Build the Road as We Travel

Thomas More's Utopia at 500
Erik Reece

Utopia Drive by Erik Reece

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at,” wrote Oscar Wilde in 1891. Yet for nearly two thousand years after Plato’s Republic, most Western thinkers did ignore Wilde’s map. Christianity, as interpreted by the Apostle Paul, had hung the Kingdom of God in the heavens, so there seemed little reason to look for it here in the fallen world.

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It wasn’t until the coincidental decline of the Middle Ages and the invention of the magnetic compass in fourteenth-century Europe that adventurous thinkers again began plotting a paradise in this world, somewhere out across the Atlantic. The most significant of those mental travelers was the Lord High Chancellor of England, Thomas More, whose novel Utopia celebrates its 500th anniversary this year.

The narrator of Utopia is a seafaring wanderer named Raphael Hythloday, and his critique of medieval Europe sounds very much like Bernie Sanders’s assessment of the United States in 2016. All social systems, charges Raphael, are “conspiracies of the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organizing society.” Pride and vanity have made men greedy and created an unnatural condition of vast inequality. For the proud, prosperity isn’t measured by “what you’ve got yourself, but what others haven’t got.” Thus the rich usurp real wealth and natural resources, driving the poor to starvation and theft. “You create thieves,” Raphael says incredulously to his skeptical interlocutors, “then punish them for stealing!” He certainly would have something to say about this country’s epidemic of incarceration. As for the financial system (then and now), Raphael observes, “People like aristocrats, goldsmiths, or money-lenders, who either do no work at all, or do work that’s really not essential, are rewarded for their laziness or their unnecessary activities by a splendid life of luxury.”

The inhabitants of Utopia, where Raphael sojourned for five years, solved all of these problems by simply eliminating money and ensuring an equal distribution of goods.

However, if Utopia still stands as a useful critique of modern capitalism, many of its actual reforms look like a parody of, or a prequel to, Soviet-style communism. Utopia’s fifty-four towns all look exactly the same, the houses look the same, and the Utopians all wear the same drab clothing. There is no private property and, as Raphael reports, “everything’s under state control.” Mayors, elected by the people, pretty much run the show.

The culture is thoroughly patriarchal, so much so that on feast days, wives kneel before their husbands and ask forgiveness for whatever perceived sins they might have committed. Anyone who indulges in premarital sex is severely punished because, reason the Utopians, very few people would want to get married if they knew how much more fun it is to have multiple sexual partners (prospective brides and grooms are, however, allowed to see their partner naked before deciding on marriage because you wouldn’t buy a horse before removing the harness and saddle for a full examination). Those caught in adultery are often made slaves who then perform all the unpleasant work of the country (Utopia is a very Catholic book, and we should remember that More was beheaded in 1535 for, among other things, objecting to Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon).

But those who haven’t fallen into iniquity enjoy an admirable kind of happiness that seems to draw from the classic philosophies of the Stoics and the Epicureans. Happiness is, as Raphael says, “the summum bonum towards which we’re naturally impelled by virtue—which in their definition means following one’s natural impulses, as God meant us to do.” Like Epicureans, the Utopians modestly enjoy sex, food, exercise, music. Like the Stoics, they believe in a Supreme Being, “quite beyond the grasp of the human mind,” who is identical with nature. Thus “they can please God merely by studying the natural world, and praising Him for it.”

When, during his travels, Raphael told the Utopians about Jesus, they immediately converted to Christianity since “Christ prescribed of His own disciples a communist way of life.” That, of course, is a paraphrase of Acts 2:44–45 (“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need”), a passage I never heard referenced in any of the Christian churches I attended growing up.

There’s more we could learn from the Utopians when it comes to the problems of today’s monotheisms, though we must remember that Raphael’s last name translates as “dispenser of nonsense,” a persona that let More both pitch his ideas in a comic register and protect himself from appearing too closely aligned with his novel’s heresies. The priests of Utopia are allowed to marry, and women are allowed to be priests. The Utopians revere religious tolerance above all else, and they devised a perversely powerful deterrent to fundamentalism: anyone who becomes too zealous in proselytizing for Christianity, or any other religious creed, is exiled. This is in keeping with the sentiments of their founder, Utopos, who “considered it possible that God made different people believe different things, because He wanted to be worshipped in many different ways.” Could there be a more eloquent (if less punitive) explanation for the diversity of the world’s religions?

Last summer, imagining myself a kind of modern Raphael, I traveled to a modern-day Utopia—a community in Louisa County, Virginia, called Twin Oaks. Like Utopia, Twin Oaks exists as a relatively unknown island of equality, religious freedom, and homogeneous architecture. Made up of about one hundred men and women and a handful of children, the community, started in 1967, operates on an absolutely egalitarian philosophy. They share everything: land, labor, housing, income, and the bounty of their beautiful farm. Members work a forty-hour week at Twin Oaks, but they are all free to choose whatever work they desire and to do that work whenever they see fit. Unlike many such experiments in cooperative living, Twin Oaks has done very well for itself by selling hammocks and tofu online. That wealth has built its modest residence halls and paid for everyone’s health insurance.

But internally, the members of Twin Oaks have, like the Utopians, essentially abolished money and all the ills that accompany it. Certainly they would agree with Raphael when he says, “With the simultaneous abolition of money and the passion for money, how many other social problems have been solved, how many crimes eradicated. For obviously the end of money means the end of all those types of criminal behavior which daily punishments are powerless to check: fraud, theft, burglary, brawls, riots, disputes, rebellion, murder, treason, and black magic.” None of that goes on at Twin Oaks.

A longtime resident, a woman named Valerie, told me this: “The most important thing we’re trying to do here, is create a life where we can live in accordance with our values. That’s our raison d’être.”

How many of us can say that? How many of us can claim a daily life that reflects such integrity, fairness, and nonviolence—to the natural world and to the people who grow our food, sew our clothes, make our iPhones?

I can’t, and for that reason Twin Oaks both shamed and inspired me. I wanted to bring back some of that radical idealism into my own life and my own community.

But I can hear a chorus of objections: such thinking is naïve, unrealistic, utopian. To that I say, in a country with an economy based on such unsustainable consumption and cruelty, we can’t afford not to engage in some utopian thinking. The paradigms that got us through the last hundred years will not get us through the next century.

It’s time to imagine a future where pleasure, purpose, and cooperation replace accumulation, predation, and waste. It doesn’t matter if we don’t quite know what that future will look like. It’s enough to know that we’ve put utopia back on the map. That’s a start. Then we can, as the poet Antonio Machado said, build the road as we travel.

Utopia Drive

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Erik Reece is the author of Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea; Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness; Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia; and An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God. He has also written for Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, and Orion Magazine. He is currently the writer in residence at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where he teaches environmental journalism, writing, and literature.

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  • Ellen Rebecca Frank

    In my Bible it says, “The kingdom of God is within.”