Both of the utopian societies that are portrayed in Plato’s The Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia have a hierarchy in which there is a clear difference between the State or island’s ruler, and the ruled. However, the ruler’s powers and responsibilities differ greatly due to the respective utopias’ structure and organization. In The Republic, we can observe a rigid class organization with the philosopher king as the absolute ruler. In Utopia, there exists a ruler, but in a scheme which is much more malleable. These differences in the structure of power in the utopias depicted reveal the respective author’s society and situation in which they live, and consequently reveal their motivations in writing these books.
These philosophers agree that there needs to be a special class that holds power over the citizens of the utopia. In the Republic that Plato describes, these rulers are the philosopher kings; those that were handpicked from childhood and rigorously educated and molded to be in the elite class throughout their lives. These philosopher kings possess absolute power, and are assumed to know what is best for the State. In Thomas More’s utopia, those that are the most educated and qualified are chosen to lead regardless of upbringing or social status. Because there is less social rigidity in this rendition of utopia, the citizens who chose to have a role in governing the island are able to collaborate with the rulers. This in turn creates a system of checks and balances that is absent in the Republic.
This disparity in ruling structure is inherently a product of the time period in which the author lived and also his experiences. After witnessing the execution of his teacher, Socrates, at the hands of the government of Athens, Plato lost confidence in democracy and human nature. As a result, Plato structures his ideal State in a way that would minimize the power of the uninformed many, and emphasize the rule of the educated elite. Consequently, the stability of the State would be valued over the happiness of individuals. The Utopia in Thomas More’s work is also a product of his experience. The dictator-like operations of the Catholic Church in addition to the actions of the English monarchy caused him to desire a more collaborative and open method of government in his utopian society. As a result, the citizens of Utopia were encouraged to explore various fields of knowledge while contributing to the city.
While both authors strove to create an ideal society, they came to a vastly different conclusion. The term “perfect” is not set in stone; the definition changes with the time period based on what is deemed “imperfect” by the thinker who is affected by his or her influences, experiences and position in society. This is reflected in Plato and Thomas More’s differences in the structure of power in their respective utopian societies.