Picture of sculpture in front of More house, London
August 28, 2012

Utopias & Dystopias

Sometime ago I came across a volume called The Kingdom Suffereth Violence which claims to be newly discovered letters by and to Erasmus, St. Thomas More, and Machiavelli. Now More and Erasmus were great friends, but I'd never heard that More and Machiavelli exchanged letters, so I bought the volume. In preparation for reading the letters I decided to read The Praise of Folly, re-read The Prince, and read Utopia all the way through. Now I like to have volumes that have some apparatus, such as explanatory notes, so I bought a volume that has not only Utopia, but also Bacon's New Atlantis and George Neville's Isle of Pines in it. So I'll be dealing with these five works before moving on to the letters.

The Praise of Folly

The Praise of Folly by Erasmus is an oration given by Folly who speaks in praise of herself. The problem, for this reader at least, is that much of what Folly says is fairly tiresome and repetitious. Some of what Folly says is criticism for failure to live up to Christian ideals:
How many are there that burn candles to the Virgin Mother, and that too at noonday when there's no need of them! But how few are there that study to imitate her in pureness of life, humility and love of heavenly things, which is the true worship and most acceptable to heaven!”
Some of it is directed at Scholasticism:
Besides, while they explicate the most hidden mysteries according to their own fancy--as how the world was first made; how original sin is derived to posterity; in what manner, how much room, and how long time Christ lay in the Virgin's womb; how accidents subsist in the Eucharist without their subject.”
Some of what he says is political:
They believe they have discharged all the duty of a prince if they hunt every day, keep a stable of fine horses, sell dignities and commanderies, and invent new ways of draining the citizens' purses and bringing it into their own exchequer; but under such dainty new-found names that though the thing be most unjust in itself, it carries yet some face of equity; adding to this some little sweet'nings that whatever happens, they may be secure of the common people.”
I leave it to the gentle reader to decide how much of that last bit is applicable to his or her own set of legislative miscreants.

The Prince

I've written about Machiavelli before, but I rather enjoyed both The Prince and The Discourses, so I thought it would be a good time to re-read at least The Prince. It's been a couple of years, so it seems fair to ask if my opinions have changed. The answer is not much.

One thing that is striking about Machiavelli's advice is its pertinence to current events. Here, for example, are his comments on occupying territory:

But when dominions are acquired in a region that is not similar in language, customs, and institutions, it is here that difficulties arise; and it is here that one needs much good luck and much diligence to hold on to them. One of the best and most efficacious remedies would be for the person who has taken possession of them to go there to live.”\
The other and better solution is to send colonies into one or two places, that will act as shackles on that state; for it is necessary that the prince either do this or maintain a large number of cavalry and infantry. Colonies do not cost much, and with little or no expense a prince can send and maintain them.”\
But by garrisoning troops there instead of colonies, one spends much more, being obliged to consume all the revenues of the state in standing guard, so that the gain turns into a loss; and far greater injury is committed, since the entire state is harmed by the army changing quarters from one place to another. Everybody resents this inconvenience, and everyone becomes the ruler’s enemy; and these are enemies that can be harmful, since, although conquered, the remain in their own homes.”\
When Japan was conquered after WWII, MacArthur was the American governor, in effect proconsul, in Japan. In a sense he went to live in Japan personally. However, Japan was an occupied country and had a large number of troops based there, the third situation described by Machiavelli. In contrast with Japan, and to a lesser extent Germany, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have been more purely military, and the hostility greater. Would we have been better off in those places had we exerted colonial power, as Machiavelli suggests in his second option?

Machiavelli can appear quite bloodthirsty:

The memory of ancient liberty does not and cannot allow them to rest, so that the most secure course is either to wipe them out or to go to live there.”\
It is not necessary to wipe out the enemy. It is necessary to enforce on his consciousness that he has lost the conflict. Victor Davis Hanson has contended that the failure of the allies to occupy Germany after the 1918 Armistice lead to the myth that Germany was betrayed by the politicians in Berlin. When Berlin was in tatters, and occupied by the four powers there could be no doubt after May, 1945 that it had lost, and was conquered territory. In 1991, however, despite his defeat, Saddam Hussein was still capable of forming a delusional system that lead to his defiance of the UN, and his eventual long drop.

Surprisingly Machiavelli has something to say about budgetary matters:
A prince either spends his own money and that of his subjects, or that of others. In the first case he must be economical; in the second, he must not hold back any part of his generosity.”
Now Machiavelli appears to be talking about something more akin to patronage, and to lavish displays of power and wealth than about welfare and healthcare, but the principle is the same. Every program that comes from the state must be paid for either through taxes, "his own money and that of his subjects," or by borrowing, in which case the money can come from anyone. It can come from private citizens. It can come from a foreign country. It can even come from the distant, unrealizable future, as it does in Europe and the US.

