Achieving the Ideal Society

University Professor Explains Thomas More’s Utopia

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By Ann Schneible

ROME, APRIL 26, 2012 ( Religious freedom, private property, the role of the intellectual in society – St. Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516, remains keenly relevant in today’s social and political climate.

In a recent presentation at the Acton Institute in Rome, Dr. John Boyle, professor of theology and Catholic studies and graduate program director at university of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota, spoke about Utopia, and offered insight into what More was trying to communicate with this complex work.

ZENIT caught up with Dr. Boyle and spoke with him about some of the key issues at play in the society portrayed in St. Thomas More’s work, and about what relevance it may hold today.

Originally written in Latin, Utopia was published in 1516 and was directed to More’s fellow humanists. The work, which is broken into two «books,» centers predominately around a dialogue between Thomas More himself and Raphael Hythloday, the latter describing this fictional idyllic society which he happened upon where private property has been abolished.

Against the common belief that More truly believed this to be the way society should be run, Dr. Boyle explains that Utopia is by no means a model society, nor did More intend for it to be interpreted as such.

Private Property

In Utopia, private property has been abolished. Everyone eats together, wears the same clothes, and everyone works for the common good. It is based upon the idea that if private property is done away with, all social ills will also be eliminated. «This, it seems to me, is the great oddity of the claim. On the one hand, you could do away with theft, for example: if you have no private property, it just makes sense. But the claim is also made that you would do away with all murders, do away with all quarrels. It makes it seem as though the only grounds for murder, the only grounds for quarrel, have to do with private property, which is obviously false.»

Religious Freedom in Utopia

The religion of Utopia is not unlike that of the Roman Empire, in that there is a state religion. «No one is forced to belong to it,» Dr. Boyle explains, «but in Utopia – where everyone is reasonable and rational – most people do because it is a reasonable and rational religion in accord with nature and philosophy.» All other religions, while tolerated and permitted, are considered to be superstitious. The only requirement is that all people must hold to the immortality of the soul, and to a final judgment of some kind. This is so as to motivate moral behavior. «It’s not a religious claim. It’s a social claim.»

«It’s very interesting when they talk about worship in Utopian religion,» Dr. Boyle notes, «They have very little to say about the object of that worship; they practice confession in Utopia, and the one person who is not confessed to is God. Children confess to their parents, wives confess to their husbands: nobody confesses to God.»

There is, however, an ironic application of the way Utopia enforces freedom of religion, as recounted by the character of Raphael Hythloday. «He tells the story of bringing Christianity to Utopia, and many Utopians apparently converted. But one convert’s apparently an obnoxious, overzealous convert, because he insists on the exclusive character of Christianity. He’s banished from Utopia on the grounds of the principle which is that no one should suffer for his religion.»

«It suggests,» Dr. Boyle continues, «that in More’s mind, that Christianity is never completely embraced by a culture… It can help purify a culture, but it will make demands of a culture. It is not the tool of a culture. It is not a tool of society. And if it should become so, then it is seriously compromised.»

Thomas More’s message to his contemporary humanists

One of the few things that is clear in Utopia, Dr. Boyle explains, is that the work is directed towards More’s fellow humanists. «The work is written in sophisticated Latin. It’s filled with allusions to classical authors, both Latin and Greek. There’s no doubt that it was written for a very sophisticated, intellectual audience. This is not pot-boiler stories of other lands for the semi-educated.»

This raises the questions: what is More’s message to them? «In a letter he appends to the second edition of Utopia, he basically says that this book is medicine smeared with honey, some kind of bitter medicine.»

“I think the interesting question, which More doesn’t directly answer, is what is the medicine? What’s the illness?»

«The illness,» Dr. Boyle goes on to say, «is reflected in the character of Raphael Hythloday. I would put it this way: the whole of Book One is about the willingness to serve princes, a willingness to serve the public order. The thing about humanists… is many of them want to be left alone. They want to do their intellectual work. They didn’t especially care to serve society in practical ways, certainly in service of government. And they tend to think in such absolute terms as to actually be quite ineffective and unhelpful in the world of political give-and-take compromise. Many of them feel there is no point in doing it.»

What More is arguing, however, is that intellectuals, like himself, should seek to enter into the concrete areas of social and political life.

The relevance of Utopia in today’s social and political climate

One example of how Utopia is relevant is found in «the need for the careful, studied place of intellectuals in the political life.»

«It’s really a call for intellectuals, to think about [their role]» in society, explains Dr. Boyle. Thomas More himself exemplified this well, being an intellectual who was deeply involved in the politics of his day. «More was a very smart man, a clear intellectual. Many of his humanist colleagues thought he was wasting his time in government service. But it’s not just that he was really smart, he read his Plato, terrific how he would go boss princes around. Rather, his intelligence, his certain understanding of precisely how it is, in the practical realm… works.»

«Given the complexity of modern life, the need for solid philosophical principles, at the same time on the firm ground in the practice of politics, in economics, in any number of aspects of culture, seems all the more relevant.»

«The political order,» Dr. Boyle goes on, «is not the source of our happiness. This is a theological point, but it’s very dear to More’s heart. The political order can serve to help order men to their happiness, but it cannot achieve it. This is a matter of Church, of the City of God. Political order can more or less help, but it can’t achieve what I think, in the modern sense, is the Utopian dream.»

Utopia, Dr. Boyle concludes, is «a very cautionary tale. I say it’s relevant in all kinds of ways, as well as reminding us of humorous good things.»

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