Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Thomas More's Utopia

It’s hard to believe that Stalinist Russia thought Thomas More’s Utopia was such a shining example of communism’s tenets.

It’s equally as hard to believe that the Catholic Church thinks More’s ideas on religious tolerance are as ideal as they’re made out to be.

More admires communism with the small c, but certainly would not have agreed with Stalinist Russia’s persecution of religion. And any red-blooded communist would find the colonialist attitudes of the Utopians – who hire mercenaries and other lackeys to do their dirty work, certainly a colonialist and capitalist sin; and who expel the natives of lands they settle if they don’t agree to become Utopians – as tolerable. And while More’s religious toleration is admirable, he still shows a people intolerant of atheism or agnosticism and an attitude towards punishment of moral sins (in his case, adultery being punishable by death on the second offense) that would be regarded alongside the harshest tenets of Muslim sharia law today.

Perhaps it’s that I’m looking at the book through modern eyes. Perhaps, as More’s Raphael Nonsenso encountered with the Utopians, it’s because I’m not reading the book in its original Latin, but rather as translated into English by Paul Turner.

Maybe it’s just that I’m taking the book as a whole, while the Stalinists and the Catholics are choosing to pick out parts of the book that agree with their already preconceived notions while they reject or gloss over the things that don’t. And I thought it was only the moderns that do that.

What I found most striking in reading Utopia, however – and here I get to do cherrypicking of my own – is how closely More’s critiques of kings (or any kind of prone-to-despotism leadership) is to the critiques King Mosiah lays out in the Book of Mormon.

Here’s what More has to say (from page 40, for those following along):
In short, it’s a pretty poor doctor who can’t cure one disease without giving you another, and a king who can’t suppress crime without lowering standards of living should admit that he just doesn’t know how to govern free men. He should start by suppressing one of his own vices – either his pride or his laziness, for those are the faults most liable to make a king hated or despised. He should live on his own resources, without being a nuisance to others. He should adapt his expenditure to his income. He should prevent crime by sound administration rather than allow it to develop and then start punishing it.
Here’s what Mosiah has to say (Mosiah Chapter 29, starting with verse 16):
Now I say unto you, that because all men are not just it is not expedient that ye should have a king or kings to rule over you.

For behold, how much iniquity doth one wicked king cause to be committed, yea, and what great destruction!

Yea, remember king Noah, his wickedness and his abominations, and also the wickedness and abominations of his people. Behold what great destruction did come upon them; and also because of their iniquities they were brought into bondage.

And were it not for the interposition of their all-wise Creator, and this because of their sincere repentance, they must unavoidably remain in bondage until now.

But behold, he did deliver them because they did humble themselves before him; and because they cried mightily unto him he did deliver them out of bondage; and thus doth the Lord work with his power in all cases among the children of men, extending the arm of mercy towards them that put their trust in him.
Both More and Mosiah talk about pride as being a principal enemy to righteous rulers. Read a bit further on in the same chapter in Mosiah, and you’ll find mirrored More’s attitudes toward letting the people rule:
Therefore, choose you by the voice of this people, judges, that ye may be judged according to the claws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord.

Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.
Further reading in the Book of Mormon find similar parallels in the Utopia More envisioned and the ruling government that Mosiah’s people and their descendants tried to live (they held goods in common, worked to support the poor and afflicted, and had leaders who worked for their own support rather than being supported by the people).

I’m not sure what these parallels mean, outside of the fact that it’s common to find such parallels when reading various documents that discuss the ideal forms of government.

I could draw similar parallels between More and the world Harry Harrison describes in the novel “The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted,” but then we’d be getting too damned silly and this post would be getting too long. Suffice it to say if I had the opportunity to move to Bellegarrique, I’d do so in a nanosecond.

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