Coercion in Thomas More's Utopia
and Charlie Chaplin's Easy Street

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2016, Volume 15, Issue 2


Bryan Mead
Northern Illinois University

The idea of change plays a major role in utopias. Before the creation of a utopian society, the major question is how to induce change from the current system to the utopian system. After the creation of a utopian structure, the question becomes how to effectively avoid societal change. Scholars have not ignored the fact that works of utopic fiction often answer both of these questions through coercive means. Michael Gardiner, for instance, claims utopias are "an archetypal form of terroristic metanarrative" (21), and Ruth Levitas argues they engender totalitarianism (198). Yet, the impetus for utopian narratives often emerges from dissatisfaction with current social conditions and sitting governmental agencies' improper use of power. As Lyman Sargent writes, utopias are "the archetype and harbinger of social change – good, bad, and indifferent" (566). These creatively imagined, more-perfect governments offer critiques of existing governments by instituting laws and practices that counter the perceived power-imbalances of their real-life counterparts. As Northrop Frye notes, the utopia, "in its typical form, contrasts, implicitly or explicitly, the writer’s own society with the more desirable one he describes" (325). In doing so, utopic fictions challenge specific injustices by creating a world free of those specific injustices.
Many times coercion is the means these fictional utopian worlds use to effectively remove real-world injustices and keep them from returning. However, coercion in these scenarios does not automatically connote evils done against the citizenry. Both Thomas More's Utopia (1516) and Charlie Chaplin's film Easy Street (1916) exemplify this tendency by utilizing coercion to eradicate what they saw as modern-day political errors. More’s Utopia, through the character of Raphael Hythloday, distinctly challenges specific injustices within early sixteenth-century English and European society, such as the irrationality of capital punishment used on economically underprivileged citizens driven to theft by the English monarchy. This point is particularly clear in Book 1 of Utopia, and most scholars agree with David Halpin that the "perfect society that More goes on to outline in Book 2" creates a place for More's readers to "compare positively with the awful realities of contemporary Tudor England" (303). Hythloday compares the English to "bad schoolmasters, who would rather beat than teach their scholars," and offers an alternative governmental mode that does away with private property, which Hythloday sees as the catalyst for the economic inequality and burglary by low-income citizens (More 21).

