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Essay II


Compare how Rousseau and More present the problem of property and their solutions to this problem.


Private Property —the common distress of Utopian thinkers, yet the starting point of their philosophic differences

In their works “Discourse on inequality” and “Utopia,” both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas More hold the establishment of private property responsible for the advent of idleness, injustice, and unhappiness among humankind. While the techniques in which they present their reasoning have slight variations, they both seem to agree with the general idea that man’s happiness is thwarted by the creation of private property. Despite the resemblance in their denouncement, however, their philosophic approaches to “solve” the issue differ, and could be labeled as contrary even. While More envisions the happy man in a faultlessly working society where property is communal, Rousseau envisions him in a pure, primitive state, where the term “property” is nonexistent. It is a Utopia found in an man-made society that More proposes as the solution then, while it is in the contrary, one found in the natural world that Rousseau presents as ideal.

To introduce his denouncement of private property, More sets forth dialogue between two characters, Hythloday and himself, and presents how private property thwarts happiness in man. The character of Hythloday explains how it seems to him “that wherever there is private property, it is hardly ever possible for the common good to be served with justice and prosperity, unless you [More] think justice is served when all the best things go to the worst people or that happiness is possible when everything is shared among very few…while the rest are plunged into misery?” (More 46). More than just outlining that private property leads to the absence of “justice and prosperity,” More employs a sarcastic tone when depicting the character of Hythloday asking if “the best things” going to the “worst people” resembles justice, which the reader is logically drawn to discard. The adjectives “best” and “worst” together form a juxtaposition, suggesting that the circumstance is the very opposite of justice, and this makes it apparent that the character speaks with a sarcastic, witty tone. This tone immerses the reader in the text as it regards Hythloday as a credible speaker; a sarcastic attitude requires an elevated standard of intellectuality. Moreover, More leaves little room for discussion, he constructs his reasoning in a way that it is difficult to challenge it. I, for instance, do not regard private property unfavorably; I could argue that it provides comfort and security to those who have worked their way up the social ladder, and that such privilege being passed-on to future generations is only natural. However, straight from More’s writing, I agree, just like More logically does, that the “best” things going to “worst” people is not just. Hence, if I stay within More’s writing, I will be led by his rhetoric to shift my view about private property from positive to negative. If I want to challenge his claim, I would have to depart from it into order to not contradict myself in my reasoning. Evidently then, More ties the readers in the text and leads them to agree with his critical claim about property through his his character’s overbearing rhetoric. Moreover, he continues to claim that where private property exists, “a mass of laws, enacted day after day, are never enough to ensure that anyone can protect what each calls his own private property” (47). Having already demonstrated how there is no justice where there is private property, More continues to further substantiate his position through Hythloday, by explaining how a “mass of laws,” symbol of excessive human effort, fails to solve the issues of private property. The reader then reflects that if not even these ‘excessive efforts’ can make people be satisfied with what they call their property, then there is no possible human organization that will make this idea –private property, exist free of collateral hardships, such as the majority of humans, or how Hythloday calls them: “the rest,” being “plunged into misery” (46). By engaging the reader in the text with sarcastic dialogue and structured rhetoric then, and by depicting the impossibility for humans to create successful institutions where private property exists, More outlines how the existence of private property leads to unhappiness, or how he sets it forth: to “misery.”

Similarly, early in Part II of his work, Rousseau depicts too, how private property is the source of unhappiness in man. Rousseau claims how “the first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society” (Rousseau 109). More asks “how many crimes wars murders; how much misery and horror the human race would have been spared” (109) if only such “first man” would have not had followers when claiming the “piece of land.” Rather than presenting the image of two characters speaking, like More does, Rousseau delves straight to a more direct description of what private property leads to. The author introduces a series of nouns: “crimes,” “wars,” “murders,” “misery,” and “horrors,” all written with a simple, direct tone, which makes the reader sense the negative quality that these words transmit by themselves; the destructive consequences of private property are thus robustly thrown out by Rousseau. He explains that private property among early man led to the creation of huts, which then led to the solidification of the concept of family. He then explains how “each family became a little society” and how “the two sexes began, in living a rather softer life, to lose something of their ferocity and strength” (112). This new condition he claims, “left men to enjoy a great deal of leisure” (113). Besides painting the image of the natural man being degraded to a state of progressive idleness by describing how they lost “ferocity and strength,” Rousseau continues to outline that with “differentiated families,” many “quarrels and fights were born” (114). Rousseau presents his reasoning through a series of chronological, easy-to-follow scenarios, which lead the reader to also agree with his negative attitude towards private property. Just like in More’s writing, I (not being against private property) am compelled to shift my view about private property to a negative one. I cannot disagree with the fact that living in “factions” comes along with “quarrels,” and by tracing the back origin of this “factions,” I do seem to agree that it is a product of private property. Again then, in order to counter-argue Rousseau’s reasoning, I would need to depart from his writing; I could set forth a series of positive aspects of private property, or a series of my own scenarios, but doing so would require a higher degree of effort that a common reader might not want to make. It is first by tying the reader to the series of negatively connoted consequences of private property then, and then by presenting the image of man being confined by his own property to create factions that set the stage for idleness and quarrels, that Rousseau presents private property as the cause of unhappiness in man.

