Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Age of Scientific Discovery, More’s Utopia and Machiavelli’s The Prince Essay, April 23, 2002

This is the twenty-fourth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

I wrote this essay for Professor Robert Wood’s LCC 2104 Age of Scientific Discovery class at Georgia Tech. This was shortly after I was readmitted to the program after working in IT for several years. My citations are sloppy and incomplete and the writing is evidence of my writing’s early stages and on-going development. This is the third of three essays from Professor Wood’s class.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Robert Wood

LCC 2104 Age of Discovery

April 23, 2002

Essay 3

The Utopians in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia handle foreign relations and implements of war in ways that can be critiqued in terms of Niccolo Machavelli’s The Prince. Three issues that can be examined are those involving foreign relations, the act of war, and the resolutions at the end of war.

One element which Machavelli deals with that shows up in More’s Utopia had to do with foreign relations. This included treaties and the word of a country’s leader. The Utopians have this view of treaties with other kingdoms and countries:

While other nations are constantly making treaties, breaking them, and renewing them, the Utopians never make any treaties at all. If nature, they say, doesn’t bind man adequately to his fellow man, will an alliance do so? If a man scorns nature herself, is there any reason to think he will care about mere words? They are confirmed in this view by the fact that in that part of the world, treaties and alliances between kings are not generally observed with much good faith (More 64).

The Utopians feel that one’s word is what binds them. Without holding that a man’s word is something to believe, then what more will writing on a paper do to hold a man to his word? This principle is born of relations outside Utopia. Each man that is a Utopian can believe and hold true to the word of another Utopian. But in their dealings with neighboring countries and kingdoms they have found that treaties are not worth the paper that they are written on. Machiavelli responds to this issue thus:

Everyone realizes how praiseworthy it is for a prince to honour his word and to be straightforward rather than crafty in his dealings; none the less contemporary experience shows that princes who have achieved great things have been those who have given their word lightly, who have known how to trick men with their cunning, and who in the end, have overcome those abiding by honest principles (Machiavelli 56).

The author of The Prince holds that he also realizes that men do not always honor their word, but that a ruler who wishes to “[achieve] great things” must be willing to “[give] their word lightly” and “[know] how to trick men with their cunning.” He goes on to write:

He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, kind, guileless, and devout. An indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how (Machiavelli 57).

Machiavelli might concede that in a perfect world, the way of the Utopians, that you can believe the word of another, but Machiavelli’s world is far from perfect. He has seen and read about how people behave and he brought this accumulated knowledge together in writing The Prince. Essentially the world is a dark place where you either have to stab the other fellow in the back, or he might just try to stab you in the back. Machiavelli suggests that a ruler be good and just, but he must also be ready to play the other side of the coin. If he is not prepared to do so, then he might not be a ruler for very long.

The Utopians go to war only on certain precepts. More writes:

They go to war only for good reasons; among these are the protection of their own land, the protection of their friends from an invading army, and the liberation of an oppressed people from tyranny and servitude. Out of human sympathy, they not only protect their friends from present danger, but avenge previous injuries; they do this, however, only if they themselves have previously been consulted, have approved the cause, and have demanded restitution in vain. Then and only then they think themselves free to declare war. They take this final step not only when their friends have been plundered, but also when their friends’ merchants have been subjected to extortion in another country, either through laws unfair in themselves or through the perversion of good laws (More 66).

Utopia protects it’s own interests and the interests of its allies. Also it acts as a sort of regional police force to make sure that kingdoms around it are subjected to “tyranny and servitude.” For the most part the Utopians do try to avoid battles, particularly with their own people serving as soldiers. First, they will act to place a high bounty on the leaders of the opposing kingdom. If this does not work, they then try to break the enemy’s ranks or create internal turmoil among the nobility of the opposing kingdom. And as a final resort they will engage in battle. First with hired mercenaries, and then if that does not work, with their own citizens. More notes, “both men and women alike carry on vigorous military training, so they will be fit to fight should the need arise” (More 66). The Utopian’s goal in war is:

…to secure what would have prevented the declaration of war, if the enemy had conceded it before hand. Or if they cannot get that, they try to take such bitter revenge on those who have injured them that they will be afraid ever to do it again. These are their chief concerns, which they go after energetically, yet in such a way as to avoid danger, rather than to win fame and glory (More 67).

