Monday, March 28, 2016

Utopia at Five Hundred

DE OPTIMO REIPUBLICAE STATU DEQUE NOVA INSULA UTOPIA, libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, clarrissime divertissimique viri THOMAE MORI inclutae civitatis Londinensis civis et Vicecomitis

Which is to say, "ON THE BEST STATE OF A COMMONWEALTH AND ON THE NEW ISLAND OF UTOPIA, a truly golden handbook, no less beneficial than entertaining, by the most distinguished and elegant author THOMAS MORE citizen and undersheriff of the famous city of London."  Though we are usually content with, simply, Utopia.

To us Thomas More and Utopia are practically synonymous.  Surprisingly, the book is mentioned neither in More's first biography, that of his son-in-law William Roper, nor in the late Tudor, probably-partly-Shakespearean play, "The Booke of Sir Thomas More."

There is no trace of the original autograph.  We know that More entrusted the manuscript to his friend Erasmus in the latter part of 1516, and that the first printing was done in Louvain before the end of the year.  The engraving above comes from that first printing.

Utopia was required reading in the mandatory cultural heritage course at my undergraduate college.  Whether it is still read as a "canonical" text from the Renaissance I don't really know (or whether, for that matter, the Renaissance retains its central place in the liberal arts curriculum)..  Be that as it may, Utopia quite rightly partakes of the qualities we think of as distinctively "Renaissance"  first, as the renewal of a genuine classical genre, the ideal polity (think The Republic), but, second, as a strikingly original composition, a new departure.

Utopia primarily calls to mind the detailed account of Utopian society, but that description applies only to the second part.  Part one is a dialogue grounded in English and European realities, focused primarily on the question of whether a humanist should enter public service to give "good counsel" to his prince.  More precisely it's a dialogue within a dialogue, the first between More and one Raphael Hythlodaeus, a voyager of wide experience,  who, in the coure of his discussion, harks back to a conversation between himself, Cardinal Morton (in whose household More was educated), a common lawyer, a friar and the Cardinal's fool.  The character "More" in this dialogue remains largely uncommitted, as does the Cardinal.  Most outspoken are Hythlodaeus and the lawyer, who defends the status quo.

There is little talk of radical change (except to the extent that critical examination of current practices can be seen as radical).  Hythlodaeus decries the rapacity of kings who, lusting for new conquests, are quite unable to wisely govern their own possessions (I've quoted at some length from this portion in a much earlier blog post, "More Folly," of  March 14, 2008).  We can certainly applaud this stance while recognizing it to be a relatively conventional humanist call to kings to act justly and to avoid war.

More unusual is Hythlodaeus' response to the question of why theft remains in England when so many thieves are hanged for it.   His answer rests partly on simple reason--savage punishments won't deter if people have to steal to eat--but he also puts the question into the context of other interrelated ills.  A kingdom's commitment to war results in soldiers returning to society wounded, displaced and with no skills except those of a soldier:  violence and theft.  The wealth of the aristocracy, combined with their disdain for useful work, divides the country into idle courtiers and overworked peasants.  And the enclosure by the wealthy of customarily common pasturage, for their private husbandry of sheep, makes the position of the poor even more precarious:  "Oves...vestrae, quae tam mites tamque exiguo solent ali, nunc (ubi fertur) tam edaces atque indomitae esse coeperunt ut homines devorent ipsos:  agros, domos, oppida, vastent ac depopulentur.  ("Your sheep..., that commonly are so meek and eat so little; now. as I hear, they have become so greedy and fierce that they devour human beings themselves.  They devastate and depopulate fields, houses and towns.")

This talk of ills and remedies concludes with Hythlodaeus reaching what he considers the root of these social problems:  "Adeo mihi certe persuadeo res aequabili ac iusta aliqua ratione distribui aut feliciter agi cum rebum mortalium, nisi sublata prorsus proprietate, no posse."  (""Thus I am wholly convinced that unless private property is entirely abolished, there can be no fair or just distribution of goods, nor can the business of mortals be conducted happily.")

To the claim that such a society could not exist, Hythlodaeus asserts, to the contrary, that such a society does indeed exist, in Utopia, an island he visited after having separated from a New World expedition under Amerigo Vespucci.  And so we move from the dialogues of the first part to Hythlodaeus' description of the society of the Utopians in the second part.

