Academic journal article Style

Andrew J. Majeske. Equity in English Renaissance Literature: Thomas More and Edmund Spenser

Academic journal article Style

Andrew J. Majeske. Equity in English Renaissance Literature: Thomas More and Edmund Spenser

Article excerpt

Andrew J. Majeske. Equity in English Renaissance Literature: Thomas More and Edmund Spenser. New York: Rontledge, 2006. ix + 217 pp.

The author states the purpose of this revised dissertation early in his introduction:

   This book will establish a broad historical context for the English 
   Renaissance understanding of the concept of equity, particularly 
   the idea's derivation from the classical Greek concept of [TEXT NOT 
   REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in order to explain equity's various 
   significations in More's Utopia and Spenser's The Faerie Queene. 

This deceptively simple thesis addresses a tangle of legal and philosophical concepts that were drawn together, intertwined, and twisted over time into a Gordian knot of immense complexity. It takes over half the book just to trace the various concepts of equity before the literary texts are even introduced. More then gets the majority of what's left, while Spenser receives the last twenty-one pages. Then there are forty-eight pages of appendices which include excerpts on equity from the writings of Hobbes and Grotius, and a commentary by the author on Cicero's Verrine orations.

Majeske begins by outlining the meanings of Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Roman aequitas. The latter, he says, aimed at consistent application of the laws, that is, that a law would be applied the same way in several different cases. The goal was equality before the law. The Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], on the other hand, aimed to adapt the law to "distinguishing characteristics of specific cases in order to achieve a result fitting to the circumstances particular to each case" (3). Aequitas aimed to eliminate difference; [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] celebrated difference. The author claims that these "two contrasting visions of fairness" were both contained within the concept of equity (3). The author, however, claims that there is another, esoteric, meaning of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] that signifies the "relation of the theoretically best possible commonwealth (utopia) to the best possible commonwealth actually achievable in practice" (5).

The author proceeds to trace the history of the more common meanings of equity in English legal history. He points out that the English Common law was extremely strict and equity as accommodation to circumstances became the purview of jurisprudence. In England, the court of equity was the court of Chancery which, according to Majeske, began to see itself as an adversary to the Common Law. Around 1520, the Crown began to use Chancery to overrule the Common Law courts. Majeske argues that early modern England focused on the "flexible" dimension of equity, a dimension amenable to and developed by Christian scholasticism, and ignored the classical, esoteric meaning.

Majeske derives the esoteric meaning from Aristotle's Ethics, citing the passage in which Aristotle refers to equitable persons as those who take less than they deserve. Majeske identifies these equitable persons as those whom Plato and Aristotle described as working to change a regime over generations, and whose goal was the state of perfect equality as in Plato's Republic, even though they were aware that this perfect equality was unachievable (8). Majeske spends pages 39-62 establishing the plausibility of this identification and so sets the stage for interpreting Utopia as a plea for [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in this esoteric sense, that is, that while the perfect equality of communism is unachievable, it should be the goal at which one aims and the standard by which social change is judged.

Majeske begins his commentary on Utopia with an analysis of Bude's letter to Thomas Lupset about Utopia. This letter is reproduced in the Yale edition and is usually read as praise of More's work. Majeske, however, points out that a passage in the center of the letter directly links the criticism of capital punishment for theft to Utopian communism. …

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