A Journal for Western Man

 

 

 

Utopia: Land of Sophisticates

or

Hythloday's Hyperbole

Wendy D. Bateman

Issue LXXVI- October 19, 2006

 

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         In Sir Thomas More's Utopia, Raphael Hythloday claims to have found a land of supreme wisdom that fully embodies the 'direct approach' to both philosophy and life. The “direct approach,“ for Hythloday, consists of a zealous adherence to the truth, unadulterated and unornamented.  Hythloday's greatest desire seems to be for the world to live and speak without pretense or ceremony in any of its social, economic, or political interactions (More, 39).  He expresses not simply praise for this “direct approach,“ but derision for the “indirect approach,“ which encourages caution, tact, and civility: he feels that if he were to attempt to persuade anyone to his position, he would be “raving along with [madmen]” (More, 35). He has faith that the direct approach to philosophy results in a refreshing lack of the ceremony implicit in the indirect approach. Hythloday holds a belief that the direct approach is best and that Utopia applies it; however, details of his account contradict this belief.  Utopia itself is full of its own conventions. The Utopian fascination with utility and practicality may be, to a degree, what Hythloday sees as the direct approach; in this, it is true that Utopia is less ceremonial than Europe. But Hythloday's certainty that all European conventions are inefficient and purposeless is a great conceit; he assumes that he can see all purposes in all things, and that his understanding is flawless. While less self-conscious than Europe in its attitudes toward many human behaviors, Utopia abounds with firmly established – and often inviolable – social practices and customs. As humans, the inhabitants of Utopia need structure, custom, and convention to hold their society together: human nature demands that they have them. While Hythloday praises the direct approach as the root of Utopia's unabashed candor, its conventions concerning love, law, religion, social interaction, and economics rival Europe's for strictness and complexity. These conventions belie Hythloday's claim that the direct approach removes from the Utopians all need for ceremony.

            In matters of love, the Utopians subscribe to monogamy and have courtship rituals similar to those of Europe; while they see these customs as only practical, keeping their society from degenerating into the wildness that surrounds them, they subscribe to them as unequivocal customs nevertheless (More, 80). A ritual wherein “the woman is shown naked to the suitor ... and similarly, some honourable man presents the suitor to the woman” is similar to the manner in which “men go to buy a colt” (More, 79). However, the Utopians choose their spouses extremely carefully; to them, this “revealing” ceremony is vital to the peace of their society. If a Utopian were to refuse to engage in it, his fellows might praise him for being “so wise as to concern themselves solely with character,” but such a character might also be considered insensible, for “[the Utopians] think it is crazy for a man to despise beauty of form” (More, 80, 74). He may also be condemned for carelessly risking the tranquility of the commonwealth, for if he finds his spouse unpleasant after marriage, their unhappiness damages the whole community (More, 79). This custom is not practiced lightheartedly by only the young and immodest, or by only the overcautious; it is followed “solemnly and seriously” (More, 79) by any Utopian who plans to marry. In fact, the government considers marriage so important an institution that it punishes extramarital intercourse with “the severest form of slavery” – and, if repeated, with death (More, 80-1). Marriages are somber affairs, not to be entered upon casually. However, Utopian society does allow for divorce, granted by the senate in extreme circumstances (More, 80).

            A society with courtship practices, a penal code treating adultery, and the institution of divorce is not exactly the simple society that Hythloday leads us to expect from the Utopians. While their customs do differ notably from the Europeans' in their immodesty, the Utopians still maintain many institutions in their lives to keep their society from crumbling into chaos. The Utopians are quite far advanced down the road of complicated, indirect civilization – and the more they tread that path, the farther they move from the unadorned, 'direct' life that Hythloday extols.

             If the Utopians were as free of ceremony as Hythloday wishes they were, they would have no need for law, because a law is a widely-accepted and condoned convention. The mere existence of law in Utopia indicates that it is less 'direct,' in some sense, than Hythloday suggests. While the Utopian legal system is simpler than that of England – no lawyers, simple laws (More, 82) – the law still permeates much of Utopian society.  Hythloday claims that the Utopians have “very few laws, for their training is such that very few suffice” (More, 82), yet it seems as if every moral transgression has a martial response. Infidelity, campaigning, vengeance, planning public business outside the senate, and even taking a walk about one’s own district without consulting one’s father and one’s mate garner punishment (More, 80, 82, 86, 48, 58-9). Almost all of the ceremony that exists in Utopia stems from the government; even in the realms of love and religion – where social convention does play a substantial role – the threats of exile (More, 94-6), slavery, or capital punishment (More, 80-1) direct people's actions. But if social convention has such force in Utopia, it is as if the country were governed by numerous laws: informal social convention is just as external a restraint as formal law. But the implication of Hythloday's declaration that “very few [laws] suffice” (More, 82) is that the Utopians are naturally well-behaved – that, in some sense, their nature differs from European nature. Perhaps the conclusion that Hythloday expects us to draw is that social convention in Utopia has the force of law. However, if social convention is so powerful in Utopia, it is even less likely to be the land of pure simplicity that Hythloday wants it to be. Any external system of restraint in Utopia undercuts Hythloday's belief that the individuals live ”directly.“ The “direct” approach that Hythloday enunciates in Book I seems to rely on a bullheaded disinterestedness other people's opinions: he attends to the opinions of others only so that he can know what to attack (More, 35-6). But in a land where social convention has the strength of law, no individual would dare to second-guess other people's opinions; the ultimate regime would be one either of totalitarianism – with no freedom of expression at all – or complete value-freedom – a land merely of naked apes. Utopia has a definitive moral code and is therefore certainly not the latter. Its extensive regulation of private life through law and social convention, however, does suggest the first. But Hythloday's description of the “direct approach” in Utopia initially implies that he believes Utopia is more like the second. He wants to combine the freedom of the second approach with the security of the first – a blend of which human nature is simply not capable. Either the Utopians are perfectly angelic, in which case they do not need any law and can function simply, or they are subject to human nature, which requires a system of external restraints.

