BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Utopia ...

As I have frequently mentioned in this space, I've been a great fan of the Dover Thrift Editions books … largely as a vehicle for getting a just-under-$25 order up into the free shipping promised land. They also tend to be relatively short, which certainly helps with keeping up on my “72 non-fiction books a year” quest, especially in months where my other reading is either lengthy or dense (or something that I'm reading more “out of duty”, such as the business books that have passed through here of late, rather than “out of love”). The “nobler” benefit of the Dover books is that I'm able to “plug holes” in my education … filling in lapses where I'd read of something but hadn't actually ever gotten around to reading it.

Sir Thomas More's Utopia is a very good example of this, of course. A classic of English literature (although it was originally written in Latin), it is nearly 500 years old at this point, penned as a satire, primarily of the government (and reign) of Henry VIII. At this remove, the book suffers somewhat in that the modern reader (unless one is an enthusiast for that period of history) has only the thinnest context in which to frame the content, and what might have been acute barbs in 1515 are unlikely to even be recognized as sardonic salvos today.

The bulk of the book is a tale told by a traveler, one that More claims to have encountered while in Europe. The first part of the book is More describing his business there, and the various personages with whom he had contact, including one who introduces him to this traveler. The first part is rather hard to follow, being (I take it) more “setting the table” with a discourse of current views and attitudes, and features arguments from various positions. Frankly, not being much of a fan of either fiction or philosophy, there were several places here where it just became “blah, blah, blah” to me, and I wondered when the “travel book” was going to kick in. Obviously, this is more a failing on my part than on More and his book's, but the format was (to a modern eye) rather dissonant in several aspects.

Of course, the book would not have the fame it has were it not for the titular land, Utopia. This had been visited by the traveler, and the second part of the book is his relating his impressions and recall of the place and its people. It is pretty evident that Marx, Engles, etc. had read this in the course of developing their ideas, as much of what is presented as the Utopian way would sound very familiar to anyone listening to a Progressive agitator. The term “Utopia” comes from Greek roots suggesting “nowhere”, and so the concept of this “ideal society” is unobtainable in the real world. Again, how this relates to Henry VIII and his government, I can't specifically say!

I found it interesting that, among all the fantasy names that More gives to the Utopians' world, the name of their main God is easily recognizable … Mithras. As More ended up being executed for opposing Henry VIII's take-over of the English church, there must be something quite pointed in this usage, but, again at the remove of time and context from which I'm reading this, it only serves as a titillating clue for possible future consideration.

It is fascinating how much of what is attributed to the Utopians seems very familiar from the past century of our culture. While much of what they are presented as doing still seems quite odd to us, it must have been wholly bizarre to More's contemporaries. I'd be very interested in hearing how Leftist voices view this book, as certainly much of their idealized programs have echoes in Utopia … it is enticing to try to pick apart how much of Marx (and perhaps even Jefferson) might have been lifted from More's fantasy. There are several points which resonate with the Libertarian cause as well, so the vision here is hardly just a paleo-socialist screed.

Anyway, as this is a Dover Thrift Edition, Utopia is remarkably inexpensive in this version (which is a reprint of an 1885 edition) , with a cover price of just $2.00 … which makes it ideal for those on-line order situations where one has two books and a buck and change to make up to get up to free shipping!

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Tags: book review
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