I picked up Thomas More’s classic book, Utopia, the other day. Publsished in 1516, the book describes what More conceived of as an ideal place. The word “utopia” is derived from the Greek, and means “no place.”
Thomas More was trained as a lawyer and worked in government service under King Henry VIII of England. As most people know, King Henry was desperate for an heir to the throne, and his wife, Spanish Catherine of Aragon, was barren. King Henry wanted an annulment, but this was denied by the Roman pope. To obtain his desire, King Henry had Parliament pass a law in 1534 declaring King Henry the supreme head of the Church in England. This eventually became the Anglican Church..
Thomas More was a devout Catholic and refused to accept King Henry as the head of the church. For this treason, he was imprisoned and ultimately beheaded by the king in 1535.
The book, Utopia, opens with More involved in a conversation with one Peter Giles, and a traveler, Raphael. At the time, More is on the king’s business in Antwerp. Raphael proves to be well travelled, having visited many known and unknown kingdoms and other territories. He shows a familiarity with many forms of government and impresses More and Giles with his comprehensive knowledge and understanding. Giles naturally asks him why he does not enter the service of some king, as an advisor, as he could be quite useful.
Raphael refuses to consider the idea. He says kings have advisors who are jealous of each other and of new information. Also, kings want wars to expand their power and influence. Working in the service of a king would amount to slavery, and Raphael prefers his freedom.
The subject of thieves comes up, and Giles notes that thieves are being hanged on a regular basis, yet there is no reduction in stealing. Raphael says hanging for thievery is unjust, a punishment far in excess of the crime, and that the plague of thievery is created by society. He notes that wars, for one thing, produce a multitude of maimed and mutilated former soldiers who are unable to work and have no other means of supporting themselves. Wealthy landowners, who keep many idle hangers on, only like the healthy ones. When their lackeys become sick, they are tossed out, with no place to go. Add to this the fact that kings keep standing armies, even in times of peace, in order to keep prepared for eventual war. These soldiers are not trained in any other livelihood so are without recourse should anything happen to interrupt their military careers.
Raphael goes on to say that the problem is rendered worse in England, where the wealthy have commandeered large tracts of land for the grazing of sheep. Formerly agricultural land is fenced off, with whole towns being displaced from their former livelihoods involved in agriculture. These people have no place to go and no alternative sources of income, so they are forced into thievery to survive.
This is prelude to the rest of the story, about the ideal civilization of Utopia, but what strikes me is how little has changed in 500 years. Wars and displacement continue to be the primary causes of poverty, with the corporations and governments commandeering large tracts of land for such things as dams, airports, and power stations.
Ongoing discussions about the increasing disparity between rich and poor neglect to consider the most fundamental, root cause of poverty, as prominent today as in Thomas More’s time. War and displacement debilitate the most vulnerable members of society and lead, ultimately, to the crime and violence we see in the US today. While we don’t have actual war on our turf, we are involved in wars around the globe, to expand our US economic empire, while neglecting problems at home that are destroying the fabric of the society in which we live.
One would think we would have learned something in the past 500 years. At least we don’t hang people for thievery, which may be a step in the right direction. Should we begin applying our vast resources to constructive rather than destructive activity, we may begin to revitalize our debilitated national spirit and make a justifiable claim to being a civilized society.