In order to prevent future conflict they enact a very strict punishment on their enemies if their goals were not met initially. For being a peaceful people, they are pragmatic in their waging of war. Their methods are practical for their purposes and the methods also serve to defeat an enemy completely if their goals are not met immediately. Machiavelli has these things to say in regards to warfare:

A prince also wins prestige for being a true friend or a true enemy, that is, for revealing himself without any reservation in favour of one side against another. This policy is always more advantageous than neutrality. For instance, if the powers neigbouring on you come to blows, either they are such that, if one of them conquers, you will be in danger, or they are not. In either case it will always be to your advantage to declare yourself and to wage a vigorous war; because in the first case, if you do not declare yourself you will always be at the mercy of the conqueror, much to the pleasure and satisfaction of the one who has been beaten, and you will have no justification nor any way to obtain protection or refuge. The conqueror does not want doubtful friends who do not help him when he is in difficulties; the loser repudiates you because you were unwilling to go, arms in hand, and throw in your lot with him (Machiavelli 72-73).

Machiavelli writes The Prince as a sort of guide book on how to rule and achieve as a ruler during his time. That being said, some of his remarks on warfare and engagement deal with a ruler fighting not only for a cause or for gains for his people, but also for gaining prestige for the ruler. More’s Utopians do not fight for this purpose, but to act for the success of their own kingdom as well as those kingdoms that are their friends or neighbors who might be subjected to tyrannical rule. Machiavelli does hold that one should not remain neutral during conflict. More holds that the Utopians are much of this same stock. Machiavelli applies here to the Utopians because of underlying reasons why the Utopians would engage their enemies. Why protect a neighboring kingdom’s subjects who have been repressed by a tyrannical leader? That tyrannical leader might prove to be a person wanting more lands and power which would eventually endanger Utopian interests abroad as well as on their home land. For them it is better to engage the menace now instead of waiting until the problem is more pronounced. Also, by the Utopians throwing in their lot with friends or repressed peoples, they clearly show who they are allied with. As Machiavelli writes it is better to state who you are with and reap the outcome instead of being neutral and being at the possible mercy of the winner of the war. In regards to mercenary soldiers Machiavelli has this to say:

I want to show more clearly what unhappy results follow the use of mercenaries. Mercenary commanders are either skilled in warfare or they are not: if they are, you cannot trust them, because they are anxious to advance their own greatness, either by coercing you, their employer, or by coercing others against your own wishes. If, however, the commander is lacking in prowess, in the normal way he brings about your ruin. If anyone argues that this is true of any other armed force, mercenary or not, I reply that armed forces must be under the control of either a prince or a republic: a prince should assume personal command and captain his troops himself; a republic must appoint its own citizens, and when a commander so appointed turns out incompetent, should change him, and if he is competent, it should limit his authority by statute. Experience has shown that only princes and armed republics achieve solid success, and that mercenaries bring nothing but loss; and a republic which has its own citizen army is far less likely to be subjugated by one of its own citizens than a republic whose forces are not its own (Machiavelli 40).

More’s Utopians use mercenaries to help fight their battles so as to spare their own people. Also it should be noted that the Utopians will not let mercenaries stay on their island at any time. “Because the Utopians give higher pay than anyone else, [the mercenaries] are ready to serve them against any enemy whatever” (More 69). To lead their army of mercenaries and indigenous peoples for whom they are fighting, “Last they add their own citizens, including some man of known bravery to command the entire army” (More 69). The Utopians lead their mercenary armies as Machiavelli suggests. But More does not note the issues with mercenary forces that Machavelli notes in saying, “Experience has shown that only princes and armed republics achieve solid success, and that mercenaries bring nothing but loss” (Machiavelli 40). The reasons for this is that a mercenary army, lead by a mercenary commander or by a commander for whom they represent, but if they win a territory or a war, what stops the mercenaries from deciding to lay claim to their winnings and not allow the kingdom they represent handle the subsequent winnings? Dealing with mercenaries is a difficult issue which More gives a naive treatment of according to Machavelli’s approach and counsel.

