Monday, 31 August 2015

Book review:Utopia by Thomas More

Available from Gutenberg and discussed on wiki. Most interesting is the question of interpretation, which as wiki says is somewhat problematic:
One of the most troublesome questions about Utopia is Thomas More's reason for writing it. Most scholars see it as some kind of comment or criticism of contemporary European society, for the evils of More's day are laid out in Book I and in many ways apparently solved in Book II. Indeed, Utopia has many of the characteristics of satire, and there are many jokes and satirical asides such as how honest people are in Europe, but these are usually contrasted with the simple, uncomplicated society of the Utopians. Yet, the puzzle is that some of the practices and institutions of the Utopians, such as the ease of divorce, euthanasia and both married priests and female priests, seem to be polar opposites of More's beliefs and the teachings of the Catholic Church of which he was a devout member. Another often cited apparent contradiction is that of the religious toleration of Utopia contrasted with his persecution of Protestants as Lord Chancellor. Similarly, the criticism of lawyers comes from a writer who, as Lord Chancellor, was arguably the most influential lawyer in England.
Some elements do fit with More's known inclinations, and so are presumably what he would like to see: plain clothes, seriousness, principal hobby reading, and so on. His condemnation of lawyers sits oddly with a lawyer; though his main solution is to have less law, and for plain interpretation, an idea that many have shared. Utopia tolerates all religions - but not aetheists, obviously, they are scum; perhaps More secretly wanted toleration, but his faith and his King prevented it.

Utopia is strongly patriarchal - wives obey husbands, of course. There's a brief hint of better: "military exercises and the discipline of war, in which not only their men, but their women likewise, are trained up" but that is quickly thrown away with "that, in cases of necessity, they may not be quite useless". It is also slave owning but - and here we come to the core of the problem with the envisaged society - its a nice slave owning society. Similarly, it has few laws because people are good. It is a society designed to work well when people are good; but as Popper pointed out that doesn't work; you need a society and a political system designed to work well when people aren't good.

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