Passage adapted from “Utopia” by Thomas More (1516) in Ideal Commonwealths: Comprising More's Utopia, Bacon's New Atlantis, Campanella's City of the Sun, and Harrington's Oceans (1901)
Thus have I described to you, as particularly as I could, the constitution of that commonwealth, which I do not only think the best in the world, but indeed the only commonwealth that truly deserves that name. In all other places it is visible that, while people talk of a commonwealth, every man only seeks his own wealth; but there, where no man has any property, all men zealously pursue the good of the public, and, indeed, it is no wonder to see men act so differently, for in other commonwealths every man knows that unless he provides for himself, how flourishing soever the commonwealth may be, he must die of hunger, so that he sees the necessity of preferring his own concerns to the public; but in Utopia, where every man has a right to everything, they all know that if care is taken to keep the public stores full no private man can want anything, for among them there is no unequal distribution, so that no man is poor, none in necessity, and though no man has anything, yet they are all rich; for what can make a man so rich as to lead a serene and cheerful life, free from anxieties, neither apprehending want himself, nor vexed with the endless complaints of his wife? He is not afraid of the misery of his children, nor is he contriving how to raise a portion for his daughters, but is secure in this, that both he and his wife, his children and grandchildren, to as many generations as he can fancy, will all live both plentifully and happily, since, among them, there is no less care taken of those who were once engaged in labor, but grow afterwards unable to follow it, than there is, elsewhere, of these that continue still employed. I would gladly hear any man compare the justice that is among them with that of all other nations;among whom may I perish if I see anything that looks either like justice or equity; for what justice is there in this: that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, who either does nothing at all, or, at best, is employed in things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendor upon what is so ill acquired, and a mean man, a carter, a smith, or a plowman, who works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labors so necessary, that no commonwealth could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs? For as the beasts do not work so constantly, so they feed almost as well, and with more pleasure, and have no anxiety about what is to come, whilst these men are depressed by a barren and fruitless employment, and tormented with the apprehensions of want in their old age; since that which they get by their daily labour does but maintain them at present, and is consumed as fast as it comes in, there is no overplus left to lay up for old age.
What does the narrator mean when, in the underlined quotation, he says that Utopia is “indeed the only commonwealth that truly deserves that name”?
Utopia is the only country which can be properly called independent.
Utopia is the only society in which wealth is less important than how one gets along with other people.
Utopia is the only city which is completely ruled by trade.
Utopia is the only country in which riches are completely shared.
Utopia is the only country that is accessible only to those who can pay for entrance.
Utopia is the only country in which riches are completely shared.
The quotation at hand appears in the context of the passage's first sentence: "Thus have I described to you, as particularly as I could, the constitution of that commonwealth, which I do not only think the best in the world, but indeed the only commonwealth that truly deserves that name." While we can't get much from simply reading this sentence, the next sentence sheds some more light on the narrator's meaning: "In all other places it is visible that, while people talk of a commonwealth, every man only seeks his own wealth; but there, where no man has any property, all men zealously pursue the good of the public." The idea that people in other countries live in "commonwealths," which suggest that in those places "wealth" should be "common," or shared, is contrasted with the reality that in those countries "every man only seeks his own wealth," the opposite of what the name "commonwealth" would lead us to expect. Returning to the quotation, then, the narrator is saying that Utopia is the only "commonwealth" (country) that deserves to be called that because there the "wealth" is actually "common," meaning shared or public.
Before it does another generation’s worth of damage to the American psyche, let’s put an end to the foul reign of “Self-Reliance” and let the scholars pick over the meaning of its carcass. One question first, though: Is there anything worth salvaging among the spiritualist ramblings, obscure metaphysics and aphorisms so pandering that Joel Osteen might think twice about delivering them? Is there an essential part of Emerson’s signature essay that we’ve somehow lost sight of?
“There is a time in every man’s education,” Emerson writes, presuming, with his usual élan, to both personify his young country and issue a decree for its revival, “when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on the plot of ground which is given him to till.”
As the story in our high-school anthology went, the citizenry that the Bard of Concord met on his strolls through the town green in the 1830s were still cowed by the sermons of their Puritan forefathers — we had read Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to get a taste — prone to awe when it came to the literature of distant foreign empires and too complacent on the biggest moral issues of the day: the institution of slavery and the genocide of the Indians. (At least Emerson saw well enough with his transparent eye to criticize both.) The country had every bit of God-given energy and talent and latent conviction that it needed to produce genius, he believed, but too much kowtowing to society and the approval of elders had tamed his fellows of their natural gifts (the “aboriginal Self,” he called it) and sapped them of their courage.
