26 June, 2022


Part IV: Thomas More & His Critique Of Emerging Capitalism

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

If Thomas More was writing his Utopia today, he would have talked about not an Island but a Planet. Raphael (the angel) or Hithloday (the speaker of nonsense) would have come not after travelling in Asia, but outer space. More would have prefaced the description of that socialist or egalitarian Planet, after discoursing the ills of the present-day capitalist world in Book 1.

It is not difficult to imagine the topics he would have touched on.

The extreme poverty in Africa and other ‘third world’ countries with walking skeletons; global warming and the melting of north pole due to emissions of greenhouse gas; internecine wars in the Middle East and other parts of the world (largely promoted by the ‘globalists’), would have been some of the issues. Hithloday would be puzzled about the triumph of Trump in the super country, and Al Assad or Kim Jong-un emerging as the saviors of sovereign states. Hithloday or More himself would consult Pope Francis, or possibly Dalai Lama, in their dialogues in finding solutions.

Thomas More would undoubtedly peep into the old utopia’s dream island, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and found that it has largely become a Dystopia!

Thomas More

Thomas More

However, here we are celebrating the five hundred years of Thomas More’s old ‘Utopia’ (December 1516) and publish in that respect the chapters of ‘Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka)’ by Laksiri Fernando (CreateSpace, 2014) every Sunday until the book ends, courtesy of Colombo Telegraph and Sri Lanka Guardian. This will allow the students and others who wish to leisurely read it, free access to the book at any time. The publication link to the original for those who wish to obtain a printed copy is https://www.createspace.com/4688110

What is published today is Chapter 2 of the book titled ‘General Philosophy of Utopia.’ We can see how far we can get inspirations from Thomas More for today’s world. This is Part IV of the series as we have already published Chapter 1 in addition to the Preface and the Introduction.


 “We shall change the nature of man and the nature of things together; we should make the whole race wise, tolerant, noble and perfect.” – H G Wells[1]

TO KNOW that most probably Ceylon was Thomas More’s ‘dream island’ in mind, when he wrote his Utopia in December 1516, should undoubtedly be an inspiration for the socialist minded people in Sri Lanka both in the South and in the North. Socialism (added with liberalism) perhaps in its broadest sense of the term might be the viable philosophy that can unite the people in the country, transcending their ethno-nationalist divisions. But the primary objective of socialism is much broader to eradicate poverty and to establish social equality between men and women and all strata of society including ethnic communities. If that is achieved, then hopefully most of the other problems might be resolved.

Mores’ Utopia did not refer to the ethnic or racial issues, but Modern Utopia by H. G. Wells did so in an admirable manner. Without More’s Utopia, however, the Modern Utopia by Wells does not make much sense. As we all know by now, Utopia was written as a fiction with dialogues. Therefore, this chapter also tries to keep that character intact as much as possible.

Thomas More was sent to Flanders as one of the emissaries or envoys by Henry VIII, the King of England, “for treating and composing matters between them.” This is a fact and no fiction. When he was in Antwerp he meets this “one that was more acceptable to [him] than any other, Peter Giles, born at Antwerp, who is a man of great honor, and of a good rank in his town.” He is also “both a very worthy and a very knowing person, so he is so civil to all men.”

The Dialogue

“One day as [More] was returning home from mass at St. Mary’s, which is the chief church, and the most frequented of any in Antwerp, [he] saw him [Peter] by accident talking with a stranger.” That was Raphael Hythloday who has apparently come to Ceylon after voyaging in the Philippines and some other countries in Asia. This is how More wrote about the meeting: “As soon as Peter saw me, he came and saluted me; and as I was returning his civility, he took me aside, and pointing to him with whom he had been discoursing, he said: ‘Do you see that man? I was just thinking to bring him to you.”

“I answered, ‘He should have been very welcome on your account.”

“And on his own too,’ replied he, ‘if you knew the man, for there is none alive that can give so copious an account of unknown nations and countries as he can do; which I know you very much desire.”

“Then said I, ‘I did not guess amiss, for at first sight I took him for a seaman.”

“But you are much mistaken,’ said he, ‘for he has not sailed as a seaman, but as a traveller, or rather a philosopher.”

