On More and Utopia

This is a paper that I wrote last semester, and I like the content enough to throw it up here. There’s enough going on that it should be worth reading. Undergraduate paper and whatnot ahoy.

(Also, I haven’t felt like writing this week, so it’s just content boost.)


Slaughter and the Slave: Utopia and the Animal

            The question of the composition of the state is at the forefront of Thomas Moore’s thought. This is not to say that he is only concerned with how to make a well-run, smooth state process, but also how the mechanisms of the state create forms of subjectivity. At the center of this ethical question is the treatment of animals in Utopia. In his analysis of hunting and animal slaughter, More approaches the question of the animal through an anthropocentric lens; the processes of hunting and killing become loci for fostering an ethical space for human beings. On the other hand, however, the very structure and ideology inherent in the power of the sovereign of Utopia suggests a perceptive problem in More’s analysis. It is necessary to tease out this tension between treatment of animals and human beings in order to fully understand if Utopia is actually “no place,” or if it is, rather, “every place” in the dichotomy it draws between the animal and the human.

Before talking about the animal, it is crucial to speak about crime and the punishment of crime in Utopia. In the discussion that occurs in Book One, the subject of thievery and the appropriate punishment for that crime becomes the center of the latter portion. Peter Gyles explains:

And they themselves be condemned to be common laborers, and unless the theft be very heinous, they be neither locked in prison nor fettered in gyves, but be untied and go at large, laboring in common works. They that refuse labor, or go slowly and slackly in their work, be not only tied in chains, but also pricked forward with stripes. (More 36)

The power of the sovereign is clearly defined here as it pertains to the punishment of the body. In the context of the quote above, the thief of Utopia is not presented with an option outside of slavery to the sovereign. This law of slavery is built on an idea of a justice that is defended by Gyles as being of the New Testament–it is contrasted with laws that meet thievery with state-sanctioned murder, calling the law of slavery one based on “the new law of clemency and mercy” (34). The fact that this is seen as something that is merciful is key here. It means that the state apparatus of Utopia ultimately sees itself as a saving grace, rather than as a system of control and limitation. The justification that Gyles gives for the law is bound up in this mercy: if the punishment for thievery is the same as manslaughter, the thieves will be likely to murder (34). This justification makes it seem like the law itself is an act of charity; by giving the thieves more options and some flexibility under the law, it means that they will commit fewer extreme acts of violence. How good and charitable the state is reflects on how good the average citizen can be. “With so using and ordering them that they cannot choose but to be good,” Gyles concludes, asserting that when freedom is limited to acceptable actions, only those actions can be accomplished (37).

But this is assuming that slavery to the state is not the worst punishment possible. The guise of the smiling, charitable sovereign here masks a terrible assumption: that the forfeiture of all personal freedom is an appropriate cost for a crime against another private citizen. The sheer positivity of this worldview is frightening, and according to Gyles, “their life is nothing hard or incommodious” (36). They serve, with their bodies, “an indifferent good,” a smiling, beneficent sovereign that demands nothing short of their lives (36). These slaves can even be sold on the market for day labor, for “somewhat cheaper than he should hire a free man” (36-37). The law of Utopia is used to create a massive nearly-free workforce that is limited in action; the bondsmen are even divested of commonality with other bondmen–they cannot “talk with a servingman of another shire” because it implies an intent of freedom, which the state associates with an intent to run away (37). While the narration continually speaks of this activity in a positive tone, it is insidious, and serves to remove the slaves’ humanity.

What does this mean for Utopia? It means that it is built on a system that has to fundamentally exclude some members of society in order to create a cheaper labor economy, and to do that, it has to create a class of nonhumans. Gyles is explicit about this when he states that the slaves have “the tip of one ear cut off” and that “all and every one of them [is] appareled in one color” (37). The use of clothing to denote status is an age-old process, and both the cutting and the clothing serve to both set the slaves apart from the general population and to forge them into an anonymous bloc that can be treated as a unit. The marring of the ear is more damaging–it can never be hidden, or disguised; a person is physically a slave for the rest of his or her life, and the wound is there to remind them of that fact. Remember that this is all committed under the guise of mercy by the smiling sovereign.

The same beneficent attitude on the part of the government of Utopia creates the logic behind the slaughter of animals. When the slaughter of animals if first brought to the front of discussion in Book Two, More writes

From thence the beasts be brought in, killed, and clean washed by the hands of their bondmen, for they permit not their free citizens to accustom themselves to the killing of beasts, through the use wherof they think clemency, the gentlest affection of our nature, by little and little to decay and perish. (78-79)

The assertion that clemency dies in the individual that is forced to slaughter animals is ironic, since the sovereign of Utopia claims mercy as a quality that it exemplifies in its treatment of criminals. Does that mean, for example, that if the whole of the state were forced to slaughter animals, that it would cease to be a state capable of mercy? Perhaps there is some truth to the argument that mercy dies in the individual forced to kill another animal, but the application of that in Utopia is disturbing. The humanity of the slave, and his or her ability to feel, is ignored in favor of the citizen’s desire for the consumption of flesh.  For this system to work, Utopia has to underplay the severity of the offense that is commits against the slaves. The slaves’ humanity has to be denied through a making-anonymous in order to ensure the production of meat. While it is dangerous to assert that the slaves’ humanity is denied because of meat production, it seems like the two systems at least were created organically together. In saving the vast majority, the sovereign created a subhuman class that exists only to give pleasure to the citizens of the state–a pleasure that, if they had to create themselves, would make them less than human.

More’s commentary on hunting mirrors this argument. Hunting is “the lowest, vilest, and the most abject part of butchery,” and “the Utopians have rejected it to their butchers” (98). The main rejection of hunting is that is can become pleasurable to kill animals for no reason other than sport, and to avoid this, the Utopians have forced their bondsmen to perform all of the hunting duties (98). The Utopians also assert that “there is no natural pleasantness” in the “common” desire to hunt (98). By associating hunting with a base kind of desire, the Utopians can avoid the dangers of becoming less-than-civilized by making sure that common citizens are insulated from any kind of activity that would damage their humanity. That insulation ensures, however, the destruction of the slaves’ humanity. The treatment of the animal in Utopia serves a terrible purpose. It stratifies the position of the slave–the use of the act of slaughter is purposeful and targeted, and ensures that a specific class of subject is in a space where they are forced to sacrifice their humanity for the good of the State. The language that More uses to defend this use of the animal in the context of the state is strikingly similar to contemporary ideas on meat and meat production. Like the citizens of Utopia, most people would “be moved with pity to see a silly, innocent hare murdered of a dog,” and yet most salivate with desire when there is a discussion of putting a whole pig body in a barbecue pit (98). The contemporary world sees it as something that must be done for people to eat, and if More is correct, contemporary society still associates slaughter with dehumanization; the introduction of the machinic enterprise for slaughter, and the machine-killing of animals, has effectively erased the question of the human from slaughter as an act.

There are possibilities for liberation here, however, that More cannot access because of his strong ties to an anthropocentrism that defines the strata of his fictional society. The slaves could, because of their closer connection to animals, understand the lack of difference between human animals and non-human animals. That is the space for ethics here–in the dissolution between the two. However, in Utopia, this can never be entertained, as it would threaten the existence of the entire society. Maybe Utopia is closer to the real world than we think.

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