Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Thomas More's Utopia


The current tenor of politics has given rise to dystopian analogies. As in Handmaid’s Tale, fundamentalist Christians and the state are coercing women to carry unwanted pregnancies in a growing number of states. With similar reasons for the burning of books in Fahrenheit 451, print media is ridiculed as fake news. Like the animals in Animal Farm, all citizens are equal, but some citizens are more equal than others, especially corporations and the very rich. As in 1984, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

So how refreshing by contrast for me to happen onto Sir/St. Thomas More’s utopian fantasy at a yard sale last week, appropriately entitled Utopia. I had read excerpts in my Norton Anthology in college but had never held a full copy in my hands. I treated this 1947 version as if it were the original sacred Latin text from 1516. I resisted my usual underlining and markings in pen and used a less permanent and less damaging pencil instead.

OMG, a few holier-than-thou folk might say, you’re reading another “dead white man,” adding, didn’t you hear about that recent hullabaloo about how harsh More was in the trials of heretics?! Well, as I’ve written before, saints are not perfect people who always got everything right, even as he has been revered as A Man for All Seasons. He got many things right, such as educating his daughters, a counter-cultural move, and, refusing to recognize the king as head of the church (an example we sorely need today), for which he was martyred in 1535 and sainted 400 years later.

In her Introduction to my newly-acquired-for-one-dollar version, Mildred Campbell makes some observations about the times of More’s writing of Utopia that sound familiar:

An expanding economy had many benefits to bestow, but, as More was aware, not all of its effects were beneficial; nor did everyone share in its bounty. … The malpractice in currency manipulation that kings and their ministers indulged in and an increased demand for goods of all kinds were producing an upswing in prices that eventually brought ruinous dislocations to the social and economic systems of nearly every country in Europe. …

It was a period of growing competition… It put a premium on individual initiative and aggressiveness; riches increasingly became the measure of achievement. It was this spirit of competition and materialism that More deplored as much as he grieved over the suffering of those who fell victim to it.

Thomas More carefully put descriptions of Utopia (which means “nowhere”) in the mouth of a fictional mariner, Raphael Hythloday (whose first name comes from the Hebrew for “God has healed” and whose last name comes from Greek words meaning “a skilled conveyer of trifles or nonsense”). In their conversation, More defends private property, as would be expected of an English nobleman, but it is also clear that Hythloday serves as his alter-ego, a representation of his serious bent as a Christian humanist, which Campbell describes as a “fusion of Christian faith with the pagan belief in reason and virtue.” She adds, “It formed a basis for the religion that More gave to the Utopians, a kind of humanitarian deism which abhorred religious intolerance.”

Next week’s post will describe the religion of the Utopians, but this week I lift quotes about their economy with contemporary relevancy from a 1949 translation from the Latin by H. S. V. Ogden, the version used in the Norton Anthology:

But in Utopia where there is no private property and where they zealously pursue the public business, there the name commonwealth is doubly deserved. … In Utopia where everything belongs to everybody, they know that if the public warehouses and granaries are full, no one will lack anything for his personal use. Among them there is no maldistribution of goods. …

Comparing Utopia to other nations, More’s fictional character asks,

What justice is there in this, that a nobleman, a banker, a money lender, or some other man who does nothing at all for a living or does something that is of no use to the public, lives a sumptuous and elegant life? In the meantime a servant, a driver, a blacksmith, or a farmer works as hard as a beast at labor so necessary that the commonwealth could not last a year without it. …

Is not a government unjust and ungrateful that squanders rich rewards on noblemen (as they are called), bankers, and others that do not work but live only by flattery or by catering to useless pleasures? And is it just for a government to ignore the welfare of farmers, charcoal burners, servants, drivers, and blacksmiths, without whom the commonwealth could not exist at all? …

Furthermore the rich constantly try to whittle away something from the pitiful wages of the poor by private fraud and even by public laws. To pay so little to men who deserve the best from the state is in itself unjust, yet it is made “just” legally by passing a law.

So when I weigh in my mind all the other states which flourish today, so help me God, I can discover nothing but a conspiracy of the rich, who pursue their own aggrandizement under the name and title of the Commonwealth. They devise ways and means to keep safely what they have unjustly acquired, and to buy up the toil and labor of the poor as cheaply as possible and oppress them. …

And yet they are far short of the happiness of the Utopians, who have abolished the use of money, and with it greed. What evils they avoid! What a multitude of crimes they prevent! … Fear, anxiety, worry, care, toil, and sleepless nights would disappear at the same time as money! …

Certainly rich men know this. They also know that it would be more practicable to provide the necessities of life for everyone than to supply superfluities for a few, and much better to eradicate our innumerable evils than to be burdened with great concentrations of wealth.

If that one monster, pride, the first and foremost of all evils, did not forbid it, the whole world would doubtless have adopted the laws of the Utopians long before this, drawn on by a rational perception of what each man’s true interest is, or else by the authority of Christ our Saviour, who in His great wisdom knows what is best and in His loving-kindness bids us do it. Pride measures [its] prosperity not by [its] own goods but by others’ wants.

When Raphael Hythloday finishes his tale of Utopia, Thomas More explains to the reader that he was constrained from questioning Utopia’s values and practices because “I remembered that [Hythloday] had spoken ill of certain men who feared they would not be thought wise unless they could find something to criticize in other men’s opinions.”

Though More says he can’t agree with everything described, he concludes, “Yet I must confess that there are things in the Utopian Commonwealth that I wish rather than expect to see followed among our citizens.”


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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

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