It is this ‘traveller philosopher’ and that is Raphael who describes the socialist dream of Utopia and that is mainly in Book II. But Book I is a discourse between Thomas, Peter and Raphael on several matters which gives the general philosophy of Thomas More’s Utopia which is the theme of this chapter. I have opted to use their first names. The discourse takes place at More’s temporary residence in Antwerp before dinner.

Prudence of Advising Politicians?

The first matter that becomes under discussion between Thomas, Peter and Raphael is the ‘prudence’ of becoming an advisor to a ruler which had been a common theme in political discourse since Plato and Aristotle until today. “After Raphael had discoursed with great judgment on the many errors that were both among us and those nations … through which he had passed, as if he had spent his whole life in it, Peter, being struck with admiration, said:

“I wonder, Raphael, how it comes that you enter into no King’s service, for I am sure there are none to whom you would not be very acceptable.”

Then he added saying “for your learning and knowledge both of men and things, are such that you would not only entertain them very pleasantly, but be of great use to them, by the examples you could set before them and the advices you could give them; and by this means you would both serve your own interest and be of great use to all your friends.”

The following was the answer given by Raphael as related by More.

“As for my friends,’ answered Raphael, ‘I need not be much concerned, having already done for them all that was incumbent on me; for when I was not only in good health, but fresh and young, I distributed that among my kindred and friends which other people do not part with till they are old and sick, when they then unwillingly give that which they can enjoy no longer themselves.”

Then he said: “I think my friends ought to rest contented with this, and not to expect that for their sake I should enslave myself to any King whatsoever.”

This discourse can be explained as ‘intellectual freedom’ because that is what is relevant under the present circumstances in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. When intellectual freedom is usually discussed, what is emphasised is the restrictions that come from the State or the government but hardly the aspects of ‘slaving’ oneself to any politician are discoursed.

But what we can see in many places is slaving (intellectuals) themselves to politicians quite blindly and often getting into trouble on that account. This of course cannot be helped if one is completely committed to the cause of that politician. What is emphasised in Utopia is at least the philosophical independence and distance. But what is finally admired is complete independence. Even on the suggestion that Peter didn’t mean to be “a slave to any King, but should assist and be useful to them,” Raphael replied ‘no’ and added:

“Now I live as I will, to which I believe few courtiers can pretend.”

Then the discussion leads to more of philosophical angles of advising the politicians referring to Plato. More intervenes at this stage and says, “For your friend Plato thinks that nations will be happy, when either philosophers become Kings or Kings become philosophers, it is no wonder if we are so far from that happiness, while philosophers will not think it their duty to assist Kings with their councils.”

“They are not so base-minded,” said Raphael, “They would willingly do it: many of them have already done it by their books, if those that are in power would but hearken to their good advice.” Then he continued saying,

“But Plato judged right, that except Kings themselves became philosophers, they who from their childhood are corrupted with false notions would never fall in entirely with the councils of philosophers.”

Raphael gives several examples in detail to show that counselling Kings might not work, it will not work at least under the present circumstances. “There is no room for philosophy in the courts of Princes.” The reason being the “affairs are carried on by authority.” It is possible that More’s misgivings about the rulers were influenced by what his father had to undergo under Henry VII. His father was victimised due to his views and actions. Although More undertook a diplomatic mission to Flanders in 1515 he was keeping himself independent of the royalty during the period when he was writing Utopia. The situation changed later under personal circumstances which in fact cost his own life by being too close and then falling out with the King Henry VIII. He was beheaded in 1535.

There are many useful analyses of the nature of politicians in general whether they are Princes or their Ministers. Most Princes according to Raphael “apply themselves more to affairs of war than to the useful arts of peace.” This is very pertinent to the present-day Sri Lanka and many other countries as well.[2] Then it was asked whether there is any point in advising the Ministers. The answer given was characteristically sarcastic. Of course, “there are none that are not so wise as to need no assistance.”

They at least “do not think themselves so wise.” However, “if they court any, it is only those for whom the Prince has much personal favour” and then themselves have some favour. There is a particular type that they favour: “who by their fawning and flattery they endeavour to fix to their own interests” and the interests of the Ministers. He further explained by saying that “we all love to be flattered, and to please ourselves with our own notions.” He emphasised another aspect of this degeneration and that is the family. He added saying that “the old crow loves his young and the ape her cubs.”

