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Connie

Utopia—The Spoiler Thread

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It’s interesting to me that the definition of Utopia, which in Latin means “no place,” in our modern English usage has taken on the meaning of the Latin word “Eutopia,” which means “good place.” Granted they have the same pronunciation, at least in English. It appears it is a debated topic whether Thomas More actually thought the society he describes in Utopia was a “good place.” He was, however, fully aware that the word actually meant “no place,” so its interesting that he gave it that name.

The name he gives to the character who describes the society of Utopia is also quite interesting. The name he gives him is Raphael Hythlodaeus. Raphael being the Hebrew name of an angel who in the apocryphal Book of Tobit guides a man on a journey that ends in curing his blindness. The edition of Utopia I read points out that “the name is quite appropriate for a character who tries to open people’s eyes to the causes of social evils, and the sources of prosperity.” Hythlodaeus, however, is a word of Greek derivation that means “dispenser of nonsense.” Almost seems contradictory, though perhaps on further thought it isn’t.

Let’s start the discussion of Thomas More’s Utopia there. Is the name he gives this character, Raphael Hythlodaeus, contradictory? Why or why not? Is it possible to be a “dispenser of nonsense” but still open people’s eyes to certain societal ills? Please feel free to respond, whether you’ve read the book or not.

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I'll have to get back to you after a refresher. I didn't even remember the guide! I remember the society being described in the most idealistic terms and thus not very practical. For example, the criminals are bound up in gold chains - showing just how little the metal is valued, but it's not a great idea to use malleable metals to restrict freedom. The people I read it with were shocked that a short workweek was an ideal, since they gathered so much value from their work, while I thought it was ridiculous to think that people would devote all their excess time to leisure. Now that I'm older I may have to reevaluate that.

I'll pick it up from the library and take a fresh look.

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Yes, definitely very idealistic. And perhaps that’s why he named it “No Place.” He knew there wasn’t a place like it anywhere and likely never would be.

The leisure was one of the things I actually liked about the society. Maybe that’s just because it’s kind of my ideal. But they are very specific about what pleasure is. There are natural pleasures like health, literature, and music, and unnatural pleasures like gambling, hunting, and excess in eating or apparel.

Excerpt from the book: “Pleasure they define as any state or activity, physical or mental, which is naturally enjoyable. The operative word is naturally. According to them, we’re impelled by reason as well as an instinct to enjoy ourselves in any natural way which doesn’t hurt other people, interfere with greater pleasures, or cause unpleasant after-effects. But human beings have entered into an idiotic conspiracy to call some things enjoyable which are naturally nothing of the kind—as though facts were as easily changed as definitions. Now the Utopians believe that, so far from contributing to happiness, this type of thing makes happiness impossible—because, once you get used to it, you lose all capacity for real pleasure, and are merely obsessed by illusory forms of it. Very often these have nothing pleasant about them at all—in fact, most of them are thoroughly disagreeable. But they appeal so strongly to perverted tastes that they come to be reckoned not only among the major pleasures of life, but even among the chief reasons for living.”

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4 hours ago, Connie said:

Pleasure they define as any state or activity, physical or mental, which is naturally enjoyable. The operative word is naturally. According to them, we’re impelled by reason as well as an instinct to enjoy ourselves in any natural way which doesn’t hurt other people, interfere with greater pleasures, or cause unpleasant after-effects

I would refer the author to Swift's analysis of human nature in the hounym (sp? horse-people) section of Gulliver's Travels. Man's nature is not rational. We have the capacity for rational thought, but let's not pretend that man in nature is rational. Or rather, the rational part operates atop another, more primal instinct.

A simple contradiction is the prison population. What "idiotic conspiracy" were they reared around to grow to love that which is unnatural? I agree that a person can be trained to act against nature, but it must be done with enormous and systematic pressure and influence. In the case of Utopia, that would mean there's a strong criminal underground providing the next generation of the prison population.

Another explanation would be that criminal deviants are, well, deviations from the norm. Their nature is corrupt, in which case the best thing for the stability of society is eugenics, thus ensuring the premise that the norm is natural. Reforming them only grants them the opportunity to birth and beget deviant offspring. Of course, society could provide proper oversight to ensure the children learn to behave according to nature. But if this population grows sizable enough, the argument of nature again becomes bogus and the society will find that nature itself was the source of the idiotic conspiracy.

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That’s one thing about Gulliver’s Travels that I’m not sure I like. Swift isn’t wrong, but I feel like he over emphasizes man’s fallen nature—to the point where, if I remember correctly (it’s been years since I’ve read it), Gulliver forsakes all human interaction at the end, even with his own wife and family. At least More here is willing to acknowledge that we have something other than just a fallen nature. We are dual beings—fallen human and spiritually divine. Though perhaps More is over emphasizing our better nature—again that idealism.