Both authors then, lead the reader to approach the idea of private property as being the source of misfortune among humanity. While the process to present the philosophic claim slightly varies, as More does so through a more rhetorical dialogue of his character, and Rousseau does so through a series of logical scenarios, both ultimately denounce private property as the cause of ills in humanity. It is when the authors present their solutions to the problems that private property establishes that they seem to have contrary ideas.

More explains that when thinking about the hardships that private property sets forth, he turns “over in my [his] mind the most prudent and holy institutions of the Utopians, who have very few laws and yet manage so well that virtue is rewarded and yet, since everything is equalized, everyone has plenty of everything” (46). To present the solution of the previously established ills, More explains how there is a society were private property is non-existent, and how it is communal property, where “everything is equalized,” that paints an ideal standard of living. It is important to outline how More seeks the ideal lifestyle in an already existing community: Utopia; he thus considers that it is a socially constructed system that will make man live ideally. He credits the “holy institutions” of Utopians, which is in other words, a series of laws (still man-made) that he agrees with, as the preeminent “cure” of ills. He then explains how in order to prevent man in this communal style of living from falling into idleness, there is a chief and there are “syphogrants,” whose only function is “to take care and see to it that no one lounges around in idleness” (174), and adds in a footnote, how “the idle are to be expelled from the commonwealth.” By establishing the image of man being obliged by society, or how he calls it, “institutions,” and setting forth the existence of “punishments,” such as “expelling the idle from the commonwealth,” More seems to suggest that man is naturally flawed, and that it is by living in a strictly organized society, free of private property, that man will act flawlessly, and achieve happiness. Hence, the reader envisions an already created community, where there is an imaginative, yet man-made system that allows happiness to be present.

Contrastingly, instead of seeking an ideal lifestyle in an already constructed community, Rousseau stays away from all social norms, and depicts man living ideally in his primitive state, in nature. Shortly after describing how with private property man is inclined to quarrel, Rousseau establishes how “nothing is more peaceable than man in his primitive state; placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the fatal enlightenment of the civilized man” (115). He continues to state that in the natural state, “he is restrained by natural pity from doing harm to anyone, even after receiving harm himself” (115). While it is societal “norms” that More believes will absolve the wrongs of private property, it is the complete absence of them that Rousseau thinks is ideal. The “quarrels” that he had before presented as a negative consequence of private property are non-existent in nature, where “natural pity” restrains the urge to do harm. Moreover, Rousseau challenges the common perception that “enlightenment” is directly correlated with something positive when he describes it as something “fatal,” and thus belittles civilization itself; he finds salvation in nature, the very opposite of a strict, lawful community.

Each philosopher envisions Utopias in different, contrary contexts then, and the reader can thus more profoundly differentiate their views. Because More believes that an efficient society (his Utopia) will correct the wrong in man, he is at the same time suggesting that man is naturally flawed. Hence, according to More, man is flawed by nature, but is to be corrected by society. Conversely, Rousseau clearly establishes his idea that man is flawed by society, and is to be corrected by nature. It is evident then, how these two philosophers depart from common ground, but ultimately deliver their philosophic conclusions from opposite poles.




I have neither received nor given unauthorized assistance during the completion of this work

x. Daniel Majluf



Works Cited

More, Thomas, and Edward Surtz. <i>Utopia</i>. New Haven: Yale UP, 1964. Print.

Rousseau, Jean, and Donald A. Cress. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1983. Print.