Utopia may not be Utopia, but does that matter?
Publisher: N/A (I read Penguin’s version)
First Published: 1516
Date Reviewed: 10th August 2012
Please note that the version I read was translated by Paul Turner (from the original Latin).
Utopia is a work of fiction, however it does overlap with reality and depending on the edition you read the editor and/or translator may or may not have included a couple of letters that sound very much like true correspondence. The plot is simple and detail is everything: More meets his friend Peter and Peter introduces him to Raphael, a man who has lived in the New World. Raphael spends time conferring upon the friends the knowledge he has learned from the country, and discusses his convictions that life in Utopia is fairer than Europe and that Europe ought to use Utopian society and politics as an ideal to aspire to. Filled with references to Plato, the conversation is seemingly an attempt by More to preach his suggestions for a different system of government and living.
The book is quite a feat, yet whether or not the author himself knew just how much of a feat it was, and would remain to be, is a subject that would require a differing style of writing to a review; one can assume he knew something of it as Wolsey had made him publish it under the name of William Rosse1. Utopia is at once a product of its time and ahead of its era. Although some of the topics it addresses fall solely in the realm of the late medieval/early modern period, the vast majority are relevant today in a rather scary fashion. Indeed More is so accurate in his ruminations of structures that continue, even now, to be used in the (western) world, that he would be well placed were he to sit in the British House Of Commons tomorrow.
More’s book contains a lot of thoughts that successfully appeal to both a minority of people in his day – or maybe they were a majority? Who really knows what the common person thought? – and to us in our 21st century world. There are “discussions” on subjects such as capital punishment for burglary:
“We’re hanging them all over the place,” he said, “I’ve seen as many as twenty on a single gallows. And that’s what I find so odd. Considering how few of them get away with it, why are we still plagued with so many robbers?”
“What’s odd about it?” I asked – for I never hesitated to speak freely in front of the Cardinal. “This method of dealing with thieves is both unjust and socially undesirable. As a punishment it’s too severe, and as a deterrent it’s quite ineffective. Petty larceny isn’t bad enough to deserve the death penalty, and no penalty on earth will stop people from stealing, if it’s their only way of getting food. In this respect you English, like most other nations, remind me of incompetent schoolmasters, who prefer caning their pupils to teaching them. Instead of inflicting these horrible punishments, it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming first a thief and then a corpse.”
Here More, through his character Raphael, speaks out against the fatal punishment meted out to thieves. More points out that a great many of the thieves apprehended are poor and that they are not in a situation where they can act upon the fact that thieves are executed. And More quite rightly suggests, although at least in the western world he can be happy that such extreme measures no longer exist even if jail applies to both, that there being no difference in punishment for a thief as for a murderer does not change the way a thief will behave; indeed a thief may as well have been a murderer in the 1500s.
And when it comes to bringing up the youth of society, More’s words are seemingly even more political than before as what he says is incredibly relevant to Britain today, as 21st century Britain struggles with crime which many link back to unemployment and few opportunities in both childhood and adulthood. More remarks:
“You allow these people to be brought up in the worst possible way, and systematically corrupted from their earliest years. Finally, when they grow up and commit the crimes that they were obviously destined to commit, ever since they were children, you start punishing them. In other words, you create thieves, and then punish them for stealing!”
If you do not help people to get out of their poor backgrounds they will have no way to get onto the career ladder, to make money legally. And, to go back to a 1500’s issue, how can stealing money equate to a death sentence? Both are against the Ten Commandments and surely murder is worse than stealing.
More doesn’t leave it there – he goes on to explain why there are these issues in the first place. What is interesting is that he speaks out against the way the church would take land for its own use and how the begging for alms by monks would effectively leave less money available for true beggars – this being interesting because More was himself a strong Catholic. One could liken his thinking to that of Erasmus, who also spoke out against the church whilst remaining one with it. Yet it is interesting how these two writers, More and Erasmus, were effectively giving a prior warning to their readers about the Reformation action that was to come, being people who remained loyal whilst others who spoke out fell out of love with Catholicism and became Protestants.
As a last look at examples of how More’s work fits so well into our world may we consider the information he provides that it is the expense of raw materials, created by a greedy government, that caused many people to be out of work?
It is interesting and ironic how some of the items More discusses were to happen so soon after publication. These are the references to the men employed by government turning against that government – this is what the New Model Army did in the 1600s, the turning point towards England becoming a republic for that short time – and the use, by a king, of ancient laws that everyone had forgotten, in order to raise money – exactly what Charles I did to fund his fight against the afore-mentioned NMA. So uncanny are these discussions, so spot-on in their warning, that it’s hard to believe that More was writing five monarchs previous when the country was, if not completely, better settled.
As to be expected in our modern society, though the book may have great relevance, it is difficult to agree with everything More is saying. Indeed there are observations made about Utopia that prove quite disagreeable, such as that the “mentally deficient” (read “mentally disabled”) ought to be laughed at whilst being looked after – because that is the right way to communicate with them if one is nursing them. This by itself is typical of views at the time, but what makes it particularly difficult to accept is that it is comes before a paragraph that urges acceptance of the physically deformed and ugly (read “physically disabled or deformed”) because such deformities are not their fault. Whilst one could perhaps surmise that the phrase “mentally deficient” is More’s way of saying “those who haven’t bothered to try to improve their intellect”, the fact is that coming straight before a statement about the physically disabled does very much suggest that More is speaking of the mentally disabled, and this is a point on which the translator of the text agrees. The only thing that truly suggests More is talking of intellect-by-choice is that he says those who are physically deformed did not choose to be so, thus possibly inferring that the mentally deficient are their opposites – because which mentally disabled person has had a choice over whether or not they are mentally disabled? It is not their fault, just as it is not a physically disabled person’s fault. However, a fact trumps all these charges to single this piece out as prejudice by More – physically disabled people were more understood; the mentally disabled, for a very long period of time, were simply viewed as mad or strange with no real studies conducted to find out what was really going on. With a physical disability, even doctors of the 1500s would have recognised a limp, a wounded arm, or an inability to move, as a medical issue.
