Saturday, July 05, 2008

Review: Utopia by Thomas More

The commonly accepted definition of "utopia" is: An ideally perfect place, especially in its social, political, and moral aspects (via The Free Dictionary). This is the definition that I had always accepted, because it seemed to be the general consensus.

Thomas More coined the word "Utopia," (literally "no place" from Greek), and this long narration is how he introduced it to the world. Since reading it, I have changed my own definition of this word to something more along the lines of: A place that appears to be ideally perfect, especially in its social, political, and moral aspects, but in fact is terribly, dreadfully wrong.

Maybe I'm completely off-base on the subject, but here are my thoughts.

More attempted to portray his ideal civilization as a sort of secular Christian communism. At one point he talks about how many Utopians began taking up Christianity when it was explained to them, yet they seem to be completely without compassion for the individual and wholly dedicated to "the public good" with an almost hive-mind consciousness.
In order that their cities may not have too many or too few inhabitants, they allow no city to have over six thousand households...The number of children is not restricted, but the number is easily controlled by transferring the children of a household that has too many to one that does not have enough.
So the children are taken from their parents and given to other people to balance out the population. But apparently the children don't mind because everyone is exactly alike anyway.
If any man goes outside his district without leave and is caught without a passport from the prince, he is treated scornfully, brought back as a fugitive, and severely punished. If he does it again, he is made a bondman.
Right to travel freely: denied. Repeat offenders are forced into hard labor (slavery). For nothing more than stepping outside of your appointed district without the leave of the monarch.

The Utopians are hypocrites:
So the Utopians, regarding this whole business of hunting as a thing unworthy of free men, turn it over to their butchers, who (as I have said) are bondmen. They count hunting as the lowest kind of butcher work. It is more useful and honorable to keep cattle and kill them only when needed.
But their butchers are bondmen, so even butchering domesticated cattle is left up to those who committed a heinous crime like stepping outside their own district. But do the Utopians have any qualms about actually eating these butchered animals? No, of course not.

At first glance, the Utopians seem to have a relatively enlightened view of euthanasia:
But if a person suffers from a disease which is both incurable and continually excruciating, the priests and magistrates come and urge him to make the decision not to nourish such a painful disease any longer...They tell him not to hesitate to die when life is such a torment, but in confidence of a better life after death, to deliver himself from the scourge and imprisonment of living or let others release him...for by death he would lose nothing but suffering.
Perhaps suicide is always wrong. I'm not sure it always is. But note the key phrase "priests and magistrates" in the previous passage, and then consider this:
But they dishonor a man who takes his own life without the approval of the priests and senate.
The Utopians do not own their own lives; their very life itself belongs to the collective.

On the other hand, they do have some ideas that I find acceptable. Such as this:
They think it highly unjust to bind men by laws that are too numerous to be read and too obscure to be readily understood.
No lawyers, for they have no use for "men who handle [legal] matters craftily and interpret laws subtly." This, in my opinion, would do us well to emulate.

But again we return to an inherent hypocrisy. They won't deign to wage war against another country on their own, but feel free to hire others to do it for them. In fact, they feel smugly superior in using so-called lesser races as their mercenaries, because these lesser races have nothing better to do, they enjoy fighting and dying violent deaths (according to the Utopians), and such deaths help keep their populations down so they don't get out of hand.

The final note that I made while reading this book is a passage that reflects accurately on our own times. Exchange "politician" for "priest" in the following. This is not an inaccurate substitution because their priests are part of the government:
No greater honor is paid to a magistrate among the Utopians than to the priests. Even if one of them does something criminal, he is not subject to any state trial. Instead the judgment is left to God and his own conscience. They do not think it right to lay hands on any priest, no matter how bad he is, since a priest is specially dedicated to God as if he were a sacred offering.
This is especially repugnant to me. Our own government is rife with elitists who believe themselves immune from the numerous and obscure laws that bind the rest of us. And for the Utopians, who behave as though the "state" is the ultimate good, their "state" is the equivalent of "God."

Should you read this book? My opinion is yes, with the condition that one keeps in mind that the nanny-staters and controllers of today are doing their dead level best to turn this country into their version of a "utopia."

Utopia was originally written in 1516, and there are many modern translations of the book available. My version is a slim volume published by Crofts Classics in 1949 and was translated by H.V.S. Ogden.

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