Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Thomas More's Solution, part two

In the previous essay, I described how the sixteenth-century Catholic scholar Sir Thomas More proposed (indirectly, through a fictitious traveler named Raphael Hythloday) a perfect, communistic society. But More went further than just describing the perfect society. He criticized European societies, including the England in which he lived.

European societies, More indicated, made common people suffer. More asked whether having someone on their knees before you make your knees hurt less. How can someone else’s pain lessen yours?

More described the people of Utopia as doing things that would even today draw sharp criticism from conservatives. People voted for their church leaders and there were even a few female priests (something that even today the Catholic Church does not do). Utopia had state-sanctioned euthanasia. Adultery was punished but divorce permitted, thus removing the need for lawyers. (More was a lawyer.) More even admired Utopian courtship. Before marriage, the affianced partners got to look at each other naked so that they would know what they are getting.

War was unknown in Utopia. How did the Utopians manage this? They offered rewards to people from enemy nations who would betray the enemy.

More said that the Utopians were originally pagans but embraced Christianity. However, they banished any Christians who were intolerant of other viewpoints.

Above all, Utopia was a communist society, just like early Christian communities described in the second chapter of Acts. “Though no man owns anything, yet every man is rich.” And yet the rich in England, said More, were not as happy as any of the Utopians. Many sins die when money dies, said More. Wherever people starve, he said, the rich have full barns. He said that it was better “…to be rid of innumerable cares and troubles than to be besieged with great riches.” In England, wealth was measured by how much discomfort it causes to others. He described the love of wealth as a “hell-hound” that “creeps into men’s hearts…”

More has the fictitious Raphael Hythloday criticize sixteenth-century England in these words: “For what justice is this, that a rich…userer [banker]…or to be brief, any one of those who either do nothing at all, or else something that is not very necessary to the commonwealth, should have a pleasant and wealthy living, either in idleness, or in unnecessary business, when meanwhile poor laborers, carters, ironsmiths, carpenters, and plowmen, by such great and continual toil, as beasts of burden are scarce able to sustain, and again such necessary toil that without it no commonwealth would be able to continue and endure one year, yet get so hard and poor a living and live so wretched and miserable a life that the state and condition of the laboring beasts may seem much better and more comfortable? [That was one sentence, but a powerful one.—HA] For they [the animals] are not put to such continual labor, nor is there living much worse; yea, for them it is much pleasanter, for they take no thought in the meantime for the future. But these ignorant, poor wretches [humans] are now tormented with barren and unfruitful labor, and the remembrance of their poor, indigent, and beggarly old age kills them off. For their daily wage is so little that it will not suffice for the same day, much less yield any overplus that may daily be laid up for the relief of old age.”

Of course, More could simply say, “Oh, Raphael said that; I just wrote down his words.” Take that, Harry.

To summarize, More (through Hythloday) is saying, Rich people do very little that is valuable to the nation as a whole, while the poor work as hard as they can, doing jobs that are necessary for the survival of our nation, under conditions that would be considered abusive to animals, and cannot even earn a living wage, much less save up for retirement. The only thing missing from this statement to make it applicable almost five hundred years after it was written is that today the rich people accuse the poor of being lazy. Or at least, in Mitt Romney’s case, 47 percent of them. Today, as in 1516, bankers play around with other people’s money and lose a lot of it, woopsie, and still receive million-dollar bonuses.

I realize that there is likely to be no way that natural selection, whether biological or cultural, could produce a sustainable state of communism. More’s Utopia is a fantasy land easily invasible (I think that’s a word) by selfish people. But it might work on a small scale. More, after all, based his Utopia on vague stories he had heard about Native American tribes. My Cherokee ancestors really did hold all their land in common. More even located Utopia in a vaguely American geographical location.

If you have a better idea, leave a comment. Let’s talk.

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