An Introduction to Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia”
Sir Thomas More’s Platonism transpires most vividly from his humbling message that the establishment of justice on earth would require the abolition of humanity.  Not that certain features of our horridly unjust regimes could not in principle be improved upon—this being something that, to paraphrase More, we should rather wish, than hope, which is to… The post An Introduction to Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia” appeared first on VoegelinView.




Sir Thomas More’s Platonism transpires most vividly from his humbling message that the establishment of justice on earth would require the abolition of humanity.  Not that certain features of our horridly unjust regimes could not in principle be improved upon—this being something that, to paraphrase More, we should rather wish, than hope, which is to say expect to happen.  What St. Augustine called man’s libido dominandi would make it pointless for us to attempt to establish a just use of otherwise wise institutions. The “lust for domination” we are born or rather “fallen” with would spoil any such attempt, allowing but very few of us to remain just while meddling with injustice on a daily basis.  The problem, to be sure, is not limited to formal displays of justice, pertaining rather to unconditional care for truth proper, truth transcending all duty even as it may be fairly said to be our heavenly mandate to turn back to truth and pursue it, or to pursue it in the very act of remaining turned back to it.
The expectation that the vast majority of men will not be bent upon abusing venerable institutions of State by conceiving them de facto as machines for the accumulation of immoderate amounts of money, is simply unreasonable.  In order to “convert” the vast majority of men so that they may see our institutions as stepping-stones to philosophical or real virtue, rather than as instruments of empowerment, we would need to enslave them all most uncompromisingly.  As Plato had shown long before his student More, we would need to abolish at once all private property and money, which is what the vast majority of people live for, especially when they are allotted a position of dignity and prestige.  There, lust for empowerment grows all-pervasive, dominating the soul of men honorable in name alone, driving them to split themselves most horrifically between a gilded façade of glamorous pretension and a gray substance of spiritual rottenness and filth. This is where the brightness of the outer-self is supposed to compensate for the bleakness of the inner.
Raphael, More’s Portuguese interlocutor and explorer of Utopia, decries the polities we are all too familiar with, as irremediably tyrannical.  Yet Raphael does not notice that his own Utopia is not immune to the poison of tyranny.
Under a tyrannical regime, everybody is kept busy, given the overarching assumption that as long as you are kept busy you won’t be asking dangerous questions, which is to say that you won’t be questioning authority, or what stands as formal guarantor of liberty.  But is questioning authority inherently incompatible with the thriving of law and order?  Or is it necessary for the thriving of a polity in the respect that through questioning we participate actively in the meaning or source of law?
If our polities, indeed the whole wide world of “fallen men,” were at least tolerably just; if it allowed for at least some degree of respite from evil; if it did not force upon us everyday a decisive life-and-death choice between truth and power, then most of us would shut themselves altogether to truth and let themselves be swallowed by libido dominandi, assuming that man’s unqualified progress was not a mere Chimera.
To be sure, the threefold dark-spot of disease, aging and death pierced by Prince Siddhartha on his quest for truth is not nearly the worst that life can bring.  Incomparably worse is the abominable injustice continuously and almost ubiquitously brought about by most people, whose love of evil is incomparably more dominant than their love of good. Hence Raphael’s disenchantment in the face of the prospect of the wise aiding nations or kings in the administration of the res publica.  And yet Raphael does no justice to a verity of cardinal importance.  The children of libido dominandi are necessarily miserable. The discrepancy of truth and power in our world is at the root, not only of the inevitable shattering of Faustian pretensions, but also of the incapacity of Faustian souls to find even provisory solace before fear.  The satisfaction they seek in a pretense parading as substance, or in power mistaken for truth proper, is inevitably pregnant with dire dissatisfaction.  For the “contract” they signed binds them to the laws of compulsion without being capable of overriding altogether their original bond to an Original Blessing, or, to speak biblically, our primal covenant with God
Human misery convinces Thomas More that philosophers should meddle in politics, after all. Those who transcend the condition of dwellers in Plato’s cave of evil compulsions are well-advised to “interfere” with matters of State, not, to be sure, under the conviction that they may create a better world, but given that the vast majority of men needs heroes representing a good they have lost, even if that good cannot but appear distasteful to us in our present, corrupt condition.  There is something, a kernel of light, in the vast majority of men that More’s philosophical hero responds to, even speaks to, as Socrates had once done, even knowing quite well that dialogue with the best part of us is never fully consummated in our fallen world.  But then, the goal not being the establishment of any new world, not to say a new heaven on earth. The Socratic speaker will have served a fair cause simply by exposing the fallen order of things to a horizon of questions our societies presuppose as their permanent and inalienable foundation.  Thus, the Socratic will emerge as prophet, a living reminder of the ultimate ineradicability of the human from the divine.
