Plato’s Republic and More’s Utopia

Although The Republic was known to scholars during the Middle Ages, the period known as the Renaissance was characterised by a rediscovery and revival (hence the term ‘renaissance’ or ‘rebirth’) of classical antiquity and its model of humanity, based on intelligence, physical courage and moral virtue. Sixteenth-century scholars like More were, indeed, well-versed in Greek and Latin classical authors but their main interest was the study of the Scripture as the key to their theological preoccupations. Thomas More’s Dutch friend, Erasmus, the figurehead of the humanist movement, often mentioned Plato in his works but without making close references to the philosophical meaning of the Dialogues. He admired Plato’s allegory of the cave for its depiction of the liberation of the self from the tyranny of public opinion and social conventions. Yet, in other writings, he did not hesitate to denigrate the role of philosophers in society, accusing them of failing to agree with each other ‘on every single point’ and therefore being poor guides for the moral improvement and spiritual salvation of mankind. Thomas More would have approached Plato’s dialogues with the same degree of caution as his close friend Erasmus.

At the same time, beyond the centuries separating them, both the author of The Republic and the author of Utopia were equally determined to see radical changes taking place in their respective society. Both played the role of political advisers, Plato to Dionysius II of Syracuse and More to Henry VIII of England after serving as Privy Councillor and eventually becoming a close adviser of the king in the 1520’s. Like his illustrious Greek predecessor, More knew full well the difficulty of his task as he remarked in the First Book of Utopia: ‘If I should propose to any king wholesome decrees, doing my endeavour to pluck out of his mind the pernicious original causes of vice and naughtiness, think you not that I should forthwith either be driven away or else made a laughing-stock?’ Thomas More’s strong religious faith eventually cost him his life as he defiantly rejected Henry’s decision to take his distance from Rome and proclaim himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England.

Utopia, published in 1516, is first and foremost a social satire which relates the travels of Raphael Hythloday to the Island of Utopia, where he allegedly spent five years observing the customs of the natives. The book first appeared in Latin in Paris and Louvain (Netherlands) in order to avoid English censorship. Its title plays on an ironic double meaning: ‘u-topos’ is in Greek ‘the place which does not exist’ and ‘eu-topos’ means ‘the good place’. Book One of Utopia consists of a scathing attack of the greed and materialism of sixteenth-century England. More is harking back to an imaginary mediaeval Golden Age. In this respect, he is not concerned with repeating Plato’s ideas but with presenting a living picture of a working perfect commonwealth.

Utopia cannot be compared to a Greek city-state and even less to Plato’s ‘pattern in heaven’. However, one can identify some parallel between Plato’s perfect state and More’s Utopia in the latter’s discussion of property. The most radical aspect of the book is undoubtedly the banning of money and private property which, for More, is the founding stone of his project for an egalitarian society. More’s popularity among modern socialist and Marxist scholars stems from his systematic criticism of a property system leaving the vast majority of the English farming population in a state of poverty. The absence of money and private property in Utopia means less corruption, less vanity and of course less crime and consequently a more righteous society. For Plato, on the other hand, the abolition of property only affects the Philosopher-Guardian class, not the productive class, which, by definition, represent the farmers and workers but also the business section of the perfect city. Unlike More, Plato is not interested in the private possessions of the ‘productive class’ although he is expecting a degree of moderation in their acquisitive spirit. The form of communism advocated by Plato in The Republic is not inspired by a desire to secure the abolition of the classes as confirmed by the ‘noble lie’ about the ‘three metals’. His reasons for it are purely philosophical as he considers that an obsessive preoccupation with worldly goods is dangerous for the moral integrity of his ‘Guardians’.

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