Sunday, October 7, 2012

Utopia Revisited

The Tower of London is a wretched place to occupy in any season, but at least in summer, the thick, stone, walls provide a modicum of relief from the heat and humidity. It is here I will stay until five days hence, when my sentence will be carried out. While I am grateful to the King for his merciful commutation from the barbarous sentence of being hung, drawn and quartered to the less elaborate and time-consuming, and far less agonizing process of decapitation, that sense of gratitude does not translate to lighter spirits.

So it was with great relief that I recognized a familiar voice amongst the clanking and rattling of the guards’ armor as they escorted an old acquaintance Raphael to my dank and dismal cell. “My old friend, Raphael! Your presence does this unfortunate subject of the King of England a great deal of good on this early July day! And pray, tell me how things are in Antwerp?”

Raphael, laboring to catch his breath after the long and steep ascent to my cell stroked his white beard, adjusted his robes, and shrugged with an audible grunt. “Mister More, Antwerp is Antwerp. Nothing much has changed there.” Once the guard had escorted Raphael in to my cell and locked the door behind him, we sat at the small wooden table in the middle of the room. A few rats scurried across the floor as they smelled the package Raphael pulled from his robes. “I did manage to acquire some excellent cheese before I left for England, and I bought some fairly fresh bread from a merchant outside the Tower gate. Please, help yourself.”

As I began to break apart the crusty bread, he withdrew a flask from his breast pocket and handed it to me. I thanked him and at once cleared my throat with a sip from the flask, I inquired, “So my friend, I am grateful for your presence and the chance at some worthy distraction from the reality at hand. What news have you of that strange, far-off land of Utopia? Have you had an opportunity to visit since our last meeting?”

Raphael took a swallow from the flask and smiled as I dropped a few small crumbs of cheese for my furry cellmates to enjoy. They squeaked with gratitude and scurried off to their nest under my cot. “Yes, my friend, I have had an opportunity to return to the shores of Utopia, and I have interesting news. I will be happy to impart to you what I have observed.”

I settled back in my chair and continued to dine on the bread and cheese as he began, “You will remember from our last conversation how impressed I was with the apparent efficiencies and equities that characterized every aspect of Utopian society. From the simplicity of its government to the competence with which its populous functions, it seemed to me to be the closest man has come to perfection in an effort to organize mankind into a socially just and egalitarian society. You can imagine my dismay upon my return to find things so far from the model of order and civility I had related to you when first we met.”

I leaned forward on my rickety chair and with an elbow on the rough table encouraged him to proceed.

“Well when I arrived on the shores of Utopia, rather than being greeted warmly by the dock tenders and port officials, I was instead accosted by armed guards who shoved me along with the other passengers on our vessel toward a large building with roped pathways much as you would expect to find in a slaughter house. They led to a row of benches where uniformed men and women searched each passenger’s belongings and asked a series of questions. They wished to know of my place of origin, and responded with much distrust and hostility having not heard of either Antwerp or London. They only relaxed a bit and showed me some civility once I spoke to them in Greek, which, you may remember is a language and culture with which, thanks to my previous visit, they have some familiarity (More 21).

“Others of my fellow travelers were not so fortunate. It seems as though those from the lands to the south of Utopia are no longer welcome. The guards treated them with the most alarming disrespect and promptly corralled them into holding pens until arrangements could be made to send them back from whence they came.

“The official who was processing my entry sneered as he noticed my puzzlement of their treatment. ‘Onitals!’ He snapped. ‘They find their way here thinking they can partake in our bounty, but why should we share with the likes of them? They do nothing to contribute.’

“He exhibited his disdain by slamming the Utopian seal on the permit, which authorized travel within the confines of the island for one month. He pushed it with great force toward my person and growled, ‘A score and ten days! Not a moment longer!’ I smiled meekly and carried my belongings with me to the carriage quay.”

By this point, I had forgotten about the bread and cheese before me. I sat back in disbelief and asked, “how strange! To what do you attribute this hostility?”

Raphael nodded and proceeded, “Apparently, a mere ten or so years ago, Utopia was attacked by a distant country.”

“The Onitals!” I surmised aloud.

“Oddly enough, no,” he responded. “It was a country to the east— one to which Utopia had sent colonists hundreds of years hence (More 8). The Ademus  addressed the people by way of the senate not a fortnight after the event and proclaimed the attack was for jealous reasons, but some question that logic and attribute in its stead the likelihood that the Utopians who settled on their shores did take sore advantage of the native peoples and their resources.”