            The lack of a need for a system of restraints would apply to more than the law: the Utopians would have no need for Christianity, either. A society of sinless creatures would not need to be saved – yet Utopia is fervently religious, and “Christianity seem[s] very likely the sect that most prevails among them” (More, 93). Perhaps this inconsistency results from Hythloday again believing the Utopians to be more direct than they are: he, with European eyes, sees their souls as snowy white; they, as insiders, may notice stains that Hythloday cannot perceive. The Utopians, after all, are still human – and human nature, at all times and places, has demanded some presiding authority, be it religious or political. The Utopians therefore have their own order of priesthood, composed of pious men who “are elected by secret popular vote” (More, 98). This priesthood is headed by a high priest, who “has authority over” not only the other priests, but the whole social atmosphere of Utopia (More, 98). Resembling the Catholic priesthood in more than structure, the Utopian priests, in some situations, display a decidedly European bent. The priesthood in Utopia seems just as willing to exploit bureaucratic loopholes as the European clergy: If the priesthood declares a Utopian impious and excommunicates him, he has to beg the priests’ forgiveness, or the Utopian senate will, following the priests' lead, seize and punish him for impiety (More, 96). This system seems thoroughly corruptible: should the priests take a disliking to any individual, they can simply excommunicate him and let the Senate do their dirty work. Since it is so easy for the religious order to remove dissidents, it is surprising that there are still some remaining in Utopia. While the atheists there are not accepted into general society – in fact, an atheist is not even “consider[ed] not even one of the human race” (More, 95) – the priesthood still takes time to listen to their reasons for believing as they do (More, 95-6). Curiously, all the atheists are not immediately tried for impiety, as the excommunicated are (More, 96). Both of these anomalies reflect well on the Utopians, but they seem unusually indirect paths to religious unity. It would not be difficult for the Church to quell dissent by force, yet it chooses – mercifully – not to, even with those it considers inhuman.

            The Utopians have a very selective theory of humanity – how atheists can be considered inhuman, despite the Christian doctrine that all are children of God and that all human life is precious, is not an issue the Utopians address. Instead, the Utopians reserve humanity for those who participate in their social mold. Their social disdain for immorality is so great that they even harbor genocidal feelings for the vile Zapoletes: the Utopians owe these men the lives of their own citizens, yet they would think it well “if they could sweep from the face of the earth all the dregs of that vicious and disgusting race” (More, 89). The selectivity of humanity that the Utopians display appears to be based on morality: the less moral an individual is, the less human the Utopians consider him. This ”morality-is-humanity” doctrine enables the Utopians to engage in one very European, very indirect custom: slavery. Utopia has a complex underlying class system for each of its four different types of slaves. The Utopian slave class is comprised of prisoners of war, slaves purchased from foreign countries, “[Utopian] citizens, enslaved for some heinous offense,” and volunteering “penniless drudges from other nations” (More, 77-8). Each class of slaves is treated differently: the Utopian convicts are treated worst, on the theory that they should have known better (More, 78); the prisoners of war and purchased slaves are “kept constantly at work, but are always fettered” (More, 78); and the foreign volunteers “are treated with respect, almost as kindly as citizens, except that they are assigned a little extra work” (More, 78). Supported by a huge group of second-class citizens, it is no wonder that the Utopians enjoy luxury unknown in Europe. How Hythloday can reconcile the Utopians' extensive and deeply ingrained practice of slavery with their supposedly “direct” morality is unclear, but it seems as if the moral doctrine which calls for only public property would also call for equality of all men. However, the Utopians seem not to mind treating most of their slaves as inhuman. Slaughtering and cleaning animals, in Utopia, is seen as degrading to the human spirit – which is why, in Utopia, “bondsmen do the slaughtering and cleaning ... citizens are not allowed to do such work” (More, 55). The implication, of course, is that slaves do not have a human spirit to degrade.

