Tag Archives: Questioning heart

On Good Places and No Places

Dear Father,

It was not too long ago that I concluded Platocrates’ Republic, that wonderful treatise on the perfect city, the home of truth and justice. With the melancholy of Augustine’s final words hanging over my head, I have spent the past few weeks in search of something uplifting, something that could take my mind away from the apparent futility of my quest. Imagine my joy when I stumbled across yet another book on perfect cities, this one by famed Elder of the House Thomas More. Recalling the glee with which I had received Platocrates’ dialogues I sat to read More’s Utopia, hoping that perhaps I would find not only a reprieve from the sadness that plagued me, but a more achievable vision of perfection than the unattainable ideals contained in Plato’s Republic.

The differences in their approach showed right from the start. Unlike Platocrates, who made it clear that he was fabricating a city in order to find the true meaning of justice, More makes play that Utopia is a real place. He is brought news of this fantastical island by one Raphael Hythloday, a man that claims to have been to the isle and to have seen first-hand how much better their system of governance is than those of the leading nations in More’s Europe. More was struck by the simplicity of Raphael, by his unwillingness to apply his wisdom in pursuit of personal gain, and by his superlative knowledge of states and governance, knowledge he claimed to have obtained by living among the Utopians. It was this impression that led More to listen to Hythloday’s account of the island, and – if we are to go along with the fiction – to put it before us in the form of a book.

In keeping with the realism of his republic, More (or rather Hythloday) paints Utopia as a land that could actually exist. Their government is a democracy, with its basic unit in the family. The families choose philarchs (or magistrates), the philarchs choose their archphilarchs, and the archphilarchs choose the island’s prince. There are checks to ensure that the prince does not abuse his power, and checks to ensure that no one can sway the vote for prince in his/her favour. The archphilarchs debate on the pressing issues of the land, and the greatest care is taken to ensure that the people have a direct hand in the decisions taken by their princes and magistrates.

Unlike Plato’s Republic, where each man has a duty he performs to the best of his capacity, the central duty of all people in Utopia is agriculture. The people all share an intimate knowledge of the land and how to till it, but are also allowed to practice whatever art they feel an affinity to.

There is no property in Utopia, and no money to speak of. Houses are shared, with smaller families given smaller homes and larger families given larger ones. The produce of each city is brought to a central market where all are allowed to take as they please. No one hoards, as there is no need to; all are certain that they would be provided for.

All men live in full view of the others, and this is done in order to ensure that they perform their tasks and employ themselves properly in their spare time. The people are encouraged to be ever busy, with the day split into segments that allow for leisure, education, hobbies and work. The fathers teach their sons their trades, and if they have sons that do not take a liking to their arts the sons are moved to a family where their talents are appreciated.

In keeping with their lack of property the people of Utopia do not value gold and silver, preferring instead to adorn their children with these metals and to use them in the basest of manners, such as in making toys and chamber pots. They sell whatever surplus food they have to neighbouring nations, trading their food for whatever raw materials they need. In the event that they want for nothing they trade for gold, which they keep not for themselves but for necessity, such as the need to pay nations that wish to collect money and not bartered goods.

Utopians do not engage in war, preferring instead to employ mercenaries with their devalued gold, and even then they fight only in self-defence, or when they wish to help their neighbours depose a tyrannous leader, or when war is completely unavoidable.

Of course, unlike Plato’s Republic More’s Utopia is not composed entirely of perfect men. While their laws are few and far between there are those that break them, and these people are entered into slavery as punishment for their crimes. The slaves perform all the tasks that the law-abiding citizens consider beneath them, such as the killing of beasts and washing away of filth. A lot of Utopia’s labour comes from slaves, be they lawbreakers, prisoners of war, or people sentenced to death in other lands whom the Utopians have bought, that their lives be spared. In so doing they put even the undesirables to good use, preferring to use all hands to the good of their society instead of killing wantonly simply to “set an example”.

I must admit Father that Utopia, as described, is certainly a much better state than many you would find on your earth today. Where Plato’s city sprung up only as a side-effect of his quest for justice, Utopia appears to have been conceived for equality. There is no nobility, save for those naturally arising in the men that achieve great things. There is no property, no money. Nobody, from the prince himself to the most depraved slave wants for food or home; no sick man goes unattended; no child goes uneducated. All in More’s Utopia are treated equally, and all are happy and at peace. In his Utopia it seems More has constructed what he believes a real, ideal society should be, accounting for even the miscreants, people that could not exist in the perfection of Platocrates’ Republic.

I cannot help but feel, however, that even with his exactitudes More’s Utopia is just as unattainable as Platocrates’. For all his exposition on the minutiae of Utopian life, with the great pains he takes to ensure that his people are not selfish or greedy, that all have freedom of religion, that equality is guaranteed through a lack of property, and that war is avoided due to the island’s isolation, More makes an underlying assumption, one that the histories of many a nation on this earth have shown to be completely and entirely unfounded. More, much like Plato, assumed that the very people in his Utopia were “good”.

Their princes and philarchs, regardless of the power they wield, are rarely (if ever) cruel. Their slaves, even the ones brought from strange lands with different customs, never attempt a successful revolution. Their knowledge of agriculture is so perfect their markets are always full, unhindered by the fluctuations of the seasons. Their children are very amenable, always given to one useful art or another, never rebellious or lazy. Their people possess great intellects, able to know all the laws of the land to such an extent that they can argue cases for themselves. Somehow even the basest of human emotions, things that we know exist in us not because of our societies or the circumstances of our births but simply because we are human, these emotions are non-existent among the Utopians. More (through Hythloday) seemed to believe that the ills found in his country and others across Europe were as a result of bad starts, that if one could begin society anew, with no property and no money and a willingness to ensure equality for all, a place like Utopia would emerge. And looking upon your children Father, with our laundry list of faults endemic to our existence, looking upon even the First Brother and his fall from what was a land more perfect than Plato’s Republic or More’s Utopia, it is quite evident that that belief holds no water.

It is certainly possible that More suspected this. The name of this perfect isle, Utopia, comes from Greek and means “No place” or “Not a place”. Perhaps More, like Plato, was describing a state of mind, and not a particular location, though the level of detail with which he describes the lives of the Utopians and his lack of an explicit ulterior motive make this unlikely. Perhaps he simply knew that while he could dream of what the perfect land could be, as long as your children remain the way they are made, crude and blind and ignorant, such a place would never be possible. Perhaps the entire book was simply a long-winded way of saying that there are in fact no good places. An interesting thought, dearest Father, when one considers that as a son of the Cross More must have believed in the perfection of the Great Upstairs. If we are doomed to forever be flawed beings, if all good places are no places, how then do you plan to fill the halls Upstairs? How can you ensure that none of the children that make it there would ever fall, ever again? Those in the House today still fall prey to the whisperings of You-Know-Who. What makes their presence in the Great Upstairs any different?

With a questioning heart,

Your Prodigal Son

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