“Now if in such a court, made up of persons who envy all others, and only admire themselves, a person should but propose anything that he had either read in history or observed in his travels, the rest would think that the reputation of their wisdom would sink, and that their interest would be much depressed, if they could not run it down.”

He also added that “if all other things failed, then they would fly to this, that such or such things pleased our ancestors and it were well for us if we could but match them.” What does it mean is that in most countries these scoundrels take the last refuge in patriotism and argue that all should fit into the past and nothing should be taken from abroad.

Discourse on Justice

Utopia is normally considered a socio-economic discourse, but there is a strong political discourse in addition to what is said about advising rulers as discussed before. Political repression was resisted and tyranny condemned. Referring to the Cornish rebellion in England in 1497, Raphael relates that he was there in England and had occasion to discoursing matters of importance with the reverend prelate, John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The suppression of the rebellion is also condemned as “a great slaughter of the poor people that were engaged in it.”

The general philosophy of Utopia also incorporates discourses on justice. This is where More’s humanist philosophy was expressed through the words of Raphael. What was criticised very strongly was the view that crime can be eradicated through punishments alone. The logical extension of the prevailing view was that the punishments should be severe; and severe the punishment the eradication might be fast.

“One day when I [Raphael] was dining with him [the Archbishop] there happened to be at table one of the English lawyers.” He “took occasion to run out in a high commendation of the severe execution of justice upon thieves.” He then said they were “hanged so fast that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet.” “Upon that he said he could not wonder enough how it came to pass, that since so few escaped, there were yet so many thieves left who were still robbing in all places.”

Then Raphael says “not only you in England, but a great part of the world imitates some ill masters that are readier to chastise their students than to teach them.” The reason for this discourse was the conditions in England and Europe at that time where the increasing crime was a menace as a result of social and economic dislocation. What was advocated was a prescription of ‘socialism’ to arrest increasing crime, based on employment and economic opportunities as follows.

“There are dreadful punishments enacted against thieves, but it were much better to make such good provisions by which every man might be put in a method how to live, and so be preserved from the fatal necessity of stealing and of dying for it.”

The philosophy of More, even relevant today, was that ‘if every man might be put in a method of how to live’ then they might be free from the ‘fatal necessity of stealing and of dying for it.’[3] It was on the same vein, that the capital punishment for theft of that time was strongly condemned. When he said that “every man might be put in a method how to live” he was talking about socialism. The term ‘socialism’ was not used but it is what it meant. When the lawyer argued referring to handicraftsmen that “they may make a shift to live unless they have a greater mind to follow ill courses,” Raphael retorted as follows: “There is a great number of noblemen among you, that are themselves as idle as drones, that subsist on other men’s labour, on the labour of their tenants, whom, to raise their revenues, they pare to the quick.”

The above was a critique of emerging capitalism or remaining feudalism in England. After referring to several other ailments creating stealing or theft, the discourse evolved more closely to several of the economic policies of England of that time. On the question of justice, Raphael expressed the opinion that perhaps England should learn from ‘Polylerits’ in Persia than the Romans where the thieves were compelled to compensate the owners apart from compelling them to do some form of community service.[4] Persia is another country that is praised in the course of the Utopian discourse.

“Those that are found guilty of theft among them are bound to make restitution to the owner, and not as it is in other places, to the prince, for they reckon that the prince has no more right to the stolen goods than the thief.”

Community service as a punishment for certain offenses is implemented in many countries as part of their criminal justice system today. Thomas More can be considered one of the pioneers of this idea in the West although some aspects of this device seemed to be in operation in several Asian countries even during the ancient period. In ancient Ceylon, Rajakariya or ‘royal service’ was considered also as a form of punishment but it is too farfetched to argue that More took even this idea from Ceylon. It could have been his own idea based on his religious and legal background.

His argument that when fines are imposed for stealing then the proceeds should go to the victims than to the State was also novel. In explaining the practice in ‘Polylerits’ Raphael said “But if that which was stolen is no more in being, then the goods of the thieves are estimated, and restitution being made out of them, the remainder is given to their wives and children: and they themselves are condemned to serve in the public works, but are neither imprisoned, nor chained, unless there happened to be some extraordinary circumstances in their crimes.”

