30 Apr

Title woodcut for Utopia written by Thomas More.

Image via Wikipedia

Oh, what a wonderful day it is! As promised, I finished Utopia — well, the excerpt of Utopia that appears in the Norton Anthology — and I thoroughly enjoyed it! It wasn’t what I expected at all.

First, a disclaimer: I know very little about Plato’s Republic, which heavily influenced More’s Utopia, so for people who do know Republic well, please forgive my ignorance on how the two are linked. With that said, I would like to take up the Republic one day, and if I do, I’ll be sure to post here my thoughts about the two books.

OK, onto my thoughts: in Book 1, Giles and More are telling Hythloday that he owes it to his country to enter into the service of a king because his knowledge would be so useful to the public. Hythloday, on the other hand, sees his knowledge not as something that should hold him captive to a king or a society but rather as something that he should enjoy for himself. Besides, he said, no king would listen to him because kings think they know everything and would rather have a room full of yes-men than one person who challenges him.

It may be a stretch, but it reminded me of Jeremy Bentham‘s utilitarianism, a philosophy I understood to mean “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” However, although the Wikipedia entry says this, it goes on to talk about happiness vs. pain, rather than the individual making choices for himself rather than for society. Do you owe society your body of knowledge? According to Giles and More, yes. No matter how much it frustrates them, though, Hythloday sticks to his guns and rejects the idea that intelligence or worldliness binds one to the service of others.

In Book 2, so many themes from my MBA classes popped up:

  • bottom-up management The new king comes into town putting his own soldiers on the same jobs as he put the natives on. It’s not true bottom-up in the sense that the king listens to the paeans, but by getting his own men down on the level with the others, it increases buy-in to his mission, creating higher employee satisfaction.
  • management of efficiencies The king divided the work among so many hands that work was finished quickly, filling his competitors (other countries) with envy.
  • hierarchy organization In Utopia, town magistrates preside over phylarchs which preside over households. Each household has a master and a mistress, who are in charge of about 40 farm workers and two slaves. “Experienced citizens” represent their cities like the House and Senate does in the United States politically, or in a corporate sense, more like departments, committees or a board of directors, and they choose a prince to serve a life term.
  • stock valuation The Utopians have excellent control over their economy because no metal or gem is valued more than what they truly deserve. Rarity does not make silver and gold precious, contend the Utopians; instead, these metals are “vain and unprofitable … used to punish slaves, shame wrongdoers, or pacify infants.” Rather, iron is valuable because men need it for useful things.
  • corporate culture Once dignitaries from another country learned that Utopia’s culture was to scorn gold and finery, they accepted this custom and adapted for the time they were visiting.
  • risk assessment Whereas people in other cultures may believe that their betrothed will be as beautiful or handsome underneath their clothes as they are clothed, Utopians exercise risk assessment upon engagement. Premarital sex is severely penalized, but to encourage happier marriages from the get-go, the Utopians arrange a look-see before the wedding. Bride and groom get to see the goods before they commit, lessening the chance of wedding night misery — and possibly a doomed marriage. It’s what they call being “legally protected from deception beforehand.”
  • human resources If employees have few consequences for bad behavior at work, many would steal money, commit fraud or ignore the work on their desk. The same goes for the Utopians, except they leave this concept to the afterlife. For this reason, atheism is despised, and public responsibility is withheld from atheists. The Utopians believe that without heaven as a temptation, people will break rules and act selfishly.
  • capitalism This is a strange concept to bring up in such a socialist work, but I contend that the Utopians’ treatment of religion is very capitalist. Every person is allowed to have different views, and everyone can proselytize (advertise) for his or her chosen religion as long as it’s done “quietly, modestly, rationally, and without bitterness toward others.” The thought was that “the true one will sooner or later prevail by its own natural strength.” In other words, the strongest will convert the most followers (customers) and beat its competition.
  • social responsibility Utopians stay very busy dedicating themselves to charity, whether from nursing, fixing roads, cleaning, building or transporting. “They work for private citizens as well as for the public.”
I realize the irony of choosing corporate terms to describe concepts in Utopia, a commonwealth made up of no private business where no man owns anything, worries about making a living or fears poverty. So why can places not become this Utopia? And why, I was asking myself as I was reading it, would I like it or dislike it if we changed to this moneyless economy and communal living? More nailed it: Pride. I’m afraid I would succumb to the same failings as many others would, which is measuring oneself in comparison to what others have or lack.
What an interesting world! I aspire to one day read the full Utopia alongside Plato’s Republic and enjoy them together.

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