The government's rejection of private property combines with strict religious laws and significant governmental oversight, both based on adherence to reason, to maintain peace in Utopia. Chaplin's Easy Street, as with most of his films, challenges America's irrational punishment of economically underprivileged citizens. Devin and Marsha Orgeron, as with most critics, view the films Chaplin made at the Mutual Film Company between 1916 and 1917, one of which is Easy Street, as confronting "class disparity in one way or another" (88). Chaplin's "Tramp" character in the film becomes a police officer and eradicates crime in a poverty-stricken area by overpowering the "bad" criminals and helping to feed the "good" criminals only forced into theft by starvation. The Tramp's governmental oversight combines with the town's renewed religious fervor not only to cleanse the streets but also to preserve peace on Easy Street. Both Utopia and Easy Street, in their disdain for what they see as a poor use of real-life coercion, not only reject modern-day political problems by creating fictional worlds without those problems, but do so by instituting new methods of legal and religious coercion to uphold those changes. These texts create worlds that rely on coercions based in reason and equity, as opposed to the irrational and inequitable coercions of their real-life governments, to sustain civility and peace.
However, neither Hythloday in Utopia nor Chaplin's Tramp in Easy Street overtly champion coercion as the dominant method of sustained peace. Instead, Hythloday and Chaplin claim that alterations to flawed governmental systems will simply create the impetus for that society's citzenry to act in accordance with love and unity and for other governments to recognize the superiority of this political method. In essence, a perfect social system will provide a sustainable commonwealth both internally and externally. Similar literary designs for a society immune to internal strife and external attack date back at least to Plato. Lewis Mumford argues that Plato's Republic "purposed to create a structure that, unlike the actual city in history, would be immune to challenge from within and to destruction from without" (274). In order to maintain internal peace, these utopic societies must resist and deter any effort to overthrow the status quo. Societies accomplish this goal by developing citizens with similar thoughts, actions, and desires through a process of rational and widespread education that the citizens should wholeheartedly accept. For Plato, the purpose of education was to "find the form of the [ultimate] good" and to teach students to seek after that universal precept "through moral and political philosophy" (Charlton 4). Once attained, this ultimate good, found through reason, could overpower irrational or sophistic arguments. The belief by Renaissance humanists in the power of this type of reason through education merged with their deeply cultural Christianity so that reason, "previously a dangerously pagan quality," achieved "a new dignity, in that through its use an understanding of the Divine Will could be reached" even without direct interaction with Biblical revelation (Charlton 9). David Halpin also makes a connection between utopic societies and education, arguing that "education has been a concomitant of the majority of past utopian schemes" (300). Halpin further notes that More "was very committed to a particular version of the educational process – namely, one that stressed the importance of education in both giving people the best possible start in life and in helping them generally to develop ways of thinking intellectually as an antidote to speaking and acting foolishly" (305). For Plato, More, and other utopia-creators, this rational educational foundation included educating "the population in the spirit of religious, moral or social ideology" (Idenburg 8). In its ideal condition, the utopic educational system informed every aspect of civic life.
Raphael Hythloday's rhetoric in Thomas More's Utopia gives the Utopian state credit for creating such an environment. His account of the Utopian commonwealth seems to argue that societies can avoid ruling through coercive measures once they have established the ideal political, educational, and economic system through appealing to good reason. He argues that when individuals follow "the guidance of nature…in desiring one thing and avoiding another," they obey "the dictates of reason" (93). The most important precepts of reason are to "love and [venerate] the Divine Majesty" and to "lead a life as free from care and as full of joy as possible and, because of our natural fellowship, to help all other men, too, to attain that end" (93). Education plays a major role in perpetuating the role of reason. The priests teach the children academics along with "morals and virtue," in order to "instill into children's minds, while still tender and pliable, good opinions, which are also useful for the preservation of their commonwealth" (140). Hythloday reports that the institutions which the Utopians have adopted "have laid the foundations of the commonwealth not only most happily, but also to last forever," along with being in "no danger of trouble from domestic discord, which has been the only cause of ruin to the well-established prosperity of many cities" (151).
Hythloday connects this internal peace and prosperity of Utopia most directly to its refutation of private property and adherence to religious values, even claiming there is no hope "of a cure and a return to a healthy condition as long as each individual is master of his own property" (54). For Hythloday, a political and economic system can provide an environment for complete justice amongst the citizenry, so much so that the government would need "few laws" to ensure "equality of distribution," so "all men have abundance of all things" (53). Individuals and groups would have no need for conflict with other individuals and groups because government policies and officials would treat everyone justly and equally. Likewise, people would always treat others with love since reason leads them to believe "God repays, in place of a brief and tiny pleasure, immense and never-ending gladness" (94). Therefore, Hythloday argues individuals have the ability to transcend their own interests for the interest of others as long as the current political and religious system removes all pride-inducing temptations. The systems of public regulation, rather than individuals, are "ultimately responsible for all social and personal evils" (Wegemer 139).