Unlike Raphael, More does not believe to have found Utopia.  The utopian character of Utopia—its absence—is what allows More to remain open to its discovery and so too to dialogue in the course of which our present fallen condition is called into systematic question.  The absence of a firmly established answer to the question “how are we to live?” invites us to reflect upon answers we can only think of, rather than grasp in practice.
The question of nature, of all that is presupposed by our “conventional answers” is of immediate relevance.  What are we born for?  That is what we are naturally best at.  Surely the human being is not mightier than elephants, lions, or even apes; nor more intelligent than angels or other divined sublime beings.  What activity is thus most properly his own?  What activity allows him most properly to be happy?
Let us bracket our question by considering what would happen if we abandoned the quest for the discovery of the activity that most properly allows us to be happy or fulfilled in this world.  We would find ourselves bent upon pursuing ends that distract us from our proper end as human beings; and our distractions would lead us to unhappiness or misery, not to say utter madness.  For the abandonment of our proper end, or that activity for the sake of which we are best suited as human beings, involves forgetfulness or loss of sight of what we are, and thus a plunging into deviation from our own being, and so too loss of understanding of ourselves as human beings. With such a loss we could hardly escape from derangement or the pursuit of all that is alien, even inimical to our self-understanding, whereby would we find nothing falling short of madness.
Thomas More is intimately aware of the madness dominating the lives of the vast majority of people, not least of them judges and other legal experts.  The Catholic martyr is under no spell of belief in the innocence of human pursuits in our world.  He sees men bent upon evil, not because anyone forced them to do so, but because they are born in compulsion and they tend to gravitate towards evil much more readily than they do towards good.
More’s response to our all-too-human condition is one with his own heroism, his heroic bearing witness to truth before a tribunal of haters of truth, witness to an otherworldly Utopia before legions of staunch deniers of the immediate relevance of the otherworldly to the worldly. Must our own Age not reject More’s testimony at best as a case of quixotic incapacity to accept “reality” as it is and at worst as damning proof of unjustifiable unwillingness to embrace the truth that has become in our own Age a global imperative, namely Technology?
Technology has exposed most glaringly, not to say shamelessly what had thitherto been left at least partially, one might even say heroically, concealed, namely the common man’s thirst for evil.  It is not merely that men cannot do what is good. In their present condition, they despise the quest for the good and, to cite the Christian Gospels, they hate truth itself.  The modern “scientific” project obscures this classical verity in the act of promoting universal enlightenment.  Modernity’s “scientific method” or the likes of it is to allow everyone to transcend his propensity to do evil.  No longer do we need to attend to the seeds of evil in our hearts or souls; it is now enough to bracket religious concerns in the context of a new “idealism,” a “progressive” plan to establish a world in which everyone may behave as if everyone were well disposed towards truth and goodness.
The plan presupposes that man is naturally prone to be barbaric, or to mix up good and evil, being naturally blind to their distinction.  That distinction is supposed to be established upon our entering into “society”.  In other words, the distinction between good and evil must be, as we are apt to say today, socially constructed.  The old, even classical notion that we need to recover a natural good partially eclipsed by our “fallen condition” is rejected as severely misguided.  The good that pre-modernity calls natural or original must be but a shadow of a future good to be conquered “historically” by a collectivity living as if it cared for truth and goodness above all else.  “As if” all men were ends in themselves, to echo Kant.  We must then all live in a hypothesis.  It is a modern hypothesis (nay, the foremost modern hypothesis) that is to save us from evil, not any repenting turn back to an original, mostly forgotten, irreducible good.
The rise of modernity entails, in sum, the replacement of evil with barbarism, or of man’s fallenness with what Hobbes proclaimed “scientifically” as “the State of Nature”.  Our present condition would not presuppose an original good, but a compulsion to flee our natural condition by entering into a contractual society in which we may all survive by pretending to be, if not simply good, then at least committed to living as if we were.  Man, we might say, is necessarily or naturally compelled to feign goodness.  Nature is compulsive; in practical terms, it functions mechanically.
Eclipsing man’s “fallen” condition, or his visceral propensity to do evil is a necessary condition for the worldly success of the modern project.  Only upon our forgetting our propensity for outright evil, or our societies’ rootedness in an ancestral, even primordial “Adamic” conspiracy against the good, can we fully indulge in living as if we were destined to pursue the good.  Now the good must be something we achieve, even build collectively, through our conjoined effort to transcend our “state of nature,” a state of moral unconsciousness in which we fail to recognize that we are the masters of our own destiny—even as the production of the future remains fundamentally indistinguishable from the spinning of a collective dream.  For even the late-modern cynical suspicion that enlightenment cannot avoid coinciding with delusion is impotent in the face of the reason-numbing feeling that our destiny is a fateful or unquestionable compulsion.
More’s Utopia is a book that exposes the true nature of our compulsion, inviting us to recognize that we are not condemned to abide in it, even as the flight to Raphael’s Utopia fails to free us from the worst features of the human condition.

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