Thomas More and Murderous Idealism

Nevertheless, with all due allowance for More's critical intentions and personal reservations, there remains, as in the case of his other institutional devices, the hard fact that he could indulge in such flights of fancy at all. What strikes the reader as loathsome in this relation of the causes and methods of war is the infallibility of the ideal. FN

Those who live by the ideal can do no wrong; the ideal decides on the justice of conduct of those who do not accept it; and, as a consequence, the carriers of the ideal combine in their persons the functions of party, judge, and executor. When through endowment with an absoluteness that properly is the Spirit's, the temporal order acquires the characteristics of an "ideal," the effect is a peculiar "moralization" of political conduct.

This moralization we can define by the following principal characteristics:

(1) The possessor of the ideal loses the consciousness of his own superbia and, in particular in political relations, of his own pleonexia [ruthless grasping to satisfy ones desires -ed ].

(2) On the level of consciousness, the superbia has been channeled successfully into the formation of the ideal; under this aspect, the ideal is a manifestation of spiritual pride, of the libido dominandi .

(3) When this perversion has firmly taken hold of the mind of the idealist, he can pursue his desires without a sense of guilt because the desires are now located in the ideal, and the ideal, by definition, is a moral absolute.

(4) The further consequence is a peculiar variant of intentionalist ethics insofar as the ideal now sanctifies the means necessary for its realization—a consequence that becomes particularly visible in More's principles.

(5) Since the carrier of the ideal can only act morally, everybody who is in conflict with him is automatically wrong; the Utopians can only conduct just wars—after having defined the principles of justice in such a manner that their application inevitably results in the preservation and expansion of their own power.

(6) As a consequence, the tragedy of existential conflict is eliminated from history; the enemy is not fighting for the manifestation of his existence with the same right as the idealist; anybody who wants to lead his own way of life, unmolested by the idealist, is a criminal.

(7) And more generally, the ideal abolishes the meaning of history as the unfolding of human potentiality through the plurality of historical civilizations; for only one civilization realizes the idea of man, and that is the civilization of the idealist.

(8) And finally, and most dangerously, the brutal attack on the historical realization of all values that do not happen to be incorporated in the ideal forces everybody else into a defensive position in which the worst atrocities and crimes may seem justified in order to ward off this insult to human dignity.

FN. War is one of the subjects treated in Utopia and is considered on earlier pages in EV's essay. —ed.

CW VOL 10,
More's Utopia
§3, pp 216-217.