Easy Street
is actually unique in Chaplin's oeuvre for envisioning similarly widespread social and economic stability. Like Hythloday in Utopia, Chaplin's films almost unilaterally argue that capitalism and greed induce pride and make it nearly impossible for humans to act selflessly, especially between economic classes. The famous speech at the end of The Great Dictator (1940) exemplifies this argument, with Chaplin's barber character, in the guise of the dictator, telling his audience that millions of despairing men and women are "victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people." Because of this injustice, Chaplin's Tramp often remains a social outsider throughout the films based on his poor economic status. Chaplin's repeated use of the Tramp walking down the road away from the camera at the end of films provides visual evidence to this point. Unable to fully integrate within a capitalistic society, the Tramp must move elsewhere, continually searching for that place where success is not measured by the amount of money one has in a bank account. He also must cede his love interest in both The Tramp (1915) and The Circus (1928) to his more financially prominent rivals because he realizes that without money he has no hope of providing her with happiness. In a similar manner, at the end of Modern Times (1936), he and his love interest must leave town, and their newfound employment, because the police want to place her in a juvenile home even though she is successfully living and working on her own. The subdued and ambiguous "happy endings" in both The Immigrant (1917) and City Lights (1931) result from the Tramp's utter destitution, and while he ends the films with his love interest, there remains little hope for a financially successful or socially integrated future. The only times society accepts Chaplin's character either within or at the end of a film is when he actually or perceptually has money, as in his interactions with the suicidal millionaire and subsequent monetary windfall in City Lights or in his financially successfully upturn at the end of The Gold Rush (1925). As the barber in The Great Dictator argues, men will overcome prejudice and love each other equally only when they break themselves from the dictators running the corrupt system.
Yet, both Hythloday's narrative account in Utopia and the Tramp's actions in Easy Street strongly imply, as does social theorist and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, that societal peace requires coercion even within these more-perfect environs. The success of Utopia is not that, as Hythloday argues, the country's political structure makes the citizens undesirous of change. Instead, the success of Utopia's maintenance of peace for more than a millennium stems from their strong methods of coercion, which silence actions that go against good reason, particularly disruptive legal and religious dissent. The Tramp's success on Easy Street likewise relies on his physical dominance over the town's most prominent villain and his ability to quell any desire for his adversary’s diversion from legal and religious norms. Niebuhr argues that the fault of idyllic societal solutions is not, typically, in their assessment of social facts but in their hope that "a new pedagogy or a revival of religion will make conflict unnecessary in the future" (146). Conflict stems from differing interests, and no matter the political, religious, or educational system in place, certain individual or group interests will contrast with those of other individuals or groups because of the "inability of human beings to transcend their own interests sufficiently to envisage the interests of their fellowmen as clearly as they do their own" (154). This conflict of interest most often results in a power dichotomy, and these power dynamics influence action. On the large scale, this conflict is over state control. Niebuhr writes that, most often, "minorities will yield only because the majority has come into control of the police power of the state and may, if the occasion arises, augment that power by its own military strength. Should a minority regard its own strength, whether economic or martial, as strong enough to challenge the power of the majority, it may attempt to wrest control of the state apparatus from the majority" (154). Hope in an all-unifying social program without conflicting interests is, according to Niebuhr, fanciful in the extreme. Therefore, his overarching argument is that societal peace, and at least outward conformity to the societal norms, in "all social co-operation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion" (152).
This coercive reality appears in Utopia as the Utopian society continually silences citizens holding dissenting viewpoints with threats of exclusion, violence, or exile, and religion offers the most obvious examples of this practice. Hythloday relates the widespread Utopian acknowledgment of monotheism and judgment of deeds after death with the note that there is strict "injunction" against all those who "should fall so far below the dignity of human nature" by disagreeing with these precepts (More 134). This law prevents the Utopians from counting such a man "among their citizens," along with offering him "no honor…no office…[and] no [public] function" (135). He also tells of the arrest and exile of a newly converted Christian who proselytizes in the streets. The man's punishment was not for "despising" the religion of the Utopians, but for "stirring up a riot among the people" (133). In fact, the entire Utopian societal system, including the denial of private property, is set up to discourage and remove dissenting viewpoints. Hythloday states there are no chances for corruption, no hiding places, and no spots for secret meetings since the Utopians live "under the eyes of all" (83). Those in power even control the movement of the citizenry, punishing, and upon a second offense enslaving, Utopians leaving their own district "without the governor’s certificate" (82). The social power of the priests, who are in charge of religious and public teaching, places them above the common citizen in a way Hythloday's optimistic view of commonality seems to ignore. There is even a social stigma attached to being "rebuked" by the priests for "not being of upright life" (139). Minority dissenters are not only kept from meeting together, they are also publically shamed.
