Book Report on None Provided12

This essay has a total of 6030 words and 23 pages.


None Provided12






The historical Thomas More, the author of Utopia, was an extraordinarily complicated man
who tied up all the threads of his life in his heroic death. The Utopia is the sort of
complicated book that we should expect from so complicated a man. It is heavy with irony,
but then irony was the experience of life in the Sixteenth Century. Everywhere--in
church, government, society, and even scholarship--profession and practice stood separated
by an abyss.

The great difficulty of irony is that we cannot always be sure when the ironic writer or
speaker is being serious and when he is being comical. We find that difficulty in Utopia.
Edward Hall, the great chronicler of English history of More's time wrote, "For
undoubtedly he beside his learning had a great wit, but it was so mingled with taunting
and mocking that it seemed to them that best knew him, that he thought nothing to be well
spoken except he had ministered some mock in the communication." (*)

In Utopia three characters converse, and reports of other conversations enter the story.
Thomas More appears as himself. Raphael Hythlodaeus is the fictional traveler to exotic
worlds. More's young friend of Antwerp Peter Gillis adds an occasional word.

Yet the Thomas More of Utopia is a character in a fiction. He cannot be completely
identified with Thomas More the writer who wrote all the lines. Raphael Hythlodaeus's
name means something like "Angel" or "messenger of Nonsense." He has traveled to the
commonwealth of Utopia with Amerigo Vespucci, seemingly the first voyager to realize that
the world discovered by Columbus was indeed a new world and not an appendage of India or
China.

Raphael has not only been to Utopia; he has journeyed to other strange places, and found
almost all of them better than Europe. He is bursting with the enthusiasm of his superior
experiences. However, I shall devote most of my remarks to the second "book" or chapter
in More's work--the description of the island commonwealth somewhere in the New World.
Since the Utopians live according to the law of nature, they are not Christian. Indeed
they practice a form of religious toleration.

Utopia provides a second life of the people above and beyond the official life of the
"real" states of the Sixteenth Century. Its author took the radical liberty to dispense
with the entire social order based on private property, as Plato had done for the
philosopher elite in his Republic.

More took the communism of Plato's republic or of the "golden age" supposed by Ovid and
later adapted by the Christian fathers.[7] But he kept the fallen human nature that
Augustine believed to be the curse of the Fall. He then created a literary carnival,
allowed himself the freedom of speculating on the sort of commonwealth would arise from a
juxtaposition of seemingly contrary ideas. No wonder that the little poem that introduces
the work, supposedly done by "Mr. Windbag," the son of Raphael's sister, declares,

Plato's Republic now I claim
To match, or beat at its own game.[8]
More's work aims to take into account a "true" and pessimistic view of human nature, one
quite different from Plato's Socratic optimism. If Utopia is truer, it is therefore
better.

So if we look at Utopia with More's Augustinian eye, we see a witty play on how life might
develop in a state that tried to balance these two impulses--human depravity and a
communist system aimed at checking the destructive individualism of corrupt human nature.
It is carnival, a festival, not a plan for reform. When the carnival is over, and we come
to the end of the book, reality reasserts itself with a crash. More did not see in Utopia
a plan of revolutionary reform to be enacted in Christian Europe. Remember the subtitle
"On the best state of a Republic and of the new island Utopia, a book truly golden, not
less salutary than festive." The key word is "festiuus,"[9] usually translated
"entertaining," though, in the spirit of Bakhtin, I prefer "festive." It is not
revolution. Reading Utopia makes us aware of how very far we will always be from its
hopes. We can understand the comment of J.W. Allen, the historian of Sixteenth-Century
political thought, who called it, "the saddest of fairy tales. . . . an indictment of
humanity almost as terrible as Gulliver's Travels."[10]

But like Swift's Gulliver, More's Raphael entertains us just because he brings our
experience in the ordinary world up against an ideal that we cannot reach, yet one that
has about it a certain plausibility. Utopia is a mirror held up to nature, and almost
against our will, we see ourselves reflected in it. It is a carnival mirror, throwing back
at us distorted reflections, and yet we stand there, and we recognize ourselves in the
very distortions.

To read Utopia is to be jolted into asking ourselves this fateful question: "What is the
relation between our possessions and our souls?" Are the conspicuous illusions of wealth
injustices? What truth about ourselves resides in Raphael's passionate declaration towards
the end? "In fact, when I consider any social system that prevails in the modern world, I
can't, so help me God, see it as anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their
own interests under the pretext of organizing society."[11]

If a sterile metal like gold measures the worth of men and women, are the people who wear
chains of gold not indeed prisoners of illusion? And is it possible, in a zero sum world
where my gain is another's loss, that the people who sport such finery are not in fact
condemning legions of poor to roam the great highways as beggars--or else to be herded
together in the slums like cattle to be slaughtered in our great cities?

