Property in More’s Utopia and Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality
Thomas More and Jean-Jacques Rousseau deal closely with the concept of property, whether private or communal, in their respective works Utopia and A Discourse on Inequality. More and Rousseau both think that private property and ownership are the catalysts that inevitably lead to inequality and unhappiness. By actualizing the places where private property, and therefore unhappiness, do not exist, More and Rousseau emphasize the vast divide between a civilization with private ownership and one without. More presents to the reader an entirely new and advanced civilization that is based on a systematic insistence on communal living and ownership. On the other hand, Rousseau leads the reader to understanding by essentially traveling back in time to the very beginnings of mankind’s society in order to illuminate the origins of inequality and subsequent unhappiness. Here is a point of divergence in the nature of the two arguments; More suggests that this type of society is one that must be intentionally constructed and Rousseau conversely argues that a happy, communal society is a point on the continuum of humankind’s natural progression and once passed, cannot be constructed. However, while they agree about the superiority and general happiness of a society based on communal living, both men state, either outright or inferred, that such a society is neither possible nor sustainable.
The central claim of More and Rousseau’s works is that private property engenders inequality from which arises discontent. More’s hypothesis is that the vast inequality and deep unhappiness of the English masses can be traced back to the profitable commodity of sheep. Hythloday, the fictional traveler, says that, “Your sheep, which are ordinarily so meek and require so little to maintain them, now begin… to be so voracious and fierce that they devour even the people themselves; they destroy and despoil fields, houses, and towns.” (More 22) The more profound meaning of this quote becomes more evident once More’s theory on private property is revealed. His theory is that, when rich, royal, and powerful men saw the potential profitability of raising sheep, they claimed ownership of the fields and homes of the peasants living on valuable land. This injustice leads to homelessness and poverty, which breeds crimes like theft, which leads to punishment by hanging as per English law. This progression makes it obvious that More believes an act of usurpation will inevitably lead to some form of unhappiness, as in the case of the sheep, the wealthy Englishmen, and the poor Englishmen. In fact, Hythloday states, “wherever there is private property…it is hardly ever possible for the common good to be served with justice and prosperity, unless you think that….happiness is possible when everything is shared among very few, who themselves are not entirely happy, while the rest are plunged into misery.” (More 46) This ties into More’s claim that there exists a progression that begins with private property and ends with despondency.
Like More, Rousseau explains his theory regarding the connection between private ownership and unhappiness with a progression model. However, instead of a specific example like the one More presents, Rousseau presents what he considers to be the natural progression of humankind, beginning with man in the state of nature and ending with man in unhappy society. Rousseau similarly states that this progression that leads to unhappiness begins with private property. He says, “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) Here again is a connection to More’s argument that the first step of private ownership is the usurpation of land. According to Rousseau, after the first instance of the privatization of property, mankind develops factions of families and tribes which then leads to the creation of language. Language breeds abstract thought from which arises government. It is at this point which Rousseau states unhappiness derives from the inequality that is a consequence of government. He recapitulates his argument saying, “the origin of society and of laws… irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, established for all time the law of property and inequality… and for the benefit of a few ambitious men subjected the human race thenceforth to labour, servitude, and misery.” (Rousseau 122) Upon analysis, it is easy for one to see that More and Rousseau agree that unhappiness is a product of inequality which is a product in its own right of private ownership and usurpation.