Now it is notable that Machiavelli invokes "generosity." The more recent equivalent in some political circles is to invoke "charity," and to equate government spending with charity. So opposing spending is opposing charity. Now charity is a personal thing that exists in relationship to God (as agape), or to others, (as philia, or friendship). It most definitely is not shifting your responsibility for the poor, or the wretched on to some set of anonymous shoulders in a distant capital.

Now the problem with generosity is that because your largesse must be paid for, and even if you borrow the money, the loan must be repaid, is that you must extract the money somehow or other from your people, so Machiavelli cautions:

And above all things, a prince must guard himself against being despised and hated. Generosity leads you both to one and to the other. So it is wiser to live with the reputation of a miser, which gives birth to an infamy without hatred, than to be forced to incur the reputation of rapacity because you want to be considered generous, which gives birth to an infamy with hatred.”
The parsimonious Harding, who did nothing during the Depression of 1920-1921, is now being evaluated by some as more prescient than the activists Hoover and Roosevelt. Both of those presidents intervened in the market in ways that ultimately hurt the economy and that prolonged the Great Depression till Hirohito did us the favor of attacking us. Roosevelt laid the groundwork for the capture of the Black vote by the Democratic party, and the coalition of conservative Southern Democrats and big city bosses and labor unions, and this was in large measure due to the largesse that flowed from the New Deal programs. The result, however, has been a catastrophic growth of the government, and when someone proposes not an actual cut in spending, i.e., dollars, but a cut in spending growth, i.e., the rate of growth, or the percentage of growth, they are vilified for miserliness, pushing granny off the cliff, etc. Since the piper eventually has to be paid, whoever is in charge when the bill comes due, and actual cuts have to be made, or income confiscated, will be vilified and hated.

A prince should also demonstrate that he is a lover of the virtues, by giving hospitality to virtuous men and by honouring those who excel in a particular skill. Furthermore, he should encourage his subjects to pursue their trades in tranquillity, whether in commerce, agriculture, or in any other human pursuit. No one should be afraid to increase his property for fear that it will be taken away from him, while no one should shrink from undertaking any business through fear of taxes. Instead, the prince must establish rewards for those who wish to do these things, and for anyone who seeks in any way to enrich his city or state.”
Interestingly enough the winning candidate in 2008 failed to demonstrate that he was a lover of the virtues. All of his associates were either tax cheats, terrorists, Communists, pedophiles, sometimes singly, sometimes in combination. Aristotle's Rhetoric says that a person needs to show that he has good sense. We recognize that a person's associates reflect on him in the proverb "Birds of a feather flock together." A person who spends his time associating with rascals will, in light of that proverb, tend to be a rascal himself.

Note that Machiavelli also says the ruler should leave people alone. Is it seeing too much here to think that Jefferson summed it up in that short little phrase, "the pursuit of happiness." Now, I think that Jefferson has in mind an ethical pursuit, the pursuit of virtue, but a man's livelihood is one of the means through which he pursues virtue, either through expressing his highest impulses, or through the acquisition of the means of life for himself and his family. Again, it's noteworthy that Machiavelli advises against confiscatory taxation, and by extension cumbersome rules. The gut the rich approach that has been taken by the various parties in England, Europe, and United States, is, in Machiavelli's view, counterproductive.

I titled this "Utopias & Dystopias," but I don't seem to have really set forth how the first two books qualify as either. I think that in the case of The Praise of Folly there is the real world, in which Folly dominates, and an implicit, ideal world in which princes are wise, Scholasticism is defunct, and preachers and the Church practice the Christian virtues. In the case of The Prince Machiavelli again has an ideal lurking in the background. To some extent it may be that it was a unified Italy, something that wouldn't be achieved until the 19th century. It may also be that by proceeding as does, positing a series of binary opposites, that Machiavelli means to suggest that there are ideal choices that can be made in coming to power, maintaining it, and exercising it.

The translator, Peter Bondanella, contends that The Prince is a carefully crafted oration that follows the rules of rhetoric. As such it prompts the hearer, or reader to make a choice.


More's Utopia was written after both The Praise of Folly and The Prince, but Machiavelli's work wasn't published until after its author's death. The general take on Utopia is that it represents More's concept of an ideal commonwealth. It is equally possible, however, that it represents a dystopia, a place of dis-ease and little comfort.

