In Book II of Utopia, we learn that the principal foundation of Utopian law and policy, as in Plato’s ideal republic and some monastic systems, is the abolition of all private property. In other words, the citizens of Utopia own nothing individually but share the resources of their nation collectively, from land to housing to bread and wine. (The Utopians are so committed to this that, to give a more radical example, the doors to their houses are never locked or bolted, so that any citizen can, when they please, freely enter any other citizen’s house.) Without private property, Hythloday says, people don’t cultivate their pride so much as their nation, which becomes like a great and thriving household.
Hythloday gives several reasons as to why there is no private property in Utopia. For one thing, he says, in nations founded on property and money—like feudal England, where wealthy landlords profited from peasants’ work—it tends to be the case that wealth unjustly falls into the hands of the most useless, wicked, and greedy people. Only these few divide up the wealth among themselves while the rest of the citizens are afflicted by “the heavy and inevitable burden of poverty and wretchedness.” In contrast, the equality established in Utopia enables every man, woman, and child to live in plenty. By the same token, everyone in Utopia who is fit to work must earn their keep through labor. Second, “where nothing is private,” Hythloday claims, “the common affairs be earnestly looked upon.”
One earnestly looks upon the common affairs by rolling up one’s sleeves and diligently getting to work, and for no less than six hours a day. There are no idle serving men here, no idle women, no idle priests, no idle landowners, and no idle able-bodied beggars. For one thing, everyone in Utopia is educated in the theory and practice of farming, and all citizens are required to relocate to the country at some point in their lives to work the farms for a period of two years. Such a policy makes it so that Utopians never lack agricultural knowledge, which is especially important in the event of a food shortage, and many hands also make light work. In addition, every Utopian learns his or her own proper craft: clothworking, masonry, metalworking, or carpentry. To keep people diligently at their tasks is almost the only office of the Utopian magistrates known as Syphogrants or Philarchs, who are chosen by the people they live among. But not even these magistrates live idly: though exempt from labor by law, they labor anyway so that “their example [may] provoke others to work.”
There are two principal social statuses in Utopia that affect the conditions of one’s work. A person is either 1) a freeman, including the average Utopian and members of the magistracy or priesthood; or 2) a bondman, or slave, who works more than freemen and at harder work. Slavery in Utopia is a punishment for those Utopians who have committed “heinous offenses.” The nation also pays cities in other lands for their criminals, but only those already condemned to death, who are then brought back to Utopia to labor in bondage. We might be scandalized that slavery should exist in Utopia, but the institution is part and parcel of the Utopians’ program of eliminating idleness and waste: instead of hanging a thief, as England would, why not force him to contribute to the public good? Or so runs Hythloday’s argument. In Utopia, where universal labor and communal property are seen as crucial aspects of happiness, slavery is simply the practical answer to human error. Of course, this fact then only adds to the ambiguities of just how much of a “utopia” Utopia really is.
Property, Labor, and Utopian Society ThemeTracker
Property, Labor, and Utopian Society Quotes in Utopia
Every house hath two doors… These doors be made with two leaves never locked nor bolted, so easy to be opened, that they will follow the least drawing of a finger, and shut again alone. Whoso will may go in, for there is nothing within the houses that is private or any man’s own.
They set great store by their gardens. In them they have vineyards, all manner of fruit, herbs, and flowers, so pleasant, so well furnished, and so finely kept, that I never saw thing more fruitful nor better trimmed in any place.
Husbandry is a science common to them all [the Utopians] in general, both men and women, where they be all expert and cunning. In this they be all instructed even from their youth, partly in their schools with traditions and precepts, and partly in the country nigh the city, brought up, as it were in playing, not only beholding the use of it, but by occasion of exercising their bodies practising it also.
Gold and silver, whereof money is made, they [the Utopians] do so use as none of them doth more esteem it than the very nature of the thing deserveth. And then who doth not plainly see how far it is under iron, as without the which men can no better live than without fire and water?
They [the Utopians] marvel also that gold, which of its own nature is a thing so unprofitable, is now among all people in so high estimation, that man himself, by whom, yea, and for the use of whom, it is so much set by, is in much less estimation than the gold itself.
When I consider and weigh in my mind all these commonwealths which nowadays anywhere do flourish, so God help me, I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of commonwealth.