Thomas More’s Utopia and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan each offer alternatives to the worlds in which they lived.. More’s society, viewed through the character Hythloday, is seemingly based on man’s nature in society being generally good, and the faults of man emanate from how society itself is set up. Hobbes takes the opposite view of human nature, where man’s will to survive makes him unable to act out of goodness and it is man who is responsible for society’s ills.
Both Leviathan and Utopia contain faults in logic that work to undermine the very possibility for these new social structures. In the following I will show how each of their views for a new society give insight into what their beliefs of human nature are, while showing some similarities between them. I will point to some of the faults found with both of their arguments that suggest an implicit and at times contradictory view of mankind.
More’s Utopia is a response to the world in which he lived. The main character, Hythloday, condemns the class system and the use of money in England. Hythloday sees that the ills of modern society; those of greed, power and pride, must be overcome if man is to live peacefully with one another. In the following excerpt we see evidence of how Hythloday describes human nature in these terms and how Utopia has been able to do away with these three vices.
“Now isn’t this an unjust and ungrateful commonwealth? It lavishes the rich rewards on so-called gentry, loan sharks, and the rest of the crew, who don’t work at all or are mean parasites, purveyors of empty pleasures. “¦ I see in (this) nothing but a conspiracy of the rich, who are fattening up their own interests under the name and title of the commonwealth. “¦ How far they remain from the happiness of the Utopian Republic, which has abolished not only money but with it greed! “¦ Everyone knows that if money were abolished “¦ a whole set of crimes which are avenged but not prevented by the hangman would at once die out.
If money disappeared so would fear, anxiety, worry, toil and sleepless nights. Even poverty “¦ would vanish if money were entirely done away with.” (p.521-523) Hythloday goes on to say that pride causes man to be greedy and seek power. For Hythloday “Pride measures her advantages not by what she has but by what other people lack.” (p.522) In a world with social classes where one man is said to be of higher status than another man is by nature going to exploit one another and always be striving for more power.
More imagines a society in which greed, power and pride no longer exists. By taking away the class system and the use of money he felt that all the ills of mankind would disappear. This view of human nature is that some men, those in power, are essentially evil and selfish. If a society could be built where no man was greater than another then all could live together in harmony and truly be a part of a commonwealth where “no men are poor, no men are beggars, and though no man owns anything, everyone is rich.” (p. 520) More’s Utopia offers an alternative to the aristocratic society in which he lived. More would have us do away with social classes and have man work together towards the common goal of peace and survival. An excerpt from Book II where Utopus the founder of Utopia is building a channel gives credence to this idea.
“He (Utopus) put not only the natives to work at this task, but his own soldiers too, so that the vanquished would not think the labor a disgrace. With the work divided among so many hands, the project was finished quickly, and the neighboring peoples, who at first had laughed at his folly, were struck with wonder and terror at his success.” This passage is proof that man can work together and achieve greatness by doing so. It appears here that More has a high estimation of man’s abilities. Utopia is based on the idea that all men are equal. No man owns anything and there is no private business. All men work for the good of the state.
This communist society looks very egalitarian at first, but the strict rules in which the Utopians must abide by give way to another type of power structure where men are not necessarily equal to each other. Close inspection of these rules give insight into how More may have really viewed human nature. In the following excerpts we find evidence that More may have found man untrustworthy and in need of social control, or at the very least spiritual control.
“The vast majority of Utopians “¦ believe in a single power, unknown, eternal, infinite, inexplicable, far beyond the grasp of the human mind, and diffused throughout the universe, not physically but in influence. Him they call father, and to him alone they attribute the origin, increase, progress, change, and end of all visible things; they do not offer divine honors to any other. “¦ (Utopus) left the whole matter (choosing a religion) open, allowing each person to choose what he would believe.
The only exception was a positive and strict law against anyone who would sink so far below the dignity of human nature as to think that the soul perishes with the body, or that the universe is ruled by blind chance, not divine providence. “¦ Therefore a man who holds such views is offered no honors, entrusted with no offices, and given no public responsibility, he is universally regarded as a low and sordid fellow” (pp.516-518 This excerpt shows the ambivalence that More has about human nature. He sees man as essentially good but whenever an individual has ideas of their own they are regarded as inferior. This creates another type of class system where man can judge himself against others and creates the pride that More is seemingly trying to get away from.
This is but one example of many where the strict rules of Utopia work against More’s main argument that man can work together in harmony. Man’s goodness is accepted as fact only insofar as it works to serve the whole of the community. For those who do not abide by the strict laws, they are punished through slavery or banishment.
