16 July 2006

Utopia, the introduction to my copy tells me, means 'nowhere'. Apparently, Thomas More wrote it to give us an example of good government: We made no inquires, however, about monsters, which are common enough. Scyllas, ravenous harpies, and cannibals are easy to find anywhere, but it is not so easy to find states that are 'well and wisely governed'(p.4). This is a frame story. An ambassador from Henry VIII of England, named More, meets a traveler and invites him to dinner. Before the meal, they talk about his adventures, and focus on Utopia because it is the best-governed state he has seen. Before they do this, though, More asks why he doesn't work for a prince, like Machavelli did. With his store of wisdom and experience, he could be a great help. The visitor responds with a bitterly accurate assessment of why he wouldn't: courtiers are after power. To keep their power, they would ridicule his good but different ideas(like not invading another country, since running one is more than job enough), and he would end up achieving nothing while being miserable. As it is, he is happy and the princes can read Machavelli if they really want sound advice.

I have trouble reading this as satire; I realize that criticism was at least a large part of the intent, and I definitely see the humor in More's names when I check the footnotes. I also see the criticism, especially in Book One. But perhaps I am too far removed from the system he is criticizing to really appreciate it.

Book One is the more enjoyable part of 'Utopia'. The dialogue gives it some feeling of interaction, unlike the cataloguing in Book Two. The dialogue also provides greater opening for humor. Also, while Book Two's demonstration of good government shows how the English system had gone wrong, I think that the direct discussion of it in Book One provides more effective criticism. Book Two describes More's fantasy, while in Book One he deals directly with the problems he sees in the current system.

I was drawn to 'Utopia' in an odd way: Abbie Hoffman's 'Revolution for the Hell of It' crystallized a discontent in me when I was eighteen, and that lead me to look for, or at, alternatives. A book called 'Utopia', since the word has become synonymous with 'ideal society', seemed like an obvious place to start.

While Book One is more fun, it is in Book Two, where More directly relates what the traveler has told him, that is really of interest. In this part, he simply describes everything about Utopia and its inhabitants, from their agriculture to marriage customs and moral philosophy. I agree with much, if not most, of what he says. He presents a truly communist society. In it, everyone works, and everyone takes what she needs. This is possible because the Utopians do take only what they need: they are not at all materialistic; their only greed is for knowledge and intellectual stimulation. They do not even really have a concept of money. Gold and silver are used for toilets and bondsmen's chains, and only spent on military expenses(which are only defensive). This moneyless society perfectly meshes with the ideals Hoffman gave me, and makes Utopia a place I really want to see before I die, like Paris and Rome and Alaska.

I do, however, disagree with several specifics within this wonderful system. For starters, they keep criminals as bondsmen. It isn't even particularly hard labor they're set to; conditions are infinitely better than the gulags. But they are sentenced for life whenever sentenced. Any crime(that isn't a capitol offense, like adultery) gets you life on the golden chain–gain. This is just extreme. I realize how generous this is when compared to hanging by the neck until dead, dead, dead, and I know that the Utopians occasionally release bondsmen for good behavior, patience, and repentance, but it seems that they should weigh the sentences to reflect the severity of the crime. Eliminating crimes of property does eliminate many petty offenses, but some things are still worse than others.

My other major complaint involves religion, so it essentially undermines the entire book. More give his Utopians religious freedom, but makes them gravitate by force of reason to the acceptance of one supreme(Judeo–Christian) being, and has them converting to Catholicism in droves, as soon as the traveler exposes them to it This, of course, reflects More's religious views, just as 'Island' most likely incorporates Auldous Huxley's views into his utopia. I happen to disagree with More's views. It doesn't seem possible to me, looking at Western history, to embrace the dualistic thinking of the Church and live in a perfect society at the same time. I say this because Christianity is a religion of oppression: saying, 'Those who are last shall be first' makes being last bearable; it lets the oppressed feel that they will be vindicated for their suffering, once they are dead.

The Utopians are virtuous, yes. They liberate other countries from tyrants. But they subscribe to a world–view that makes oppression possible, and has lead to much oppression. I do not think that their world-view is compatible with the idea Utopia has come to imply. Still, I love this book. It speaks of one person's vision of a better world, a world we could live in, if we only gave up one thing. Getting rid of money is, I think, the first step to a true utopia: it would immediately make everyone equal in one respect: It would force a re–evaluation of needs and priorities. It would make people into ends, rather than means. This book gives me hope.


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