The Ever Present Hypocrisy and Dystopia Within More’s Utopia

Utopia, as presented by the character Raphael Nonsenso in Thomas More’s novel, is a place that considers itself home to the perfect society. The contradictions and imperfections inherent in any given society, then, would presumably be absent within this society. As the verbal sketch of Utopia is fleshed out, however, it becomes clear that Utopia is not truly perfect even though the Utopians and Nonsenso apparently believe that it is. One would imagine that an ideal society would be free of such injustices as religious persecution and any other form of discrimination or judgment, but Utopia is a place where all these non ideals not only exist, but thrive. No matter how sincere the intentions of the Utopians or their founder Utopos, sincerity only goes so far – the truth of the matter is that human beings are imperfect and therefore, their logic is inevitably flawed and hypocritical at times.

One of the great ironies of Utopia is that all the qualities that Utopians find disgusting or apprehensible in others clearly exist within themselves as well, just manifested in different ways. How disgusting can other society’s love for gold be, if Utopians place just as much value on another metal? Just because Utopians value iron instead of gold, this hardly makes them “right” and another society “wrong;” it simply demonstrates their own version of materialism. Though Utopians seem to feel that iron is somehow more practical than gold, they disprove their own alleged disdain for gold by making practical use of it as chains, chamber pots, and the like. Utopian society, however, is quick to recognize the value of gold once it becomes necessary to do so, like in the face of war.

Basically, they only appear to view gold as “a totally useless substance” (More 89), or as only good enough “for punishing slaves, humiliating criminals, or amusing small children” (88), all the while secretly holding gold in meticulously high esteem. Utopian leaders purposely make gold seem undesirable in order to ensure that when it becomes convenient to have gold, the population of Utopia will be willing to hand it over for their government’s use without being compensated in any way. Indeed, “if they suddenly had to part with all the gold and silver they possess – a fate which in any other country would be thought equivalent to having one’s guts torn out – nobody in Utopia would give two hoots” (87). These feelings are the direct and desired result of the leaders “do[ing] everything they can to bring these metals into contempt.”

It seems then that ignorance is the tool that Utopia wields against its own. If most Utopians don’t know any differently, then gold will be completely worthless to them. In a truly ideal society, individuals would be presented with all the knowledge in the world so that they could make their own decisions accordingly. When there seems to be no active decision made on the part of the people, when they just mindlessly engage in learned behaviors, it is then not so much an ideal society as a brainwashed one.

Even Nonsenso, in describing Utopia’s use of gold and silver, says that “if they locked these metals up in a strong-room, the man in the street might get some silly idea in his head – you know what a talent he has for that kind of thing” (86). Yes, perhaps if the man in Utopia’s street did realize what gold and silver were worth, he might not want to part with them as readily as he would otherwise, thinking them worthless – but how much more impressive would it be if this same man parted with his gold knowing its full worth, for the greater good of his society? Only when a person makes a real sacrifice can this be deemed as worthy of comparison with other societies, let alone as an ideal society. As Utopia’s policy regarding gold and silver reveals, the flaw of human greed is as ever-present in Utopia as it is in humankind.

The greed central to Utopia is apparent not only in association with money, but also with intangible things like their feelings about morality and consequently, religion. A lot of this greed is self-evident in statements such as: “according to [Utopians] human happiness consists largely or wholly in pleasure” (91). The Utopians back up this belief with simple, circular logic like “every soul. . . was created by a kind God, Who meant it to be happy” (91). Besides the fact that there is no proof that God even exists, it seems foolish to assume that because God is kind, He must want everyone to be happy. Nonsenso describes these beliefs as “self-indulgent” but that is a mild rebuke at best for people who twist religion into a justification for the pursuit of their own pleasure.

Furthermore, the Utopians elaborate that “if you receive no compensation after death” (91) there would be no point in “struggling to be virtuous, denying yourself the pleasant things of life, and deliberately making yourself uncomfortable.” This reveals the full extent of their greed, for admittedly, the only motivation they have to be morally and ethically responsible is the promise of a reward in the afterlife. Again, Utopia fails to hold true to its ideal reputation. Maybe there is a sort of shrewd honesty within the argument that “in the final analysis, pleasure is the ultimate happiness which all human beings have in view, even when they’re acting most virtuously” (93), but more than anything, it confirms the notion that greed and selfishness are inescapable elements of the human experience.

Another flaw that shows up consistently within Utopia is the tendency to pass judgment on others. Not only are outsiders wearing jewelry regarded as everything from great babies to clowns (88), but beggars obviously “pretend to be ill as an excuse for being lazy” (77) and the mentally ill among them are regarded as “a source of entertainment, which is the only thing they’re good for” (105). Even the sick, if their diseases prove incurable, are judged as “a nuisance to other people and a burden to [themselves]. . . so why go on feeding germs” (102). It seems that Utopians are quick to label people as fakers, fools, and leeches on society, which hardly seems admirable, ideal, or even acceptable. Clearly Utopians would prefer to reach perfection through the elimination of anyone who doesn’t fit specifically into their definition of ideal, rather than through the acceptance of every living person as part of the greater ideal.

