exception: that those who dispute violently about religion or attempt to use any other force than that of mild persuasion are punished for breaking the public peace.
There is not the space to follow the life of the Utopians in all its details. It is time to discuss the world of ideas by which these Utopians chart their daily activities. This exposition of the basic Utopian values has been so admirably put by Sir Thomas More himself that the greater part of our conclusion will inevitably fall within quotation marks.
The Utopians "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 Nature when he pursues or avoids things according to the direction of reason. . . . Reason directs us to keep our minds as free from passion and as cheerful as we can, and that we should consider ourselves bound by the ties of good-nature and humanity to use our utmost endeavors to help forward the happiness of all other persons; for there never was any man such a morose and severe pursuer of virtue, such an enemy to pleasure, that though he set hard rules for men
to undergo much, pain, many watchings and other rigors, yet did not at the same time advise them to do all they could to relieve and ease the miserable, and who did not represent gentleness and good nature as amiable dispositions. . . . A life of pleasure is either a real evil, and in that case we ought not to assist others in their pursuit of it, but, on the contrary, to keep them from it all we can, as from that which is most hurtful and deadly; or if it is a good thing, so that we not only may but ought to help others to it, why then ought not a man to begin with himself? Since no man can be more bound to look after the good of another than after his own... .
"Thus as they define Virtue to be living according to Nature, so they imagine that Nature prompts all people to seek after pleasure, as the end of all they do. They also observe that in order to further our supporting the pleasures of life, Nature inclines us to enter into society; for there is no man so much raised above the rest of mankind as to be the only favorite of Nature, who, on the contrary, seems to have placed on a level all those that belong to the same species. Upon this they infer that no man ought to seek his own conveniences so eagerly as to prejudice others; and therefore they think that all agreements between private persons ought to be observed, but likewise that all those laws ought to be kept, which either a good prince has published in due form, to which a people that is neither oppressed with tyranny nor circumvented by fraud, has consented, for distributing these conveniences of life which afford us all our pleasures.
"They think it is an evidence of true wisdom for a man to pursue his own advantages, as far as the laws
allow it. They account it piety to prefer public good to one's private concerns; but they think it unjust for a man to seek for pleasure by snatching another man's pleasures from him.
"Thus upon an inquiry into the whole matter, they reckon that all our actions, and even all our virtues, terminate in pleasure, as in our chief end and greatest happiness; and they call every motion or state, either of body or mind, in which Nature teaches us to delight, a pleasure. They cautiously limit pleasure only to those appetites to which Nature leads us; for they say that Nature leads us only to those delights to which reason as well as sense carries us, and by which we neither injure any other person nor lose the possession of greater pleasures, and of such as draw no troubles after them."
Thus the Utopians discriminate between natural pleasures and those which have some sting or bitterness concealed in them. The love of fine clothes is considered by Utopians as a pleasure of the latter sort; likewise is the desire of those who possess fine clothes to be kowtowed to by other people. Men who heap up wealth without using it are in the same class; and those who throw dice or huntfor in Utopia hunting is turned over to the butchers, and the butchers are slaves.
Now Utopians "reckon up several sorts of pleasures which they call true ones; some belong to the body and others to the mind. The pleasures of the mind lie in knowledge, and in that delight which the contemplation of truth carries with it; to which they add the joyful reflections on a well-spent life; and the assured hopes of a future happiness. They divide the pleasures of
the body into two sorts; the one is that which gives our senses some real delight, and is performed, either by recruiting nature, and supplying those parts which feed the internal heat of life by eating and drinking; or when nature is eased of any surcharge that oppresses it; when we are relieved from sudden pain, or that which arises from satisfying the appetite which Nature has wisely given for the propagation of the species. There is another kind of pleasure that arises neither from our receiving what the body requires, nor its being relieved when overcharged, and yet by a secret, unseen virtue affects the senses, raises the passions, and strikes the mind with generous impressions; this is the pleasure that arises from music. Another kind of bodily pleasure is that which arises from an undisturbed and vigorous constitution of body, when life and active spirits seem to actuate every part. This lively health, when entirely free from all mixture of pain, of itself gives an inward pleasure . . . and Utopians reckon it the foundation and basis of all the other joys of life, since this alone makes the state of life easy and desirable; and when this is wanting a man is really capable of no other pleasure." The crowning pleasure of the Utopian is the cultivation of the mind; and the leisure hours of the people, as well as the professional scholars, are spent in the lecture hall and the study.
Such are the goals for which the Utopians direct their social order. These values are, I need scarcely point out, rooted in the nature of man, and not in any set of external institutions. The aim of every Utopian
institution is to help every man to help himself. When we put the matter in these bald phrases, what More brings forward seems weak and platitudinous. Behind it all, however, is a vital idea: namely, that our attempts to live the good life are constantly perverted by our efforts to gain a living; and that by juggling gains and advantages, by striving after power and riches and distinction, we miss the opportunity to live as whole men. People become the nursemaids of their furniture, their property, their titles, their position; and so they lose the direct satisfaction that furniture or property would give.
To cultivate the soil rather than simply to get away with a job; to take food and drink rather than to earn money; to think and dream and invent, rather than to increase one's reputation; in short, to grasp the living reality and spurn the shadowthis is the substance of the Utopian way of life. Power and wealth and dignity and fame are abstractions; and men cannot live by abstractions alone. In this Utopia of the New World every man has the opportunity to be a man because no one else has the opportunity to be a monster. Here, too, the chief end of man is that he should grow to the fullest stature of his species.