Critique of Emerging Capitalism

The neglect of agriculture is identified as the main ill of emerging capitalism. “The increase of pasture, by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men, and unpeople,” Raphael had said. “They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them.” Although not directly said, the urge for colonies as supply sources of agricultural material, as a consequence, also was admitted in this discourse. This aspect of More’s opinion also appears in Book II when the practices of the Utopians are described.

The enclosure movement was strongly criticised during the dialogues between More, Raphael and Peter. It “resolves to enclose many thousand acres of ground, the owners as well as tenants are turned out of their possessions, by tricks, or by force.” Then they become poor and then they steal. “The price of wool is also so raised that the poor people who were wont to make cloth are no more able to buy it; and this likewise makes many of them idle.”

The cunning of capitalism is also criticised. “The rich do not breed cattle as they do sheep, but buy them lean, and at low prices; and after they have fattened them on their grounds sell them again at high rates.”

Thomas More’s Utopia is basically a humanist discourse. Here the meaning of ‘humanism’ should be understood not in its pedagogical sense but in its general meaning to mean ‘on the side of human existence, values and suffering and/or in sympathy with the poor, destitute and the vulnerable.’[5] It is from this point of view of humanism that More depicted the conditions of poor in England of that time. There are repeated sections of the discourse where ‘misery of the poor is lamented upon’ and the avarice of the rich is criticised and castigated. The following two paragraphs are some examples.

“Those miserable people, both men and women, married and unmarried, old and young, with their poor but numerous families (since country business requires many hands), are all forced to change their seats, not knowing whither to go; and they must sell almost for nothing their household stuff, which could not bring them much money, even though they might stay for a buyer.

When that little money is at an end, for it will be soon spent, what is left for them to do, but either to steal and so to be hanged (God knows how justly), or to go about and beg? And if they do this, they are put in prison as idle vagabonds; while they would willingly work, but can find none that will hire them; for there are no more occasions for country labour, to which they have been bred, when there is no arable ground left. One shepherd can look after a flock which will stock an extent of ground that would require many hands if it were to be ploughed and reaped. This likewise in many places raises the price of corn.”

Not only the system is criticised, but there are constructive proposals to solve the existing problems. See the following arguments.

“Let agriculture be set up again, and the manufacture of the wool be regulated, that so there may be work found for those companies of idle people whom want forces to be thieves, or who, now being idle vagabonds or useless servants, will certainly grow thieves at last.

If you do not find a remedy to these evils, it is a vain thing to boast of your severity in punishing theft, which though it may have the appearance of justice, yet in itself is neither just nor convenient.

For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them?”

The emphasis on agriculture as a remedy to poverty and unemployment is emphasized in unequal terms throughout More’s discourse. If agriculture is set up again, he argues that people who are forced to be thieves or vagabonds might be eradicated which is equally correct for many countries in the poor world today. More prefers industry to be regulated or otherwise agriculture will be harmed or people will be thrown out of land. It should be kept in mind that this was the period of early capitalism and what he opposes most is the wool industry. His criticism centres particularly on the issues of justice and the prevailing severe punishments for particularly theft.

The other element that he brings into the discourse is education. If people are ill-educated and manners are corrupted, as a result, what more one can expect in any society? It is like first you make them to become thieves and then punish them severely for becoming so.

Against Private Property?

One of the central problems that they (More, Raphael and Peter) diagnose in the prevailing economic system is private property which excludes certain sections from gainful employment and exploits the remaining for the luxury and idleness of the few. This discourse is repeated even in Book II when the Utopian system is explained. The parasitic nature of the prevailing system is explained as follows.

“First, women generally do little, who are the half of mankind; and if some few women are diligent, their husbands are idle: then consider the great company of idle priests, and of those that are called religious men; add to these all rich men, chiefly those that have estates in land, who are called noblemen and gentlemen, together with their families, made up of idle persons, that are kept more for show than use; add to these, all those strong and lusty beggars, that go about pretending some disease, in excuse for their begging; and upon the whole account you will find that the number of those by whose labors mankind is supplied, is much less than you perhaps imagined.”

It should be noted that More’s view was not against women. He was criticizing the family institution which confines women into the kitchen or the household work alone. More was a strong advocate of women’s education quite unusual for that time.

