Wednesday, March 12, 2008


I have had a lot of time lately with Les Miserables, and have had occasion to think about it in conjunction with Utopia--very different books, very different spiritual and emotional atmospheres, but both concerned very directly with the issue of poverty.

St. Thomas' readers know of the poverty of their countrymen; he doesn't bother to paint a world as Hugo does. More's approach is prescriptive, but very different in Utopia's two parts. In part one he is the reformer, highlighting the inability of savagely disproportionate punishments to deter the theft that seems ubiquitous. He points to a contemporary source of poverty, the enclosure of commons for sheep-herding and wool production, and the consequent impoverishment of those ejected from their livelihoods. And he laments the bad counsel given to princes who waste needed resources for foreign adventures, noting that few can govern well the kingdoms they already possess. In the second part, of course, More more famously portrays the more radical solution, in the Utopian scheme for equality of material possessions.

I'm about half way through Les Miserables. Hugo has taken off into one of his famous digressions at the beginning of Part Four, noting the problem that the creation of great wealth doesn't solve anything if it results only in great disparties of wealth and poverty. He gives contemporary England and the older Venetian Republic as examples of regimes able to prosper, but at the expense of the misery of their poorest citizens. And he reflects on the world's reaction to their inevitable fall, in the sentence that struck me here:

"Et le monde vous laissera mourir et tomber, parce que le monde laisse tomber et mourir tout ce qui n'est que l'egoisme, tout ce que ne represente pas pour le genre humain une vertu ou une idee."

These past three weeks I have mostly been resident in a children's hospital, a terrible place because of the problems being addressed, but a wonderful place because those problems are being addressed, and, because done under the auspices of a large charity, this healing is done gratis for all of us with children in need. I cannot help but think that this is a glimpse of how things can be and ought to be, but I am also brought short by the reality that this place is exceptional, and it ought not to be.

No comments: