Critics often condemn utopian thinking as deluded or disconnected from the “real world.” In defending the utopian approach to social solutions, provide arguments which show that the utopian faith in human reason is not incompatible with human nature.

This essay received a mark of 75
Please read the tutor’s assessment of why it deserved the mark: “An incredibly strong and well researched essay. You have marshalled the evidence with considerable skill to produce to produce eloquent and well considered piece of work.
This essay contained a strong central argument around the need for laws in utopia because they are good rather than perfect societies. The structure of essay ensures this point is never lost and every sentence is connected to assessing the validity of this hypothesis. I was particularly pleased that you used the standard definition of utopia as a means to expose the dilemma of all utopian writings, in that they remain imbedded within their culture and society, thus imagining a perfect society is not possible. By stressing the importance of context, especially around More, you demonstrate how what may appear to be primitive forms of punishment were actually quite sophisticated at that time. This of course enables us to see utopian writing as incipient forms of proto-socialism prior to the historical materialism of Marx. As such Owen’s utopian proposals around general education could be more practically significant than Marx’s economic model.
The essay is very well-written and you have a nice writing style in which you can express complex arguments in straightforward language.
Overall a very good piece of work. Well Done!”
Q: If a utopia is supposed to be a perfect place, why do utopian places always include laws?
Whenever the word ‘utopia’ is encountered, whatever the context, the image of a perfect society springs to mind. Within this perfect society, all forms of human vice and social disorder have been eliminated leaving nothing but positivity, stability and wellbeing for every citizen regardless of their character. We may therefore find ourselves labelling this a ‘perfect society’, free from structural dysfunction and the many imperfections of the past. However, if we consider the etymology of ‘utopia’, and, more importantly, if we critically assess Utopian texts, we cannot accept this label of a ‘perfect’ place since this was never the intended definition and, more frankly, it has never been the outcome. Utopias are not characterised by their ‘perfection’ as such, but rather by their portrayal of idyllic social conditions in relation to the detestable conditions existing at the time the text was written.
In the 16th century, when Thomas More formed this neologism from the Greek ‘Ou’ (meaning ‘not’) and ‘Topos’ (meaning ‘place’), it was with the intention of describing ‘no-place’ or, more literally, ‘nowhere’. Even if we were to consider Utopia as a homophone (meaning ‘good-place’ from the Greek prefix ‘Eu’), it would still not describe a ‘perfect-place’. Indeed, what he was proposing in his novel was, in his view, an ideal view of how society should be structured and ran, but in no way was it perfect. Living in Tudor England, Thomas More was faced with many conditions which he saw as unfit for the people and damaging to society, yet he also envisioned many ways that the status quo could be improved for the general public. Utopia belongs to an extensive genre of political writings concerned with an ideal commonwealth, a form of writing which can be traced back to its initiation with Plato’s Republic (Logan, p.7). With the publication of More’s bestseller a trend in literature began to ensue, resulting in a range of works we have since come to label ‘Utopian’.
Legislation in Utopian texts is generally reflective of the era in which they are written. For instance, in Thomas More’s time, there were a multitude of laws in place, many of which strictly regarded property and most of which were not intelligible to the uneducated masses. Until fairly recently in human history, many actions have carried the death sentence as a punishment. Property theft in More’s England, for example, was punishable by death. This legislation attempted to protect the wealthy since possessions were thought to be equivalent in value to human life or, rather, human life was less sacred than material acquisition and retention. These stringent laws continued to be established and enforced until they finally came to be known, in retrospect, as the ‘Bloody Code’, and one could find themselves at the gallows at the pinch of a hat, so to speak (Oldbaileyonline.org, 2014).
Many Utopian thinkers have held the view that crime in society, on the most part, is a direct result of poverty and property laws, and in their utopias they have set out to fix this via the abolishment of private property and the equal distribution of wealth. Therefore, we find in Utopia that theft is no longer treated in such a Draconian way. More, through the character of Raphael
Hythloday, asserts that the death penalty as a punishment for thieves ‘is very hurtful to the weal- public’. He explains that sending such individuals to the gallows does not address the motivating factor – their poverty. ‘It is too extreme and cruel a punishment for theft, and yet not sufficient to refrain and withhold men from theft’. More also criticises the vastness and complexity of legislation in his time, likening men of the law to ‘evil schoolmasters, which be readier to beat than to teach their scholars’ (19). Likewise, in a collection of essays entitled A New View of Society and Other Writings, Robert Owen attacks the idea that many ‘criminals’ act out of malevolence. He argues that the vast, contrived and ambiguous nature of legislation results in citizens who ‘acquire no other knowledge than that which compels them to conclude that those actions are the best they can perform’ (Owen, 22). Taking a tabula rasa approach to human nature, Owen’s ultimate contention is that humans are nothing less than the products of their circumstances, that generation after generation are taught crime by their circumstances and that the expansive and intricate nature of legislation counterproductively results in law-breaking.
