FYS 100, section 50
5 November 2015
Throughout human history, private property has been a divisive issue; some people believe that private property is necessary in order to create a functional society, but other people believe that private property is a source of war, suffering, and inequality. Both More’s Utopia and Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality attack private property as a source of human suffering and inequality; however, More and Rousseau use different methods to critique private property. They also have different opinions on whether any type of property is desirable. More uses the character Raphael Hythloday’s description of the Utopians to condemn private property and endorse communal property. More also uses the character More to offer counterarguments in support of private property. In A Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau writes about man’s progression from his natural state, where he lived independently, to his current civilized state, where private property has caused him to be a slave to his desires and to his fellow man. More and Rousseau both condemn private property, but More uses the creation of a society that is the opposite of European society to highlight the issues caused by private property while Rousseau depicts man’s progression from his natural state to his civilized state to describe how private property is against human nature.
In Utopia, the character Raphael Hythloday assails private property and European society. He recounts his journey to the island of Utopus where he meets the Utopians. The Utopians hold all of their possessions communally, so there is no inequality in their society (More 47). They ensure that everyone’s needs are met; Hythloday believes that this system of communal property is far superior to Europe’s system of private property, which, in his opinion, leads to inequality and suffering (More 47). In A Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau writes that man’s progress is the source of inequality, and it becomes fixed through laws and private property (Rousseau 137). He states that natural man was living in a perfect, solitary state where he only cared about his basic needs. In this natural state, man was completely free. Rousseau claims that the development of property, especially private property, destroyed man’s freedom and is the cause for many of the world’s problems. These problems include war and crime (Rousseau 109). As a result of property, man is forced to depend on others and to spend the majority of his time working the land. Rousseau claims that man has lost his sense of independence, as he is a slave to both his desires and to other people.
Both Rousseau and More claim that private property is contrary to human nature. They write that private property can never provide everyone with happiness since a few men will own most of the available property, leaving everyone else in poverty (More 47 and Rousseau 128). Rousseau even states that man must give up his life and liberty in order to submit to the system of private property (Rousseau 128). Rousseau believes that private property is contrary to human nature; therefore, man must surrender his natural state in order to enter a civilized society that is dominated by private property. Similarly, More writes that private property is incompatible with happiness because it creates a large burden of poverty on the majority of people (More 47). The majority of wealth and property resides in the hands of a few while everyone else must try to live off the small amount of wealth and property that is left. More’s Utopia and Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality both claim that private property can never be compatible with human nature since most people will be burdened with poverty, which results in a loss of happiness and liberty.
Rousseau’s and More’s works also agree that laws that protect private property are incapable of maintaining order in society. More writes that the multitude of laws passed can never achieve order and protect one’s private property (More 46). He uses the numerous amounts of lawsuits as evidence that these laws cannot even properly distinguish one’s property from another’s property (More 46). Likewise, Rousseau asserts that laws never maintain order, but allow the strongest to possess whatever they please (Rousseau 134.) As a result of these laws, inequality becomes rooted in society. The inequality present in society creates constant disorder and corruption where the stronger people take advantage of the weaker majority until they have been overthrown replaced by someone else. The creation of laws to protect private property and to maintain order in society is ineffective and instead creates inequality and disorder.
More critiques private property through the character Raphael Hythloday and the creation an isolated island society, called Utopus. Hythloday recounts his stay in Utopus to More and Peter Giles. The Utopian’s society is almost the complete opposite of European society in that there is no private property and there are few laws (More 46). Hythloday believes that the Utopians have created a superior society because there is no poverty or inequality and happiness is maximized for everyone (More 133). In his opinion, European society is plagued by inequality, which causes most people to live in poverty while a few hoard most of the wealth and property (More 47). The Utopians and Hythloday represent on the complete opposite of European society. Hythloday is European, but he frequently attacks the inequalities that inherent in European society. He urges Europe to adopt the Utopians’ society because he believes that it will fix Europe various social problems. More uses a non-European society to demonstrate that the exact opposite of a European society can lead to a better society.