Then there is the idea of religious tolerance. Through the fictional Raphael, More announces that Utopia is home to a variety of religions and that the citizens are free to believe in what they will – then he says that everyone goes to church and kneels before the priest. Unfortunately here, in our modern eyes, More is but confirming his own beliefs, firstly by the use of the word “church” – a Christian term – and secondly because people of differing religions should not be made (as you soon realise that Utopia is in fact more akin to an apocalyptic dictatorship than heaven) to use one priest and one all-encompassing service, at least not as their sole form of community worship. And if beliefs are allowed to be different, then the prayer More details makes no sense as it talks about a “true religion”. “More was intolerant of all dissident opinion,” wrote the historian Joanna Denny2. Whilst Denny was incredibly biased against More, it cannot be denied that More’s own words back her up.
But these negatives in no way set the modern reader back, for later on comes such comments as this one on the elderly poor:
Having taken advantage of them throughout the best years of their lives, society now forgets all the sleepless hours they’ve spent in its service, and repays them for all the vital work they’ve done, by letting them die in misery.
It seems 1500s Britain was as notorious as the 21st century version in its care of the older generation – a quick bit of research on the part of anyone not acquainted with the UK system will find that the above quotation could quite easily have been taken from a leaflet about the current non-treatment of the aged population.
So we have a book that was ahead of its time whilst being a product of its time, that is philosophical and political – almost dangerously political given that More was the friend of the oft-cited tyrant Henry VIII – and is eternally relevant. But what we don’t have, and this is intriguing given that the very word “utopia” is in our dictionaries thanks to More’s usage of it, is a particularly Utopian society. Utopia the country, for all More’s debate – albeit that More does criticise it from time to time – is in fact more deserving of the terms undemocratic, unfree, police state, and lots of other words beginning with “un” that end in a description that brings to mind strict governmental control. The Utopians have free time every day, but they live in regimental housing, eat at certain times in huge communal dining halls, have one set of clothes, and if they fall out of line at all, are punished by slavery or enforced celibacy. These falls include premarital sex (understandable given More’s religion, but surely a Utopian society would simply suggest the couple get married since they obviously have a connection) and disobedience to one’s husband – children must confess to their parents, wives to their husbands, but there is no mention of whom a husband confesses to. There is no money because the country produces enough for everyone, which sounds idyllic, until you learn that there is in fact money in the country because they collect it to pay other armies to go to war for them. Indeed their whole process of war is abhorrent, for all its notions of peace.
So Utopia is not Utopia, and even More supports this conclusion. Whether or not he intended to be ironic in this way cannot be fully known, especially as a lot of what he pronounces is so good. But surely there is a case to be made in favour of More being intentionally ironic in order to show that even the best places on earth can get it wrong in some aspects. Maybe he just wanted to create a slighter better place than England, if Turner is correct.
What, then, was More definitely trying to do here? It would not be wrong to say that he wanted to use his exalted position in court and society to try and influence people to change Britain into the way he felt it ought to be. And whilst this would have been the case for any number of individuals, one cannot help thinking that a lot of what More said would have been very good to implement. Was More in part preparing the way for the burgeoning Protestantism that was happening in Europe? This is possible but rather unlikely given that More produced a diatribe of Martin Luther’s views that, according to secondary sources, included plentiful swear words – clearly More was not as tolerant as he suggests in his fiction; yet he could still have wanted to change things somewhat. The one thing that can be said for certain is that whilst More liked Henry VIII he saw a great many things that were not particularly savoury in his friend and doubtless would have been happy had Henry read the book and introduced to his court some of the suggestions. Sadly considering that Henry would not have been amused by much of the content, and given that the monarch passed on books he was given for others to read instead of him, that was very unlikely to happen.
There is so much in Utopia to discuss, which is remarkable for such a short book. More never wastes a moment, giving only a few sentences to background set ups, and his various references to Plato, combined with the detail and constant stream of information provided, only stands to further the idea that More is attempting to emulate to a degree the great ancient philosopher’s work. Such is the content in Utopia that you are bound to find both items you agree on and items you disagree on, and plenty for debate. To ask whether it is a good book is irrelevant in the usual way – as pure fiction a plot solely of discussion is horrendous – but apply the “philosophy” label to it and suddenly you are in the correct territory.
Utopia forces you to think about the past, the present, and the future – what you like about your country and its past and how far your society has come since times long gone. Whilst it may be concentrated on Britain/Europe and contrasted with a mythical Native America, much of it can be applied to the world at large, both historically and in relation to our modern era. In terms of philosophical debate, to use an extremely bad pun, the more the better.
1 Denny, J. (2004) Anne Boleyn, Britain, Piatkus, p.102.
2 ibid., p.171.
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