Friday, July 19, 2013

Book Review - Utopia

Thomas More's Utopia is nearly five centuries old yet it's still quite relevant and poignant today. It's somewhere between a fictional travelogue and a philosophical political treatise. I found it especially interesting that many of the complaints presented still ring true 500 years later. The sixteenth century writing can be a little dry at times but the narrative style and presentation are readily accessible and sometimes rather humorous.

As I dove into this book I knew very little about it other than it was supposed to be More's outline of the "perfect city/state." Interestingly (as pointed out in some of the notes and introduction I read), the word "Utopia" is derived from Greek words and means both "good place land" and "no place land" simultaneously. So strangely it suggests that this is both a "good place" and that it doesn't (or can't) exist. That paradox was an interesting starting point for me as I read.

The book is divided into two parts. The first "book" starts with letters between More and other real-life characters. This epistolary method of writing was quite common especially when trying to frame the reality of the situation. The letters work to introduce the characters and discussion that follows and to emphasize the significance of the information we are about to read. It also serves to introduce us to a character named Raphael who has apparently journeyed to the land of Utopia and has a great deal of expertise and respect for their customs and practices.

The rest of "book 1" consists of a dialog between the recipients of these letters. The dialog includes criticisms of various political policies (primarily European) ranging from wars and international relations down to property rights, poverty and punishment of criminals. It is suggested that perhaps Raphael should go into politics as an advisor. The reply seems to be rather cynical in suggesting that the kings or rulers wouldn't listen to Raphael and that the current flaws of the system will simply be allowed to perpetuate rather than be healed. The best result Raphael could see would be that the leaders may be depressed at the knowledge of the flaws but wouldn't be willing to fix them. A worse result would be that Raphael would be run out of court as a wicked corruptor of society.

The second "book" in Utopia goes beyond the philosophical discussions and into the specific details about the land of Utopia. First we get some general geographic details followed by information about the physical makeup of cities, communities and families. We're taught about the leaders of the society both how they're elected and what they do. We get significant detail about the nature of work within Utopia and the nature of property. We learn about international relations between Utopia and the outside world. We learn about their trade policies, immigration and emigration policies and how they handle wars. We're told in detail about criminal punishment, slavery, household relations (marriage, divorce, etc) and their concept of religion. Each aspect is presented in great detail and with various examples of implementation as well as sometimes comparing their methods to the flawed methods of European countries.

Probably the biggest overall aspect of Utopia is the idea of a wholly communal society. There is no private property. There is no real hierarchy or aggrandizement of any individual, occupation or organization. Those who "lead" certain affairs of the country do so out of necessity for the greater overall good and not with the hopes of "looking good" or getting rich or leaving some sort of legacy. Criminals generally become slaves though their method of slavery is quite humane. The idea is that people are motivated to be good in order to keep the peace and to avoid the shame and restrictions that come in "slavery." The status quo is further maintained by making it a crime to not properly carry your own load. Laziness and idleness are not permitted. If you do not do your particular job, you are a criminal and become a slave.

The Utopian concepts here are often (and rightly) seen as precursors to Marxist systems of government. The distinction is that More's Utopia is outlined as a pure and complete communistic society. Everything is in common from the property to the work to the rewards. Furthermore, while the society strives to improve through education, technology and other means the improvements are seen as existing to better the society as a whole and are taken in such a way as to provide mutual benefit to all involved. They would not consider any illicit means for obtaining advantage or influence. There is no place for pride or greed.

The entire concept sounds very appealing and interesting on paper. There are also many very sound concepts that could see great success in practice. However, in trying to envision the society truly being put into practice, the problems come with the "humanity" of humans. Specifically the pride, greed, laziness and other vices of humanity. Over time, individuals would become bored or otherwise dissatisfied and try to change things. The book suggests that others in society would squash such desires and disallow any groups of such people to disrupt the system. Unfortunately the desire for power, influence or wealth will inevitably allow someone to find a way of scrambling to the top, even in a society with no formal "top."

The idea of doing away with a monetary system and everybody working for the good of society is an ideal that would have potential if it could be sustained. But all it takes is a few small disruptions in the process and soon the whole system collapses in on itself.

From a literary standpoint, Utopia is fun in that it seems to be the predecessor to a genre that's gaining popularity now. That being the utopian novel (and its friend, the dystopian novel, which is all the rage right now). I love reading about societies trying to become "perfect" in every way. It's such a great ideal. I find the dystopian concept very intriguing as well since it generally showcases the way these utopian societies will often overstep their bounds and collapse on themselves or become the enemy.

Overall this was a very interesting read. I can definitely see it as being an influential book on political theory. Taking the concepts "off the page" becomes a rather interesting philosophical investigation into the nature of humanity and the things that help us rise or fall through generations.

3 out of 5 stars

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1 comment:

Brian Miller said...

ha. i dont think i have read this and i like your thoughts in comparison to the genres of novels...i dont think we can ever have a perfect society and still respect diversity...its hard for me t imagine...