In contrast to the way in which they perceive private ownership, More and Rousseau present communal living and ownership as a superior and mutually beneficial social system. More uses the mythical island of Utopia to demonstrate the system of communal property that European countries lack. Hythloday praises the way of life of the Utopians; he tells the character More, “the Utopians, who have few laws and yet manage so well that virtue is rewarded and yet, since everything is equalized, everyone has plenty of everything.” (More 46) Hythloday’s theory remains strong even when the character, More, offers the counterargument that, “no one can live comfortably where everything is held in common…when everyone stops working because he is no longer motivated by making a profit, and grows lazy because he relies on the labor of others.” (More 48) Hythloday counteracts the claim that a non-market based system leads to idleness by citing the fact that in Utopia, “no one lounges around in idleness but rather…practices his trade diligently…and devote only six hours to work.” (More 61) He concludes that this practice of equitable labor division makes it so that the vast majority of the Utopians time is not burdened by heavy and superfluous work which ultimately “constitutes a happy life.” (More 66)
Once again, Rousseau does not base his argument in an establish society, but rather a point on the continuum of mankind’s progression—this time a point where mankind shares the proverbial fruits of the earth. He considers the possibility for a happy, communal lifestyle to be an opportunity that humankind missed in their progression. Rousseau says, “…how much misery and horror the human race would have been spared if someone had…cried out to his fellow men: ‘Beware of listening to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone and that the earth itself belongs to no one!’” (Rousseau 109) From this quote, the reader can see an obvious connection between Rousseau and More—that both consider the earth a commodity to be shared equally among mankind.
More and Rousseau provide clear examples of the two extremes on the spectrum of ownership: the completely privatized society and the socialized one. It is quite simple to see that they consider the latter to be a superior model of society, but what is unclear is the exact point along the spectrum where Rousseau and More would agree people are happiest. It may be easier in the case of Utopia, for Hythloday, the world traveler, says many times that there is no happier civilization than the Utopians in regards to widespread happiness. Rousseau, although he agrees with More that societal happiness is possible, makes it a little more difficult for the reader to determine what he thinks that society would look like. At first glance, it may seem that Rousseau thinks man in the state of nature is happiest, before all negative influences of privatization and government took effect. However, because Rousseau defines the natural man as one with only the motivations of self-preservation and pity, the abstract concept of happiness is impossible and altogether irrelevant to the natural man. Instead of the state of nature, Rousseau says that the closest mankind came to pure happiness was a momentary period along the continuum, which once passed can never be regained. Perhaps the happiest period of human existence was “so long as they applied themselves only to work that one person could accomplish alone… they lived as free, healthy, good and happy men…but from the instant one man needed the help of another…equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became necessary…and slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and flourish with the crops.” (Rousseau 116)
There is abundant evidence within both Utopia and A Discourse on Inequality to draw the conclusion that More and Rousseau agreed that private property engenders unhappiness, but more can be gained from the comparison of the two books. Ultimately, both men are trying to pinpoint the qualities of a utopian society, and then determine the possibility of realizing such a society. More achieves this by offering the reader a vivid comparison between the happy Utopians and the deeply unhappy Englishmen. In fact, this comparison is central to More’s argument because he wrote Book One of Utopia after he wrote Book Two precisely to give a background of the truth of English life against which to compare the wonders of Utopia. More’s comparison is essential because it gives verisimilitude to Hythloday’s far-fetched tale of the Utopians. However, even in its realism, More finds the society of Utopia “absurd…namely their common life and subsistence with no exchange of money.” (More 134) Further evidence that More thinks Utopia is impossible is the word utopia itself, which he crafted; ‘utopia’ is a hybrid word which means at the same time ‘good place’ and ‘no place,’ suggesting it is ultimately impossible. Rousseau also implies that such a utopian society is impossible due to the irreversible progression of mankind; man lost his ability to live in a utopian society at the same time he developed a need for dependence on his fellow man and an insistence on private ownership.
By analyzing More’s Utopia and Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality both individually and together, one can conclusively determine that More and Rousseau think that private property is the root of unhappiness in society. The more interesting conclusions come from comparison of the two books rather than simply interpretation of their separate arguments. The larger application of their work is that the concept of utopia is just that, a concept. Rousseau and More agree that a utopian society based on communal ownership is impossible to return to along the continuum of human progression or to establish in an existing society. Therefore, without a way for mankind to achieve the satisfaction and prosperity associated with a utopian society, one can deduce that Rousseau and More share the viewpoint that modern man is doomed to perpetual unhappiness.
More, Thomas. Utopia. Translated by Clarence H. Miller. New Haven: Yale University Press,
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. A Discourse on Inequality. Translated by Maurice Cranston. London:
Penguin Classics, 1984.