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utopia

September 14, 2014

Just finished reading Thomas More’s Utopia, a fictional account of More’s encounters with a traveller and philosopher named Raphael Hythlodaeus that explores a wide range of moral, philosophical, and political topics. Overall, I found it to be a quick, enjoyable read, not unlike many of Plato’s dialogues. And considering More’s background and history, I initially found much in Utopia surprising, particularly the relative level of religious tolerance that’s advocated for “preserving the public peace” and “the interest of religion itself” since More actively persecuted Protestants in his role as Chancellor.

The subject matter of the text itself is fairly radical in the kinds of ideals and social structures it advocates. One of the first things that initially stuck out for me was More/Raphael’s forceful argument against wealth inequality stemming from private property, unequal social relations, the displacement and disenfranchisement of workers, and unemployment, foreshadowing (and likely influencing) similar arguments offered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine.

In criticizing the death penalty for theft, for example, Raphael argues that the material social relations of the time predispose people to turn towards theft to make a living, and that it’s better to “make such good provisions by which ever man might be put in a method how to live” than to impose harsh penalties for criminals that society itself produces: injured veterans who can’t farm or find other work; dispossessed farmers pushed off the land by wealthy, idle landowners more interested in raising sheep (needing more land but less workers); scarcity and expensiveness of food created by the switch to sheep farming and enclosure of common land, as well as via market manipulation by the few, extremely rich landowners, etc. (10-4).

Without addressing these issue, Raphael quips, “it is a vain thing to boast of your severity in punishing theft … for if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this but that you first make thieves and then punish them?” (14). (I think a similar argument can be made today in regard to our prison system and the high rates of incarceration for drug offences, robbery, etc.)

Another thing that caught my attention was its radical promotion of Republic-like, pre-industrial communism, which, although characterized by a rather rigid social structure, offers a lot of interesting (and in my opinion contemporarily relevant) arguments for a communal economic social structure, such as limits on capital accumulation and the abolition of money as the standard of all things (the abolition of wage labour?) for the good of the many since, as Raphael argues, the institution of private property leads to the best falling to the share of the worst (greedy rich/capital) and all things being divided among the few (wealthy/capitalist class), leaving the rest of the labouring population to misery and privation (27-8). (A 16th century version of the 1% vs. the 99%, I suppose.)

He further argues that, “till property is taken away, there can be no equitable or just distribution of things, nor can the world be happily governed; for as long as that is maintained, the greatest and the far best part of mankind, will be still oppressed with a load of cares and anxieties” (28). Laws and regulations can mitigate the disease of inequality caused by a socio-economic system based on private property “as good diet and care might have on a sick man whose recovery is desperate,” but the disease itself “could never be quite healed, nor the body politic be brought again to a good habit as long as property remains; and it will fall out, as in a complication of diseases, that by applying a remedy to one sore you will provoke another, and that which removes the one ill symptom produces others, while the strengthening one part of the body weakens the rest” (28).

Later, in detailing the nation of Utopia, More via Raphael seems to foreshadow similar (albeit less sophisticated) arguments made today by communist blogger Jehu and anthropologist David Graber regarding the desirability of a reduction of hours of labour (in this case, six hours a day) and the elimination wage labour, as well as the weeding out of ‘vain and superfluous’ (or what Graeber calls ‘bullshit’) jobs. To help facilitate this, he argues, much like Plato, for the education of women and their inclusion in workforce and even the priesthood (38-40). Unfortunately, however, women still hold a subservient role in More’s fictional society (ultimately being subservient to their fathers and then to their husbands), and the society itself is characterized by a form of slavery and a rather strict Protestant work ethic (the latter of which I think modern technological innovations have made superfluous).

Switching gears somewhat, I found that the section delving into the Utopians’ lifestyle, religion, philosophy, etc. has a number of parallels with Epicurean and Buddhist ideas, particular in their approach to pleasure. For starters, I see a lot of similarities between the middle way of Buddhism (i.e., the middle way between the two extremes of self-mortification and self-indulgence) and the hedonism of Epicurus. Epicurus’ philosophy, for example, was aimed at attaining ataraxia, peace of mind and freedom from fear, and aponia, the absence of pain, via a system of ethics, rational thinking, contemplation, and a secluded, moderate lifestyle. His hedonism wasn’t so much unlimited indulgence in sensual pleasures as it was about balance.

Epicurus himself held that the absence of pain was the highest pleasure (compare that to the idea of nibbana being the highest bliss a la Dhp 202-04), and he favoured static pleasure over dynamic pleasure. The difference is explained by Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy using hunger as an example:

Dynamic pleasures consist in the attainment of a desired end, the previous desire having been accompanied by pain. Static pleasures consist in a state of equilibrium, which results from the existence of the kind of state of affairs that would be desired if it were absent. I think one may say that the satisfying of hunger, while it is in progress, is a a dynamic pleasure while, but the state of quiescence which supervenes when hunger is completely satisfied is a static pleasure. Of these two kinds, Epicurus holds it more prudent to pursue the second, since it is unalloyed, and does not depend upon the existence of pain as a stimulus to desire. When the body is in a state of equilibrium, there is no pain; we should, therefore, aim at equilibrium and the quiet pleasures rather than the more violent joys. Epicurus, it seems, would wish, if it were possible, to be always in the state of having eaten moderately, never in that of voracious desire to eat.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you constantly stuff your face, but that you eat moderately, just enough to keep the body from experiencing the pain of hunger but not so much that it experiences the pain of overeating. In fact, Epicurus himself, contrary to popular belief, bordered on asceticism, renouncing sex and living off of little more than bread and cheese. The Buddha had a similar attitude towards food (among other things), as well. For example, from AN 4.37:

And how does a monk know moderation in eating? There is the case where a monk, considering it appropriately, takes his food not playfully, nor for intoxication, nor for putting on bulk, nor for beautification, but simply for the survival & continuance of this body, for ending its afflictions, for the support of the holy life, thinking, ‘I will destroy old feelings [of hunger] & not create new feelings [from overeating]. Thus I will maintain myself, be blameless, & live in comfort.’ This is how a monk knows moderation in eating.

