The Better Part of Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vives, on Humanism, War, and Peace, 1496-1535

By Robert P. Adams | Go to book overview

CHAPTER NINE
THE GENIUS OF THE ISLAND:
WAR AND PEACE IN UTOPIA (1516)

It is time to examine the criticism of war in the Discourse of Utopia. Basically, More's criticism of war through his picture of the good life in Utopia amounts to a massive onslaught upon several kinds of tyranny. One—the more obvious—is the tyranny of evil and corrupt men, exemplified by the ruling powers and their supporters in states near to Utopia, states which of course closely (and even at times identifiably) resemble those actually existing in Renaissance Europe. The other form assumed by tyranny is more subtle and pervasive: it is the tyranny of vicious custom over men's minds and social behavior. As satire, the Utopia is especially powerful because it cannot be taken as merely negative. On the other hand, neither does it eschew realism for romanticism, and escape, like Plato in the Republic, into a never-never land of secular saints and permanent, static subjection to them of the human majority. Evidently, when Utopia is taken by itself as a representation of a good life, More has rejected both the ideas that agonizing social evils (e.g., poverty, crime, war) result from congenital sinfulness or corruption in human nature itself, and that a good life should automatically emerge (as Rousseau may have felt) if only all civilization could be stripped away and man left in a condition of presumptive primitive anarchy.

The Utopian freemen emphatically are not "noble savages." In his positive picture of a good life in Utopia, as an alternative available to men in the Renaissance (most of all to Englishmen), More recognized certain inborn human qualities which distinguish men from beasts—above all the power of reason and the power of love. In Utopia every practicable means is used positively to insure that every man capable and willing shall achieve happiness through living in harmony with his own nature and with the human family as a whole. Positively each freeman from birth is ceaselessly educated toward this end, partly

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The Better Part of Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vives, on Humanism, War, and Peace, 1496-1535
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