            The indirectness and complexity which permeates the Utopian social hierarchy is not limited to slavery; it extends itself through the whole citizenry, and is illustrated with particular force by the hierarchical manner in which Utopians seat themselves to take meals in the public mess. The men have to sit one way, the women another, the nurses and infants in an entirely different room, and the children below five at a separate table (More, 57). The government officials have an even more complicated seating arrangement: “At the middle of the first table sits the syphogrant with his wife ... two of the eldest sit next to them ...  but if there is a church in the district, the priest and his wife sit with the syphogrant as to preside. On both sides of them sit younger people, next to them older people again, and so through the hall...” (More, 57). The seating is arbitrated just so. Even the number of people who can sit together is prescribed: “the seating is always by groups of four” (More, 57). The manner in which the Utopians serve the food is as rigid as the seating arrangements: all dishes must be respectfully passed to the old persons first, after which they can be passed around to the other diners (More, 57). In Europe, only in the courts of kings was so rigid and artificial a custom imposed on such a detail as eating! In this respect, Utopia may be even more formalistic and indirect than Europe itself. To tolerate such civilized formality, all but the old and the important in Utopia must possess a great deal of tact and skill at what More calls the “indirect approach. “If the Utopians were to adhere to the pure efficiency of survival and enjoyment, they would certainly sit with those they loved most, and attempt to secure the choicest cuts of food for themselves and their families. They would, it seems, behave more like savages than like European men – but they are very civilized indeed, with a great many social and legal customs.

            These beloved conventions must necessarily carry the Utopians away from a purely direct way of life. The direct simplicity that Hythloday envisions belongs to a society plainly without ceremony, and definitely not to Utopia. He claims that in Utopia, “everything is shared equally” (More, 37), yet there is a great deal of class inequality among the Utopians. There are different classes of slaves – some treated almost as citizens, others treated as if they entirely lack a human soul. Even among the citizens, the existence of a government ensures that all men will not share equally in honor. Utopia has a complicated, multi-tiered government structure. The whole of the people is separated into three broad classes: slaves, common working citizens, and the scholarly class (More, 52). Through diligent study, working men can be promoted to the scholarly class, from which all government officials are chosen (More, 52). Numerous government positions, free of manual labor, exist for the learned class, including “ambassadors, priests, tranibors, and the governor himself” (More, 52). Of the six thousand households in a city, each group of thirty households elects a syphogrant; the two hundred syphogrants, in groups of ten, are headed by tranibors; the syphogrants elect or remove the governor, while the tranibors comprise the senate and advise the governor (More, 47). Tellingly, More may hint through the officials' titles that Hythloday is not as wise as he seems. “Syphogrants” could promisingly translate to “wise old men,“ but it could as plausibly translate to “old men of the sty;” even more shockingly, “tranibor” translates as “plainly gluttonous,“ and the mayor himself is known as “Ademus” – “Peopleless” (More, 47n, 52n). Hythloday considers himself conversant enough in Greek to teach the Utopians, and carries several Greek texts with him (More, 75-6), yet does not recognize the damning etymologies of the public officials' titles. With pigs and gluttons for elected officials and an emotionally disconnected mayor, the Utopians' government does not seem too different from Europe's. Perhaps Hythloday's lack of comprehension is simply another illustration of the veil he holds over his own eyes – the veil that filters out the distasteful and allows him to see only the beautiful in Utopia.

            Despite doing away with money, the Utopians' officials are neither as pure nor as incorruptible as Hythloday would like. In a world where goods are equally allocated and money is abolished, public favor becomes the new wealth. The democratically-elected officials, who would be punished for campaigning, are instead elected on the basis of an unspoken popularity (More, 47). This system is just as corruptible as it would be in a world with money: the syphogrants' “chief and almost ... only business ... is to take care and see to it that no one sits around in idleness, and to make sure that everyone works hard at his trade” (More, 49). Certainly the most popular syphogrants, then, would be those who watched their households with an easy eye; a relaxed institution would produce more support for the syphogrant and less work for both the syphogrant and his subjects. Such a system could not foster the hard work that Hythloday claims it does (More, 49).

            Hythloday's self-deception sweeps from love to economics, hiding everything in between. He consistently believes the Utopians to be less complicated than they are; he discounts or ignores their complex social and governmental hierarchies, announcing their Gordian system perfectly simple. But behind Hythloday's turbid veil lies a civilization of great refinement, not untouched by human nature, but respondent to it. Hythloday's ideal society would be populated by angels or apes – but neither race would build the admirably involved systems of the Utopians.

Wendy D. Bateman is an artist, writer, graphic designer, literary connoisseur, and contributor to The Rational Argumentator. She is a recipient of TRA's Henry Ford Award. Some of Miss Bateman's art can be found at http://rationalargumentator.com/Bateman.html.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, at http://www.geocities.com/rational_argumentator/rc.html.