Thomas More (1478-1535), to some Saint Thomas More, created a fascinating piece of prose and provocative thoughts with his masterpiece Utopia. Almost five hundred years ago it was printed and released in the, for many, inaccessible Latin. It didn’t take long though before it could be found in English as well. I must admit that my Latin isn’t as good as I would like it to be, so I read Utopia in the Paul Turner translation from 1965. I am looking around for some other translations at the moment. If you know any good ones, I would be grateful for suggestions. It would certainly save me some time.
It is a fascinating read, this fictional world of the Utopian Republic visited by Raphael Nonsenso and later described to Thomas More and his friend Peter Gilles. The three gentlemen met in More’s hotel garden when he visited Antwerp, and between luncheon and supper they sat talking. Or rather listening since Nonsenso is the one who does most of the talking. In the book, which is mainly a retelling of the conversation in the garden, More and Gilles sit mesmerized and stunned by the description of this ultimate, or perfect in a sense, fair and democratic solution for a society. The society described is as ideal and unreachable as anyone could imagine at the peak of Henry VIII reign. This might have been the intellectual trigger for More to write this piece in the first place. It is not at all religious in the way as most his other writings tends to be. More’s interest in the Humanities and the secular world shines through heavily and this, I think, is what makes the piece a classic and must-read for anyone with interest in the development of Western scholarly tradition. His texts on the Church and the Faith are corner stones in the Catholic Church, but this is a piece where More manages to combine his religious views and longing for an earthly paradise with his deeply rooted beliefs to do good for the common man. After all, he chose not to become a priest, to stay out of the world of the cloth-and-cloak and instead carried on practising law. He was well known for living like a priest or even a monk, wearing a hair shirt under his robe and occasionally enjoyed some self-flagellation. All this while still being a loving family man, husband and caring father.
So, what is it that is so revolutionary and contemporary with Utopia? I’d say it is the description of problems that existed during the Medieval and Renaissance times as well as today. Mans longing for riches, vanity in general, the suffering of the sick and the elderly and the unfair way people try to avoid taxes and start wars. All this is dealt with in Utopia. The lower down you are on the social ladder (yes, it still exists but is in some way justified) the more gold you are forced to wear. Simply to get rid of the greatness and everybody’s longing for this the most expensive of precious metals. Euthanasia is also dealt with in a way most interesting if you have followed the discussion that’s been going on between politicians, celebrities, intellectuals and the common man (to use a phrase form Utopia) over the last few years. What More writes sounds as if it could have been taken from Sir Terry Pratchet’s Dimbleby Lecture given earlier this year on the subject. More writes:
As I told you, when people are ill, they’re looked after most sympathetically, and given everything in the way of medicine or special food that could possibly assist their recovery.
He goes on:
… if, besides being incurable, the disease also causes constant excruciating pain, some priests or government officials visit the person concerned, and say something like this:
“Let’s face it, you’ll never be able to live a normal life. You’re just a nuisance to other people and a burden to yourself – in fact you’re really leading a sort of posthumous existence. So why go on feeding germs? Since your life’s a misery to you, why hesitate to die? You’re imprisoned in a torture-chamber – why don’t you break out and escape to a better world? Or say the word, and we’ll arrange for your release. It’s only common sense to cut your losses. It’s also an act of piety to take the advice of a priest, because he speaks for God.
If the patient finds these arguments convincing, he either starves himself to death, or is given a soporific and put painlessly out of his misery. But this is strictly voluntary, and, if he prefers to stay alive, everyone will go on treating him as kindly as ever. Officially sanctioned euthanasia is regarded as an honourable death …
This does almost sound like Sir Terry Pratchett’s suggestion about a Death Panel who were to decide who would be granted euthanasia or not.
To me, More’s writing is strikingly contemporary for being written almost five hundred years ago. However, I wonder if this Utopian society would work? Like any other more or less ideal but slightly naïve attempt to the Perfect World I’m afraid it would be a total disaster. There is still hope for mankind, but the only way forward is to be aware that mankind is not good all through. It’s enough with one or two people in a society who have ulterior motives for it all to fall apart. The day we think they don’t exist, that they’ve disappeared, we’re a lost cause. After all, not even Thomas More believed entirely in his own mind’s creation:
… I cannot agree with everything that he [Raphael Nonsenso] said, for all his undoubted learning and experience. But I freely admit that there are many features of the Utopian Republic which I should like – though I hardly expect – to see adopted in Europe.
I could not agree more.