Coercion as a social reality also perpetuates Easy Street. Unlike Utopia, which mainly relates the Utopian ability to maintain an ideal environment, Easy Street tells of the change from a dysfunctional and dystopic situation into a peaceful utopia. The film makes it known that the party with more physical strength becomes the ruling party. An early scene depicts a large fight overtaking Easy Street with the Bully (Eric Campbell) physically dominating his smaller peers and manhandling police officers. A cut transitions to the interior of the police department where a disheveled officer lays on a stretcher as other officers assist him. The film moves back to the street fight as the Bully chases police officers trying to escape the fight and mercilessly pummels one against a wall before cutting again to the police department where three more injured officers enter. This intercutting between the hapless police department and the powerful Bully establishes the street’s dystopic state. Unable to overpower the criminal through force, the police are subject to violence, theft, and anarchy.
The coercive power of the criminal soon transforms into the coercive power of the police after the Tramp, moved by his religious conversion at the local Hope Mission, joins the police department. Just before the Tramp arrives on Easy Street as a freshly minted officer, the Bully fully exerts his dominance over the neighborhood by fending off the other criminals and retrieving money from the ground. The Bully, after pocketing the money, quickly turns his head to the criminal onlookers lining each side of the street, forcing these other criminals to run in fear. Alone, the Bully fixes his hat and rearranges his clothes in the foreground as the Tramp arrives, slowly walking in the background toward the Bully. The ensuing fight changes the town’s dynamic. The Tramp initially cannot overpower the Bully as the criminal's hard head is immune to the Tramp's police club. Fortunately for the Tramp, the Bully exhibits his immense strength by bending a light post far enough for the Tramp to shove the Bully’s head into the glass encasing, turn on the gas, and asphyxiate the previously impervious criminal. After the Bully falls to the ground, unconscious, the film reintroduces the other criminals and repeats their earlier fear-filled sequence by substituting the Tramp for the Bully. Now the criminals run away on either side of the street each time the Tramp turns his head. The Tramp is unable to fully alter the established norms of the criminal community easily, however, as the Bully escapes the police and seeks vengeance. Yet, the Tramp is again able to overcome the Bully through force by dropping a large piece of furniture on the criminal’s head, knocking him unconscious for the second time. At this, the other criminals, still fearful of the Tramp, band together and force the Tramp into a locked room with a drug addict and an entrapped woman from the Mission. After accidentally sitting on a drug-filled needle, however, the Tramp is overcome with energy and easily suppresses the criminal rebellion through violence.
Yet, both Easy Street and Utopia distinguish the coercion of the "good guys" and the "bad guys" by dichotomizing the actions of "good dissenters" and "bad dissenters." The "bad dissenters" perform selfish, irrational acts of dissent while the "good dissenters" perform dissent-like actions forced upon citizens through unfair government action or inaction. In Utopia, the educational and governmental systems assume such a powerful presence that the only dissenting actions are construed as selfish and irrational ones. Since a major objective of Utopia is to take aim at the flaws of real-world public property and the unjust distribution of wealth, the pretend-world Utopian laws and ideals have "entirely removed" all "greed for money…with the use of money," and along with them "fear, anxiety, worries, toils, and sleepless nights" (149). Even poverty, "which alone money seemed to make poor, forthwith would itself dwindle and disappear if money were entirely done away with everywhere" (149). As Hythloday states, "avarice and greed are aroused in every kind of living creature by the fear of want, but only in man are they motivated by pride alone – pride which counts it a personal glory to excel others by superfluous display of possessions" (77). With communal wealth, the impulse toward selfish action vanishes because its gains are obsolete, and without poverty there is no need to steal in order to survive. Yet, even in this state, coercive measures remain for those who shun the bounds of reason and perform criminal actions, such as adultery and conspiracy. For the Utopians, dissenting actions cannot be out of want, since all have equal shares, and coercion only exists for those who, out of severe selfish ambition and pride, reject the reasonable laws of the land. Raphael Hythloday's enthusiasm for the Utopian way of life is ultimately an enthusiasm for domestic peace brought about by the negation of private property. Yet, his enthusiasm for the lack of turmoil over possessions conceals the highly coercive power-structure at work in the country. Utopia does not necessarily "remove free will" from individuals as Gerard B. Wegemer suggests, but it does punish any free will that challenges the established norms of society (139). Thus, the most peaceful society on earth remains as such only by strictly adhering to coercive measures.
Easy Street
