Identity and Power in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and Virgil’s AeneidIn Utopia and the Aeneid, Sir Thomas More and Virgil describe the construction and perpetuation of a national identity. In the former, the Utopian state operates on the “inside” by enforcing, through methods of surveillance, a normalized identity on its citizens under the guise of bettering their lives. In the latter, the depleted national identity of the future Romans in the wake of the Trojan War must reformulate itself from the “outside” by focusing on defining what it is not. In both instances, the lines between the “inside” and the “outside” are clearly drawn and redrawn. The two methodologies are in actuality the flipsides of one another: in clearly defining the accepted national identity and contrasting with it the danger and instability outside this narrow conception, the state is legitimized in doing violence on a massive scale to either eliminate the constructed outside threat or to further the imperialistic project so that these lines remain intact and unquestioned.
In Utopia, the state imposes a culture of normalization to formulate a national identity that both defines and binds its citizens. The fifty-four towns of the country are virtually identical with the “same language, laws, customs, and institutions” (More 70). Even the appearances of individuals resemble each other with no distinctions in dress. This imposition of conformity serves to form a singular national identity that is artificial yet prevalent. As a result, the normalization is internalized by the people, becoming a cult of self-surveillance where the uniformity of physical appearances is superceded only by the uniformity of identity. The state succeeds in establishing a panopt…
…te literary Trojan Horse. As the representative work of the entire Western civilization, his work is guaranteed wide dissemination. However, the ambivalence of his literary conventions often traps the unwitting reader and forces him or her to confront the violent undercurrents of Pax Romana. In essence, More and Virgil speak to the dangers of imposing a normative national identity that actually becomes the flipside of a violent imperialist project. More importantly, they open up space for dissent by critiquing the seemingly impenetrable state system from the inside and thus exposing its inherent contradictions precariously built on a foundation of violence.
Virgil. The Aeneid of Virgil: A Verse Translation. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Ed. Brian Wilkie. New York: Macmillan, 1987.
More, Thomas, Sir. Utopia. Trans. Paul Turner. New York: Penguin, 1965.