Legislation, then, may be viewed as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, laws are required for a society to function properly, to prevent a state of anomie and to clarify the rights of an individual. In theory, laws allow humans to live communally and in relative harmony with one another since every member of a community is aware of how to interact with each other. On the other hand, unfortunately, many foolish laws come into effect which are of no benefit to society but are enforced just the same, and these unwise laws have a general tendency to seek out the poor and uneducated. Additionally, the law is not written in Standard English or a form which the masses may easily comprehend. Legal English, or legalese, requires an exceptional amount of studying to be understood properly and some form of legal qualification has to be acquired in order to practice the law. The average citizen of a society is likely to know little about how the law that they abide by functions, and this is fundamentally problematic since it delays the emergence of a better society. An ideal society cannot emerge as long as its citizens are ignorant of its laws and whilst those laws are being used against them.
Though the island of Utopia may have its faults, Hythloday recounts the ‘divers acts and constitutions whereby these our cities, nations, countries and kingdoms may take example to amend their faults, enormities and errors’ (15). In Utopia, contrary to More’s England, ‘they have but few laws. For to people so instruct and intuitive very few do suffice’. With so few laws, the Utopians are aware of how to behave, which is paramount in making their society function properly. The resulting factor is incredibly important to Utopia: ‘every man is a cunning lawyer’ because ‘the simple, the plain and gross meaning of the laws is open to every man’ (94). The law, no longer clouded by deliberate language obscurities and stripped of its insignificant legislation, has left very few rules to be misunderstood or challenged. The Utopians live within a very tight system which allows little room for dysfunction. We can see, however, that capital punishment is still practiced (repeated adultery carries the punishment, for example) though the Utopians are much more disposed to make bondsmen of their criminals. This is still an issue to discuss, however, since it follows that laws are still ultimately necessary even in Utopia – the ideal commonwealth. This suggests that vice is still intrinsically within the Utopians and that crime cannot be fully abolished in any given society, no matter how little legislation they have and how clear it is to them. It also shows that More was aware of the duality of human nature and how to control it, explaining that their behaviour is successfully regulated in two distinct and simple ways. There are deterrents from crime, in the form of public humiliation and bondage, but there are also incentives to good behaviour in the form of public honours such as statues. The custom of marking bondsmen leaves little room for retribution, though, since the ‘tip of one ear is cut off’ (More, 29). However, retribution was not generally considered possible for offenders in Tudor England, so the Utopian way of using their criminals to serve them in their most humdrum and arduous tasks was certainly a progressive idea.
Perhaps the greatest difference between early Utopian texts and the more recent texts, certainly with regards to law, is the width of their scope. More’s Utopia, as a text written in the Age of Discovery, concerns itself with a little island whose inhabitants live in idyllic conditions. Similarly, Henry Neville’s The Isle of Pines includes the creation of an ideal island by shipwrecked George Pines
and his female company, though his utopia was not even close to perfection and, on the whole, it more closely resembles a passing male fantasy that had been given too much thought. H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia, on the other hand, widens its scope to that of the entire planet or ‘World-State’, since ‘no less than a planet will serve the purpose of a modern Utopia’ (Wells, 15). Wells considers many important aspects of society in his bizarre utopia. In chapter 5, he addresses the reality of ‘failure in a modern utopia’, which is one of the lesser discussed aspects of Utopian fiction and one which explains, quite concisely and convincingly, that a ‘perfect society’ is not attainable in terms of how sparse, differing and complex modern society is. In simple terms, we would be hard-pressed to even begin to develop an ‘ideal’ world with such evermore increasing ideological differences. In the preface to Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, Louis Wirth (1954) acknowledges that ‘the worlds in which [past intellectuals] lived were apparently more stable and integrated for all the members of the community than our enlarged universe of thought, action and belief has come to be’. It is for this reason that a modern utopia will be increasingly difficult to envision, since early utopias didn’t anticipate the multiplication of personality types as a population increases in number and subsequently becomes more fragmented. Wells acknowledges the many different characters in modern society and considers these people in his own utopia ‘with only such moral and mental and physical improvements as lie within their inherent possibilities’ (95). He asks what his utopia will do with its idiots, mad-men, drunkards and other such unpleasant types, even suggesting that the World-State would practice eugenics and terminate the unfit before they have the chance to become members of his utopia: ‘no doubt Utopia will kill all deformed, and monstrous and evilly diseased births’ (100). For this reason, some writers have seen the link between Utopias and Fascism. Parrinder (1997) has asserted that the ‘incorporation of mildly eugenic measures in socialist utopias… has been seized on as proof of the existence of logical and historical links between socialist theory and Fascism’. The eugenics of Wells, however, is visionary on account of the technological advances and practices that would develop in the latter half on the 20th century. Prenatal diagnosis allows modern families to test for genetic disorders such as Down’s syndrome and the legality of
abortion in many cultures – even in some cases of late-termination – allows for a form of eugenics to be practiced by families so that they may construct their own ideal world (Holtzman, 1998).