Though Utopia claims to be accepting of all religions and its founder made a law specifically to allow everyone freedom “to practice what religion he liked, and to try and convert people to his own faith, provided he did it quietly and politely, by rational argument” (119), Utopians are apparently not free to choose no religion. Utopos “strictly and solemnly forbade his people to believe anything so incompatible with human dignity as the doctrine that the soul dies with the body, and the universe functions aimlessly, without any controlling providence” (120). This lack of belief is not just forbidden, but will also cause the non-believer to “forfeit his right to be classed as a human being, by degrading his soul to the level of an animal’s body.” The non-believer will also cease to be regarded as a Utopian citizen and instead regarded as “utterly contemptible.”

The logic incorporated in an attempt to justify this viewpoint is simply that “if you’re not afraid of anything but prosecution, and have no hopes of anything after you’re dead, you’ll always be trying to evade or break the laws of your country, in order to gain your own private ends.” This is interesting on several levels, initially because it draws more attention to how greed clouds Utopian minds into believing that the only reasonable motivation for anything is the desire for personal gain, while secondarily managing to illustrate Utopia’s ultimate hypocrisy.

Earlier, the justification for Utopian’s pleasure principle beliefs stated that the only motivating reason for anyone to engage in any activity was in hopes of being rewarded. Yet when this same principle is applied to a person that lacks religion, somehow everything changes, and it becomes morally wrong to want to gain something of pleasure for themselves. However, this is only applicable if it is presumed that someone who lacks religion would also lack any sort of moral or ethical code of self governing – but because that is quite a ridiculous assumption to make, particularly since one can’t presume to make generalizations about an entire group of people and expect them to be correct, it stands as further evidence of excessive Utopian judgment and the hypocrisy latent within these judgments.

In the same breath that Nonsenso uses to describe the contempt that is felt towards non-believers, he claims that “they’re not punished in any way, though. . . nor are they terrorized into concealing their views, because Utopians simply can’t stand hypocrisy” (120). Apparently, then, it is not considered punishment to feel contempt and disgust for someone based on something as arbitrary as what religion they reject, nor is it considered punishment to think of a person as an animal based on the same simple thing, nor would anyone feel that concealing their lack of belief would be necessary in order to avoid the loss of their Utopian citizenship and association with the human race.

Also emphasizing the hypocrisy within Utopia, though on a more subtle scale, is the eery feeling of an absence of choice that hangs over the landscape of the novel. Throughout, there are repeated, though brief allusions to this lack of personal freedom. When the job selection process is described, for instance, the reader learns that Utopians can only learn a second trade after they have mastered the first, and “when [they’re] expert[s] in both, [they] can practice whichever [they] prefer, unless the other one is more essential to the public” (emphasis mine 75). The initial instinct is to disregard this as not incredibly significant, until the limited freedom is emphasized again right away when, aside from their six hour work days, Utopians are described as “free to do what they like – not to waste their time in idleness or self-indulgence, but to make good use of it in some congenial activity” (76). This reveals that Utopians are free to do as they wish, as long as it’s not a waste of time that everyone disapproves of.

Nonsenso cunningly adds that “there’s nothing to stop you from spending this extra time on your trade, if you want to;” in other words, if Utopians spend their so called free time hard at work, no one will question their dedication to Utopia due to their obvious productivity. Later, just in case this underlying theme of restricted freedom hasn’t been stated explicitly enough, Nonsenso elaborates “wherever you are, you always have to work. There’s never any excuse for idleness. . . everyone has his eye on you, so you’re practically forced to get on with your job, and make some proper use of your spare time” (84). Here the paradoxical idea of “proper use” for “spare time” emphasizes the hypocrisy of such an idea, while each passage grows progressively more blatant to reveal the absurdity of a society which pretends to be something – free, ideal, participated in by choice – that it clearly is not and can not be.

Another example of the hypocritical nature of the Utopians is apparent in the manner that they judge non-Utopians based on their outward appearances. Because it is clear that Utopians judge fellow Utopians based on how they look – indeed, their clothes “vary slightly according to sex and marital status” (75) – this alone is not so surprising. The real hypocrisy lies in the fact that Utopians “fail to understand. . . how anyone can be silly enough to think himself better than other people, because his clothes are made of finer woolen thread than theirs. After all, those fine clothes were once worn by a sheep, and they never turned it into anything better than a sheep” (89).

It seems that the Utopians are annoyed that other people think so highly of themselves based on their fancy clothing, but conversely, Utopians think just as highly of themselves based on their plain clothing. Like a sheep is just a sheep and can not be anything else no matter what, a human is just a human, regardless of the clothes they wear or the society they belong to. In this sense, Utopians can not escape the inevitable contradictions, hypocrisies, and imperfections of human life.

Not only can Utopia never exist because it is a flawed concept from the very beginning due to the always imperfect state of humanity, but even the name Utopia suggests this same dischord through its double meaning of “ideal place” and “no place.” Indeed, Utopia reveals its own hypocrisy through its contradictory name. Though it would be beautiful to believe in a Utopian dream, the truth of the matter is that upon closer examination, any society that seemed ideal would crumble into mediocrity.

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