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Utopia: Living in a Nowhere Land

by Tim Madigan

“Nations will be happy, when either philosophers become kings, or kings become philosophers.”
Cardinal Morton, quoted in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516)

Last year I was given the opportunity by my friend David Suits, chair of the philosophy department at the Rochester Institute of Technology, to teach an experimental course on Philosophy and Utopias. It was a great experience for me to explore such time-honored places such as the Garden of Eden, the Golden Age, Plato’s Republic, the City of the Sun, El Dorado, and the New Atlantis, all of which were used by noted philosophers and theologians as examples of perfect societies. The Big Daddy of them all, of course, is Thomas More’s 1516 classic, Utopia, a land where the citizens elect their leaders, work for no more than six hours a day (with plenty of time left in the day to discuss philosophy), have universal health care (including the right of euthanasia), have religious harmony (with both male and female priests), feel that it is a disgrace to go to war (and hire others to do their fighting for them when wars do break out), have long-lasting romantic relationships (where potential mates get the chance to see each other in the nude before agreeing to marry, and where divorce – while not encouraged – is at least allowed), and perhaps best of all, where there are no lawyers.

Many have read More’s work as a blueprint for just the sort of society we should be living in, but one must be cautious. After all, More was a noted wit with a keen sense of irony – and he was himself a lawyer by profession, so it’s unlikely he was actually advocating all the above situations. Indeed, as a committed Catholic he would have felt that practices such as euthanasia, premarital nudity, shirking of military duty and, most especially, divorce went against revealed scripture. It’s important to note that the character who reveals the story of Utopia is named Hythloday, which translates from the Greek into something like ‘spouter of nonsense’, and that the word ‘Utopia’ itself literally means ‘no-land’.

Like many of the other classic attempts to describe a ‘perfect’ world, it seems that More was less interested in creating a heaven on earth than in criticizing the existing society in which he lived. In Book One of Utopia, he and Hythloday argue over whether a virtuous person should get involved in politics – a very lively topic during the Renaissance, when the rulers of most kingdoms were not exactly noted for their honesty, compassion or clean living. More himself had been torn as a young man over whether to enter the legal profession, following in his father’s footsteps, or instead become a priest, following his own spiritual inclinations. He had served as a page in the court of Thomas Cardinal Morton, who held both the office of Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, so More knew that it might be possible to pursue both career paths. But his close observations of the political and religious scenes of the time no doubt led him to realize that neither path was likely to be free from moral compromise. In many ways, Utopia is his own internal dialogue over whether to keep out of politics – both secular and religious – altogether, or plunge in and try to maintain his self-respect. Hythloday states that only in a perfect place like the island of Utopia, which he claims to have visited, or perhaps in Plato’s Republic – where philosophers have absolute power and therefore no moral compromises need occur – can a good man thrive politically.

More, a great humanist in all meanings of that term, begged to differ with his own creation and argues that the only hope for human society is exactly for good men to roll up their sleeves and plunge into the real world, with all its errors and compromises, and muddle along as best they can. He himself became a noted diplomat and eventually was appointed, by King Henry VIII, to the high legal position that Morton had held, Lord Chancellor of England. It is poignant to read the opening lines of Utopia, where the author extols the virtues of the new king, little realizing that nineteen years later (in 1535) he would be beheaded by orders of that very same king for opposing his divorce. Perhaps it would have been better if he’d followed Hythloday’s advice and steered clear of the royal court after all!

For many different reasons, philosophers past and present have explored the concept of a perfect world, either as a viable possibility or as a mirror in which to examine the pros and cons of the real world in which we do live. I was fortunate to be able to have several friends give presentations on this topic to my Philosophy and Utopia class, as well as to the special ‘Utopia’ celebration held at last year’s World Philosophy Day event at St John Fisher College (Fisher himself, by the way, was also beheaded by King Henry VIII for opposing his divorce). The following articles are the result. I leave it to the readers to decide if this is the best of all possible utopian issues!

Tim Madigan is a proud member of the Nutopian Society founded by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. (www.joinnutopia.com)

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