By Kumar David –
Does scholarship have practical benefits? The answer is a resounding Yes. It is self-evident in science; you cannot know, decades ahead, what uses an innovation may have. When Faraday moved a wire across a magnet and beheld a blip on his meter, could anyone have foreseen that all the world’s electricity supply was born on that day? When Darwin fretted over finches’ beaks, who knew the whole planet, ecologically, was so tightly knit? It is also true in the social sciences; if economists are right, we can eat their achievements! It is not so apparent in history, the classics and literature though the pleasure of music, reading, or a poem, makes life worthwhile even if only after man steps out, literally, from the cave, or metaphorically from the cage of poverty and hunger.
In his time, Thomas More (TM) was not among the most influential personages at Henry VIII court; that badge goes to the all-powerful Lord Chancellor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey; the Lord Privy Seal and Chancellor of the Exchequer Thomas Cromwell; and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer. TM, one of the four big-Toms at court, is not even included as a character in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Politically, TM’s fame rests on his rebuttal of the Act of Succession (1534) which made Henry head of the Church in England and his refusal to endorse the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. For this insubordination Thomas More lost his onion on Tower Hill in 1535.
TM was popularly portrayed as a refined man of high erudition by Paul Schofield in Man for all Seasons, but the film glosses over his persecution and alleged torture of protest reformists during his tenure as Lord Chancellor (1529-1532). Wikipedia incriminates him in the execution of William Tyndale, strangled and burnt at the stake in 1536, but I can’t work out the logistics since TM quit the Chancellorship in 1532 and was executed in 1535. His noble image is controversial to some scholars and of course Protestants, while unsurprisingly he was beatified in 1886 and canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1935. I have prefaced this review with these two paragraphs because the biography in the book is an encomium that omits this side. For example Laksiri makes the assertion “most progressive was religious tolerance and plurality in More’s Utopia”, which is true, but it will also raise the eyebrows of those who know about the Chancellor’s actions fifteen years later.
Ceylon as Utopia
Professor Laksiri Fernando’s (LF) book is in three sections; a Preface and short Introduction from pages 8 to 21, followed by Part I of one hundred pages where he takes up two matters. Early ideas of socialism and the place of TM’s Utopia in socialist thought, and second he makes the case that Ceylon was very likely the prototype in his mind’s eye when he wrote Utopia in 1516. Part II, about 120 pages long is a reproduction of Utopia itself; “edited mainly by separating it into more chapters, paragraphs and sentences for readability with subheadings” (LF). This review will deal with LF’s contributions (that is the Introduction and Part I) and will make no attempt at discussing More’s Utopia (Part II), a work whose fame is universal.
I was momentarily worried about the editing; to what extent did LF tweak the text to project his personal socialism back into the text? But he is a respected scholar who will not mess with the text and only made the English more readable (I have made no attempt at textual comparison), divided it into manageable size chapters with headings in current idiom.
LF makes what I am prepared to concede is a credible effort at convincing the reader that the island of Ceylon was the prototype in TM’s mind. The arguments are based on size and description of the Island of Utopia, the customs and manners of its people, and society and government. LF suggests that most likely it was the rein of Parakramabahu VI (1415-1467) which “was a period when peace and prosperity prevailed in Ceylon and the country was well known for literature, scholarship and art”. The social and family system in Utopia incorporated Asian values; an extended family structure and respect for elders and parents. More had heard accounts of Ceylon that may have inspired him.
LF also mentions religious customs in Utopia (temples, the laity wearing white on special days and lying down prostate before colourfully attired priests), and comments that the religious freedoms of Utopia are reminiscent of tolerance in ancient and medieval Ceylon under the influence of Buddhism and Asokan edicts. Regarding governance, the system of village Chieftains beholden to the monarch is quoted to strengthen the case for early Ceylon. I much enjoyed reading this advocacy without being completely carried away by it.
In Western literature Utopia is always depicted as a fictional society somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. In the original text, Hathloday the fictional traveller whose experiences TM recounts, visited the Philippines, Ceylon and Calicut in Kerala, so I do not understand why Western studies consistently ignore these places and focus on an Atlantic Utopia which in any case does not match the society and ethos that Utopia describes. Most likely the Island of Utopia is an idyllic image into which he filtered elements of all three places and blended it with his own notions of an ideal society.
What I think is the more valuable part of LF’s discourse is not whether it be Ceylon or not, but his strongly argued case that Utopia celebrates communism/socialism; that it is humanist; and that it contains prescriptions for good government a la Plato. I am sold on the latter two points but I am not convinced that TM was writing an anti-capitalist tract. His utopian socialism is primitive communism, not what Marx was serenading. To start with there was no capitalism in 1516; not even mercantilism was fully up and running. Mercantilism is about trade in goods and profits in foreign trade, making a nation strong through accumulating monetary reserves. England was the world’s first mercantilist power in the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), well after 1516.
Capitalism came even later; its midwife the Industrial Revolution spawned manufacture. But the Industrial Revolution is conventionally dated to have started in 1760-1780 and finished its job by 1820-1840. It was in this period that the owner of capital displaced the merchant as the captain of the capitalist mode of production. I found it anachronistic that LF placed a chapter heading ‘Critique of Capitalism’ over one section of the Utopia text. This section is a critique of the idle feudal rich not capitalist accumulation and investment. It is a critique in line with Adam Smith and David Ricardo.
The other innovative chapter heading that LF has introduced is ‘Against Private Property’. In this case it fits the text better; nevertheless it is an argument for primitive communism rather than socialism. Hathloday says: “I am persuaded, that till property is taken away there can be no equitable or just distribution of things, nor can the world be happily governed: for as long as that is maintained, the greatest and the far best part of mankind will be still oppressed with a load of cares and anxieties.”
Laksiri says: “(T)he primary objective of socialism is . . to eradicate poverty and to establish social equality between men and women and all strata of society. .” but he is Marxist enough to know that this is loose talk. In the Marxist canon socialism is a leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom, mediated by society’s productive and intellectual advancement. I guess LF thought it necessary, at this point, to speak down a bit for the benefit of a wider audience.
This brings me to my penultimate point, what is the nature of Thomas More’s communism? More would have known the Bible backwards and I daresay Laksiri is pretty familiar with the Acts of the Apostles. Here are the two famous passages.
44 And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.
32 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.
33 And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.
34 Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
35 And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.
The influence of this on Utopia is incontestable; TM was less a prophet of future socialism than a mystic from the past, but a very progressive. Possibly even the inspiration from which Marx chiselled out his celebrated epigram about ability and needs in the Critique of the Gotha Programme.
Humanism and governance
What did come through most convincingly was not what LF was making an effort to convince us about (socialism), but something else in his narrative. I was persuaded that Thomas More was a forerunner of humanism, education, transparency, tolerance and wisdom in government; something which in the modern argot we will call democracy.
Let me conclude by saying that Laksiri has turned out a scholarly work and an enjoyable read from which I learnt a lot. It would be edifying if he could stand this project on its head and next do a comparative study of Utopia and Machiavelli’s Prince of 1532; near contemporaneous. That is about practical politics, not moral scruples, and it would make a sharp contrast. Before signing off I must grumble that reviewing an electronic file is awful; no marginal notes, no pages to flip up and down, no pencil and eraser fun; sigh!