In More’s view, even among those who were employed at that time, only few were gainfully employed in labors that were of real service. As the society measures everything in money terms that “give rise to many trades that are both vain and superfluous” and supports only ‘riot and luxury.’ Then they (More, Raphael and Peter) argue that “if those who work were employed only in such things as the conveniences of life require, there would be such an abundance of them that the prices of them would so sink” and reasonable to those who have low incomes.

This is undoubtedly a fundamental socialist argument.[6] In other words, the unnecessary production is blamed as an ailment of capitalism. If the society and its production are reordered in order that everyone works and employed in only useful production then “you may easily imagine that a small proportion of time would serve for doing all that is either necessary, profitable, or pleasant to mankind, especially while pleasure is kept within its due bounds.” More’s critique of capitalism was not only economic but also ethical. He strongly thought that ‘pleasure should be kept within its due bounds.’

Main Thesis

The main argument of Book I of Utopia is against private property and this continues in Book II. This is something taken very much from Plato’s Republic and also from the religious thinking of that time until the advent of Reformation. Reformation or Protestantism both directly and indirectly advocated capitalism. On this and other theological matters, More opted to oppose Reformation. After saying that this is what “Plato has contrived in his commonwealth” and “the Utopians practise in theirs,” Raphael said it very plainly as follows.

“Though to speak plainly my real sentiments, I must freely own 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.”

After reflecting “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” and compared “with them so many other nations that are still making new laws, and yet can never bring their constitution to a right regulation, where notwithstanding everyone has his property,” Raphael further said the following.

“From whence I am persuaded, that till property is taken away there can be no equitable or just distribution of things, nor can the world 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.”

While there is some ‘extremism’ in the above argument, which is common to all socialist thinkers; there is also fundamental truth in it because since then the world has not been able to eradicate poverty in the midst of enormous riches in few hands.

What is correct and what is wrong in the thesis of Utopia are still controversial matters. Some of the above concerns were expressed by Thomas More himself in the ensuing dialogue with Raphael. “On the contrary,” as he said “it seems to me that men cannot live conveniently where all things are common.” “How can there be any plenty, where every man will excuse himself from labour?” He further questioned. The following was the answer given by Raphael.

“I do not wonder,” he said. “that it appears so to you, since you have no notion, or at least no right one, of such a constitution: but if you had been in Utopia with me, and had seen their laws and rules, as I did, for the space of five years, in which I lived among them; and during which time I was so delighted with them.” He also added that “Indeed I should never have left them if it had not been to make the discovery of that new world to the Europeans; you would then confess that you had never seen a people so well constituted as they.”

Upon this More appealed: “I earnestly beg you would describe that island very particularly to us. Be not too short, but set out in order all things relating to their soil, their rivers, their towns, their people, their manners, constitution, laws, and, in a word, all that you imagine we desire to know. And you may well imagine that we desire to know everything concerning them, of which we are hitherto ignorant.’

‘I will do it very willingly,’ said Raphael, ‘for I have digested the whole matter carefully; but it will take up some time.’

‘Let us go then,’ said More, ‘first and dine, and then we shall have leisure enough.”

The following thus is the last paragraph of Book I which is the prelude to Book II or the Utopia proper.

“He consented. We went in and dined, and after dinner came back and sat down in the same place. I ordered my servants to take care that none might come and interrupt us. And both Peter and I desired Raphael to be as good as his word. When he saw that we were very intent upon it, he paused a little to recollect himself, and began in this manner.”

 End Notes

[1] H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia, Chapman and Hall, London, 1905, p. 2.

[2] It should be kept in mind that this was written in 2013/2014.

[3] What was neglected in this discourse was the fact that some people steel, particularly today, to amass wealth. Some others do steeling by habit. Then it is a case of making means for everyone to live contentedly and creating discipline and rule of law to check the others.

[4] ‘Polylerits’ was not part of Persia, More only invented the imaginary place to drive his point. He did mention Persia.

[5] The present author does not deny the value of assessing More’s works in its pedagogical meaning of humanism as many others have done. However, what is important in assessing Utopia is to utilize its general meaning; humanism as an intellectual orientation in understanding and seeking to improve human condition.

[6] Marx developed his notion “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” in his ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ (1875) through a similar principle.

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    Dr. Laksiri Fernando

    RE: Part IV: Thomas More & His Critique Of Emerging Capitalism

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