Sunday, January 13, 2008

No More, Please: A Parody for Parity

A word: I wrote this (and there will be many more to come) for a class I'm currently taking on Elizabethan literature. I'm lazy, so I'm just posting them. My professor, who took an amazing amount of time attempting to justify his insistence on so much writing (a 2-page max reflection for each class, i.e., twice a week--to which my response, in true fashion, is: "2 pages? I piss two pages before brushing my teeth every morning"), has also given directing questions and what-not for these reflections.

In fact, for this first one, he asked us to pretend that we were a counselor to King Henry VIII, advising him on Thomas More's Utopia, giving one thing we liked and one thing we disliked. At first, I was miffed at being treated like an 8th grader (do we really need to pretend to be somebody else to help us write something?), but in the end I succumbed to the opportunity. I also employed my now classic trick of writing two single-spaced pages on the first assignment because the professor had neglected to say explicitly anywhere that it was to be double-spaced--why would he? Every college kid knows that you write double-spaced to leave room for comments. And that's why it's a trick. "Oh, did you mean double-spaced? I'm sorry, I didn't know." So this is twice as long as the rest will be (and yes, this was exactly two pages with footnotes--one more line would've kicked it up to three).


His Highest, Most Excellency, King Henry VIII,

This new book, Utopia, by Thomas More, a man of substantial eloquence and poise, of intelligence and courage; whose prodigious memory serves an immense capacity for subtle praise and critique; by whose manner we can discern the breadth and limits of your own substantial contributions to our own not entirely precarious polity; whose immense wit wizens with its wherewithal; a man with the carriage and control over his presentation and prolifically long and illustrious sentences to point to profound problems; and whose writings show the ability to dissemble a message to not completely uncourteous auditors through a not altogether veiled series of veils by partial means of a not exclusively uncluttered profusion of classical learning and rhetorical command of figures and tropes (including that of litotes)—this book comes to us, as advisors, with the task of advising you on what to think of it, though More’s tact is not at all unlike that taken by many who refer recommendations to royalty.

In this most serious of tasks, I will parse More’s language as tersely as possible so as to eliminate the ambiguity that instills its most significant passages. The trouble with More’s text in this regard is that he has cobbled together a fantastic collection of self-undermining insights that can roughly be separated into a colligation of an outrageous public intervention with an honestly brokered inner turmoil. It is safe to say that any so-called positive “position” of endorsement one can pull from Utopia can easily be distanced from the intentional compliments of the author, thus making it nearly impossible to pin anything on More himself.

But for you, Magnificent Monarch, I shall struggle ahead with some sort of analysis, if only as a guide for your own sovereign scrutiny. I shall concentrate my attention on portions of Book I because, in my estimation, Book II represents the dullest drech I have ever read. In an effort at creating verisimilitude for his fictional island of Utopia, More has employed a number of techniques (master rhetorician that he is) to that effect: in the first of the bookending letters to Peter Giles (itself part of the effort), More asks for Giles to “raise with Hythloday the points I mentioned,”[1] either “in person or letter.”[2] Raphael Hythloday, the traveler who has lived in the fictional Utopia, is himself an obvious fiction intended as a distancing maneuver between More and the text. But one of the points Giles is to bring up to have resolved, should More’s memory have failed him, is whether a certain bridge in Utopia is five or three hundred yards across, a fact so trivial that only a person wanting to get his facts straight would want to know it—thus contributing realism to the, again, fictional island of Utopia. And Book II as a whole is dull for this exact purpose: More, after wowing us with rhetorical gymnastics in Book I, adopts a plain style to create the illusion of a clear window opening upon the island so that all may see the splendor of Utopia for themselves, even beginning with what you’d literally see: the geography of the island. In this More follows his sometimes master Plato, who deplored the rhetoric of the Sophists, and in effect out-Platoes Plato by creating something more boring than The Republic (taking his own advice in Book I[3] and finally giving Glaucon a non-speaking part—an interlocutor already reduced to yea-saying—creating the monologue The Republic really is).

But it is duller than ditchwater (though its purpose is no less significant for it), so I shall confine the rest of my remarks to Book I, which includes us in on a discussion that surrounds the purpose of even describing Utopia in the first place. I agree with Hythloday’s endorsement of Ciceronian liberty, roughly seeking happiness and doing as one pleases[4] (which I predict will become emblematic of English political philosophy, so much that I foresee a cynical German someday remarking that, “Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does that”[5]), so much so that I regard his suggestion that we eliminate private property to be extraordinarily foolish, as he predicts most will.

The abolition of private property is the suggested change to our society that underwrites all of Hythloday’s criticisms, it is the crux upon which he would heal all problems. Seeing our incredulity from far off, More writes a dialogue between his Utopia-self and Hythloday that throws us up into the abstractions of philosophy. The textual More urges Hythloday to work with the establishment in order to change it, a reformist attitude in which one doesn’t move too far afield from what the mass can countenance.[6] Hythloday responds sharply that, “I would be doing no more than trying to remedy the madness of others by succumbing to their madness myself.”[7] Hythloday’s argument creates a specious contrast in which his opinion, the opinion of one who would heal society of its problems, “would either be different,” and therefore incomprehensible for it would be so radical as to be considered madness and laughed off the stage, “or it would be the same,” and therefore aid and abet the madness of the status quo and thus not heal a thing.[8] But this argument bespeaks a debilitating pessimism that requires one to hold the theoretical position that no substantial change, for better or worse, has ever occurred because, unless one is prone to leaping blindly into darkness with no rational breadcrumbs to follow home, every change is part of an endless parade of variations on the first establishment. (I foresee in the future, possibly in France during the 20th century, a philosopher coming onto the stage and saying, “I think to imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system,”[9] a forecast as dark and bleak as it is incoherent, but a natural extension of Hythloday’s argument, which itself sits across common assumptions that Plato uses in the Phaedrus.)

My own suspicion is that the abolition of private property would lead to tyranny on a scale unknown in England and all other lands that bow to the rule of law (something I predict a man—I’m seeing the name “Karl Popper”—will someday trace to Plato’s doorstep). Rather than continue this rebuttal, in the reformist, experimental spirit of the Archbishop[10] I should like to praise one of Hythloday’s thoughts as an insight. Indeed, I think Hythloday is depressingly right when he suggests that thieves do not necessarily steal because they want to, but rather because they have no other recourse. One structural problem Hythloday recognizes are returning veterans of war: “They have sacrificed their limbs for the commonwealth or the king; their disability does not allow them to practice their former trades and they are too old to learn a new one.”[11] Though Hythloday overlooks these to get at the structural problems of private property, I think we can see clearly an opportunity to improve the lives of both those who have fought for your Majesty and the lives of those who would have sacrificed their possessions when these once patriotic veterans become vermin. I implore you to consider measures that might relieve both pressures, some sort of light stipend perhaps, all for your Merciful Glory.

[1] Utopia (trans. Clarence H. Miller, Yale University Press, 2001), 7

[2] ibid., 5

[3] ibid., 43

[4] ibid., 16

[5] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, maxim 12

[6] Utopia, 43-4

[7] ibid., 44

[8] ibid., 45

[9] Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practise, 230

[10] Utopia, 31

[11] ibid., 19

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