Contrasting Utopias

This week I’ve been reading St. Thomas More’s Utopia (specifically Yale University Press’ Second Edition translated by Clarence H. Miller). I was drawn to it by an episode of the “What’s Left of Philosophy” Podcast (30 | What is Utopia? Part I. Thomas More: Critical Realism in a Time of Enclosure). And while there’s much to say about the book, the thing that has stood out to me the most was planted in my head by that podcast episode —which features Gil Morejón, Lillian Cicerchia, Owen Glyn-Williams, and William Paris—before I began reading the book itself. They pointed out that while Book II of Utopia provides a vision of an ideal place, Book I offers a counter-utopia, of sorts. That counter-utopia isn’t the perfect place but it’s a utopia nonetheless. How is it a utopia? Let me explain (or, go listen to the aforementioned episode).

In Book I, the character Raphel Hythloday is visiting Thomas More (who is a character in his own story). While Book II explains what kind of place Utopia is, Book I is critical of England so that a juxtaposition can be formed. (More published Utopia in 1516 when King Henry VIII reigned.) This can be read as realism v. utopianism. King Henry’s England was a real place while More’s Utopia is imaginary (like Plato’s Kallipolis). One may be inclined to reject More’s vision in favor of what was real because reality should trump fantasy in our expectations. And utopianism can be even more demoralizing than realism. But here’s why real London was as utopian as imaginary Utopia: London in the early 16th century had allowed a variety of injustices to simmer; for Hytholoday, the status quo couldn’t stand without dire consequences. In other words, as the “What’s Left of Philosophy” crew observed, while Utopia may be utopian, it is as much utopian thinking as to look at the status quo and ignore the potential questions of social stagnation.

Many of the social ills that Hytholoday critiques mirror modern troubles. There are critiques that can be applied to some of our own parallel ills today, at least in the United States: obsession with being armed (p. 21: “standing armies of mercenaries…destroyed not only their government but also their fields and even their cities”); the military-industrial complext and nation-building (p. 38: “their blood was being spilled to provide someone else with a smidgeon of glory…at home the war has corrupted morals, imbued the citizens with a lust for robbery, that slaughter in warfare made them completely reckless”); the prison-industrial complex (p. 23: “even as vagrants they are thrown in jail because they are wandering around idly”); environmental deprivation (p. 22: “they destroy and despoil fields…these good men turn all habitations and cultivated lands into a wilderness”); inflation and recession (p. 23: “the price of grain has risen sharply in many places”); the school-to-prison pipeline (p. 25: “when you bring people up with the worst sort of education and allow their morals to be corrupted little by little from the earliest years, and then punish them at last as grown men when they commit crimes which from childhood they have given every prospect of committing”); etc. As regards the willingness of the wealthy to allow the poor to remain in their state, Hytholoday says:

…how wrong they are in thinking that the poverty of people is the safeguard of peace, for where can you find more quarrels than among beggars? who is more intent on changing things than someone who is most dissatisfied with his present state of life? or, finally, who is more driven to create a general disturbance in the hope of gaining something that someone who has nothing to lose?

Utopia, p. 41

For Hytholoday, it’s outrageous to imagine that the status quo is safe; to imagine that there are no consequences when we fail to care for our most disadvantaged neighbors.

The most privileged in our society have some cushion between them and the least fortunate. Elon Musk isn’t impacted by homelessness in Los Angeles, the assault on women’s bodily autonomy in Texas, or gun violence…well, everywhere now. But as January 6th, 2021, showed us, social instability is always present. And social instability may not impact Musk the way it would impact me but it would impact him. Jeff Bezos may be untouchable but I think Amazon does better if there’s stability. The kingdoms of these men may seem invincible but they’re not if the common good is abandoned. And to presume that they are is as utopian as anything More or Plato can imagine. As Americans, to imagine our country is invincible is utopian. If 9/11 didn’t teach us that we’re not invincible then 1/06 should’ve. Social unrest can’t be ignored. Growing inequality can’t be ignored. Climate change can’t be ignored. To do so is utopian thinking.

Hytholoday makes the argument that “it does not befit the dignity of a king to rule over beggars but rather over wealthy and happy subjects” (p. 41). We don’t have a king in the United States though we do have oligarchs (like Musk and Bezos) and these oligarchs are probably semi-permanent figures for the foreseeable future. Their comfort with growing inequality, social unrest, environmental deprivation, etc., show us that they’re utopian thinkers. Their counter-utopia is one of the status quo. More through Hytholoday asks us to consider what’s more absurd: imaging a better, more equitable world or imagining that maintaining the status quo won’t have negative consequences. I don’t know that there’s a universal answer for all times and places but both have the potential to turn out to have been wildly utopian. If this is so, which utopia would we rather seek?