Vices and Virtues: From Thomas More’s Utopia

“They have, however, two sorts of games not unlike our chess…the other resembles a battle between the virtues and the vices, in which the enmity in the vices among themselves, and their agreement against virtue is not unpleasantly represented; together with the special oppositions between the particular virtues and vices; as also the methods by which vice either openly assaults or secretly undermines virtue; and virtue on the other hand resists it.”  (Claeys, Gregory, and Lyman Tower Sargent. “Of Their Trades, and Manner of Life.” The Utopia Reader. New York: New York UP, 1999. pgs 78-79. Print.)

I found this quote to be fascinating in its somewhat negative examination of human nature as it ties into the rest of the work. Utopia is not perfect by virtue of its people, but rather of its societal system of laws. Its carefully constructed rules and regulations seek to keep man’s natural instinct towards evil in check.

We see a few instances in which citizens do the wrong thing in this excerpted reading. For example, some people in Utopia rebel against the laws of travel. Rather than obeying, these offenders visit other cities without authority from the Prince. Repeated violations of this crime lead to a life of slavery (as with other crimes). Even more extreme, those who commit adultery more than once are sentenced to death. Punishment of this sort may serve to keep the Utopian people in check. More may be suggesting that utopia can only come about through a society that regulates and controls people’s vices through the proper “education.” If vices are severely punished, the citizens of Utopia will more naturally strive towards being virtuous as a form of self preservation.

Besides punishment, another way in which this occurs is the reduction of money’s worth. Societal values and needs are built in such a way that the natural jealousy and greed that stems from the love of money is curbed. The potential for jealousy and greed therefore lie dormant in mankind, and Utopia’s laws serve to avoid any activation of these passions. The virtue of society therefore overcomes the inherent vices in mankind. The game described, one of only two that the people in Utopia play, is an almost propogandic reminder that immoralities and sinful pleasures will always be resisted and overcome by virtue. This whole system of government is essentially a way to battle those evil passions in mankind which historically have caused the best of societies to spiral downward.