Sic est in republica: utopian ideology and the misreading of thomas more.

Author:Young, R. V.
Position:Critical essay

In a book that ought to be better known, Utopia: The Perennial Heresy, Thomas Molnar comments on the community of all goods among the inhabitants of the imaginary island in St. Thomas More's Utopia:

Each family brings to this central market the products of its work, and each household head takes home whatever his family needs for sustenance. He neither pays nor barters, yet he is refused nothing, since nobody in Utopia asks for more than he needs. And, More adds with a disarming, but significantly dangerous naivete, "Why, indeed, would a person, who knows that he will never lack anything, seek to possess more than what is necessary?" (1) Molnar's otherwise acute observation is flawed in one crucial detail: it is not Thomas More who speaks with "significantly dangerous naivete," but rather Raphael Hythlo-daeus, who is a character in More's libellus uere aureus--his "truly golden little book"--entitled Utopia. Molnar has made a familiar error in mistaking a work of literature for a treatise or a tract. Although such a mistake may seem relatively harmless--a concern only of literature professors--utopian ideology, with its associated "terror" and "human cost," may be seen from one perspective as a result of bad literary criticism. In fact, the book Utopia provides the earliest antidote to utopian ideology, which it disparages as an analogue to generic confusion and a fault of decorum, and which it subtly ridicules by the ironic deployment of stylistic variation. St. Thomas More's Utopia is perhaps the first dystopia in the Western literary tradition. (2)

To be sure, the most common interpretations of the work over the past four centuries would seem to belie this assertion. In An Apology for Poetry Sir Philip Sidney remarks that Sir Thomas More's "way of patterning a Commonwealth was most absolute, though hee perchaunce hath not so absolutely perfourmed it," (3) with the clear implication that More had set out to describe a perfect commonwealth in the proper manner but had failed in the execution. The Utopian custom of permitting a prospective bride and groom to view one another naked before making a final decision to marry has, not surprisingly, attracted a certain amount of attention. The grave denizens of Sir Francis Bacon's earnestly conceived New Atlantis are said to dislike this custom, "for they think it a scorn to give refusal after so familiar knowledge." They solemnly provide, however, what they regard as a superior alternative: "Adam and Eve's pools, where it is permitted to one of the friends of the man, and another of the friends of the woman, to see them severally bathe naked." (4) Application of this prenuptial practice of New Atlantis might well reveal more about one's friends than about a prospective spouse. In Brief Lives John Aubrey not only takes the Utopian custom literally; he gives it a biographical basis:

Sir William Roper. . . came one morning, pretty early, to my lord, with a proposal to marry one of his daughters. My lord's daughters were then both together a bed in a truckle bed in their father's chamber asleep. He carries Sir William into the chamber and takes the sheet by the corner and suddenly whips it off. They lay on their backs, and their smocks up as high as their armpits. This awakened them, and immediately they turned on their bellies. Quoth Roper, 'I have seen both sides', and so gave a pat on the buttock (to the one) he made choice of, saying, 'Thou art mine'. Here was all the trouble of the wooing. This story turns out to be, literally, an old wives' tale, since Aubrey "had [it] from my honoured friend old Mrs. Tyndale." (5)

During the past two centuries, attempts to treat the Utopia as a blueprint for an ideal communist society have generally been less amusing, but hardly less absurd. In the late nineteenth century, Karl Kautsky, sometime secretary to Friedrich Engels and editor of the last, posthumous volume of Karl Marx's Das Kapital, expounded Utopia as a precursor of modern socialism in Thomas More and His Utopia (1888; trans. 1927) in a fashion that takes one's breath away with its insouciant expropriation of More as a witness for a perspective that he would have loathed. More "takes his stand," Kautsky maintains, "on the material conditions" and is thus "a whole epoch in advance of his time":

