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Thomas More’s Utopia

It has certainly taken a long time but Christians are slowly coming to realize that their religion, even when considered only a system of social ethics, is utterly incompatible with modern civilization. Catholic aggiornamento must be understood as the onerous and complicated struggle of the Church to free itself from unholy alliances and to return to the evangelical person of Christ and start over. This has led to a new emphasis on the theology of the Apostolic Age and the early Fathers of the Church in Alexandria and Asia Minor. This was a period before Constantine when Christianity was still a subversive creed offering its own social ethic in complete opposition to Imperial Rome. There was a similar movement amongst the Humanists of the early sixteenth century, contemporary with the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. They attempted to develop a social philosophy based on the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, Clement of Alexandria, John of Damascus and similar thinkers. Its basic concept was the establishment of a community of love encompassing all of society and having as its final end the divinization of the world. These words are John Damascene’s. They are also Teilhard de Chardin’s. They are also Karl Rahner’s. They are also St. Thomas More’s. This is the basic reason for the tremendous revival of interest in More today. Yale University is issuing a critical edition of his complete works. Accompanying it will be a popular edition of selected works in translation. Edward Surtz, S.J., and J.H. Hexter are editors of the Utopia in the complete works and the separate paperback editions by both Surtz and Hexter respectively together constitute the best text and the best introduction to it there have ever been. One of the most extraordinary things about the Utopia is the immense literature which has developed since the rise of our civilization founded upon covetousness to explain the book away. Pro-capitalist churchmen have dismissed the moneyless communism of the Utopia as just another of More’s witticisms, and attempted to prove that his slashing criticisms of sixteenth-century society were motivated by a scholastic defense of monasticism. Socialists, on the other hand, have dismissed his attempt to construct a society in which covetousness, pride, sloth and anger were inhibited to the greatest degree compatible with an organic social flexibility. To them such ideas have been just the reflection of the poverty of the pre-capitalist mode of production. They have seen his communism and his emphasis upon education, creative work and technology as an attempt to escape from this into a communist society with the unlimited satisfaction of human appetites as its highest goal. Since they cancel each other out, both arguments are obviously false.

J.H. Hexter and Father Surtz have been leaders in the movement in More studies which has insisted that St. Thomas More meant what he said. Since they are themselves profound students of More’s sources in the pre-Constantinian past and amongst the pre-Reformation and pre-Counter-Reformation Christian Humanists who were his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, they are able to speak with completely cogent authority. More’s book, as Gibbon says of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, “a golden book worthy of the leisure of Cicero or Plato,” and in fact surpassing either, has provided all languages with a common noun which means an idyllic society of social peace, justice and abundance inherently impossible of achievement. Marx and Engels constantly contrasted “Scientific Socialism,” their own kind, with all others — “Utopian Socialisms.” What they meant was that all other Socialist thinkers have undertaken schemes for the basic reconstruction of society for ultimately moral reasons, while their Socialism had accepted from classical economics an idea ultimately derived from Newtonian physics, that a society which released the maximum number of individual social evils would result in the greatest possible common good.

Whether Adam Smith, Ricardo, Bentham or Mill, classical political economy was a pseudo-science of human relationships emptied of moral content, and so today its descendants, whether Marxist Communism or Capitalist Democracy, are founded upon amoral assumptions. But there are no such things as amoral societies. A value-neuter philosophy or science of man is a contradiction in terms. Therefore a society guided by value-neuter principles and amoral in the assumptions which underlie the action of its social mechanisms simply becomes ever-increasingly immoral until the acceleration of the destruction of human values drives its best minds from it in dismay. This is More’s argument in his criticism of sixteenth-century Europe, and of course it is also the argument of artists, writers, philosophers, even economists, on both sides of the Iron Curtain today. It is also the argument of Christianity, even at its most institutionalized and compromised, but it is an ever-mounting experiential, existential realization in the very guts of the most articulate Christian leadership.

This is the relevance of More. He is one of the very few thinkers ever to try to construct a model of a community of love while recognizing the fragility and recalcitrance of his material. He did not believe that man was naturally evil. He believed that man was naturally good but prone to mischief. He did not believe that tinkering with the economy and the environment would ensure the automatic release of universal benignity. He did believe that it might be possible to construct an environment and an economy based purely upon natural law as distinguished in his mind from revelation (his Utopians are pagan) which would inhibit tendencies to social destructiveness and enable tendencies toward social peace, joy, creativity and familial community.

All down the four centuries since he has been without major influence upon effective political and social thinkers except in his own country. We too often forget that British Socialism, as has been made abundantly clear from the memoirs of every British Socialist leader, is based not upon the materialists, Marx and Engels, nor their bureaucratic and formalist French predecessors, but upon Ruskin and William Morris — Christians, artists and men of sensibility, who were morally outraged by the horrors of an acquisitive society. Moscow, Peking, Washington, Paris, Bonn, these, like Jakarta or Conakry, are simply foci of one world “society of rising expectations” and the very term reveals what drives them and that will all drive the human race to disaster unless the nature of these expectations can be changed.

This is the relevance of More’s Utopia. Of course, it would not work. It is only a schematic model constructed long ago in a different economic era, but it correctly diagnoses the ill, and the remedies will only be found by seeking to improve and develop its prescriptions. Will this happen? No. In More’s day there were 450 years left. In our day it is most unlikely that there are that many months and quite possibly not that many weeks. So we can solace ourselves with the beauty of More’s style, its extraordinarily agile and resonant Latin so much richer than that of his friend Erasmus, if we are scholars, or if we are not, the clarity and sparkle of the modern translation edited by Father Surtz. As Engels and Marx used to say, “Freedom is the consciousness of necessity.” At least there is considerable pleasure in knowing what hit you and why.

Although Hexter’s book, especially as corrected in the final note for the paperback edition, clears up most of the problems of the scholarship of the Utopia, what is most impressive about it is his personal, deeply perceptive analysis of More’s own tragedy — a saintly man destroyed by the delusion of participation.



This essay originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (1964) and was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1970. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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