If we measure worth by possession, are we not driven by a peculiar and implacable logic to
put people to death for theft? Or if we do not kill them, are we not bound to make
psychological war on them, to scorn them, and to be sure that they suffer for everything
we give them? I believe that the answer to these questions in More's own mind was not that
we should create a communist society. But I do believe that part of the response that More
intended was to make us at least ask the questions, for to question society is to see it,
and we must see it before we can do anything to reform it.

The six-hour working day in Utopia also represents an eternal check against the tendency
of an acquisitive society to turn human beings into beasts of burden to be worked as if
they had no claim over themselves. Set over against the misery of peasants depicted in the
vision of Piers the Plowman or against the child labor of early industrial America or the
sweatshops of modern Asia, the Utopian limitation on labor is a way of saying that life is
an end in itself and not merely an instrument to be used for someone else.

It is perhaps also a rebuke to those of us for whom work and life come to be identical so
that to pile up wealth or reputation makes us neglect spouses, children, friends,
community, and that secret part of ourselves nourished by the willingness to take time to
measure our souls by something other than what we produce.

The sanitation of the Utopian cities is exemplary. The Utopians value cleanliness, and
they believe that the sick should be cared for by the state. The Utopians care for
children. Education is open to all. They like music, and in an age that stank in Europe,
the Utopians like nice smells. To average English people of the Sixteenth Century--living
in squallor and misery, not solitary but (in Thomas Hobbes's famous phrase) nasty,
brutish, and short, Utopia would have seemed like paradise--at least for a while.

But to middle-class people like ourselves, our messy and fragmented society looks good in
comparison to Utopia. Here More's Augustinian conception of sinful humankind becomes
burdensome to the soul, for in the Utopian commonwealth, individualism and privacy are
threats to the state. I suspect that we see as clearly as anywhere in Utopia just why
communism did not work. The weight of human depravity was simply too much to be balanced
by eliminating private property. Yet it is worth saying that More did not ignore that
depravity. Utopia is full of it.

I mentioned earlier J. W. Allen's likening of Utopia's view of human nature to that of
Swift's Gulliver's Travels. It is a To me it is rather like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn
where the river carrying Huck and Jim along passes through a human jungle of evil where
the innocents on the raft must always be wary.

Dominic Baker Smith has pointed out that Utopia from the beginning was an artificial
construct. Some 1760 years before,[12] Utopus had dug a channel to separate Utopia from
the corrupting lands nearby. As the wise law-giver he imposed laws on people who could not
or would not create those laws themselves.[13] He is much like the prince in the thought
of More's contemporary Niccolo Machiavelli whom Machiavelli calls upon to unite and pacify
the warring Italian peninsula. Utopus did for Utopia what Machiavelli wanted a prince to
do for Italy. Yet the Utopian commonwealth, like the raft of Huck and Jim floating apart
in the serene river, is endangered whenever it touches the shores of the real world.

The attention the Utopians give to military affairs is based on a sound practical
consideration: The world out there is not Utopia. A virtuous nation unarmed amid a world
of tigers goes quickly to its death. More startling, when we think of it, are the massive
walls the Utopians build around their towns on their island. Yes, these ways may be
primarily to ward off invasion from beyond the channel Utopus has dug to separate them.
But given the history of England and popular uprisings, including the Wat Tyler revolt of
1381 and the later revolt of the peasants of Cornwall mentioned in Utopia itself,[14] it
seems that one purpose of these walls may have been to protect Utopian cities from revolt
in Utopia itself--perhaps from all those slaves.

No locks bar Utopian doors--which open at a touch.[15] The only reason the Utopians can
imagine for privacy is to protect property; there being no private property, anybody can
walk into your house at any time to see what you're doing. Conformity is king. All the
cities and all the houses in the cities look pretty much alike. Of the towns Raphael says,
"When you've seen one of them, you've seen them all."[16]

The Utopians change houses by lot every ten years just so they won't get too attached to
any endearing little idiosyncrasies in a dwelling. The Utopian towns are as nearly square
as the landscape will allow; that means they are built on a grid. I can imagine nothing
more similar to Utopian cities in our own day than the sprawling developments outside our
great cities where every house looks like every other house and where even the people and
the dogs in one household bear a startling resemblance to all the other people and all the
other dogs in the neighborhood.