“It is then understandable that the people of Utopia would have sharpen sword and doubled the watch, so soon after their sovereignty was threatened, is it not?” The largest of the rats nudged my bare foot with a cold nose and I threw him another handful of crumbs.

“Aye, understandable. But this is but one contrasting observation from my last visit.” Satisfied I had eaten my fill, Raphael broke off a corner of cheese and continued between bites. “The people of Utopia have for some reason been cleaved into two opposing points of view with respect to the basic tenets to which they have governed themselves for these many years.

“On the one hand, virtually half remain steadfast to the notion that all occupations are worthy and that each contributes according to his ability and receives according to his needs (Marx 17), while on the other hand, many have abandoned that sense of community and have instead adopted an ethos of individualism and competition. They feel that the labor of their own bodies, when mixed with the resources they acquire from the land thus makes the resulting produce their “property” (Locke Sect. 26). The diametrically opposed positions have lead to a great stalemate within the halls of the senate.”

Raphael paused to take a swallow from his flask and tossed a scrap of cheese to one of my lingering rat friends. “The whole concept of the commonwealth seems to have fallen away for this contingent, who seem to feel that their success is due not to the dedication and cooperation of community, but instead solely to their own ambitions. And when the magistrate calls for the town to provide labor for the harvest (More 2), this group complains that the government has no authority to do so, even though that authority is clearly indicated on the pages of their social contract.

“And the town criers, those individuals who stand in public squares imparting the events of the commonwealth to the people do it in such a way that is biased toward those who provide for their livelihoods. The result is that the people receive a slanted view of reality.”

Having totally forgotten by this point of my impending execution, my only concern now for the wellbeing of Utopia, I asked, “but what of the armed forces? Cannot the Ademus call them into the defense of the Contract?”

Raphael just shook his head and sighed. “The syphogrants and tranibor are almost equally divided amongst these two opposing positions and have over time crafted the rules of engagement to make toothless virtually every recourse. Such a vast majority is necessary in the senate to advance any particular agenda that most times it simply wallows in self-absorption.”

“But surely the people won’t stand idly by while this abuse of order persists!” I was now incensed and the rats scurried under the cot as I planted my fist firmly on the table top. I could hear the guard beyond the door shift uncomfortably. I lowered my voice. “Tell me, good sir, is there nothing that will free these people from this state of impasse?”

Raphael smiled slightly and leaned forward. “There is one thing that might break free this proverbial log jam.” He took a device out of his pocket. It glowed strangely in the dim light of the tower. He pressed a few buttons and slid it across the table. There on the small, phosphorous glass page were messages from Utopians. Not from the ruling class, but from the very people for whom this paralysis most injured. The messages spoke of organizing, of occupying, and of working within the Utopian system to bring about change at the people’s level. Their words seemed to glow with a hopefulness as intensely as the little device’s glass page. I was mesmerized.

“They call it Utopanet,” he said as he carefully slipped the device back in the folds of his robes, “and the authorities have thus far been unable to extinguish its flame. It is providing Utopians with an uncensored source of information with which they may chose their own destiny. It is unclear to me which side will prevail, but it is my hope that the intelligent rather than the ideological on both sides will join together and relegate the extremists back to the pages of their manifestos where they belong.”

I scratched my head, where the lice had taken up residence for the next five days and after a moment commented, “It did occur to me strange upon your first account that the land of Utopia seemed so orderly and at peace, yet brandished such fortification and armament. One also wonders why Utopus insisted on severing the isthmus from the mainland and thus isolating it so. Perhaps there were deeper layers to this garden of Eden than was readily apparent upon your first visit.”

I heard the key as it rattled in the lock on my door and the guard entered. “It is time for your departure, sir.”

Raphael stood slowly and the sound of crackling joints echoed against the stone walls of my cell. “My friend,” he said as he extended his hand, “I wish we met under less unfortunate circumstances. I understand that your predicament might have been easily avoided if you had expressed a few specific sentiments at the correct point in time.” I appreciate your convictions, but it will be difficult for you to witness the perfection that may some day be Utopia from the great beyond.”

“Perhaps,” I said. “Then again, perhaps this is the only way any of us ever will.”

Works Cited

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. London: Millar, 1688. 16. Print.

Marx, Karl. "Critique of the Gotha programme". Internet Archive: Digital Library of Free Books,    Movies, Music & Wayback Machine. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2012.

More, Thomas. "Utopia”. Internet Archive: Digital Library of Free Books, Movies, Music & Wayback Machine. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2012.