That More presents Utopia through the admiring, but distinct, voice of Hythlodaeus has always given rise to caution against identifying Hythlodaeus' admiration with More's.  The Utopians are happy, moderately properous and peaceful.  Per Hythlodaeus' observation at the end of the first part they have forsaken the use of private property, all citizens working a six-hour day and  taking turns at the more laborious tasks like agriculture,   In many ways it looks like a society patterned on a well-run monastery.

Nevertheless, one difference between the way we read Utopia today and the way we read it when I was in college is that, at that time, not so very long ago, a large part of the world was under the sway of an ideology dedicated in large part to following More in eradicating private property, or at least private capital, and in creating republics of workers, for workers.  It's odd to think that Thomas More, who in the last twenty years has been most conspicuously the darling of neo-conservatives, was within living memory (at least in mine) rather suspect as a fellow traveller with Marx and Engels.

R.W. Chambers' biography of More, from the mid-1930's, catches something of the older wideness of appeal that came out of Utopia:

"That the love of Thomas More unites those who might seem to be separated by a considerable gulf is shown by the fact that the Karl-Marx-Engels Instittute of the Central Executive Committee of the Union of Soviet Republics should have been seeking for information about that great Communist Sir Thomas More from the Sisters of the Beaufort Street Convent...."

This has perhaps gone on long enough for now.  But I hope to return to this topic as our anniversary year progresses, and as our own would-be rulers furiously pursue these topics of war, poverty and the gulf between the haves and have-nots.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Simon Winder's Central Europe

In college, for reasons mostly forgotten, I decided to study German, taking the usual undergraduate four semesters of "beginning" and "intermediate.'  Shortly thereafter I decided to major in philosophy, and the two made a good fit--I was always more taken with Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger than with Descartes or Locke or John Stuart Mill.

So I've kept up my German, in a halting, imperfect way, and have slowly made my way through some of those philosophers in their native tongue, with the dividend of  novelists and poets and theologians.   In a more recent realization of the extent of my ignorance of garden variety German history (aside from the Nazi period) I've begun reading tomes like Robert Kann's History of the Habsburg Empire and Christopher Clark's Iron Kingdom:  A History of Prussia.  These are solid, competent chronological narratives, admittedly a little dull, but filling in a story I've too long ignored.

A third book I started last year is Nancy Mitford's Frederick the Great. Those of you acquainted with this Mitford sister might be more familiar with her romantic comedies--The Pursuit of Love or Love in a Cold Climate.  Her histories--and I'm thinking especially of The Sun King and Madame de Pompadour--show what a novelist's ear for character and incident can do for the non-academic historian.  And if Frederick the Great lacks much of the sparkle of Mitford's French histories, that can probably be attributed to the ploddingly masculine character of Frederick's court.

But the real impetus for this post was my recent completion of Simon Winder's Germania and Danubia.  Unlike the more ponderous tomes mentioned above, I ran through Winder's two volumes in less than two months, a matter of both recommendation and caution.  They are "personal histories" of Central Europe, the first focusing on the lands within the current Federal Republic of Germany, the second on the intersecting area of lands ruled in various capacities by the Austrian Habsburg dynasty.

Winder is irreverent in matters religious, unmoved by appeals to the venerable past, and contemptuous of the various nationalisms that have guided our collective enthusiasms of the last couple of centuries.  A long-lapsed Catholic, he retains a kind of grudging respect for Catholic grandeur and a scathing eye for Catholic kitsch (there is one unforgettable digression about vermin-infested macrame banners in a Chicago parish in the seventies).  His narrative rambles more or less chronologically, and in all his travels he retains the firm conviction that what was schlock in the middle ages, or in any time thereafter, remains schlock today--not that that should keep us from enjoying it  The reader is never more primed than when our narrator announces some godawful monument to a war or massacre or cartoon-cutout princeling:

