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The European voyages of discovery of the late fifteenth
century played a critical role in the development of modern
conceptions of progress. From the ancient Greeks onward,
western culture tended to emphasize certain unchanging and
universal ideas about human society. But the discovery of
the New World threw many supposedly universal ideals into
doubt. The Indians, who seemingly lived free from all the
traditional constraints of civilized life--such as private
property or family bonds--offered a vehicle for criticizing
the corruptions, abuses, and restrictions of European society.
1516 the English humanist Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) published
Utopia, his description of an ideal society where crime,
injustice, and poverty did not exist. Writing just twenty-four
years after Columbus's first voyage to the Caribbean, More
located his perfect society in the Western Hemisphere. More's
book, which is written in the form of a dialogue, pointedly
contrasts the simplicity of life in Utopia with contemporary
Europe's class divisions. In Utopia, property is held in
common, gold is scorned, and all inhabitants eat the same
food and wear the same clothes. And yet several features
of More's Utopia strike a jarring note. For one thing, his
book justifies taking land from the indigenous people because,
in European eyes, they did not cultivate it. And secondly,
the prosperity and well-being of More's ideal society ultimately
rests on slave labor.
I consider with myself and weigh in my mind the wise and godly
ordinances of the Utopians, among whom with very few laws all
things be so well and wealthily ordered, that virtue is had
in price and estimation, and yet, all things being there common,
every man hath abundance of everything.
household or farm in the country hath fewer than forty persons,
men and women, besides two bondmen, which be all under the rule
and order of the good man, and the good wife of the house, being
both very sage and discreet persons.... For they dividing the
day and the night into twenty-four hours, appoint and assign
only six of those hours to work....
this hall all vile service, all slavery, and drudgery, with
all laboursome toil and business, is done by bondmen....