“We’ll never get human behaviour in line with Christian ethics… so let’s adapt Christian ethics to human behaviour. Then at least there will be some connection between them.”
Utopia, Thomas More
As a teenager I grew up in Paraparaumu and didn’t think much of it. Maybe it’s why I liked this song so much:
Which, because I only heard it and never saw the video, I had no idea was about being gay. Actually, I was about 11 when it was released so I probably wouldn’t have picked up that it was about being gay even if I had seen the video. In case we forget how crappy it was to be queer in the UK (or most places) let’s keep this in mind from 1987:
Which means, in 2017, in many big cities in the west, life must look a lot like a utopia for the queer community looking back at the 1980s.
About utopia there are a few odd things.
Firstly, it literally means “no place” and not “a perfect society”. Which seems apt because utopia doesn’t exist. Secondly, one person’s utopia is another person’s hell. Imagine hating gay people. Things have really gone down hill for them. Finally, people of the right class in the west live in what most of western society of the past would have regarded as a utopia. When you objectively step back and look at the material comfort of the middle class it is hard to argue that this, right now, for some people (and I am one of those people), would not be a realm of utter fantasy for most people of the past. Except it doesn’t seem to feel that way even for members of civilization’s elite.
A critic tells me that when I am reading Utopia by Thomas More I need to remember “he was criticizing contemporary society” and not describing the perfect state. Which is a relief because the island society of Utopia sounds hellish to me. Aside from being a slave-owning, misogyny:
You always have to work. There’s never any excuse for idleness. There are also no wine-taverns, no ale-houses, no brothels…. Everyone has his eye on you, so you’re practically forced to get on with your job, and make some proper use of your spare time.
Utopia, Thomas More
Any perfect society seems to require surveillance. Of course, arbeit macht frei.
Utopia, the book, is stranger still when you know who wrote it and a little bit about his life. There is a strange tension between some of what Thomas More wrote in this book, and how he acted in his public life in the decades after it was published. In Utopia, to take one example, he writes about religious tolerance. The man describing Utopia gives it as one of the strengths of that place; that people can disagree over the nature of God and still live in a civil society. This was not More’s approach in life. He persecuted people for heresy, and wrote volumes condemning what he saw as heretics.
This is a strange disjuncture. What he wrote in Utopia is nice, but what he actually did in public office was horrible.
On the other hand, right at the end of the book, he gives a summary of a proto-capitalist society that I agree with in its entirety.
When I consider the social system that prevails in the modern world, I can’t, so help me God, see it as anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organizing society. They think up all sorts of tricks and dodges, first for keeping safe their ill-gotten gains, and then for exploiting the poor by buying their labour as cheaply as possible. Once the rich have decided these tricks and dodges shall be recognized by society… they acquire the force of law. Thus an unscrupulous minority is led by its insatiable greed to monopolize what would have been enough to supply the needs of the whole population.
Utopia, Thomas More
Not that any of the solutions proposed in Utopia seem to have created a society I would like to live in. The only thing that feels true about the concept of utopia is that the desire for improvement can lead to improvement but never perfection because the world is imperfectable. The Caliphate of ISIS was the last big utopian project.
Heaven is a utopia and like all utopia it is a place that has inspired great good and great evil in people who yearn for it. “No place” is the mirror of this place, a translation of our criticisms of this place into something better. Perfect. Exclusive. And hopefully non-existent.