This historicist monster [the Vökerschlachtdenkmal] was built to mark the centenary of the 1813 Battle of Leipzig….Leipzig is a musical and mercantile city and it is strange that only a tram-ride from Schumann’s rather funny-smelling favorite restaurant an object of such immense, humourless, Aztec gloom should be languishing….It is the work of Bruno Schmitz, the world’s worst architect, who unleashed his wretched talents on ruining several previously charming sites (the Kyffhäuser mountain, the point where the Rhine and the Mosel join) and smothering them in industrialized pseudo-mythology.  The contrast between the pretty landscaping of the park and the monstrous memorial of rough, blackened granite that lurks in it is really disturbing.  Something that should be found in the heart of a jungle, lying half strewn about and choked with jungle creepers, bats, snakes and poisonous flowers, has been set down in what looks like a quiet bit of Central Park….Once inside you are threatened by immense stone figures—the worst being the medieval madness of the eighteen-foot-high “Guards of the Dead” in full armour, awaiting activation in some pathetic horror film….The united German authorities have, with their usual bludgeoning seriousness, decided that they have a duty to later generations (who might just possibly have so degraded an aesthetic sense as to not find the memorial hideous) to restore it at a cost of millions of euros.
I found myself a little surprised at my sympathy with Winder's attitudes, being myself rather habitually reverent and respectful of tradition.  It helps that he is very funny.  But where we click, I think, is in his horror of nationalism.  Much of this history is of (ethinic) German unification and (ethnic) German domination of the various Magyars, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Ruthenians, Italians, Romanians, Slovaks, Czechs, and others.  Winder loves the jigsaw-puzzle madness of the ragtag kings, dukes, margraves, electors, prince-archbishops and free imperial cities constituting the Holy Roman Empire.  He therefore mourns the triumphant progress of German unity under Prussia.

Nevertheless, he makes two important caveats about Prussian aggression.  First, he notes that for all of Prussia's vaunted miltarism, its territorial gains during the nineteenth century rather paled compared to the U.S.'s expansion to the Pacific, or Great Britain's acquisition of a world-wide empire, or Russia's march across Siberia and Central Asia.  Second, he reminds us that, for all the marching around on parade, in snappy uniforms, Prussia's wars were, comparatively, few and far between, and usually decided by a single engagement.  Winder continually makes an important point about German history, that reading it in the light of the two world wars of the twentieth century invariably distorts our judgment.

So Winder's narrative in Germania returns again and again to this theme of the Germans wanting an ethnically and linguistically homogenous nation-state as the English had in England, the French in France, the Spanish in Spain, and as the Italians were contemporaneously building in Italy.

 By way of contrast, Danubia moves our focus eastward, from ethnically-and- linguistically-German Austria, the historic center of Habsburg authority, out into the ethnically and linguistically diverse lands of what Winder insists is Central Europe (Eastern Europe, he always reminds us, is the Russian Empire and the western part of the Ottoman Empire).  Here a single German family supplies a Holy Roman Emperor before 1806 and an Austrian Emperor thereafter.  That same family, through its succession to (or seizure of) the crowns of Bohemia and Hungary, comes to rule all of this miscellaneous Europe bounded by Prussia, Russia, Ottoman Turks, and, when not dismantled, Poland.

Like Joseph Roth, Winder loves the idea of the multi-ethnic Empire, and appreciates the irony of how national self-determination for, say, Hungary resulted in  Magyar domination of minority ethnic Romanians.  There are ethnic areas, and memories of glorious ethnic kingdoms from the middle ages, but no remaining clear ethnic boundaries, so that the concept of ethnic states--the germ of our modern Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Italy, Croatia, Serbia (not to mention modern Germany and Austria)--sets the stage for disaster.  Here Winder does engage in a great deal of anticipatory history, not in the sense of a militant Prussia showing the Germans to be natural Nazis, but in the inevitable disaster of translating the western European ideal of the nation-state to central Europe, whose one-time rationale for unity, as the great bulwark against the inroads of Islamic civilization, dissolved with the decline of the Ottomans.

Danubia remains comedy, but black comedy, the comedy of the absurd, and by no means the comedy of "drama with a happy ending."  But this is bearable because Winder remains sympathetic, not cynical, sorrowful, not despairing.  His Habsburg rulers are almost all pathetic, but their rather arbitrary domination is arguably justified because its destruction would, and did, unleash something worse.