This, in my opinion, is in many ways similar to the Utopians’ view of pleasure; and both the Utopians and Epicurus seem to think that the absence of pain is the highest pleasure, at least as far as bodily pleasure is concerned. For them, the pleasure of eating is truly pleasurable insofar as it drives away the pain of hunger and recovers the body’s health:

But, of all pleasures, they esteem those to be most valuable that lie in the mind, the chief of which arise out of true virtue and the witness of a good conscience. They account health the chief pleasure that belongs to the body; for they think that the pleasure of eating and drinking, and all the other delights of sense, are only so far desirable as they give or maintain health; but they are not pleasant in themselves otherwise than as they resist those impressions that our natural infirmities are still making upon us. For as a wise man desires rather to avoid diseases than to take physic, and to be freed from pain rather than to find ease by remedies, so it is more desirable not to need this sort of pleasure than to be obliged to indulge it. If any man imagines that there is a real happiness in these enjoyments, he must then confess that he would be the happiest of all men if he were to lead his life in perpetual hunger, thirst, and itching, and, by consequence, in perpetual eating, drinking, and scratching himself; which any one may easily see would be not only a base, but a miserable, state of a life. These are, indeed, the lowest of pleasures, and the least pure, for we can never relish them but when they are mixed with the contrary pains. The pain of hunger must give us the pleasure of eating, and here the pain out-balances the pleasure. And as the pain is more vehement, so it lasts much longer; for as it begins before the pleasure, so it does not cease but with the pleasure that extinguishes it, and both expire together.

The Buddha, too, I think, would agree that eating in order to drive away the pain of hunger and to recover our health is a more ideal pleasure than, say, eating for the sake of pleasant tastes, especially if one is seeking to realize an even higher pleasure—nibbana. From the Buddhist point of view, sense pleasures are ultimately ephemeral, void of lasting satisfaction, and not worth clinging to (MN 37). After all, the body is inherently susceptible to aging, illness, and death. Moreover, I find the ideas suggested in the last four sentences above about the nature of sense pleasures and health evocative of the Buddha’s discourse in MN 75 when taken to their logical conclusion, although I think the Buddha would take issue with the Utopian’s praise of the appetites planted in us by the Author of Nature later on since they’re characterized by pain as much as pleasure.

Another fairly radical idea found in a text written by a devout Catholic who’d later go on to persecute Protestants is that of euthanasia, which the Utopians find honourable (and advisable) in the case of incurably ill citizens who are given the blessings of their priests to end their own life through self-starvation or the use of opium, but no one is forced to end their life. Those who choose not to are still taken care, while those who do are given all the honours of a proper burial. Those who decide to end their own lives “without the approbation of the priests and the senate,” however, are denied the same honours, and instead, thrown into a ditch (64).

Utopia is full of such contradictions, mixing conservative values with radical ideas and vice versa. Women are given more status and freedom, yet are still put into a subservient social position. Euthanasia is allowed, but those who do so without the proper authority are cast into ditches. The island is communal and governed by a minimum of easily-understood laws, and yet certain things which seem to us as trivial are dealt with quite severely (although less severely than was the norm in Europe during that time). Divorce is allowed if there are sufficiently good reasons, but pre-marital sex is severely punished and offenders aren’t allowed to marry (and must remain celibate) unless granted a special permit by the prince. (Interestingly enough, the reason for the latter is because the Utopians believe if this wasn’t punished so harshly, few would be willing to “engage in a state in which they venture the quiet of their whole lives, by being confined to one person, and are obliged to endure all the inconveniences with which it is accompanied” (65).)

And what of its author? More was a lawyer, yet in his Utopia, there are no lawyers, the law being easy to understand and judge. More was a devout Catholic who’d later go out to persecute Protestants, but in his Utopia, one of the most ancient laws is that “no man ought to be punished for his religion” (80). For the time, the idea of religious freedom was fairly radical (it wasn’t until Vatican II’s 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom that the Catholic Church formally expressed its support for the protection of religious freedom), but the man behind the idea was quite reactionary, which makes me wonder whether Utopia is more satirical than ‘utopian.’ Is More’s Utopia really his version of an ideal society combined with contemporary social criticism? Or is it a parody of utopian literature poking fun at the notion of such an ideal society by suggesting it’s nonsensical?

In the end, it’s hard to say. Despite his actions in life, More via Raphael makes some good arguments for the Utopian’s radical ideals and social structures, echoing much of Socrates’ discourses in Plato’s Republic. But one has to wonder if More wanted those ideas to be taken seriously considering the names he gives to the people and places in Utopia: Utopia = ‘Noplace,’ Hythlodaeus = ‘dispenser of nonsense,’ Achora = ‘Nolandia,’ Polyleritae = ‘Muchnonsense,’ etc. Perhaps More was satirizing the very idea of such a rational society in a violent and sinful world.

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