In 1980, I wrote a paper for the 1980 Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, in which I suggested that St. Thomas More’s Utopia, while it borrowed much from classical political philosophy, was animated by the very unclassical symbol of poverty on the monastic model. This enabled More to oppose modern political theory’s emancipation of acquisitive impulses and reaffirm the traditional subordination of economics to politics. (The title of that paper was “Alternatives to Abundance,” which certainly suggests where my head was at, philosophically, at that stage of my intellectual journey).
I pulled that paper out of storage recently, as I have been thinking about St. Thomas More in connection with the forthcoming “Fortnight for Freedom.” As no less a commentator than Joseph Ratzinger observed in 1978, “utopia, as a literary and philosophical genre, originated in the humanistic philosophy of the Renaissance, with Thomas More as its first classic author” (“Eschatology and Utopia,” International Catholic Review: Communio, V, 3).
Of course, neither More’s Utopia in particular, nor his political philosophy in general, accounts for his martyrdom or for the linking of his day in the Church calendar with the USCCB’s “Fortnight for Freedom.” More became a saint because of his martyrdom for the freedom of the Church. More might well have become a martyr had he just been a prominent lawyer and statesman and had never written or even thought of Utopia. Certainly, his martyrdom for the freedom of the Church was more important than Utopia. Even so, his earlier intellectual activity was an important component of his life story. And his intellectual prestige accounted for the especially strong resonance his martyrdom had in 16th-century Europe. So as I reflect upon the man who became a martyr, I remain fascinated by the Utopia Thomas More the man composed.
Now few things could be more clear about More’s Utopia than the identity of its central animating symbol – poverty. Every 10 years the Utopians change houses by lot – without any of the economic advantages historically associated with selling one’s home in our even more mobile society. Utopia’s citizens all wear the same rough work clothes, and each household has to make its own clothes. And so on.
More’s Utopians, however hard and simple their lives, were not, however, in actual want. Whatever they were, they were not poor in the sense in which so many sadly still are, suffering from a lack of genuine necessities. They were however, relatively poor compared to what they could have had, had they developed their full productive capacities. In this regard, the symbolism of Utopia’s 6-hour workday is evident.
However much More the Renaissance humanist may have admired ancient philosophy, he completely broke with a principle basic both to classical political experience and to classical political theory – that personal freedom from the need to work was necessary for authentic political life. Instead, More’s Utopians are more like monks than citizens of some real or imagined Aristotelian polis. Catholic Monasticism provided More a model in which work was compatible with full membership in society – set, however, in the overall context of a rule of life which minimized material preoccupations as much as possible, not allowing them to set the agenda for either individuals or society.
A utopia, by definition, doesn’t actually exist; and the closest real-world equivalent, the monastery, is obviously not for everyone, or even for most. Still, each can still serve as a challenge to remember what we so easily tend to forget about what’s really important in our human life together.