Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Thomas More's Modest Utopia

Utopian visions have bedeviled modern European society, at least since the publication of Thomas More's Utopia (1516). Without having done too much digging around in reference texts, I feel safe drawing the assocation because More's novelty was to have coined the word utopia, meaning 'no-place', and also a pun on a word meaning 'good-place'. More most likely intended that both meanings be taken seriously: as great as utopia might have been, it wasn't meant for anywhere in this world.

The 18th century Prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant famously stated, ought implies can, such that if I ought to do something, I also should also have the means to see that something done. And vice versa: if I cannot do something, it is not just to insist that I ought to do it. For utopian visionairies, the implication was, if it can be described, it can also be built. The mental image of a utopian existence, in principle at least, ought to be translatable into the bodily reality that you and I share with the rest of humanity.

Utopian schemes plagued the modern era and left human bodies strewn about in their wake. The old order of Judeo-Christian restraint was overthrown by a growing conviction, captured perfectly in Kant's statement, that ought implies can. It is, after all, integral to the Gospel message that there are things human being ought to do they can hardly attempt without divine aid and will never completely accomplish in the present life. Most notably: an especially expansive understanding of love our fellow human beings. However you flesh it out, the teaching of human sinfulness is a real drag on a can-do attitudes. Smaller scale utopian projects were harmless enough, so long as they leached off a larger society, which utopian citizens could retreat to after their inevitable failure. On the scale of states, however, utopian projects became the meat grinders of humanity. Nice on paper; terrible in practice. If ought implies can, and I happen to control the government and military, what's to stop me from attempting to impose a utopian order, by whatever means necessary, on a nation in the short-term?

Thomas More's account of the namesake Utopia, against this dismal backdrop, is all the more impressive for its modesty, and for the author's own reticence to endorse grand attempts at reforming society from the top down in the text. His better known successors in the genre, Bacon and Campanella, described island states centered on the fruitful, albeit clandestine, pursuit of knowledge to the ends of the known world. A prototype of the modern research institution, with a library, or some record all all humanity's knowledge, stood in the middle of town. All the citizens contributed, in their own ways, to the extension of humanity's utopian trust.  A pleasant dream for impoverished academics, no doubt, who otherwise scrape by around the edges of wealth, power, and influence.

More's account of the 'good place', which was also 'no place', attempts to answer one question. Under what conditions will the vast majority of people be content? Good government, for starters. (Where haven't we heard that before?) Government had to be concerned with meeting the material needs of citizens, requirements for physical activity, and mental endeavours, as well. This meant that government could not pursue ends not relating to the citizens own welfare. No one should get rich off the backs of the poor. Everyone should have a house in the city, the oppourtunity for a family, the chance to advance in society with age, and be apportioned certain periods of time down on the farm.

Some critics have accused More of promoting a primitive version of communism. There are certain communist features in Utopia, but if the criticism remains there, it misses the brilliance of More's work.

The society More described was a near-perfectly functioning organism. It had provisions for the defense of its borders, but no real need to employ them. It also had barely a hint of law enforcement, nor even a real need for the exercise of leadership in even the most mundane affairs. Every single citizens seems to have been thinking out of a single mind, with a single purpose. The prince, or magistrate, of the land played the part of a mere figurehead.

More inserted himself in the story of how knowledge of Utopia reached England. His character concludes the work thus: 'I cannot agree to everything...related;  however, there are many things in the Commonwealth of Utopia that I rather wish, than hope, to see followed in our governments.' More's utopian vision is not yet about the knowledge and utilization of the natural world; but rather a well-lived life.

Human life would be especially sweet if we all just agreed with each other. But we don't; nor is the enforcement of agreement, by our common wisdom, a better thing the tolerance of disagreement. Ought does not yet imply can east of Eden, which means More only wished that things might be, and does not hope to see them accomplished.

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