I did read Utopia this week (which is also on my list). Okay, I’ll admit it, it was for a class, but it still counts, right? Just because I’m reading of a syllabus doesn’t make it any less literary.
On dear Sir Thomas’ 1516 foray into a perfect society I have surprisingly little to say. The natural question that springs to mind whenever one picks up a work entitled “Paradise” (be it Dante or More) is how Utopian is Utopia? Naturally, I have little inclination to talk about this (though I’m certain we’ll be discussing it in class on Wednesday and I may or may not have an update after that as per how that discussion goes).
Oh, in case you were interested, Thomas More actually coined the word “Utopia” (OED). A small foray into our favorite encyclopedic volume of words tells us that in 1613 it came into wider use to mean “a place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions”. It has been used steadily in that capacity ever since, but most people aren’t aware that they are referring to More’s pamphlet whenever they speak of ideality.
What I am intrigued by is the fact that More basically describes a communist state. Every place looks exactly the same, every person works the same amount of hours, every person receives what he requires. As More explains it, “…and seeing they be all thereof partners equally, therefore, can no man there be poor or needy” (148). I suppose what really struck me about this idea is how very ancient it is. Communist states were already being discussed as an ideal in 1516 England and have been pervasive throughout the minds of men since. I’m no historian, and certainly not a political historian, but this seems a very long time for such an idea to percolate. And nobody yet has gotten it right… the “communist” states of today are not More’s Utopia and never will be, when did the idea become sullied?
Now granted, More’s Utopia is not an enactable policy. Here is a country with wealth in store because they (as a society) hold no store in traditional signs of wealth. Here is a country whose foreign relations depend entirely upon the foreign countries thinking the Utopians curious and quaint. Here is a country where lawyers are banished (as deceivers, much like actors were in the days of yore). This is not reality, nor can it be. But I am dubious at best to say that there is nothing to be learned from Utopia.
Another thing Utopia does not account for is the nature of mankind. Utopia would like to believe the best of man, or at least that nurture will win over nature. I’m not entirely convinced that it will. However, given no evidence to back my claim, I wish to avoid delving further into the land of speculation. Suffice to say that I have a fairly pessimistic view of human nature, that way I can only be surprised not disappointed. For Utopia to hold, man as a society must behave as creatures of innate good.
But why bother discussing unattainable perfection at all? What is so fascinating about pretty things that we can’t have? I suppose the answer is that they are still pretty, whether real or not. Even if we can’t have it, we can still want it, and we can still wonder how to get it.
More, Thomas R. Utopia. Ralph Robynson Translation 1556. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999. Print.
"Utopia" The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 4 Apr. 2000