The Utopians make much of the household, but they give little place to the nuclear family;
they group people into households with "not less than ten or more than sixteen
adults."[17] Each household is under the authority of the oldest male--unless he becomes
senile. Thirty households make a tightly organized community called in Paul Turner's
elegant translation a "Sty."[18] At the sound of a horn, the thirty households gather
together for lunch and for supper, and although households can eat at home alone if they
want, it seems clear that the Utopians frown on the practice.[19] Says Raphael:

You're quite at liberty to take food home from the market once the dining-halls have been
supplied, for everyone knows you wouldn't do it unless you had to. I mean, no one likes
eating at home, although there's no rule against it. For one thing, it's considered rather
bad form. For another, it seems silly to go to all the trouble of preparing an inferior
meal, when there's an absolutely delicious one waiting for you at the dining-hall just
down the street.

We wonder how husbands and wives could ever develop real intimacy under such a system.
Even if they choose to eat in the household, they share the table with a minimum of ten
other adults and possibly as many as sixteen. Given the primacy the Utopians give to men
throughout their commonwealth, it seems that they see nothing to be gained by a dining
arrangement where women might be able to have a private word with their husbands. We
presume that the only privacy a husband and wife have with each other is alone in their
bedroom at night, and that for the Utopians seems quite enough.

More himself sets the tone for his view of family life by the introductory letter to Peter
Gilles that he attached to Utopia when it was published. He is explaining to Peter why
publication of his little book has been delayed. He has been busy at work. And afterwards,
he says:

You see, when I come home, I've got to talk to my wife, have a chat with my children, and
discuss things with my servants. I count this as one of my commitments, because it's
absolutely necessary, if I'm not to be a stranger in my own home. Besides, one should
always try to be nice to the people one lives with, whether one has chosen their company
deliberately, or merely been thrown into it by chance or family relationship--that is, as
nice as one can without spoiling them, or turning servants into masters.[20]

It all sounds very, well, dutiful. Children are cared for, but they are treated like cogs
of the commonwealth. And why not in a nation where the individual is rigorously
subordinated to the needs of the group? Children usually follow the professions of their
parents, and when they chose another profession, they are adopted by another family
without apparently any pangs of regret at parting.[21] Again, why not? If everyone is
almost identical in Utopia, why not swap children around as one might swap Barbie Dolls?
In the same way, a family with too many children passes off the surplus to another family
who lacks them.[22] Friends of mine taken with the legendary example of More's household
tell me that of course parents would accompany the children moved to another dwelling
unit. Maybe so--but not one word of such accompaniment is to be found in the text.

Indeed, the Utopians have many of the qualities of the early Christian fathers who saw
family, spouses, and children as secondary or even tertiary to the most important
obligation of the Christian male. That obligation was to serve God and the Catholic
Church. St. Augustine (I say again, the most important single influence on Thomas More's
mind) dismissed his concubine of fifteen years when he became betrothed to a rich young
woman, and in all his voluminous writing, he never tells us what her name was. His son by
that union, Adeodatus, had an intelligence that amazed his father, but when he died his
Augustine seemed little grieved.[23]

Jesus himself had said, "No man is worthy of me who cares more for father or mother than
for me; no man is worthy of me who cares more for son or daughter."[24] And with regard to
conversations between husbands and wives, we should also recall St. Augustine. Why did God
create Eve to live with Adam? Augustine pondered the question. He mused that "If it was
company and good conversation that Adam needed, it would have been much better arranged to
have two men together, as friends, not a man and a woman."[25] One might also reflect that
the Utopians were very much like the Stoics and the Epicureans of classical times who
believed we are most free and therefore most human when we tame that emotional part of
ourselves that forms attachments to other human beings. To a friend who had lost a friend
to death Seneca wrote:

I am sorry to hear of your friend Flaccus's death. Still I would not have you grieve
unduly over it. I can scarcely venture to demand that you should not grieve at all--and
yet I am convinced that it is better that way.[26]

Utopia is a commonwealth where not only the individual life is held in check, but
individual emotions and affections are suppressed. Women are in a distinctly inferior
position in Utopia. Dominic Baker Smith, who has written the best recent book on the
Utopia, has commented that the position of women in the Utopian commonwealth was about the
same as it was in More's Europe.[27]

I think in fact that Utopian women have a somewhat better time of it. A small number of
Utopians are allowed to spend their lives in study, freed from the obligation to manual
Continues for 12 more pages >>




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