Saturday, July 05, 2008

Utopia: A Parable

Utopia: The Parables of a National Discriminative Economic Policy

“For everywhere one may hear of ravenous dogs and wolves, and cruel men-eaters, but it is not so easy to find states that are well and wisely governed.”

There is reason to fear the discovery, which was thought would prove so much to their advantage, may by their imprudence become an occasion of much mischief to them. But it will be too long to dwell on all that had happened; it would be too great a digression from our present purpose; whatever is necessary to know, concerning those wise and prudent institutions which we observed among civilized nations, may perhaps be related to us on a more proper occasion.

There is no reason to wonder at the matter, since this way of punishing the minorities was neither just in itself, nor good for the nation itself; the remedy was not effectual; for such thievery have become so great a crime, so severe so ever, not being able to restrain those from robbing who now finds no other way of livelihood.

There is now a great number of such noblemen amongst them, that are themselves as idle as drones, that subsist on other men’s labor, on the labor of their tenants, whom, to raise their revenues, they pare to the quick. This indeed is the only instance of their frugality, for in all other things they are prodigal, even to the beggaring of themselves: but besides this, they carry about with them a great number of idle fellows, who never learned any art by which they may gain their living; and these, as soon as either their lord dies, or they themselves falls, are turned out of doors; for their lords are readier to feed idle people, than to take care of the needy; and often the heir is not able to keep together so great a family as his predecessor did.

Now when the stomachs of those that are turned out of doors, grow keen, they resent no less keenly, and what else can they do?

One who has been bred up in idleness and pleasure, and who was used to walk about with his miniature sword and buckler, despising all the others with an insolent scorn, is not fit for the spade and mattock: nor will he serve for so small a hire, and in so low a diet as he used to afford given to him.

This sort of men are particularly cherished, for in them consists the forces of the nation for which they can occasion; since their birth inspires them with a nobler sense of honor, than is to be found among tradesmen or ploughmen. You may as well say that we ought to cherish thieves on the accounts of such birth rights, for they will never want the one, as long as they have the other, and as robbers prove sometimes as gallant soldiers, so soldiers often prove brave robbers; so near an alliance there is between those two sorts of life.

If they could not find a remedy to these evils, it is a vain thing to boast of the severity of such theft, which though it may have the appearance of justice, yet in itself is neither just, but rather, about convenient. For if they suffer their people to be ill educated and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then made them for these crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that we first made thieves and then provide for them?

We have heard of many things which we have not been able to consider well; but the matter is plain: it shows their ignorance of their affairs which had misled them, and will in the last place answer all their arguments. I must say, extreme justice is an extreme injury; for we ought not to approve of these terrible policy that made capital offence, that made such form of justice equal to crime, as if there is no difference to be made between the destruction of mankind and the taking of others purse, between which, if we examine things impartially, there is likeness of disproportion. God has commanded mankind to be just and fair, and shall they destroy others for the want of money? For God had given man the right of disposing justice and equality, either of their own or of other peoples’; if it is pretended that the mutual consent of man in making such laws can authorize injustice and inequality of which God has given us no such example, that it frees people from their obligation of the divine law, and so makes injustice and inequality a lawful action; what is this, but to give a preference to human laws before the divine? And if this is once admitted, by the same rule men may in all other things put what restrictions they please upon the laws of God? We cannot imagine that in this new law of mercy, in which God treats us with the tenderness of a father, He has given us a greater license to cruelty. This would not deliver them from all beggars, except to take care of them as friars. Who quarrel more than beggars? They had conquered, but found that the trouble of keeping it was equal to that by which it was gained. The zeal of thy house hath eaten them up! Plato judged rightly, that except rulers themselves became philosophers, they who from their childhood are corrupted with false notions, would never fall in entirely within the councils of philosophers.

It will either be said that equity lies of their sides, or some words in the law will be found sounding that way, or some forced sense will be put on others; and when all other things fail, their undoubted prerogative will be pretended, as that which is above all law, and to which a religious judge ought to have a special regard.

Discourse so much out of the road could not avail anything, nor have any effect on those men whose minds were prepossessed with different sentiments; for it was said, that there’s no room for philosophy in the Courts of the ministers; yet there is another philosophy that is more pliable, that knows its proper scene, accommodates itself of it, and teaches a man with propriety and decency to act that part which has fallen to his share. But when one comedies is upon the stage and a company of servants are acting their parts, it would be better for us not to say anything than by mixing things of such different natures to make an impertinent tragic-comedy; for except all leaders are good men everything cannot be right, and that is a blessing that we do not at present hope to see. All that we could be able to do would be to preserve ourselves from being mad while they endeavor to cure the madness of themselves. They had become more secure in their wickedness and this is all the success that we have, for they must always differ from the rest, and the others shall signify nothing, or if they are to agree, they shall then only help forward their own madness.

And therefore when such men are engaged in such a greed, that he will find no occasions of doing any good, the ill greed will sooner corrupt them, than be the better of them: or if notwithstanding all their ill character, a few still remains steady and innocent, yet their follies and knavery will be imputed to these few; and by mixing counsels with those, the few must bear their shares of all the blame that belongs wholly to the others.

Though to speak plainly my real sentiments, I must freely own, that as long as there is any such policies of 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; not happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these few are not in all respect happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable.

Therefore when I reflect on the wise and good constitution of the Utopians, among whom all things are so well governed, and with so few laws, where virtue hath its due reward, and yet there is such an equality, that every man lives in plenty; when I compare with them our nation that are still ,making new laws, notwithstanding every one has his property; yet all the laws that they can invent have not the power either to obtain or preserve it, or even to enable men certainly to distinguish what is their own from what is another’s.