Wells does, however, take a liberal view of punishment in his utopia since he is aware that every human need and want would be provided for, so offending would, in theory, be minimal and would originate from the will of the offender alone. His utopia focuses on rehabilitation, as opposed to More’s Utopia whose bondsmen are permanently marked as such. Wells asserts that in his utopia, ‘first offenders, and for all offenders under five-and-twenty, the Modern Utopia will attempt cautionary and remedial treatment’ which will be in the form of a straightforward lesson: ‘’which do you value most, the wide world of humanity, or this evil trend in you?’’ (Wells, 100). Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, what Wells had proposed here was no less than visionary. In 1908, the Children and Young Persons Act was passed which established juvenile courts and Borstals which now separated young offenders from the ‘hardened criminals’ of regular prisons. This legislation began to change what it meant to be a young person in England – at the turn of the 20th century, legislation began to place much more emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
Paul Turner (1965), in his introduction to More’s Utopia, raises the question of ‘just how perfect would [Utopia] be to live in?’ (p.13). He acknowledges that all material benefits (i.e. food, clothing, shelter, education etc.) are provided by the state for the welfare of all its citizens. But when we critically assess the conditions the Utopians live under, they are actually quite limiting and not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Individual liberty is practically non-existent: everyone wears the same colourless garments, for instance, and a citizen can only be granted a licence to travel if he has good reason to do so. If any man over-steps his ‘bounds’, he is ‘sharply punished’ (p.68). The few laws that exist are incredibly limiting to human liberty, so despite whether the Utopians are well rehearsed in those laws is of little importance since the result is a lack of liberty. To many modern readers, the reduction of basic human rights (such as the right to travel and the right to free expression) is the epitome of imperfection and an indication of totalitarianism. Indeed, the
more modern readers try to envision Utopia as a real place, the more we begin to see the blueprint for an Orwellian dystopia, since the rules in place limit human behaviour in such a way that the Utopians willingly accept ‘Big Brother’ over disorder and dysfunction. But considering Utopia in Tudor England, what Thomas More was writing about was remarkably ahead of its time. The idea of abolishing private property, providing for all members of society, being tolerant of religious beliefs – these were all ideas which More saw as beneficial to society. Whether those ideals were to be realised in More’s lifetime was another issue altogether.
Writers who have contributed towards the Utopian genre have brought the world progressive ideas and their ultimate aim has been nothing less than the attainment of societal perfection. Writers try to picture an ideal future by criticising the imperfections of their own time and imagining solutions, and these attempts have not been in vain. Utopian thinkers throughout history have helped to shape future legislation. Robert Owen, for instance, was an early pioneer of Socialism and he believed that education was fundamental to the formation of character. His work, which was heavily focused on the education of workers, culminated in the emergence of schemes for the education of the poor (Robertowen.org, 2014), without which no ideal society could ever emerge. The bitter pill to swallow, perhaps, is that society is permanently in an embryonic state, always in need of improvement but never quite pleasing the dreamers once those improvements have been brought about. There will always be the dissatisfied; those dissenters who are not happy with the way this rudimentary world works, but it is through the ongoing discourse of how to bring about idyllic social conditions that we can only hope to come close to perfection. Utopias include laws quite simply because we cannot see the world in any alternative way at the present moment. It is much more likely and reasonable to suspect that society, at best, will only look ideal when we consider how far it has come in terms of its improvements.
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Parrinder, P. (1997). ‘Eugenics and Utopia: Sexual Selection from Galton to Morris’. Utopian Studies, 8(2). Online.
Robertowen.org, (2014). ‘Who was Robert Owen?’. Available at: http://www.robertowen.org/about- us/who-was-robert-owen.html. Online.
Turner, P. (1998). ‘Introduction’. In More, T. Utopia. London: Penguin Books, p.13. Print.
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