only offers a brief look into the alternate governance of the Tramp beyond his violent repression of ruthless criminals, but this glimpse makes it clear that the Tramp distinguishes between the likes of the Bully, who uses violence to steal money and exert his own power over his neighbors and the police, and those who steal out of humble desperation. In the scene following the Tramp's first victory over the Bully, a poor young woman sneaks past a sleeping grocer to steal food items. The Tramp, as the new law enforcement, sees this action and questions the girl's motives. When the girl weeps, the Tramp becomes emotional as well and decides to steal more food for the girl as the grocer continues his nap. The film soon moves into the girl's apartment, where she is the eldest of ten children, most of whom are under the age of five, to show the family's destitute conditions. Seeing this, the Tramp leaves to fetch more food for the starving household. As Devin and Marsha Orgeron point out, the Tramp here becomes a "sympathetic symbol of authority, a modern day Robin Hood" whose "interpretation of justice is tempered by his knowledge of the effects of poverty that here center upon the thematic of hunger driving the woman to criminal behavior in the first place. The Tramp thus decriminalizes the woman’s act by becoming an active participant in it; her poverty justifies subverting the capitalist exchange and procuring her food by any means necessary" (88). This anti-capitalistic action for the sake of public well-being relates to Hythloday's argument that English families, through the capitalistic seizure of their land, were forced out of their homes without the ability to "wait for a purchaser," thus selling "for a trifle" all their household goods and, once those small finances diminish, were forced to steal for food (25). While the real-life English and American governments outside the utopic texts punish these types of criminals, the Tramp's actions remove the guilt associated with such a theft. Human well-being comes before private property and capital gain.
This scene is not the only time Chaplin portrays a hunger-forced theft in his oeuvre, but it is the only time that the police officer aids in the theft. Chaplin's use of these scenes usually makes a more direct comment on actual conditions and hardships for the homeless and poverty-stricken in American society with the constant fear of police intervention and arrest. The most typical examples contain Chaplin's Tramp stealing food from a restaurant or street vendor for comedic purposes until a police officer arrives to either chase or arrest the Tramp for his thievery. A less-used but still prevalent scene-type involves a young girl stealing for her starving family, much like the scene in Easy Street, only to be chased or captured by the food owner or law enforcement personnel. In both cases, the "poor are repeatedly presented as victims of presumptuous authorities who interfere in their lives," and the police "serve the rich and make life hard for the less affluent" (Korte 133). While Chaplin uses both scene-types to comment on this aspect of American society, Gregory Stephens aptly notes that the former type is always "played for laughs" while the latter is "suffused with pathos." Most often, Chaplin reserves the laughs or pathos for the audience, helping them to relate to the Tramp or starving girl while objecting to the cruelty of the police. Yet, in Easy Street, Chaplin allows the Tramp, as the police officer, to feel empathy for the starving girl and her family in order to institute a more-perfect environment. The suggestion in Easy Street is that humanitarian feelings by those in power can and should alter circumstances for those without power. Rather than maintaining the dichotomy between rich and poor through emotionless coercion, the Tramp responds with an emotion-filled kindness to reject previous notions of coercive authority. He institutes his new utopia.
The last scene of Easy Street presents the neighborhood in its utopic state. Rather than the street being a locus of violent theft, the townspeople now line each side of the road as they walk to the newly established New Mission at the street’s head. Religion, which was the catalyst for the Tramp's change, now becomes the focal point for the town rather than violence, and the Tramp strolls down the middle of the lane, tipping his hat to the now-docile community which earlier ran at the sight of either his or the Bully's power. The legal power embodied by the Tramp is something to respect, not fear, and the film clarifies the extent of the order he’s established as the Bully emerges from his home, wife by his side, tipping his hat to the Tramp as the former miscreant strolls toward the Mission. Like the church in Utopia that does not present anything which "does not seem to agree with all in common," the Mission in Easy Street is non-descript and distinctively non-creedal (142). There are no crucifixes, images of Bibles, or any other demarcation to signify a specific religion or denomination. As in Utopia, the Mission on Easy Street functions as a sanctuary of religious unification, a meeting place for all to gather and celebrate community fellowship in peace.
Thomas More and Charles Chaplin, Englishmen born more than four-hundred years apart, lived very disparate lives. Yet, both men produced fictional narratives championing the quest for a more ideal society. The political and religious precepts found in More's Utopia have perplexed, challenged, and guided readers for five centuries, with each successive generation viewing the fictional world of Utopia through a different lens. Chaplin's status as a Hollywood pioneer and icon has very rarely waned in the century since his emergence as "the little Tramp," and the idealism presented in his films has likewise challenged generations of audiences in different ways. More than anything else, humanism connects the two men through their desire for society to unite around the concept of human reason. This unified desire is clear when comparing More's Utopia and Chaplin's Easy Street. While one depicts a fictional society preserving its utopia in contrast with Henrician England, and the other relates a society moving toward an idealized state, both attempt to emphasize the importance of reason in the making of laws. When societies establish governments founded on reason rather than greed, both argue, much of the criminality produced by economic inequality vanishes, leading to less poverty and, more importantly, less economically-driven dissent. And even though Hythloday in More’s text and Chaplin across his filmography argue that fixing the flawed system will eliminate the need for all dissent, both Utopia and Easy Street also depict the legal and religious coercion necessary to maintain peace in the face of the human greed that laws, no matter how well-conceived, cannot eliminate. In challenging and altering the poorly-functioning coercive actions of their present-day environments, both More and Chaplin create fictive worlds that utilize coercive tactics more fitting with their distinct views on right reason.



