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Word of the day: utopia

‘That is no country for old men. The young in one another’s arms…’ chanted the old Irish poet W.B. Yeats who was yearning for his long lost youth a century ago. Utopias are for the young and the unwary ones. 

utopiaNow when I was young and easy, I began my teaching career at a comprehensive school in wild western The Hague called ‘Het Thomas More College’. This happened in the seventies of the previous century and I was still in my fifth year at university.

I thought a teaching job a good idea to earn some money and get some teaching experience at the same time. It turned out to be a bad idea. Most of my pupils were a few years younger than I was, and I looked sixteen. So you can imagine how difficult it was to maintain order and to keep my distance.

Each morning when I cycled across The Hague along the Zuiderpark to the school at the Beresteinlaan, my head filled itself with ideas and ideals. Cycling back to the Bezuidenhout where I lived, I was struggling with feelings of despair and frustration.

The pupils and I were clearly not of the same mind. It was their ambition to send me off to a madhouse as quickly as possible, while it was my fervent dream to expose them to my idea of utopia: a place full of inquisitive young learners discussing exciting literature and profound philosophy. All in vain of course.

In the end the pupils did not succeed in driving me crazy and to my knowledge not one pupil allowed himself or herself to be converted to my belief in the benefits of High Culture. So why did I continue to vent these utopian ideals? Simple.

My pupils and I were spending most of our young lives in a school building which was named after the great Thomas More. Thomas More was the famous scholar and later saint who wrote the impressive essay called Utopia. The book was published in Leuven under the editorship of my other spiritual hero Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1516 (almost five hundred years ago).

Utopia is set in the New World (which had been discovered only a few years before) and depicts a fictional society with its religious, social and political customs. ‘Utopia’ is derived from the Greek words ‘eu’ (good) and ‘ou’ (not) and ‘topos’ (place). Thomas More coined a word that could mean both ‘no place land’ as well as ‘good place land’. So Utopia is the best of all republics and it is nowhere to be found. Clever eh?

In ‘Utopia’ Thomas More was not trying to depict his idea of an ideal civilization where all people can live happily in harmony, no, the book was an acerbic attack on European society in all its wickedness. He wrote:

‘When I consider any social system that prevails in the modern world, I can’t see it as anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organizing society. They think up all sorts of tricks and dodges, first for keeping safe their ill-gotten gains, and then for exploiting the poor by buying their labour as cheaply as possible. Once the rich have decided that these tricks and dodges shall be officially recognized by society, they acquire the force of law. Thus an unscrupulous minority is led by its insatiable greed to monopolize what would have been enough to supply the needs of the whole population.’
(translated by Paul Turner, Penguin 1965)

Had Thomas More lived in this day and age of consumerism, he would have written exactly the same!

The name UTOPIA is buzzing around the Dutch media, as you must have noticed. Dutch television station SBS6 has a new daily reality show which started last Monday at 7.30 pm. One and half million viewers watch it every day. It is being produced by the same people who invented ‘Big Brother’ in 1999. This time the formula is even more spectacular: fifteen men and women have to live and work together for an entire year in an enclosed area. There are no laws or rules. Without any help from outside they have to build a society. Hence the name UTOPIA.

The slogan of the new series is: ‘Wordt het ultiem geluk of complete chaos?’ (will it be all-out happiness or complete chaos?).

The fifteen participants are extremely divergent. There is one barefooted vagrant called Rienk. This 29-year old is a dogmatic old-school idealist whose aim it is, he says, to create a new society. He does not want his socks to wear out, nor does he want others to drink alcohol. He is not afraid to impose his will on the others and apparently he is the only who has read Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’.

‘Het ware Utopia zit in de geest’, Rienk says. True Utopia is in the mind! True. Too true, perhaps. But what is true Utopia?
Will this reality series give us the answer? Or is it just another trick of the filthy rich to become even richer?

Another dodge to exploit the poor and dimwits by buying their labour as cheaply as possible, as Thomas More prophesied five hundred years ago.

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