Controversy #2 (Fall 1998)

"Myth and Belief as Social Construction Materials, and Literature as Their 'Delivery Vehicle, Part One"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #2: I'm willing to hear from believers or non-believers in any religion on this topic, because it's related to one of the most important political uses of literature, the enforcement of social norms and the concentration of readers hopes and fears around certain central issues with which a people identifies itself. We could see it in The Battle of Maldon's praise of those who stayed to fight and die (although it's tempting to challenge its value system as a near cousin to suicide), and in the Miller's assertion of the sanctity of divine secrets. Wherever such values emerge, good papers can come from asking "why those values, why there, and why in that way?"

"that the soul perishes with the body," Joe Kranak, 9/20/98

In reading Thomas More's Utopia I noticed that on page 427, while discussing the religion of the Utopians, Utopus, the founder of Utopia, allowed people to hold the beliefs of whatever religion they chose, with two exceptions: "the only exception was a positive and strict law against anyone who should sink so far below the dignity of human nature as to think that the soul persishes with the body, or that the universe is ruled by blind chance, not divine providence." The latter does not as much concern me, though there are people of great intelligence who might argue that the universe is ruled by blind chance. It is the former that concerns me because the belief that the soul does not perish with the body is a belief which is very doubtful to me and to many other intelligent people. The question I have is whether More or Utopus would actually believe this so strongly that, to them, it would be completely infallible and only thinkable by a subhuman fool, or is it something which Utopus must ingrain in the minds of his people in order to maintain Utopia's fundamental beliefs? More says that the soul must live beyond the body so vices can be punished and virtues rewarded and one who believes the soul dies with the body "would openly despise all the laws and customs of society, if not prevented by fear." Further, if this belief is pressed on the people to maintain order it implies an even deeper issue: the necessity of those in power to control the perceptions of reality of those they control in order to maintain happiness. Therefore, does More so adamantly believe that the soul does not die with the body, or is it simply a necessary doctrine to maintain Utopia?

 "Joe's Critique of Utopus' Moral Policy," Arnie, 9/20/98

Joe asks a complex and entirely appropriate question. For me, the key element of the passage you discuss is the phrase "if not prevented by fear." Consider the comparison of More's work (1516) and Machiavelli's "The Prince" (1508/13), the latter being a primer for the ruler who controls the public by fear (and whatever else works). Regarding More's intentions, however, it's by no means an easy question to answer, and therefore it's a good topic for discussion, papers, etc.

Do you think people can tolerate myths like the immortality of the soul if they bring about good results? Or is it the "forcing of conscience" (as Milton later put it) that makes the strategy unacceptable? I hope you'll bring this up in class. It's also important to recognize, as the posting does, that More has created Utopus as a foil for this thought experiment, and he does not necessarily subscribe to the absolute truth of all things U. does, though in this instance it's mighty hard to separate More from his creation due to the vehemence with which he approves the policy.

 "Reply to Joe's Utopia Comment," Keith Winkler, 10/4/98

One reason why any Utopia would have to have some concept of religion, and thus a belief in afterlife, is that religious people, especially Christians, more easily accept what is thrown at them. With hope in an afterlife, in which earthly trials and tribulations are rewarded, people are much more accepting of terrible living and working conditions. A peaceful Utopia is much easier for a ruler such as Utopus to control and direct into his various projects. The necessity of certain religious beliefs is also mentioned on 427: "There are some others, in fact ... who err the other way in supposing that animals too have immortal souls, though not comparable to ours in excellence nor destined to equal felicity." Thus, although some believe animals have an afterlife, it is still assumed that animals are lesser creatures. Since much of the Utopian economy is dependent on the use of animals for beasts of burden and for food, the belief that they are lesser creatures, and thus it is acceptable to use them as we see fit, is necessary for the community to function. Anyone else have any ideas?