More walks a thin line between viewing man’s nature as essentially good and seeing man as selfish and in need of control. Utopia’s foundations of equality are contradicted by the strict laws they have as well as by the political system where heads of tribes are elected for life. This ambiguity of More’s view is furthered when More appears as a character in Utopia and alludes to his own opinion of Utopia.
“”¦ my chief objection was to the basis of their whole system, that is , their communal living and their moneyless economy. This one thing alone utterly subverts all the nobility, magnificence, splendor, and majesty which (in the popular view) are the true ornaments and glory if any commonwealth. “¦ yet I freely confess that in the Utopian commonwealth there are many features that in our own societies I would wish rather than expect to see.” (p.523) This excerpt shows that More is obviously protecting himself from any reproach by the Aristocracy. Also found in this however, is More’s inability to believe such a society could ever exists. He wishes but does not expect to see these features of Utopia coming to his society. I believe underlying this hesitation is More’s doubt that human nature is capable of working together in harmony.
The fact that Utopia is presented in a fantasy-like land where men are the mother’s to chicks and gold is used to make bedpans gives further evidence that More himself does not believe such a society could ever exist Hobbes offers a scientific argument for the nature of man. He believes his inquiry into what motivates man is proof for his vision of society. Hobbes concludes that man is at war with one another because everyone is fighting for survival. He tells us the only way for man to work together is out of fear. To supply this fear mankind needs an almighty ruler who can control man’s impulses to hurt one another. In the following we see how Hobbes comes to his conclusions about man’s seemingly inherent evil.
“Nature hath made men so equal in faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend as well as he”¦. For such is the nature of men, that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned. Yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves; for they see their own wit at hand, and other men’s at a distance. “
From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they can’t both enjoy, they become enemies, and in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes, their delectation only) endeavor to destroy or subdue one another.” (p. 1590) This passage takes us through Hobbes’ thinking about mankind. He tells us that all men are essentially equal but each individual believes himself to be of greater importance than one another. An individual’s need for self preservation makes him fight with others for survival and in some cases personal pleasure. Mankind’s nature and need to survive cause him to thirst for power. Hobbes’ hope was for mankind to live together in peace at any cost. Hobbe’s furthers his argument for a new society in the following excerpt.
“In such condition (constant war) there is no place for industry, for the fruit thereof is uncertain, and cosequently no culture of the earth; no navigation. Not ise of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things that require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and, which is worst of all, continual fear. And danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”(Pp. 1589-1590)
This viewpoint for man offers little hope the communal living we have seen in More’s Utopia. Hobbes use of political science allows little room for the imagination and conjecture used by More. Hobbes argument is founded on generalizations of mankind’s behavior, no doubt arrived at due to the time (civil war) in which he lived. Hobbes view of mankind is greater in pessimism than More in that he offers one definition for human nature, and for his argument to hold true this definition (that man is essentially selfish and willing to do anything to survive) is absolute, there is no room for the ambivalence and ambiguity found in More’s view.
The solution for Hobbes is that mankind need to live in awe or fear of someone greater than himself. Without something to restrain man he would go on murdering and be forever in search of more power. In order to protect and defend life, man must come together under an almighty ruler who mankind gives sovereignty to.
The similarity between Utopia and Leviathan are found in this giving up of individual power for the good of the many. For More, man would give up pride, greed and power by living for the good of the whole. Hobbes takes a more animalistic view of man where the only way to work together requires
living in fear of punishment by a greater power.
Both seek a commonwealth and both have a higher power to which man must answer. More’s higher power is the strict system of rules the Utopian’s live by, and a given that most men believe in a divinity who lends further control to their actions. Hobbes does not believe that man is capable of abiding by a spiritual power and needs an actual person to control the power of mankind.
Each of their accounts are limited by their approach to their arguments. More’s need to please the aristocracy weakens his idea that man can work together. Hobbes’ use of a scientific argument uses generalizations of man’s nature as proofs for his foundation, these generalizations being too pessimistic to be taken at his word.
In the end both Hobbes and More offer little in the way of hope for mankind as individuals. Human nature seems to be inherently evil and in need of something or someone to control it. Both agree that man must give up what makes each of us different in order to live in harmony.
Abrams, M.H. (Ed.). (2000). The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Century. (7th ed.). New York: W.W.Norton & Company Hobbes, Thomas (1651). Leviathan. London: Penguin Books