Sunday, January 15, 2017
Review of Utopia by Sir Thomas More
More’s Utopia is a reminder that every human, utopian dream has a short shelf-life. Stories of perfect worlds and heavens are told by imperfect, limited, and selfish people. What were they thinking? It’s actually fairly depressing to think that we don’t know what we want, and even our most beatific visions end in suffering and boredom for someone at first, and eventually all of us, especially the creator. But the attempt itself is delicious! Who but humans would try such an impossible feat? It’s not like any higher or lower life that we know of can do much better. The highest cerebral function of the chimpanzee, our nearest relative, is to toss butt brownies at his atavistic chums. So, yeah, imagining a better world and doing something—anything— to actualize our hopes pretty much buries the competition in their own fecal fancies.
Even setting the idea of progress aside, the willingness to try something great in spite of risked failure is a triumph in itself. And then there’s always the hope that something, however unexpected, will turn out. I love the words of Percy Shelley, “[We] hope, until hope creates from its own wreckage the thing contemplated.” Utopia is a wreck in many ways, but it’s another step towards better, more hopeful wrecks! Utopia’s puritanical morality, metaphysical expectations, and political simplicity are native to the early Renaissance mindset and augurs a worse world by some first-world standards, but it was still far better than the murderous rat-holes that many lived in at the time. And as a dream, it sparked new dreams and new ways to express those dreams.
You cannot read works like this with the same outlook as you would a modern work of creative fiction. As n historical work removed from our political/economical milieu, it does not speak to us with like-mind as it spoke to the people of its time. We have to understand their problems and hopes before we can understand their brave attempts at a solution. Only then can we find the analogy between Utopia and our own utopian strivings.
“Verily, my brother, if thou knewest but a people’s need, its land, its sky, and its neighbor, then wouldst thou divine the law of its surmountings, and why it climbeth up that ladder to its rope” (Nietzsche).
Since the second half of my edition of the book (Norton Critical Edition) was filled with several examples of utopian stories from other writers in other cultures, and essays from literary critics and historians about Utopia and its ramifications, I was able to distill a few more lessons from More’s Utopia. Like trying to read Dante’s Inferno without understanding the thousands of literary allusions to his contemporary society that makes the work all but opaque to modern readers, I would definitely read a reference work or cliff notes along with Utopia to get as much out of it as you can.
On the other hand, reading it for the pure enjoyment of watching old sand-castle-heavens crumble to make way for the newest, dated heavens isn’t a bad way to spend an evening.