Utopia


One of the things I like best about Thomas More’s Utopia is its title.  Utopia comes from the Greek topos, or place, and either ou or eu: “no” or “good.”  Utopia is the ‘no-place’ and also the ‘good-place’; the book itself lends both interpretations credence and doubt.  The dystopians follow eu, as dys is its antonym; and, although More plays with giving his island a real existence (rather than openly acknowledging its hypothetical nature), it is, obviously, no place.  Except that it is a satire, and thus is a mirror of a certain place and time, and a representation, too, of human nature everywhere-and-nowhere.

I quite like utopian literature, better at any rate than most speculative-fiction dystopias, but, like many other forms of political theory, they all seem to share in the same basic problem: They take away one major component of being human, and then build a society around what we would be like without that one aspect.  Aristotle seems to me to be one of the few who did not do this, but then again, it’s been a long while since I read his Politics, and I hadn’t really articulated this common problem of the genre to myself at that point.

The key element of human nature that More excepts from his Utopia is not avarice, as seems most evidently his point.  I don’t think that’s the real problem with his form of communism, though I grant it is a major problem with society.  Both More’s and our own are grappling with the problems of enclosure and oligopolies, with greed and international trade and atrocities, with changing climate and breaking systems of religion, politics, life.  More’s England was facing the enclosure of the ancient common land and the destruction of small-scale farming; our society is reaping the whirlwind of more abstract enclosures of the common.  Utopia is extremely relevant to us.

But to me, the problem with Utopia is not the assumed absence of greed, for it seems to me there is corporate pride a-plenty amongst the Utopians even if it is not displayed in gold and silver or gems.  No; the problem is the lack of the individual.  More excepts individual creativity from his Utopia, and that destroys it.

The City is a joint construction, but it is built out of individual people, working alone and together, building each one his own life.  Regimenting creativity, refusing the display of craft — for the Utopians may only work on what is useful; it may be both beautiful and useful, but it cannot be ‘merely’ beautiful — refusing art, in short, is what is wrong here.  Look at the amount of surveillance and lack of privacy that is required to govern Utopia; its inhabitants are not fully human.

I asked my students whether they would want to live in Utopia.  One said yes, one said she’d like to visit; the rest seemed to feel it an odd question.  I should probably have asked whether we live there.

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