As has been said, Hythloday continues, every group of thirty families or farms in Utopia annually elects an officer to represent them; this officer or magistrate is called a Philarch (formerly known as a Syphogrant, perhaps from the Greek meaning “wise old ruler of the pigsty”). In turn, every ten Philarchs is under a magistrate called the Archphilarch (formerly known as the Tranibore).
Unlike monarchs and magistrates in More’s Europe, the magistrates in Utopia are elected by the people, for the people. This is a democratic institutionalization of the Utopian ideals of equality and civic virtue. In a notable contrast, leaders in Plato’s Republic are not elected by the people.
Concerning the election of the chief magistrate of the city (whom we’ll call the Prince, even though he is not a monarch), all the Philarchs, who number 200, first swear to choose the best candidate; then they secretly vote for one of the four candidates whose names are put forward by the people in each quarter of the city, one name per quarter. The Prince governs for a lifetime unless he is deposed on suspicion of tyranny. (We later learn that the Utopians also call the Prince “Barzanes,” of unknown derivation, and “Ademus,” from the Greek meaning “without people”). The Archphilarchs are chosen annually, but are rarely changed out. All other magistrates serve terms of one year.
Although swearing to choose the best candidate may seem like a mere formality, it is part of the Utopians’ commitment to advancing the commonwealth’s interests over their own individual interests. No prejudice or nepotism or personal enmity should have a place in electing government officials. That the Archphilarchs are rarely changed out suggests how consistently Utopia produces learned people of excellence, and how happy the people are with their representatives.
Every three days the Archphilarchs meet with the Prince to discuss the state of the commonwealth, including any problems among the people, though these seldom arise. The Archphilarchs bring with them two Philarchs, a new couple every day. Nothing can be confirmed and ratified in the commonwealth unless it has been debated for three days in the council. Magistrates who hold consultations about the commonwealth outside of the council or the place of the common election are sentenced to death. This prevents magistrates from conspiring together to bring about tyranny.
The Utopians’ policies concerning their magistrates are designed to distribute information, influence, and experience equally among the Philarchs, as well as to ensure that the people’s voice is heard throughout the decision-making process. We might think that the death penalty is disproportionate to the crime of merely consulting about the commonwealth privately, but this also shows just how vital transparency and equality are to the Utopians.
Matters of great importance must be disclosed to the Philarchs, who then consult with their families. Sometimes such matters are brought before the council of the whole island. Another custom of the council is to not debate a matter on the day it is proposed, but to wait till the next meeting. This prevents magistrates from developing rash prejudices, and gives them time to think before speaking.
The Utopians are supremely democratic: decision-makers must meet with the public concerning important matters (this is not even the case in a democracy like the United States). However, we might wonder if decisions can be made in a timely fashion within such a system, and it’s hard to imagine it working in a nation of any great size.