Friday, December 16, 2011

Social Injustices of Utopia

Sir Thomas More makes quite a case for social equality in his novel Utopia, which features a fictional society of people who all dress the same, work the same hours, and divide all goods amongst themselves in equal measure.  True, nobody is rich and nobody is poor—which is to be commended—but as the saying goes, nothing is as good as it seems.  Even in Utopia one will find all kinds of social injustices, including a class hierarchy of government officials and religious leaders, sexism, seniority and even slavery.

While the majority of the citizens stand on equal ground, there exist quite a number of elected officials that do enjoy an elevated position of superiority over others.  Syphogrants (or phylarchs) are in charge of a group of thirty households, and the tranibor (or head phylarch) governs over a group of ten syphogrants.  These all come together to elect a governor, who holds his position for life, and although More doesn’t discuss him too much, he makes mention of a prince with whom the tranibors consult regularly (Greenblatt, 550).  Although presumably these elected officials never campaign for public office and are said to be very approachable and humble (Greenblatt, 572), they do indeed reap special treatment.  For example, public officers are referred to as “fathers” (Greenblatt, 572) and syphogrants and their wives sit at “the place of greatest honor” in the dining hall (Greenblatt, 556)

None of these officials, however, is esteemed half as much as the priest.  There are thirteen priests per city whose job it is to preside over worship services and make religious decrees (Greenblatt, 583), and although More makes it very clear at one point that every citizen dresses the same, the priest adorns himself with “a robe of many colors, wonderful for its workmanship and decoration” (Greenblatt, 585).  More states, “No official in Utopia is more honored than the priest” then further explains that if a priest commits a crime, he isn’t brought before a court of law (Greenblatt, 583).  Any other man would be tried, but priests are seemingly above the law.

While the wives of priests are said to be “the very finest women in the whole country” (Greenblatt, 583), other women aren’t viewed so kindly.  More specifically comments, “Wives are subject to their husbands” (Greenblatt, 554).  Women must sit separately from men when attending church services (Greenblatt, 585), dress differently from men (Greenblatt, 550), and as “the weaker sex” work in different professions than men (Greenblatt, 551).  Women work with wool or linen (Greenblatt, 551) and take the sole responsibility for preparing and cooking meals (Greenblatt, 555).  Men would never perform such tasks. 

And while men are superior to women, older citizens are superior to younger citizens.  When dining, they serve the oldest people first and give them the best food.  They consider it “due respect” to seniority (Greenblatt, 556)—which seems fitting—although their agism seems far too extreme in some cases; the young get the short end of the stick.  Children up to age five seem well taken care of, but any child older than that doesn’t even get to sit at the table.  They must stand quietly and wait for food to be handed to them (Greenblatt, 556).

The last and probably greatest injustice found in Utopia exists in the form of slavery.  Slaves come about in a variety of ways:  prisoners of war, citizens who have done wrong, or foreigners who would rather be a slave in Utopia than a free citizen in their homelands (Greenblatt, 569).  Slaves must wear heavy gold chains as a sign of their enslavement, since in Utopia gold is seen as evil.  These slaves do all of the dirty work that is viewed to be beneath the work of a good and moral citizen, which includes butchering animals because it “gradually destroys the sense of compassion, which is the finest sentiment of… human nature” (Greenblatt, 554).  Clearly these slaves are not even seen as human.

So while we, today, might use the word “Utopia” in reference to a perfect society of equals, it was not the case in Sir Thomas More’s great work of fiction bearing that name.  Although the people made many valiant efforts to create equality, many aspects of inequality and injustice still managed to take root.  Perhaps it can be argued that humans are incapable of ever achieving a perfect socialistic society, because on a personal level we all aspire to greatness, and cannot help but put others down on our way up.

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed.  The Norton Anthology of English Literature.  New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.  Print.

1 comment:

Mishqueen said...

Utopia was probably not the first dystopic novel, but maybe the most foundational one in the dystopia genre. The title is tongue-in-cheek, indicated the outward appearance, not the inward reality. Dystopic stories since More's novel generally follow the same formula--present the perfect society first, then the crumbling structure beneath. There are no true utopic novels that I know of. All are dystopic because there is no conflict to hold the reader's attention in a true utopia. Propositional political essays may discuss true utopias if they choose not to address possible downsides to their chosen plan, but this does not contain the elements necessary to entertainment reading (the fictional novel).


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