Rousseau assails private property by depicting man’s transformation from his natural state to his civilized state. In his natural state, man has no concept of reason or abstract thought; he acts through instinct and sensation alone (Rousseau 89). Man only desires his basic needs, food, water, and a place to rest (Rousseau 81). In this state, man is happiest because he is not burdened by excessive desires since he only can only comprehend his basic needs. Rousseau writes that man’s happiness begins to decline as his dependence on others increases. In Rousseau’s opinion, the creation of private property is the culmination of man’s loss of independence and happiness (Rousseau 109/121). Private property causes man to become a slave to his desires and to his fellow man (Rousseau 122). The creation of private property creates inequality and human suffering. To highlight this point, Rousseau writes “How many crimes, wars, murders; how much misery and horror the human race would have been spared if someone had pulled out the stakes and filled in the ditch” (Rousseau 109). Rousseau points out that must wars and crime are the result of the inequality. Private Property is the main source of inequality; therefore, private property is the main cause of war and crime, which lead to misery and suffering. People constantly desire more than what they have, so they try to take what others have. Rousseau uses man’s progression from the blissful ignorance of his natural state to the suffering and enslavement of his civilized state to critique private property.
One difference between how Utopia and A Discourse on Inequality present their arguments against private property is that More offers counterarguments against communal property and in support of private property. In Utopia the character More defends private property and questions how a society based on communal property can thrive and be productive. Before Hythloday recounts his voyage to Utopus to More and Peter Giles, they argue over the necessity of private property. Hythloday claims that private property must be removed in order to implement the needed changes in European society; in contrast, More questions how any society can flourish without private property (More 47). He believes that communal property will destroy people’s motivation to work and that everyone will rely on the work of others. In More’s opinion, people are motivated to work because they make a profit. In the absence of private property, people cannot individually profit from their labor; therefore, they have no motivation to work (More 47). He then claims that a combination of want and the inability to keep possessions would cause violence and turmoil (More 47). More continues to defend private property even after Hythloday has completed his description of the Utopians. More believes that the Utopians’ system of communal property is absurd (More 134). He even goes as far to state that the Utopians’ communal property undermines their society’s magnificence (More 134). Hythloday’s description of the Utopian society is not enough to convince More that communal property can lead to a more just society than can private property.
Another difference between Utopia and A Discourse on Inequality is that Rousseau believes that all forms of property and communal living destroy man’s happiness and independence while More writes that communal property leads to a more just society where everyone as a whole benefits. Rousseau writes that the establishment of dwellings causes man to become dependent on others, destroying his independence; man also begins to desire more than his basic needs, which, according to Rousseau, “is the first source of the evils they prepared for their descendants” (Rousseau 113). In Rousseau’s opinion, living in communities and establishing any type of property causes man to develop a greater need for company and to obtain his desires. The creation of any type of property will cause man’s desires to increase, which will eventually lead to the creation of private property. In contrast, More writes that communal property does not create more desires or lead to private property. He states that communal property ensures that everyone’s needs are met. The model of the Utopians demonstrates how a society can have communal property and be free from inequality. Rousseau’s belief that the absence of property is ideal is in contrast to More’s belief that communal property is ideal and that it does have not to lead to the creation of private property.
More’s Utopia and Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality oppose private property, but use different methods to highlight the inherent inequalities that are created by it. More uses Raphael Hythloday’s description of a just and successful society that is almost the exact opposite of European society to emphasize the problems caused by private property. Rousseau uses man’s progression from his natural state to his current state to depict how private property is contrary to human nature. Both of these works add to the debate over the merits of private property by depicting its flaws and offering examples of how people would be better off without private property.
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Jean-Jacques Rousseau. A Discourse on Inequality. Translated by Maurice Cranston. Penguin Books
Thomas More. Utopia. Translated by Clarence H. Miller. New Haven: Yale University Press,