“[M]ost men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief,” a disenchanted Emerson observed, “and attached themselves to . . . communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, but false in all particulars.” Society operates like a corporation that requires its shareholders to sacrifice their rights for the comfort of all, Emerson believed. Instead of “realities and creators,” it gives men “names and customs.”
So what is his cure for the country’s ailing soul, his recipe for our deliverance from civilization and its discontents? This is the aim of “Self-Reliance,” which Emerson culled from a series of lectures he delivered at the Masonic Temple of Boston — his “Divinity School Address” at Harvard in 1838, denounced by one listener as “an incoherent rhapsody,” had already caused an outcry — and published in his collection “Essays: First Series in 1841.” Cornel West has praised Emerson for his “dynamic perspective” and for his “prescription for courageous self-reliance by means of nonconformity and inconsistency.” Harold Bloom noted, in an article for The Times, that by “‘self-reliance’ Emerson meant the recognition of the God within us, rather than the worship of the Christian godhead.” This is the essay’s greatest virtue for its original audience: it ordained them with an authority to speak what had been reserved for only the powerful, and bowed to no greater human laws, social customs or dictates from the pulpit. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Or: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.” Some of the lines are so ingrained in us that we know them by heart. They feel like natural law.
There is a downside to ordaining the self with divine authority, though. We humans are fickle creatures, and natures — however sacred — can mislead us. That didn’t bother Emerson. “Speak what you think now in hard words,” Emerson exhorted, “and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.” (Memo to Mitt Romney: no more apologies for being “as consistent as human beings can be.” You’re Emersonian!)
The larger problem with the essay, and its more lasting legacy as a cornerstone of the American identity, has been Emerson’s tacit endorsement of a radically self-centered worldview. It’s a lot like the Ptolemaic model of the planets that preceded Copernicus; the sun, the moon and the stars revolve around our portable reclining chairs, and whatever contradicts our right to harbor misconceptions — whether it be Birtherism, climate-science denial or the conviction that Trader Joe’s sells good food — is the prattle of the unenlightened majority and can be dismissed out of hand.
“A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition,” Emerson advises, “as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.” If this isn’t the official motto of the 112th Congress of the United States, well, it should be. The gridlock, grandstanding, rule manipulating and inability to compromise aren’t symptoms of national decline. We’re simply coming into our own as Emerson’s republic.
Just recently I was watching the original “Think Different” spot that reversed Apple Computer’s fortunes when it was first shown in 1997 and marked the first real triumph for Steve Jobs after returning from the wilderness to the company he helped to found. The echoes of Emerson in the ad are striking, especially in the famous voice-over narration by Richard Dreyfuss, reading a poem now known by historians and Apple’s legion of fans as “Here’s to the Crazy Ones.” The message was already familiar when it first met our ears.
In calling out to all the misfits and the rebels and the troublemakers, the “round pegs in square holes” who “see things differently” and have trouble with the rules, the ad evokes the ideal first created by Emerson of a rough-hewed outsider who changes the world through a combination of courage, tenacity, resourcefulness and that God-given wild card, genius. While Dreyfuss narrates, archival footage of the “crazy ones” flickers on the screen in black and white: Albert Einstein leads the way, followed by Bob Dylan, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a jubilant Richard Branson shaking a Champagne bottle in a flight suit.
This is the problem when the self is endowed with divinity, and it’s a weakness that Emerson acknowledged: if the only measure of greatness is how big an iconoclast you are, then there really is no difference between coming up with the theory of relativity, plugging in an electric guitar, leading a civil rights movement or spending great gobs of your own money to fly a balloon across the Atlantic. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson addresses this potentially fatal flaw to his thinking with a principle he calls “the law of consciousness.” (It is not convincing.) Every one of us has two confessionals, he writes. At the first, we clear our actions in the mirror (a recapitulation of the dictum “trust thyself”). At the second, we consider whether we’ve fulfilled our obligations to our families, neighbors, communities and — here Emerson can’t resist a bit of snark — our cats and dogs. Which confessional is the higher one? To whom do we owe our ultimate allegiance? It’s not even a contest.
“I have my own stern claims and perfect circle,” Emerson writes. With this one fell swoop, Emerson tips the scales in favor of his own confessional, and any hope he might have raised for creating a balance to the self’s divinity is lost. Ever since, we’ve been misreading him, or at least misapplying him. As a sad result, it has been the swagger of a man’s walk that makes his measure, and Americans’ right to love ourselves before any other that trumps all.Continue reading the main story