There is slavery in Utopia. It’s not explicitly stated (there is not a lot of description regarding the slaves), but I wonder if it’s inferable that they are not allowed to procreate. Perhaps this is the Utopian form of eugenics. It appears that they largely do not even try to reform them. Any Utopian found to be doing something “unnatural” would be punished with slavery either temporarily or permanently depending on the offence. It seems the attitude is almost “once a criminal, always a criminal.” Even a small human foible could potentially be punished. Definitely one of the reasons I wouldn’t want to live there. From the book: “Everyone has his eye on you, so you’re practically forced to get on with your job, and make some proper use of your spare time.” Very Orwellian.

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On 9/17/2018 at 7:59 PM, Connie said:

It’s interesting to me that the definition of Utopia, which in Latin means “no place,” in our modern English usage has taken on the meaning of the Latin word “Eutopia,” which means “good place.” Granted they have the same pronunciation, at least in English. It appears it is a debated topic whether Thomas More actually thought the society he describes in Utopia was a “good place.” He was, however, fully aware that the word actually meant “no place,” so its interesting that he gave it that name.

The name he gives to the character who describes the society of Utopia is also quite interesting. The name he gives him is Raphael Hythlodaeus. Raphael being the Hebrew name of an angel who in the apocryphal Book of Tobit guides a man on a journey that ends in curing his blindness. The edition of Utopia I read points out that “the name is quite appropriate for a character who tries to open people’s eyes to the causes of social evils, and the sources of prosperity.” Hythlodaeus, however, is a word of Greek derivation that means “dispenser of nonsense.” Almost seems contradictory, though perhaps on further thought it isn’t.

Let’s start the discussion of Thomas More’s Utopia there. Is the name he gives this character, Raphael Hythlodaeus, contradictory? Why or why not? Is it possible to be a “dispenser of nonsense” but still open people’s eyes to certain societal ills? Please feel free to respond, whether you’ve read the book or not.

 

I finished the first half of the book (Book 1) where this character is introduced and Utopia has only a minor role. I think his name is very fitting for More's objects. More places the book in a setting that is only a thought-experiment away from contemporary reality. The fictional Raphael hobnobs with real kings and rulers, and visits fictional lands in the exotic (but very real) New World. The real More creates a fictionalized version of himself who can play skeptic to these ideas he wants to explore. Since I brought up Gulliver's Travels, this serves as a contrast where Swift has a fictional protagonist visiting fictional lands to grapple with civic philosophy. To my mind, More wants the reader to have an immediate reaction to the work. Making it a total fiction would associate the ideas with pure fantasy, but Raphael first commenting on real issues for the contemporary reader grounds even the most fantastical ideas as something that could be plausible, and that leads the reader to really consider whether this should be adopted in society.

Raphael's name is fitting because he is the guide for these ideas that author More wants to explore. Raphael guides the character More, and the reader, through some ideas that are still relevant today. Specifically, I think of the advice that the king's role (and the lord's) is to make his people's lives as good as possible - not his own. And the way this plays out is that you make and enforce laws to provide for safety, not to raise revenues. I said this is relevant today, because I recently read about some districts that foreshortened the yellow light at stop lights so the traffic cameras could catch cars running the red light. This raises revenue through fines, but makes the intersection more dangerous.

Similarly, it is unethical for the Crown to prosecute criminals for acting exactly as you would expect them to act given the circumstances the government gives them (I think it had to do with them turning to thievery after getting displaced because the feudal lord's greed resulting in poor estate decisions. This is quite relevant as we continue to discuss just how much culpability do the leaders of a corporation hold for their own actions. Traveler has shared a story of working at a company where engineers were fired because execs made poor business decisions. So I would say it's still relevant since it continues to persist, but would also point out that an underlying assumption ought to be questioned when it rears up: how much autonomy does the victim have in this case? Is it reasonable to assume young men in low-income neighborhoods are capable of turning down drugs; or that the young woman in that same neighborhood either practice abstinence or safe sex; or that once released, the former convict make different choices that he never has before to ensure he's not arrested again; etc.

Raphael's name is also fitting because he is going to propose some radical ideas. He's asked why he's not a king's advisor, and the hypothetical he raises involves how best to handle international political intrigue. His solution is: don't get involved! This is so against the status quo that he would get laughed out of the king's court! It's not unlike the primary debates where Ron Paul or Bernie Sanders talks crazy talk, but 4 years later the talking points have been a part of the public discourse long enough that it's no longer an outlier. And I think that's More's intent. Raphael will say some nonsense, some of it may even be quite distasteful, but live with it for a year or two - even oppose it vigorously - just so long as it's a part of the public discourse and see if it's still nonsense. Or I guess I'm saying it fits if "nonsense" is taken to mean "not really practical right now given what's considered the status quo," which is not quite what it means :).

 

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