When, I say, I balanced all these things in my thoughts, I grow more favorable to Plato, and do not wonder that he resolved not to make any laws for such as would not submit to a community of all things: for so wise a man could make a nation happy, which cannot be obtained so long as there is such unjust policies; for when every man draws to himself all that he can compass, by one title or another it must needs follow, that how plentiful so ever a nation may be, yet a few dividing the wealth of it among themselves, the rest must fall into indigence. So that there will be two sorts of people among them, who deserve that their fortunes should be interchanged: the former useless, but wicked and ravenous; and the latter, who by their constant industry serve the nation more than themselves, sincere and modest men,

From whence I am persuaded, that till this policy is taken away there can be no equitable or just distribution of things, nor can the nation be happily governed; for as long as that is maintained, the greatest and the far best part of mankind will be still oppressed with a load of cares and anxieties.

I confess without taking it quite away, those pressures that lie on a great part of them may be made lighter, but they can never be quite removed. For if laws were made to determine at how great an extent in soil, and at how much money every man must stop, to limit the ministers that they might not become too insolent, and that none might factiously aspire to public employment, that neither to be sold, nor make burdensome by a great expense; since otherwise those that serve in them would be tempted to reimburse themselves by cheats and corruptions, and it would become necessary to find out rich men for undergoing those employments which ought rather to be trusted to the wise.

These laws, I say, might have such effect, and care might have on a sick creed, whose recovery is desperate: they might allay and mitigate the disease, but it could never be quite healed, nor the body politic be brought again to a good habit, as long as such policy remains; and it will fall out as in a complication of diseases, that by applying a remedy to one sore, they will provoke another, and that which removes the one ill symptom produces others, while the strengthening one part of the body weakens the rest.

On the contrary, it seems to me that such men cannot live conveniently, where all things are common; how can there be any plenty, where every such man will excuse himself from labor?

For as the hope to gain doth not excite him, so the confidence that he has in other men’s industry may make him slothful: if people come to be pinched with want, and yet cannot dispose of anything as their own; what can follow upon this but perpetual sedition and bloodshed, especially when the reverence and authority due to magistrates falls to the ground?

For I cannot imagine how that we can kept up among those that are in all things equal to one another; I do wonder, that it appears so to them, since they have no notion, or at least no right one, of such a constitution.

And therefore Fabricius, a man of a noble and exalted temper, said, he would rather govern rich men, than be rich himself, since for one man bound in wealth and pleasure, when all about him are mourning and groaning, is to be a gaoler and not a king. He is an unskillful physician, that cannot sure one disease without casting his patient into another; so he that can find no other way for correcting the errors of his people, but by taking from them the conveniences of life, shows that he knows not what it is to govern a free nation. He himself ought rather to shake off his sloth, or to lay down his pride; for the contempt or hatred that his people have for him, takes its rise from the vices in himself. Let him live upon what belongs to him, without wronging others, and accommodate his expense to his revenue. Let him not rashly revive laws that are abrogated by disuse, especially if they have been long forgotten, and never wanted; and let him never take any penalty for the breach of them, to which a judge would not give way in a private man, but would look on him as a crafty and unjust person for pretending to it.

To these things I would add, that law among the Macarians, a people that lie not far from Utopia, by which their king, on the day on which he begins to reign, is tied by an oath confirmed by solemn sacrifices, never to have at once above a thousand pounds of gold in his treasures, or so much silver as is equal to that in value. This law, they tell us, was made by an excellent king, who had more regard to the riches of his country than to his own wealth; and therefore provided against the heaping up of so much treasure, as might impoverish the people. He thought that moderate sum might be sufficient for any accident; if either the king had occasion for it against rebel, or the kingdom against invasion of an enemy; but that it was not enough to encourage a princes of the soils to invade other men’s rights, a circumstance that was the chief cause of his making that law.

If I say, I should talk of these or such like things, to men that had taken their bias another way, how deaf would they be to all I could say? No doubt, very deaf; and no wonder, for one are never to offer at propositions or advice that we are certain will not be entertained. Discourses so much out of the road could not avail anything, nor have any effect on men whose minds were prepossessed with different sentiments.

For if a man was to see a creed run out every day into the rain, and take delight in being wet, if he knew that it would be to no purpose for him to go and persuade them to return to their houses, in order to avoid the storm, and that all that could be expected by his going to speak to them would be that he himself should be as wet as they, it would be best for him to keep within indoors; and since he had not influence enough to correct other people’s folly, to take care to preserve himself.

For as I have not that capacity, even so if I had it, the public would not be one jot the better, when I had sacrificed my quiet to it. For most ministers apply themselves more to affairs of war than to the useful arts of peace; and in these I neither have any knowledge, nor do I much desire it; they are generally more set on acquiring new kingdoms, right or wrong, than on governing well those they possess. And among the ministers, there are none that are not so wise as to need no assistance, or at least that do not think themselves so wise, that they imagine they need none; and if they court any, if is only those for whim the ministers have much personal favor, whom by their fawning and flatteries they endeavor to fix to their own interests; and indeed Nature has so made us, that we all love to be flattered, and to please ourselves with our own notions.


The Fable was adapted from the book ‘Utopia’ by Sir Thomas More, written in the year 1515-1516. Utopia was printed at Louvain, Belgium, towards the end of 1516 under the editorship, in part, of the classical scholar Erasmus. Sir Thomas More briefly reigned as Chancellor of England, and not too long after that lost his head for openly contesting King Henry VIII’s right to assume full authority over the English Church.


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Elmina Kenley said...
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