More, in the course of the colloquy in Book I, says "For from the prince, as from a perpetual well-spring, cometh among the people the flood of all that is good or evil." Now more recent theories of government, those that derive from either Locke or Rousseau, see man as existing in a primal state of nature, and then organizing government for the protection of the community. Locke and Rousseau see the direction of power as flowing from the people to the government. More, on the other hand posits implicitly that power flows from the King to the people. In this he has something in common with an idea that can probably be traced back to the beginnings of the Jewish kings as described in Samuel. The situation, as portrayed in Judges, is spiraling out of control until it culminates in the rape, murder, and mutilation of a woman (Judges: 19-20). In the midst of this worsening situation the people of Israel ask for a king so that may be like other nations. God then gives them Saul. Now the people do ask for a king, but they ask God for a king. They don't choose him themselves. So power flows from God to the king, and the king is the anointed one, the holy one. This will later take shape as divine right.

In describing the present state of England (1516), we get this comment on money:

First one counselleth to raise and enhance the valuation of money when the king must pay any; and again to call down the value of coin to less than it is worth, when he must receive or gather any.* For thus great sums shall be paid with a little money, and where little is due much shall be received.”
More did not have the benefit of modern economic thought, but the king and his friends understood the advantages of manipulating currency.

Hythloday, More's supposed spokesman, says "To conclude, all the counsellors agree and consent together with the rich Crassus,* that no abundance of gold can be sufficient for a prince which must keep and maintain an army." The high cost of maintaining an army is here emphasized, but what is most instructive is what follows:

Furthermore that a king, though he would, can do nothing unjustly; for all that all men have, yea, also the men themselves, be all his. And that every man hath so much of his own as the king’s gentleness hath not taken from him.”
Astonishingly this seems to say that everything a man has, even what he made through his own efforts, comes to him through the king. The king has a total claim upon all that a man makes, and it is only "the king's gentleness," i.e., his restraint in not using force, that enables a man to have any possessions at all. More hasn't mentioned God here, but it's clear that he accepts a bipartite division, reflective of "Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ τῷ Θεῷ" in Matt 22:21. Jesus left unspoken the possibility of a third owner, the man himself. Are there things that are Caesar's, things that are God's, and things that are man's? By leaving unexpressed the third term did Jesus leave an opening for interpreters to see a dichotomy when it was in fact a trichotomy?

It's important to note that the question was posed in the form of a dichotomy. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Casesar or not? Jesus answers within that framework, and does not venture outside of it, and does not give a statement of political philosophy here. Nor does he enter into a disquisition upon the extent of Caesar's claim to a man's property. Jesus' answer avoids the implicit trap, advocating either non-payment and implicit revolt, or advocating payment and acquiescence, by saying that the image upon the coins make them Caesar's, and they should be returned to Caesar. In the political context this is the response given to a conquered people about tribute to their conqueror. It is not about taxation among free peoples operating under their own government.

More's dichotomy works if law is imposed by either God or the king. However, if law has its origins elsewhere, in an organic development that results in a social contract, as described by Locke and Rousseau, then the king has authority only because the people give it to him, and his claim upon the resources of the people, and the people themselves, is limited.

What follows in Hythloday's discourse, in the passage beginning, "Here again, if I should rise up and boldly affirm that all these counsels be to the king dishonour and reproach," seems to offer an alternative view to the one that says the king has total ownership of the property and people in the realm, but it does not venture near the social contract theories of later generations.

The description of the typical day of the Utopian is more than a little reminiscent of Soviet propaganda from the 1920s:

For they, dividing the day and the night into twenty-four just hours, appoint and assign only six of those hours to work before noon, upon the which they go straight to dinner. And after dinner, when they have rested two hours, then they work three hours, and upon that they go to supper. About eight of the clock in the evening (counting one of the clock at the first hour after noon) they go to bed; eight hours they give to sleep. All the void time that is between the hours of work, sleep, and meat, that they be suffered to bestow, every man as he liketh best himself.”
The editor makes the point in his introduction that despite the initial appearance of great freedom there is actually a fairly rigid structure, and the demand upon the workers is greater than the nominal six hours. I said it was reminiscent of Soviet propaganda of the 1920s, more specifically it's a foreshadowing of the episode in Old and New or The General Line (Старое и новое) in which workers from the city voluntarily spend their vacations working on the collective farm. Now there have been moments, usually ones of mass insanity, such as the 1960s, in which people full of "high ideals, so-called," have gone off to harvest sugar cane in Cuba, the venceremos brigades, or get their heads blown off in Spain, as in the 1930s, but such cases are rare, and the survivors may eventually return to sanity. I think it's doubtful that factory workers were ever that enthusiastic about farm work, and I think it's doubtful that the citizens of Utopia would be all that enthusiastic for projects promoted by the city fathers.

