Sunday, December 04, 2011

Thomas More (1478-1535): Utopia.

Yes, Utopia is the title and More is the originator of the meaning that we now have for the word.  It is hard to imagine this strange bit of fiction being written 500 years ago.  It begins with a lament of consumerism, but picks up on ideas from Plato's Republic and the stories of the founding of Sparta, mixes them up with other notions, and gives us a new island nation in the New World which he calls Utopia - which actually means nowhere.  More's Utopia isn't intended to be understood as perfect; just much better than the current European societies.

One of More's laments is the practice of executing people for theft.  More's Utopia is much more humane in that any thief is made a slave and forced to do hard work for life, which he is grateful to have because his life was spared.  This reminds me of the laments of Victor Hugo in Les Miserables.

An intriguing bit in Utopia seems to prepare the way for the much later political writer, John Locke, of whose work I have recently listened to:

"But if the natives refuse to conform themselves to their laws they drive them out of those bounds which they mark out for themselves, and use force if they resist, for they account it a very just cause of war for a nation to hinder others from possessing a part of that soil of which they make no use, but which is suffered to lie idle and uncultivated, since every man has, by the law of nature, a right to such a waste portion of the earth as is necessary for his subsistence." - Utopia

The point of similarity between More and Locke is the "law of nature" and the derived arguments about unproductive use of the land, but More's work predates Locke's by more than 150 years. The Just War notion is also tied into both works.  The path from More to Locke might be a strange one, but it seems clear that there must be such a path and that Locke wasn't the originator of many of the ideas I had presumed him to be the author of.


Inklings said...

Hmm, I guess I live in the middle of Utopia. :0)

Dee Ice Hole said...

HMMMM---perhaps this explains the neighbor to my property in Idaho who thinks there is nothing wrong with him farming my place since I am not---

Max Coutinho said...

Hi Looney,

Well, this is one of those books that I had to read when I was in the 10th grade (History class) and I loved it because it makes us think when we begin to compare it with modern societies.
More was disappointed and I think he dreamed of a better world, but his disappointment didn't allow him to be optimistic about the future (hence the title "Utopia" = nowhere).
But I must read it again now that I am an adult.

Les Miserables is an interesting book (although I prefer Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notredame) as it confirms that humans may never change - they may get rich, they may wear luxurious garments yet they always have the need to confess their deeds (good [under the form of boasting] or bad [as a form of atonement]).

Is there really an unproductive use of the land, nowadays? No.
As for Just War: this notion is very true when it comes to certain nations, but so very non-existent for others.


Looney said...

@Inklings, I would love to move to utopia also! Maybe after I retire.

@Dee Ice Hole, philosophers are everywhere!

Looney said...

@Max, I have to wonder if More's book can really be appreciated in 10th grade. Aristotle said that philosophy was only for older people, yet it seems that most will only get a slight exposure to philosophy when they are young. It is good to come back to the books at an older age.

I haven't read any of Victor Hugo's work. Just saw the movies. Do the movies approximate the books?

Max Coutinho said...


I agree with you that most kids do not have the maturity to appreciate and grasp not only More's book but other authors' work; however Portugal doesn't care.
I like going back to my books as I get older (experience gives us another perspective).

"Do the movies approximate the books?"

Do they ever? The books are much much better (Les Miserables, for example, offers two intense volumes which are like a thesis on the human behaviour - awesome) because the movie leaves out interesting details.

Have a great weekend!