Works Cited

Chaplin, Charles, director. Easy Street, Mutual Film Company, 1917.

Charlton, Kenneth. Education in Renaissance England. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965.

Frye, Northrop. "Varieties of Literary Utopias." Daedalus, vol. 94, no. 2, 1965, pp. 323-347.

Gardiner, Michael. "Bakhtin's Carnival: Utopia as Critique." Utopian Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 1992, pp. 21-49.

Halpin, David. "Utopianism and Education: The Legacy of Thomas More." British Journal of Educational Studies, vol. 49, no. 3, 2001, pp. 299-315.

Idenburg, Ph. J. "Education and Utopia." Recurrent Education – Concepts and Policies for Lifelong Education: Proceedings of the Comparative Education Society in Europe, edited by Raymond Ryba and Brian Holmes, 1973, pp. 6-18.

Korte, Barbara. "New World Poor through an Old World Lens: Charlie Chaplin's Engagement with Poverty." Amerikastudien/American Studies, vol. 55, no. 1, 2010, pp. 123-141.

Levitas, Ruth. "Discourses on Risk and Utopia." The Risk Society and Beyond: Critical Issues for Social Theory, edited by Barbara Adam, Ulrih Beck, and Joost Van Loon, Sage Publications, 2000, pp. 198-210.

More, Thomas. Utopia. Edited by Edward Surtz, Yale UP, 1964.

Mumford, Lewis. "Utopia, the City and the Machine." Daedalus, vol. 94, no. 2, 1965, pp. 271-292.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. "Moral Man and Immoral Society." Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics, edited by Elisabeth Sifton, Library of America, 2015, pp. 135-350.

Orgeron, Devin Anthony and Marsha Gabrielle Orgeron. "Eating Their Words: Consuming Class a la Chaplin and Keaton." College Literature, vol. 28, no. 1, 2001, pp. 84-104.

Sargent, Lyman Tower. "Authority & Utopia: Utopianism in Political Thought." Polity, vol. 14, no. 4, 1982, pp. 565-584.

Stephens, Gregory. "Biting Back at the Machine: Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times." Senses of Cinema, vol. 60, 2011,

Wegemer, Gerard B. Thomas More on Statesmanship. The Catholic U of America P, 1996.

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