The Utopians practice communism:

Thither the works of every family be brought into certain houses. And every kind of thing is laid up several in barns or storehouses. From hence the father of every family or every householder fetcheth whatsoever he and his have need of, and carrieth it away with him without money, without exchange, without any gage, pawn, or pledge. For why should anything be denied unto him, seeing there is abundance of all things, and that it is not to be feared lest any man will ask more than he needeth? For why should it be thought that that man would ask more than enough which is sure never to lack?”
This is possible only with super-abundant resources. The real world is one of scarcity, and resources must be distributed. The price mechanism serves as a means of allocating resources. In a system in which everything is free there will always be a competition to get more than the other fellow has, and to "ding him down." It is only in the world of Star Trek that superabundance, through replicators, is possible and the communism envisioned in Utopia achievable.

Back when I wrote about Lycurgus I mentioned the travel restrictions that he imposed upon the Spartans. The Utopians suffer under similar restrictions:

No man goeth out alone, but a company is sent forth together with their prince’s letters, which do testify that they have licence to go that journey, and prescribeth also the day of their return.”
If any man, of his own head and without leave, walk out of his precinct and bounds, taken without the prince’s letters he is brought again for a fugitive or a runaway with great shame and rebuke, and is sharply punished. If he be taken in that fault again, he is punished with bondage.”
The argument made under Lycurgus, that the restriction on travel limits the contact and spread of ideas seems valid here as well.

The French put great store by their revolutionary slogan of "Liberté, egalité, fraternité, and More headlines one section of Utopia with the claim that equality is the cause of every man having enough:

as soon as it is perfectly known of what things there is in every place plenty, and again what things be scant in any place, incontinent the lack of the one is performed and filled up with the abundance of the other.”
The unfortunate thing is that this assumes that it is possible to know "perfectly" the place of goods at all times, and that the authority is competent enough to juggle the supply of goods. The reality, however, is that while this might work with a simple economy in which few goods are available, as the number of goods increases, along with population, and population centers, the complexity of the problem becomes that much greater. There is further the implicit assumption that areas with a surplus will transfer their surplus willingly, otherwise force will have to be used. Now trade accomplishes the transfer of goods that are not wanted, or that exist in surplus, such as wheat or corn in Iowa, to places that want to get rid of another excess, Mitsubishi cars in Kentucky, in exchange for the wheat or corn. It does this without an executive fiat, or even a Fiat.

Equality has a dark side. It is one thing to say that if the duke kills the peasant he shall lose his head, and that if the peasant kills the duke he will also lose his head. That kind of equality before the law is one thing. It is also possible for equality to lead to Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron world in which the best, brightest, strongest, most capable are handicapped or destroyed in order to achieve equality for the dumb, weak, and incompetent. The man with a billion dollars is destroyed, his wealth confiscated, and his enterprise wrecked on the altar of equality.

Treasure is to be used for the purchase of mercenaries:

For the which purpose only they keep at home all the treasure which they have, to be helpen and succoured by it either in extreme jeopardies, or in sudden dangers. But especially and chiefly to hire therewith, and that for unreasonable great wages, strange soldiers. For they had rather put strangers in jeopardy than their own countrymen, knowing that for money enough their enemies themselves many times may be bought or sold, or else through treason be set together by the ears among themselves.”
Machiavelli did not think highly of mercenary soldiers. If the people are not willing to defend themselves, will mercenaries do a better job of defending a country, or will natives? Surely More was a good enough Christian to be familiar with the parable of the Good Shepherd. Mercenaries are the hireling shepherds.

More regards gold and silver as useless metals. Again More is wrong. I won't go into the non-monetary uses of gold, but silver was, up until the advent of digital cameras, used in photography, dentistry, and other uses, and is now used in consumer electronics of all types.

On clothing More raises the question of why fine-spun cloth is better than coarse spun cloth. Now I suppose you could rephrase that by asking is a Tom Ford or Brioni suit at $5-7,000 better than an off the rack suit from Penney's at $300. But as asked, I think you could make a case that the better woven cloth has better insulating properties, and will keep you healthier than the cheaper cloth. Of course, if it is a matter of ostentation, then More has a moral point pertaining to vanity.

