Sunday, February 8, 2009

Micah Donohue: "Cities Nowhere but in Words"

Micah Donohue
New Mexico State University

Cities Nowhere but in Words: Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia


Ian MacInnes said...

I'm wondering if it might not be a good idea to put the literary republic back into the world. The Reformation itself was a kind of utopian project, as was the eventual Catholic Reformation, and the stern cost of the former, at least, was visible to More!

Kathleen said...

I agree that the meaning of More's Utopia is never really "solved." I have taught this text numerous times in freshman English courses and have been awe struck by its relevance to young, contemporary audiences (who don't typically consider themselves avid readers). I have found it useful to stray away from political structures (communism vs. capitalism) and think about smaller, tangential concepts that open up the text as you advocate. For example, I have been thinking about how More's critique of private property can be read (tangentially) as a critique of our very modern problem of a lack of leisure. More included leisure as part of the equation of a model society, but what happens to a society in its absence?

Kathleen A.

Micah said...

I agree with your reservations about reintroducing the ‘literary republic’ into the world. Like you say, More was very aware of the utopian problems of the Reformation. In his _Responsio Ad Lutherum_, for instance, More uses variations of "nowhere" and "nonsense" to pejoratively describe Luther’s church and Luther himself. After giving a frankly one-sided and reductive account of Luther's views on sin, the flesh, and the church, in which Luther is painted as having hopeless mired himself in a paradox of on the one hand saying that no one is without sin and on the other stressing that the church – made up of people – is sinless, More dismisses his theological nemesis as merely "talking nonsense (absurde diceret)" (The Complete Works of Thomas More, Vol. 5, part 1, 160/161). And Luther’s church, More says, is “imperceptible and mathematical --like Platonic ideas-- [and it] is both in some place and no place (et in loco sit, et in nullo loco sit)" (Complete Works, Vol. 5, 166/167).
However, at the same time as we have to be hesitant about returning to literary utopias, the utopian impulse may be an indispensable one. At least that’s the point I see Ernst Bloch making (a point later taken up by Jameson, who I deal with in my paper). In _The Spirit of Utopia_, for example, Bloch argues that without some utopian future to motivate progress “human beings collapse into themselves, without a path…beyond the quotidian” (167). So it may be that danger exists on both sides. There are the consequences of promoting a state, or a church, or a whole world that et in loco sit, et in nullo loco sit. On the other hand, tearing down all those “castles in the air,” as Marx calls them, may pose equally serious problems.
You pose an interesting (and difficult) question! I like the idea of reading (tangentially) More’s critique of private property as commentary on our very modern problem of “a lack of leisure.” And you’re certainly right, More stresses the importance of leisure: wouldn’t it be nice if we could have, like the Utopians, a six hour workday? The difficulty though, for me at least, is in defining “leisure,” since, for the Utopians, it did not mean “idleness.” Hythloday tells us that among the Utopians “nowhere is there any chance to be idle; there is no excuse for laziness…with the eyes of everyone upon them, they have no choice but to do their work or enjoy pastimes which are not dishonorable” (p. 73 in C.H. Miller’s translation). These “honorable pastimes” include predawn classroom lectures, religious services, community meals, morally instructive games, intellectual activities, and a bedtime no later than 8 o’clock. Except for an hour devoted to recreational music or conversation—in the gardens in the summer, in the common rooms in the winter—there is very little time for a Utopian to simply take his or her ease. That, combined with the emphasis placed on vigilance (“with the eyes of everyone upon them…”), makes the issue of “leisure” a complicated one. If leisure is “The state of having time at one's own disposal; time which one can spend as one pleases; free or unoccupied time” (OED), I don’t know how leisurely a life the Utopians actually lead! Once again More problematizes what at first glance appears simple: the Utopians can spend “the intervals between work, meals, and sleep…however they like” (61), except that “however they like” turns out to mean within a fairly limited set of options.