Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Thomas More's Solution, part one

In the previous essay, I explained that we are heading toward a nation and world in which rich people do little work, and poor people are desperate. What can we do to prevent this? The only solution just might be communism.

I do not mean Marxist communism. Marx’s ideas have been demonstrated to be wrong. And both Leninist and Maoist communism failed. One important reason that they failed is that they were not really communism. They were simply oppression. Stalin and Mao lived in luxury. The only thing Marxist about them is that they should have quoted Groucho Marx and said that they would refuse to join any club that would have them as members.

No, the kind of communism that I refer to was described by one of the most famous Catholic scholars of all time: Sir Thomas More (St. Thomas More to you Catholics). You have heard of him. He was the scholar who would not consent to Henry VIII divorcing Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Ann Boleyn. Fat King Harry would not just leave More alone in the silence that he maintained on the subject, but had him beheaded. You can learn about this story by watching the best movie ever made, A Man for All Seasons. The Paul Scofield version is infinitely better than the Charleton Heston version.

Catholics have not generally (except for some Liberation Theologians) been associated with communism. Nor, before Pope Francis, were they likely to criticize rich capitalists. But wait till you hear this.

In his 1516 book Utopia, Thomas More described a fictitious land in which life was perfect, something that More said he wished more than hoped for. This book is where the term “utopia” came from, and it could mean either “good place” or “noplace” depending on which Greek derivation you chose. More meant it both ways. More put his opinions into the mouth of the fictitious Raphael Hythloday, rather than to publish them as his own opinion. That way More could claim that he was simply reporting what this man told him about Utopia and what this man said about England. Below, when I refer to what More said, I mean that he said them through Hythloday.

Utopia was a city in which every man has abundance. More modeled the city of Utopia after the Biblical city foursquare but also after Marco Polo’s Hangzhou, with wide streets, bridges and canals. As in Plato’s utopia, nobody locked their doors. At the time, England had 15-hour workdays, from 5 am to 8 pm, but in More’s Utopia they only worked six hours (this is still more than they worked in Oz). Despite such short workdays, all the necessary work got done because nobody was idle—there were no monks or nobles sitting around and consuming resources while producing nothing of value. Only the essentials were produced, nothing superfluous. The recreation of the Utopian people was learning at home. And there were socially-imposed population limits. If a family had too many kids they had to leave Utopia. Everything was free at the markets since nobody took more than he needed. Hospitals were ample and clean, with isolation wards to prevent contagion. They all ate together in cafeterias, because they loved to eat good food together rather than bad food at home. Even in hospitals, women nursed their own children (unlike B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two). Everyone needed permission to travel, but if a visitor stayed more than a day, he had to work where he was visiting. Nobody had much privacy in More’s Utopia (this sounds like Cuba to me). There was no bank credit, only public credit. Gold had no value to them, unlike iron, air, water, and earth, which are useful. In Utopia, diamonds were for kids to play with. Foreign ambassadors would come wearing a lot of gold, and were mistaken for fools. More pointed out that in England someone with the wits of an ass could rule good people because he had gold. More pointed out that Plato and Francis Bacon also said gold is worthless. Why should anyone admire gold, opined More. Everyone can enjoy the sun and stars for free! Why should anyone admire wool? A sheep once wore it. The counterfeit jewel looks the same as the real one. The Utopians did not wear fancy clothes. With fancy clothes, said More, you “do doubly err,” thinking your clothes are better (which is mere convention) and thinking yourself better for wearing them.


In the next essay, I will continue describing Thomas More’s view of a perfect society, and which might be the only society that can allow the world to avoid massive future crisis.

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