More comes out in favor of voluntary suicide:

But if the disease be not only incurable, but also full of continual pain and anguish, then the priests and the magistrates exhort the man (seeing he is not able to do any duty of life, and by overliving his own death is noisome and irksome to other and grievous to himself), that he will determine with himself no longer to cherish that pestilent and painful disease. And, seeing his life is to him but a torment, that he will not be unwilling to die, but rather take a good hope to him, and either dispatch himself out of that painful life, as out of a prison or a rack of torment, or else suffer himself willingly to be rid out of it by other.”
Note that word "exhort." Can it mean anything other than that social pressure will be brought upon the poor slob to commit suicide. When More speaks of "exhortations," or uses the word "exhort," I think there should be a suspicious view of this usage. The term, to my mind, conceals a system of social pressure and coercion. Note also that the disease is "noisome and irksome to other." Do we hear the death panels creaking in the background, and the need to cut down on hospitalization costs?

Utopia on for a good while longer, and More deals with a number of issues, matrimony, divorce, freedom of religion, and other issues. More appears to advocate that prayer, in public at least, be of the kind approved by the ACLU, bland and inoffensive:

No prayers be used but such as every man may boldly pronounce without the offending of any sect.”
Religious life in Utopia is reduced to the least common denominator, and a maximum of inoffensiveness. All of which renders, in a pluralistic society, which Utopia is not, any public display of religousness, such as devotion to Rama, Shiva, or Kali, which might be offensive to a devout monotheist, just as much off-limits as a display of devotion to Christ or YHWH, which might be offensive to a devout polytheist. Rather than a robust competition, dialogue, and mutual respect, you get a mealy-mouthed indifferentism.

I won't belabor the point here. It should be obvious that despite More's sanctity I find Utopia repellent. I'm sorry about that, but I think that Machiavelli, who does not have his Prince venture into matters of my personal life, my religion, and my belief, is far preferable to More's idealized republic.

The New Atlantis

This is Sir Francis Bacon's attempt at an ideal society. I don't know the actuality of Bacon's religious life, but the essays do not impress one, or at least my recollection of those that I've read does not impress me, as being particularly religious or devout. Bacon, however, takes care to frame his society in Christian terms. The islanders are largely Christian, though they do have some Jews among them. Contrary to what a Dawkins or a Harris might claim today though, Bacon does not appear to envision science and religion as in conflict. In fact his position is closer to that of men such as Augustine, or other Fathers who saw the knowledge of science as illuminating and informing the science of God. So Bacon links his house of science with Solomon, who is the Biblical wise man par excellence, and who appears not merely as a sage, but also as the Preacher, Koheleth, in Ecclesiastes. Wisdom through science, and religion, are thus linked by the name of Solomon.

‘The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”
In this sentence we see Bacon's concept of what the aim of science is. Interestingly, despite Bacon's anti-Scholasticism, we see "Causes," and "motion" invoked here. Now Bacon may mean primarily, or exclusively, efficient causes, motion may have no further meaning than physical motion, but it is hard not to see Aristotle's Metaphysics lurking here. Baconian science, however, is more experimental than that of Aristotle, and further acquaintance with the House will show that.

Bacon either left The New Atlantis unfinished.

The Isle of Pines

This is by Henry Neville, a roundhead during the British civil war of the 1640s. It is pointed out in both the introduction, and in other places that pines is an anagram of penis. As you might expect, once you've digested that information, the book is of a decidedly sexual, though non-pornographic, by contemporary standards, nature. The story centers around a man and four women who are shipwrecked on an island. The man mates with the women, and founds 4 tribes. Rather than evolving into a more advanced society, the group devolves, becomes more licentious, and is ultimately rescued by Dutch merchants who impose order.

The book was written in the 1660s and published in 1668, well into the reign of Charles II, the Merry Monarch, who had no legitimate children, but managed to produce litters full of illegitimate dukes and duchesses. So it was published 20 years before the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 which placed a Dutch relative on the throne formerly occupied by the Stuart kings. A later publication date would incline one to think that the book was advocacy for the Orange cause, but Charles was too lively, and too "merry" in 1668 for that hypothesis to be valid. More likely it can be read as an implicit indictment of Charles', and the Stuart monarchy's, sexual licence. The Dutch, aside from a fondness for gin, being models of probity and good morals, stood in sharp contrast to English licentiousness under the Stuarts.

Now that reading, or view, may be wrong, but it does seem to explain the book in a more or less satisfactory way.

I'll be continuing with the lost correspondence referred to at the start of this post at a later date.

Praise of Folly

The Prince


The New Atlantis

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