Utopia: Democracy and Citizenship

Table of contents

Utopian politics seems a strange mixture of freedom and repression. Utopia employs a democratic government, its people represented by two layers of elected public officials, the higher level selected by the lower level. However, the rule abolishing on pain of death any discussion of politics outside of the political arena seems incredibly repressive. This repression, though, is a fair repression in the sense that all citizens of Utopia are equally bound by it. This is a very different repression than those in place in Europe, where the poor and weak were repressed by the rich and powerful. Utopia is operating under a rule of law, with all citizens subject to that law, even if the law itself strikes modern readers as excessive.

Hythloday trumpets the lack of private space as a wonderful idea promoting friendship and stifling pettiness and gossip. Again, though, in the loss of private space is a correspondent loss of privacy and autonomy. Utopia is a society in which everyone watches everyone else, much as everyone does in George Orwell’s nightmare world of ##1984##. There is often little differentiating one man’s Utopia from another’s dystopia.

Occupations, Workload and Productivity

As mentioned earlier, all people are engaged in farm work. They are taught theories of farming in school, and practical skills in the field.

Other than farm work, every person, woman and man, has a specific occupation. The most common trades are spinning and weaving, masonry, blacksmithing, and carpentry. Women, because they are less strong, are employed in trades that do not demand heavy work.

Young boys usually learn their trade through apprenticeship to their fathers, but if a boy shows a particular desire or aptitude for a different career, arrangements are made. People are allowed to apprentice and learn more than one trade, and then practice whichever they prefer, unless the city has a particular need for one rather than the other. Nobody is allowed to lounge while on the job. Those few who do are punished.

However, unlike European societies, working people in Utopia are not forced to toil for unconscionable hours each day. The Utopian day is broken into twenty-four hours; Utopians only work for six hours per day, three before lunch and three after. Utopians also sleep on average about eight hours a day. This leaves them with a great deal of free time, which they are free to do with as they will, as long as they do not spend it in debauchery or idleness.

Most people use their free time to engage in intellectual pursuits. They also involve themselves in music, gardening, and physical activity. Those people who demonstrate a keen love and aptitude for intellectual pursuits are identified early and, as long as they are diligent in their studies, they are exempt from physical labor. If a laborer should demonstrate some great skill in his recreational intellectual efforts, he too can become exempt from is work if he desires.

Though the Utopians work such short hours they do not suffer from any lack of productivity. Though Europeans work far longer hours, European populations are also filled with a far larger percentage of people who do no productive work at all, including most women, much of the clergy, the rich gentlemen and nobles and all of their retainers, and all of the beggars.

Also, because the Utopians diligently maintain everything they build, they have to expend far less energy undertaking rebuilding projects than Europeans, who instead follow a cycle of build, watch degenerate, rebuild. Because of the general lack of Utopian vanity and an understanding of the value of utility over style, the goods Utopians use are also far less difficult to produce. All of these factors combine so that though the Utopian workday is relatively short, Utopian society is far more productive than European states, in terms of both necessities and modest luxuries.


The degree of choice Utopians can exercise in choosing their vocation likely strikes modern readers as incredibly small. Compared to Europeans of the sixteenth century, however, the range is not small at all. True, a European noble was freer to do what he would–from composing poetry to lying around eating figs–than any Utopian. But the European lower classes had absolutely no mobility in terms of job. If a peasant was born to agricultural parents, he had little choice but to work the land as well. The fact that Utopia allowed all of its citizens to pursue careers purely on the basis of interest was a novel idea.

Hythloday also explains why More’s market-based economies are not vastly more productive than Utopia’s non-market, communal economy. Whereas one particular individual in a marke- based economy who works incredibly long hours in order to beat out his competition is quite certainly more productive than the average Utopian worker, for every one of the productive people in a market-based economy, Hythloday explains that there are innumerable people from nobles to beggars who make no productive contribution.

In contrast, no one in Utopia is phenomenally productive, but everyone is fairly productive. More’s comment that in a communal society no one would feel the compunction to work for the simple reason that they would be fed by the work of others is answered in the Utopian law punishing all laziness and lounging on the job. However, again, such a law seems to imply a repression that most modern readers might find unpleasant.

In acknowledging the need for such a law Utopian society admits to the flawed nature of man. It is not, then, that More’s criticism of communal property is wrong, but rather that it can be overcome through the proper structuring of society. Utopia is not ideal because its people are perfect, but rather because its laws make it so that Utopian citizens must act perfectly despite their inherent failings as humans.

Because Utopian society is so productive its citizens have a lot of free time. Again, a generally cynical understanding of human nature is betrayed in the laws outlawing idleness or debauchery, but this cynicism has the positive effect of pushing Utopians into intellectual or athletic pursuits. The process through which intellectuals are uncovered depends only on individual merit, a remarkable idea in an age dominated by privilege and birthright.

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