Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Utopia Reconsidered

Last week on July 6, there came and went the anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas More (1478-1535) . His stalwart defense of the papal primacy and the indissolubility of marriage are what made More a saint and what he may be most remembered for now. But before his martyrdom in his own lifetime, he was widely known in Europe as a scholar and the author, most famously, of Utopia - a title which has since given its name to a whole genre of literature.

Now few things could be more obvious about Utopia than its central and animating symbol - poverty.Every 10 years, the Utopians change houses by lot, but without any of the economic profit usually attached to selling one's house in our even more mobile society. Everyone on the island wears the same style of clothing - rough work clothes made with long-term durability in mind and a cloak the color of natural wool - and each household produces its own clothes. Possession of precious metals provide no tangible economic benefits. And the Utopians are attracted to Christianity because of Jesus' attitude toward possessions and because of the practices in regard to possessions traditionally associated with those considered the truest Christians.

Of course, there is a considerable difference between the poverty of the Utopians and the degrading poverty experienced by so many poor people in the real world. Indeed, Utopia itself may have been a protest against the economic plight of many in Renaissance England. Thus, R.W. Chambers, author of a prize-winning More biography (Thomas More, 1936), saw in Utopia a protest against economic and political emancipation from medieval tradition and an appeal to the king "To turn a deaf ear to the counsellors who would make him all-powerful" and to the landlords not to subject their tenants "to economic progress and the law of supply and demand in the wool market" (p. 131).

Of course, that early modern process of economic liberalization was a prerequisite for the development of our modern free-market, capitalist model. The specific issue so troubling to More in his time was the increasing enclosure of once common land. In The Human Condition (Chicago, 1958), Hannah Arendt called attention to the irony that the enormous accumulation of wealth in a society supposedly based on the sanctity of property had its inception in the expropriation of the peasants.

In the ancient world, Plato had organized his philosophy around the symbol of knowledge as an alternative to opinion, the Socratic symbol for the inadequate basis for conventional politics. Similarly, Saint Thomas More's early modern utopian construct was structured around the symbol of poverty, which he put in place of greed, the capital sin which would serve as the engine for modern free-market economics.

A  essential feature of More's Utopia is that his imaginary Utopians were not in actual want - however hard their workaday lives and however simple its material rewards. They suffered no noticeable lack of genuine necessities. They were, however, relatively poor in comparison with what might have been the case had they focused completely on developing their full productive capacities, in other words, if the production and accumulation of abundance animated their institutional philosophy instead of poverty.

More had no animus against work and productivity per se. Yet the symbolism of the six-hour work-day was obvious.

It seems Saint Thomas More took to heart the widespread human experience that abundance for some entails misery for many and spiritual scarcity for all.

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