Voltaire 3: Eldorado and Utopia
Voltaire's description of life in Eldorado appears to draw upon and reinterpret More's satiric thought-experiment about the possible design of a non-capitalist communal culture based on shared wealth and responsibility without class differences. The most obvious distinction between More's text and Voltaire's is that the former is told from the perspective of a very sympathetic narrator who agrees with the Utopians' values, and the latter is presented to us from a point of view that somewhat resembles that of the visiting ambassadors in the passage below. How does that simple shift of point of view alter the effect of Voltaire's satire on his readers?
The Anemolian Ambassadors (Book II of Utopia, 1516, Sir Thomas More)
I never saw a clearer instance of the opposite impressions that different customs make on people, than I observed in the ambassadors of the Anemolians, who came to Amaurot when I was there. As they came to treat of affairs of great consequence, the deputies from several towns met together to wait for their coming. The ambassadors of the nations that lie near Utopia, knowing their customs, and that fine clothes are in no esteem among them, that silk is despised, and gold is a badge of infamy, used to come very modestly clothed; but the Anemolians, lying more remote, and having had little commerce with them, understanding that they were coarsely clothed, and all in the same manner, took it for granted that they had none of those fine things among them of which they made no use; and they being a vainglorious rather than a wise people, resolved to set themselves out with so much pomp, that they should look like gods, and strike the eyes of the poor Utopians with their splendor. Thus three ambassadors made their entry with 100 attendants, all clad in garments of different colors, and the greater part in silk; the ambassadors themselves, who were of the nobility of their country, were in cloth-of-gold, and adorned with massy chains, ear-rings, and rings of gold: their caps were covered with bracelets set full of pearls and other gems: in a word, they were set out with all those things that, among the Utopians, were the badges of slavery, the marks of infamy, or the playthings of children.
It was not unpleasant to see, on the one side, how they looked big, when they compared their rich habits with the plain clothes
But after the ambassadors had stayed a day among them, and saw so vast a quantity of gold in their houses, which was as much despised by them as it was esteemed in other nations, and beheld more gold and silver in the chains and fetters of one slave than all their ornaments amounted to, their plumes fell, and they were ashamed of all that glory for which they had formerly valued themselves, and accordingly laid it aside; a resolution that they immediately took, when on their engaging in some free discourse with the Utopians, they discovered their sense of such things and their other customs. The Utopians wonder how any man should be so much taken with the glaring doubtful lustre of a jewel or a stone, that can look up to a star or to the sun himself; or how any should value himself because his cloth is made of a finer thread: for how fine soever that thread may be, it was once no better than the fleece of a sheep, and that sheep was a sheep still for all its wearing it. They wonder much to hear that gold which in itself is so useless a thing, should be everywhere so much esteemed, that even men for whom it was made, and by whom it has its value, should yet be thought of less value than this metal. That a man of lead, who has no more sense than a log of wood, and is as bad as he is foolish, should have many wise and good men to serve him, only because he has a great heap of that metal; and that if it should happen that by some accident or trick of law (which sometimes produces as great changes as chance itself) all this wealth should pass from the master to the meanest varlet of his whole family, he himself would very soon become one of his servants, as if he were a thing that belonged to his wealth, and so were bound to follow its fortune. But they much more admire and detest the folly of those who, when they see a rich man, though they neither owe him anything nor are in any sort dependent on his bounty, yet merely because he is rich give him little less than divine honors, even though they know him to be so covetous and base-minded that notwithstanding all his wealth he will not part with one farthing of it to them as long as he lives.