Utopia

by davidbjensen

More, Thomas.  Utopia.  1516.

Originally published in Latin in 1516, this work is a fictional discourse on political philosophy in which a traveler, Raphael Hythlodaeus, has discovered an island where the ideal society smoothly operates, and delivers a first-person lecture on its social and political customs.  Broken down into a series of short treatises regarding the various particulars of an integrated society, chapter titles include “Of Their Towns,” “Of Their Magistrates,” “Of Their Trades, and Manner of Life,” “Of Their Traffic,” “Of the Travelling of the Utopians,” “Of Their Slaves, and of Their Marriages,” “Of Their Military Discipline,” and “Of the Religions of the Utopians.”  Each section constitutes a general overview of the ethics and social mores which govern the manifold aspects of an ideal, harmonious commonwealth among the “Utopians.”

Given the historical context of the time period in which Sir Thomas More wrote this book (the European Renaissance was in full swing, the Americas were newly discovered, the printing press had gained a solid foothold as an information technology), it seems only natural that philosophers and humanists of the day were discussing such ideas.  Although relegated to its era, many of the idealistic concepts remain pertinent today, particularly those regarding the ruling elite class, the grossly inequitable distribution of wealth, and the resulting social stratification and societal discord as a consequence.

Therefore I must say that, as I hope for mercy, I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that they have so ill-acquired, and then, that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please; and if they can but prevail to get these contrivances established by the show of public authority, which is considered as the representative of the whole people, then they are accounted laws; yet these wicked men, after they have, by a most insatiable covetousness, divided that among themselves with which all the rest might have been well supplied, are far from the happiness among the Utopians; for the use as well as the desire of money being extinguished, much anxiety and great occasions of mischief is cut off with it, and who does not see that the frauds, thefts, robberies, quarrels, tumults, contentions, seditions, murders, treacheries, and witchcrafts, which are, indeed, rather punished than restrained by the seventies of law, would all fall off, if money were not any more valued by the world?

Ideas such as these must certainly have influenced Marx and Engels in their writing of The Communist Manifesto.  A classless, egalitarian society in theory sounds great.  But on the massively populated scale of today’s capitalistic, post-industrial world, this idealism simply won’t function, will it?  In practicality, it must be imposed top down, which led to the fascist dictatorships attempting to institute socialism during the Cold War era, and we all know what a dismal failure that was.

The underlying philosophy of the above passage sounds awfully familiar, too, to the general rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street 99%.  Who is to say that the greed and rapacious desire for inordinate wealth bred by unchecked, global capitalism won’t ultimately prove to be equally catastrophic?

My only point is this:  16th century or 21st…a lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

As part of the public domain, a digitized version of Utopia can be freely accessed via Google Books here.

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