February 23, 2008KR BlogEthics

Private Property and Utopia

A couple of weeks ago, I was blogging on the tension between an ideal of common ownership of property and allowances for private ownership. This tension is one that shows up in the Utopia (1516) by St. Thomas More (1477-1535). In this work, Raphael Hythloday describes his time on the island of Utopia (one of More’s learned puns, the name of the island means both “good place” and “no place”). Before describing what he considers to be the ideal life of the Utopians, Hythloday states that “it seems to me that wherever there is private property, where everything is measured in terms of money, it is hardly ever possible for the common good to be served with justice and prosperity, unless you think justice is served when all the best things go to the worst people or that happiness is possible when everything is shared among very few, who themselves are not entirely happy, while the rest are plunged into misery” (Utopia, translated with introduction and notes by Clarence Miller, New Haven: Yale Nota Bene, 2001, 46).

But then “More” (the character in the book, not necessarily to be fully identified with the historical personage) responds that private ownership of property is necessary so that the promise of profit will motivate people to work. “Peter Giles,” another humanist on the scene, adds that surely the governments of Europe are older than those of Utopia, meaning that “long experience” (49) has provided European governments with benefits unlikely available to those of more recent origin. However, Hythloday (whose name, another of More’s turns of wit, means “peddler of nonsense”–see Miller’s introduction, viii) responds that Utopia’s historical accounts suggest that cities existed there before people even existed “here.” In other words, the superior wisdom of European civilization is not to be taken for granted or as a given, even if the “good place” of Utopia is also a “no place” that we cannot reach.

The primary argument for Utopia’s way of life and government is the vivid description that Raphael Hythloday provides in the major section of the book. While “More” ends the book with a note of praise for the Utopian commonwealth, he also adds several notes of disagreement; he elaborates no extensive arguments, but rather states that “quite a few institutions established by the customs and laws of that nation seemed to me quite absurd,” especially that of “their common life and subsistence with no exchange of money” (134). Thus, “More” (the character), along with More (the historical person) establishes his clear bona fides as a supporter of private property. A moment of irony occurs, however, when “More” elaborates that the common ownership of property “entirely undermines all nobility, magnificence, splendor, and majesty, which are (in the popular view) the true adornments and ornaments of a commonwealth” (134). As a writer and man of faith, More throughout his life remained critical of the “popular view” to which his persona “More” appeals. The “popular view,” after all, embodies much of the folly that More and his friend Erasmus called attention to in their writings. The effect of “More’s” ironic appeal to the “popular view” in the context of defending private property is not so much to undermine the institution as a whole, as it is to suggest that there is more to the issue than a mere affirmation or denial can cover.

This tension between recognizing the right to private property and refusing the absolutize the right characterizes the thought also of another saint, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). In his Summa Theologiae (II-IIae, Q. 66, Art. 2), Thomas on the one hand sets out three reasons why the ownership of property is necessary for human life: 1) it provides motivation to work; 2) it allows for orderliness in human affairs; and 3) it enables peaceful social relations. On the other hand, in describing humans’ fundamental relationship to creation, Thomas articulates a vision of common ownership: “Community of goods is ascribed to the natural law, not that the natural law dictates that all things should be possessed in common and that nothing should be possessed as one’s own: but because the division of possessions is not according to the natural law, but rather arose from human agreement which belongs to positive law, as stated above (Q. 57, AA. 2-3). Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, but an addition thereto devised by human reason” (II-IIae, Q. 66, A. 2, Reply to Objection 1). In other words, private ownership of possessions is not dictated or required by natural law, though such ownership does not stand in contradiction to natural law. Rather private ownership has been invented by humans for the expedients that Aquinas lists. Such ownership is ideally a way of living productively and well in the world. The fundamental, even metaphysical, relationship of humans to the world remains, however, that of community of goods.

I find it helpful and even edifying to read in this tradition for the nuanced understanding it can provide about a view of property in tension with many assumptions widespread in our U.S. of A. concerning acquisition and the right to private ownership. It is a nuanced understanding I find helpful as we survive another season of slogans and sound bites.