Thoughts on Thomas More

Artists rendition of Utopia

I recently read the book ‘Utopia’ by a Sir Thomas More. I knew nothing about More, but the book found its way into my collection through inheritance and I wasn’t going to discard it until I had read it. By trade More  was a prosperous civil servant in the early to mid 1500’s. Favored by King Henry VIII until the year of Mores execution, he rose all the way to the position of Lord Chancellor. Utopia is an invented word from Greek, roughly meaning ‘nowhere land’ that More coined. Not surprisingly, the utopia described by More is a very basic version of those written about by more modern social reformers. In it everyone wears a common dress save for some community leaders and bondsmen. Everyone is well educated and does their share of work. The sick and elderly are cared for. There are no real personal possessions but only community goods. Utopia is an island that has geography such that there is essentially no hope of foreigners attacking and taking over the land (In case you haven’t caught on, things are pretty uncommonly swell in Utopia). There are some interesting rules in Utopia. If you cheat on your spouse multiple times you are eventually put to death. Only bondsmen are allowed to butcher animals. If at all possible mercenaries are paid to fight wars instead of risking citizens. Very lucrative bounties are offered for the lives of ranking enemy officers and princes to incite unrest with the enemy.

Utopia is a response to the social issues of England in the time it was written, such as large segregation of wealth and the longstanding practice of punishing thievery by death. More biography was written by his stepson, Roper. The biography describes More as religiously pious, joyful and very loyal to his king and country. His downfall was ultimately being more pious than patriotic. When Henry VIII declared himself the head of the church in England, More refused to take on oath accepting this. More strongly believed the segregation of the Catholic church to be one of the worse things that could happen to it. He was very civil in his refusal to accept the King as head of the church, continually stating that his opinion in the matter was nothing but his own, and those of everyone else was their own. However it seemed his opinion was historically too highly regarded for the King to take this ambiguous response as acceptable. He was held in ‘The Tower’ a few months before his beheading on July 6th 1535, the Octave of St. Peter (eighth day of St. Peters festival). Roper quotes him as stating to his executioner, “Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office” as well as giving one gold angel (a coin of no small worth) to his executioner.

It was a refreshing read of an era I knew little of, and a nice background to have for reading more modern Utopian philosophies. Also an interesting casualty of the fragmentation of the Catholic Church.

Reading Brave New World

Brave New World cover, Bantam, 26th printing

Brave New World, for those who don’t know, is a highly regarded work of science fiction written in the early 1930’s. It portrays a Utopian ( dystopian ) future world where efficiency and progress are paramount. Here is a short synopsis of the future world; The most efficient number of upper, middle and lower class workers is controlled by a complex artificial reproduction process. People are intentionally made mentally handicapped and afraid of things to suit their occupation. This is done through malnutrition and mental conditioning in child development. People’s place in the workforce is the sole reason their creation. Workers are kept happy through constant social and sexual activity as well as escapism through a drug ( named ‘soma’ ) with no adverse affects.

The major forces at play in the book are progress, efficiency, and happiness against mysticism, faith and the arts. Huxley is revealed in the pages to be a man very interested scientific and social progress, though his knowledge and love of the arts ( primarily Shakespeare, from whom the work draws its title ) are obviously just as valuable to him.

My main takeaway from the book is the raised leeriness of that which I was conditioned throughout my youth to accept as virtue and success. Also the dangers of escapism and encouragement to go against the progress for progress sake mentality portrayed in the book as well as present in modern culture, and to continue to focus my efforts on literature and the arts. The book is a short read, a bit preceded by its own influence eighty years after its printing, but none the less an essential to any scholars library. It directly raises awareness to modern culture’s tendency to obscure the philosophers goal of intensifying and refining human consciousness.

A little trivia about Huxley, he succumbed to cancer same day as United States President Kennedy was assassinated ( November 22nd 1963 ). He became involved with mescaline and LSD later in his life and believed in their potential to clear the interference of human perception. His last request was for his wife to dose him heavily with LSD.

While writing the bulk of this post I followed the Wikipedia page on Brave New World down the rabbit hole and found Huxley to be an extremely intelligent man, warranting a post dedicated to his nonfiction.