The other day someone referred to the Just Third Way as “utopian.” It was one of those occasions when you realize that some people might not know exactly what they are talking about. Quite a large number of people seem to think that a utopian scheme is one for an ideal society. Not quite.
|Sir Thomas More
Sir Thomas More, whom the Catholic Church has declared a saint for having his head cut off for refusing to swear to what he knew was not true or to worship the State, wrote a book he titled Utopia: “Nowhere.” Although the book was clearly written as a satire (the name of the purported author, “Raphael Hythloday,” signifies “Lying Traveler Who Tells Outrageous Tales”), a number of otherwise well-intentioned and educated people have taken Utopia as the blueprint for More’s ideal society.
As a Christian humanist, More was concerned with the changes that the Tudors had imposed on England. As a lawyer, he saw two of these changes as particularly damaging to a just society: the shift from sovereignty of the human person to the State, and the effective abolition of private property.
In England under the Plantagenets (at least in theory), the people were sovereign, and the heir apparent needed the consent of the people assembled in parliament before he could be recognized as king. This was why Richard III Plantagenet presented his legal case to the legislature in Titulus Regius — and why the Tudors went to great lengths to destroy all copies of the document when they came to power.
This is because Henry VII Tudor asserted a claim to the throne on the basis of a previously unrecognized, even unknown, “right of conquest.” The kingship became hereditary in theory as well as in fact.
Although Cobbett blamed it on Henry VII’s son, Henry VIII, the concentration of capital ownership (primarily land) began in the reign of Henry VII. As a lawyer, More knew very well that, as Benjamin Watkins Leigh of Virginia noted, “Power and property can be separated for a time, but divorced, never. For as soon as the pangs of separation are felt, power will take over property, or property will purchase power.”
Under the Tudors, then, the common people of England lost not only power, but the very claim to power. Understanding the danger, More satirized the situation in Utopia.
For example, to demonstrate the dangers inherent in the growth of State power as ordinary people lost even the nominal right to power, More calmly presented the “common sense” the Utopians showed in deciding whether a proposed war for profit would be successful. This, of course, begged the question as to whether a war of such obvious naked aggression could in any way be considered just, much less common sense.
More also claimed that the Utopians had abolished private property and described all the presumed benefits that accrued to them. This was in spite of the fact that he knew full well that because a just social order is built on widespread capital ownership, every word he said was nonsense.
More had previously started to make similar points in his uncompleted The History of King Richard III, of which a number of the incredible “details” More invented out of whole cloth have actually been accepted as solemn truth. Shakespeare did not help any by repeating them. That was probably not why More dropped the project, however.
The fact was, utterly absurd details aside, More’s quasi-fictional “Richard III” bore too great a resemblance to the all-too-real Henry VII, and England was an actual place. “Utopia” — “Nowhere” — was a much safer vantage from which to make biting social commentary.
Blandly saying outrageous things that could not possibly be true is classic satiric technique. The problem is that it is likely to backfire when readers either do not know the real situation or are deceived by the matter-of-fact tone. When Jonathan Swift first published A Modest Proposal, for example, some people thought he was seriously advocating cannibalism as the solution to poverty. According to some authorities, even today a few people are taken in.