How does the ideal society of Thomas More compare to the ideal State of Plato?

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ecofan74 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Throughout the history of philosophy, thinkers have speculated about the nature of the ideal society.  Their solutions say as much about the nature of the philosopher as they do about the nature of the society they seek to outline.  Perhaps the two most famous attempts are set forth in Plato's Republic and Sir Thomas More's Utopia.  Plato's account, like Sir Thomas More's about eighteen hundred years later, say a great deal about what each philosopher considers the formative influences on a given society.

In Plato's Republic, he discusses aspects of the ideal state on a very abstract level, beginning with the nature of individuals, the moving to the nature of the ideal society, and culminating in the government of that society.  As an example, Plato emphasizes the place of justice and ethics in this society.  They are building blocks for his society.  Likewise, Plato discusses a number of other aspects of society (judgment, et al.) that an individual (and by extension society) must cultivate to approach the ideal.  From there, he suggests that individuals with an understanding of the nature of justice will comprise the ideal society.  At the head of this society is the "Philosopher King."  The "Philosopher King" is one who holds complete power, not through intimidation but through the knowledge he possesses.  In the "Allegory of the Cave," Plato illustrates how the "Philosopher King" differs from the rest of society.  He alone seeks to leave the cave to approach a greater understanding of the world - to see the true nature of things (in the Realm of Ideas).

Rather than focusing on the nature of abstract concepts as the building blocks of a society from the level of the individual to that of society, Sir Thomas More's approach is a bit more direct.  He concerns himself with the practical considerations.  Like Plato, he does respond to political realities of his own time (Plato, not approving of Socrates's treatment at the hands of the democratic government in Athens, opts not to espouse a democratic government in the Republic.)  Sir Thomas More, writing during the reign of Henry VIII in England, constructs his ideal state as a response to the nature of monarchical rule.  More's state is essentially a socialist state, in which the population is given a certain task to fulfill.  In exchange, the state provides for them.  That being said, the leader of the state is not above the people, but he instead is responsive to the people.  In doing so, the government is just (not being prone to excess of power).

These are just some of the many aspects each author discusses.  While both propose a prospective solution to the question of an ideal state, More's, not only in its tone but also in its content, takes on a more practical form than Plato's.  Plato is more concerned with the theoretical rather than practical application. 

timehiker75 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Thomas More wrote Utopia as a critique of sixteenth-century British and European society with its inequality and injustice. He questioned the system of brutal criminal punishments, under which theft was punishable by death, and which applied to poor people who lost their property and means of survival due to the actions of rich and powerful lords who enclosed their lands, thereby depriving the peasants of grazing grounds.

In trying to figure out more appropriate remedies for social ills, More devised the first blueprint for a socialist society. He considered socialist ideas an integral part of his thought experiment rather than an ideology. The idea of a society based on common property originated with Plato’s Republic, but Plato limited it to the one social class, the Guardians, a military caste that did not have private property. More expanded the idea of common property to society as a whole.

Utopian society is more egalitarian and integrated than that of Plato’s Republic; all of More’s citizens have access to a liberal education, and there is less of a distinction between common citizens and scholars. All Utopians work six hours a day in various basic trades. This is very different from Plato’s ideas about the basic incompatibility between occupations associated with physical labor and high culture with its focus on contemplative reflection. More also tells his readers about respectable free Utopians who voluntarily engage in difficult, “base” labor for the sake of their community’s well-being. At the same time, Utopian society uses slavery as a punishment for prisoners of war and for those convicted of horrible crimes; thus it is still unequal.

More used Utopia as a convenient touchstone for his critique of pride and greed in contemporary European societies with their failure to distinguish between imaginary and authentic values; he saw money and gold as imaginary values. More’s denunciation of pride and greed has distinctly Augustinian overtones, which differentiates it from Plato’s philosophical construction. More specifically mentions the similarities between early Christian communalist practices and his Utopian vision.

In his conclusion, More cautiously distances himself from his socialist island community by pointing out that the Utopian way of life, with its rejection of money, is incompatible with nobility, splendor, and majesty. At the same time, he expresses the wish that the European governments would adopt some of the practices of the city of Utopia. Thus, More left his readers with an open question about the limitations and applicability of his socialist exploration.