After the end of a war, there must be concessions and payment in some form made to the winner. In the conclusion of war, the Utopians deal with their enemy in this manner:

When the Utopians make a truce with the enemy, they observe it religiously, and will not break it even if provoked. They do not ravage the enemy’s territory or burn his crops; indeed, so far as possible, they avoid any trampling of the crops by men or horses, thinking they may need the grain later on…When cities are surrendered to them, they keep them intact; even when they have stormed a place, they do not plunder it, but put to death the men who prevented surrender, enslave the other defenders, and do no harm to the civilians. If they find any of the inhabitants who recommended surrender, they give them a share in the property of the condemned, and present their auxiliaries with the rest, for the Utopians themselves never take any booty.
After a war is ended, they collect the cost of it, not from the allies for whose sake they undertook it, but from the conquered. They take as indemnity not only money which they set aside to finance future wars, but also landed estates from which they may enjoy forever a generous annual income…As managers of these estates, they send abroad some of their own citizens, with the title of Financial Factors…
If any foreign prince takes up arms and prepares to invade their land, they immediately attack him in full force outside their own borders (More 72).

The Utopians do not exercise rule over those defeated. They take do a sort of redistribution of land to those who recommend surrender to the Utopians. Crops and fields are not destroyed because they might be considered useful later to the Utopians. Also, they take lands which they can demand an income for. These estates are managed by Utopian citizens who are dispatched there. Of note, they hold true to their truces with enemies, but if a foreign state decides to attack or prepare to attack Utopia, then the Utopians will attack that country with full force. Machiavelli sets out several ways of dealing with conquered lands. One of these meets closely to the way that the Utopians handle the spoils of war. He writes:

When states newly acquired as I said have been accustomed to living freely under their own laws, there are three ways to hold them securely: first, by devastating them; next, by going and living there in person; thirdly, by letting them keep their own laws, exacting tribute, and setting up an oligarchy which will keep the state friendly to you. In the last case, the government will know that it cannot endure without the friendship and power of the prince who created it, and so it has to exert itself to maintain his authority. A city used to freedom can be more easily ruled through its own citizens, provided you do not wish to destroy it, than in any other way (Machiavelli 16).

The Utopians are close to the third case that Machavelli states in The Prince. However, More does not spell out that the Utopians setup a friendly government in place of an unfriendly one. He does write, “they do not plunder it, but put to death the men who prevented surrender, enslave the other defenders, and do no harm to the civilians” (More 72). Perhaps their truces account for this, or they let the civilians form a new government. If this is the case, then Machavelli does go on to say that “A city used to freedom can be more easily ruled through its own citizens, provided you do not wish to destroy it, than in any other way” (Machiavelli 16).

The principles of Machiavelli’s The Prince apply to More’s Utopia. On some things the two do not agree completely, but this is not surprising since Machiavelli dealt with his observations and reading of the real world, while More’s work was of a fantasy land that wasn’t solidly established in the real world. The Utopians appear to be a composite of a country of almost perfect persons who hold to their word and act according to that word. Reality does not allow for this composite of a person to exist. Machavelli shows that there must be a sort of twin personality in dealing with foreign relations. Also, Machavelli’s approach to war and dealing with war’s aftermath is more practical than what the Utopians do. It seems the Utopians actions and works are like blocks of Lego that snap to form a whole, while Machavelli’s cases and alternatives are more like clay kneaded and sculpted to form a more organic whole.


Works Cited

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. George Bull. New York, New York:

Penguin Books, 1999.


More, Sir Thomas. Utopia. Trans. Robert M. Adams. New York, New York:

W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1992.


Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.