KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEthicsLiterature

Utopia 500 Years Later

Now that 500 years have passed since the first publication of Thomas More’s Utopia, and we find ourselves in a season of promises to remake our world again, what might this classic of political thought disclose? For one thing, it cautions against the naïve cynicism that our political culture is subject to. For unmerited cynicism is merely naiveté by another name.

It’s worth remembering that More’s book is assuredly not More’s actual view of an ideal commonwealth, as its full title emphasizes: Of the Ideal State of a Republic and the New Island of Utopia—in other words, the “ideal state” is one topic, and the “New Island of Utopia” another. Although the two might overlap, they’re not the same. The Greek pun of the island’s name—which More coined—makes a similar distinction: this good place (eu-topia) is also no place (u-topia), and what it means to dwell in this nowhere remains an open question.

Among the meanings of the text is permission and event encouragement to engage in speculations about what our world might be. It seems a simple enough thing to allow, but we do well to remember that in More’s day people were likely to think that things were pretty much as they ought to be, at least for a fallen world; and we shouldn’t mess with God’s will by experimenting—even in thought—with new social dispensations.

However much we moderns like to think we’ve left such views behind, we continue to tell ourselves stories about why things can never change. At least since the seventies and the Nixon administration, cynicism about politics has been de rigueur. According to this narrative, all politicians are equally corrupt, the whole system rotten from bottom to top, we’re off to hell in a handbag, and chaos is come again. Of course, there’s something to this story, but it’s naively cynical to paint every politician with the same dim colors. Am I really to believe that Jimmy Carter, John McCain, and Bernie Sanders are indistinguishable from the most Machiavellian of operators? If this is the case, then it’s probably best not to engage in politics at all, but rather to remain apart in all one’s purity.

The figure in More’s text who represents such arrogant detachment is Raphael Hythloday—whose surname name means “peddler of nonsense”—the one who claims to know the Island of Utopia but refuses to engage in politics of any kind because there’s no use when the only languages our leaders speak are backstabbing and greed. When the characters “Thomas More” and “Peter Giles” try to convince Hythloday he should become advisor to a king, he refuses on exactly the grounds that it’s corruption all the way down, rather like citizens today refusing to vote. Why get involved when one candidate is as bad as another? As Hythloday says, no king wants to hear the truth anyway, so why bother to speak it?

In response, “More” points out that our situation in the world is more complex than such a refusal implies, nor is there merely one way of speaking truth, for one must respond to the scene where one finds oneself (this passage comes from the marvelous translation by Clarence Miller, in the Yale paperback edition):

But there is another sort of philosophy better suited to public affairs. It knows its role and adapts to it, keeping to its part in the play at hand with harmony and decorum.  This is the sort you should use…  By hauling in something quite diverse, you would spoil and distort the play then being presented, even if what you add were better in itself.  Whatever play is being presented, play your part as best you can and do not disturb the whole performance just because a more elegant play by someone else comes to mind.

This is a philosophy that says political work is a matter of constant improvisation, and even if it seldom resembles a realm of angelic purity, neither is it the endless negotiations of the devils in hell. More’s theatrical metaphor, along with his holding out for constant adjustment to the shifting language worlds of lived experience, also admits some optimism that improvisation could take the play in an unexpected direction, one that responds to the better angels of our nature. Thomas More, the character in the text as well as the historical personage, lives firmly in history, something that Hythloday (More’s invention) has never done. Were he to live in history as long as he lived on Utopia, Hythloday might realize that among the constant adjustments our world demands, doing some good remains a possibility, something we do well to remember in the midst of the shrill and narcissistic rhetoric clogging the airwaves. Perhaps out politicians, and the rest of us as well, might take some time to reconsider More’s complex little book, and improvise our way out of the very strange scene at hand.