Equine Utopias

The word “utopia” entered the lexicon a long time ago and today it of course denotes an ideal frictionless social system where all are able to live in the greatest possible happiness in perfect harmony. Most people know that it is the title of Thomas More’s 1516 book and that it literally means no-place — there are many Greek puns in the text which itself, and surprisingly few people seem to know this, was written in Latin. The name usually conjures up images of a place so perfect it cannot exist in real life and yet is something we all should strive for. From this it is obvious that most people have not read More’s faux travel-narrative which, in short, is a story narrated by someone called Raphael who explains the habits and customs of the Utopians in the manner of a proto-Gulliver.

It is a horrible place to live in if you are a woman and it’s not much better if you are a man. More was a religious nut at a time when this was a particularly difficult thing to accomplish and he eventually died for his beliefs. He refused to recognize Henry VIII’s nookie-hunt-inspired innovations and lost his head for it, probably quite happily too. His ideal society reflected his rigid beliefs resulting in the book which has been called the first work of fiction in the English Renaissance. It’s also often said that More’s Utopia is some sort of proto-Communist tract, but I would think it unfair towards Marxist materialism to go along with that. The modern reader will perhaps see More’s Utopia as a place closer to an Orwellian society reinforced with Foucauldian self-disciplining mechanisms. Which is to say it’s not much fun at all. My point is, it’s very difficult to find anything nice to say about the world More created, but seek and ye shall find.

Swift was a fan of More, and More’s influence can be seen in Gulliver’s Travels. Much like with Utopia, people seem to pick and choose what parts to read and which to chop off and usually the discarded bits are the ones that do not conform to an easy reading of the work. In Gulliver the bit that is most often left out is the last voyage where Gulliver meets the Houyhnhnms, those noble horse-creatures who seem to have figured out this business with society and perfected it. They’re so fantastically noble that Gulliver is in tears when he has to leave and physically repulsed by humans when he returns to human society. Now, with that in mind, check out this bit in Utopia from the new Penguin translation:

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. But labourers, coachmen, carpenters, and farmhands, who never stop working like cart-horses, at jobs so essential that, if they did stop working, they’d bring any country to a standstill within twelve months — what happens to them? They get so little to eat and have such a wretched time, that they’d be almost better off if they were cart-horses. (110)

At least as horses, More writes, they’d lead much happier lives where they wouldn’t have to worry so much. It is a typical social inequality rant some bushy-bearded pinko could belt out even today for the simple fact that it is still true today. Horses are fairly dumb animals, but there is a tinge of nobility in them anyway. If only they had the good sense to act according to their potential and be the creatures Swift made of them. This line of reasoning has many avenues to explore, but I have to stop here for now because it is quite late. I will not pun about leading horses to water and letting them go about their business, but I would like to say that using the word “utopia” in its common sense becomes much more interesting after one has actually read More’s book.

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