. . . at a time when the capitalist mode of production was in its infancy, he mastered its essential features so thoroughly that the alternative mode of production which he elaborated and contrasted with it as a remedy for its evils, contained several of the most important ingredients of Modern Socialism. The drift of his speculations, of course, escaped his contemporaries, and can only be properly appreciated by us to-day. (6) Kautsky's breezy assumption of the superior wisdom of the present can only seem risible now that his "present" has retreated more than a century into the past, and the glowing promises of communism have collapsed so utterly. Nevertheless, More's Utopia is still not infrequently read as a dramatized plea for the establishment of just such a commonwealth as its second book describes. The jacket blurb on a recent reprint by Transaction Press assures the reader that "Thomas More's book Utopia is his vision of a perfect society," (7) and Part II of the introduction to the standard Yale University Press edition, written by Edward Surtz, S.J., gives a more complex version of the same view. "The Utopia as a whole," Fr. Surtz says, "is centered upon 'the best order of society"; and he leaves no doubt about what that order is: "The distorted conception of private property which is the root of injustice, greed, and pride in Europe must yield to the communism which flowers in a universal justice, prosperity, and brotherhood in Utopia." The two-book form of the work mirrors the simplicity of the conception: "The intricate problem and all the possible solutions are set forth in Book I. The most important and actually the only genuine solution is detailed and proved in Book II." (8) This section of the introduction to the Yale edition is entitled "Utopia as a Work of Literary Art," but it is precisely a sense of literature and art that is missing: Fr. Surtz insists "that More's theme almost cries aloud for the least complicated of structural forms: a problem and its solution." (9) This is the structure of dialectic, however, not of dramatic fiction.

Further, Thomas Molnar is not the only conservative who excoriates More on the same basis for which Surtz and Kautsky praise him. An especially formidable challenge is presented by Eric Voegelin, surely one of the most influential philosophers among conservative thinkers over the past half century. His attitude toward More is ambivalent, and, unlike Molnar and most other commentators who assume that Utopia is an apologia for socialism, Voegelin is not unaware that More is a writer of literature. In The History of Political Ideas, the philosopher observes that interpretation of Utopia is complicated "because More gave free reign to his sense of humor and taste for satire," but for Voegelin this penchant seems a matter for opprobrium. (10) His disapproval of More looks suspiciously like Plato's philosophical rejection of poetry as such because it tells lies about the gods, stimulates the passions, and obscures the facts of reality with its fictional world.

Voegelin maintains, "At the center of [Utopia's] meaning lies the autobiographical part of the dialogue."

He is aware that More the man was considering permanent service in the court of Henry VIII, doubtless with no little anxiety, when he wrote his famous work. "The argument that must have been going on in the soul of More at the time is distributed in the dialogue between More and Raphael" (113). What Voegelin fails to see, however, is that an autobiographical origin of a work of literature does not make the work as such autobiography: the "More" who speaks within the dialogue Utopia is as much a fiction as the "Raphael" with whom he debates.

Voegelin is less interested in the work of literature than in its reduction "to the importance it actually has in the history of political ideas" (111). When these ideas are extracted from their fictional context, they amount to nothing save a false political "ideal" antithetical to the author's religion: "In spite of the far-reaching decomposition of his Christianity, More is still too much of a Christian to be an intramundane eschatologist like the later Progressivists, Positivists, and Marxists. He indulges in an 'ideal'; but at least he knows that the ideal is nowhere. . . ." Nevertheless, "With More's Utopia we are in the transition from Christian to revolutionary intramundane eschatology" (118). Apparently, Voegelin assumes that merely to have represented utopian ideas in a fiction is a source of negative social consequences: "More has the dubious historical merit of having expressed for the first time the full pleonexia of secular reason, justice, and morality. His expression of the ideal is not the cause of what followed afterward, but it is the first spiritual symptom of the great spiritual disease that was to grip Western civilization in the following centuries" (129).

Voegelin's treatment of More in "Ersatz Religion," where he is classified with Hobbes and Hegel as modern Gnostics, is still more disparaging. "In his Utopia," Voegelin maintains...

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