In the first chapter of Zygmunt Bauman’s “Modernity and the Holocaust”, multiple perspectives are provided regarding the relationship between modernity and the Holocaust. Bauman begins by refuting the concept of the Holocaust- or any major sociological development, for that matter- as a singular “event” that can be scrutinized in terms of the multitude of historical elements that contributed to its development. Rather, he projects the idea that unless we revise our sociological perspective on the past, we will never see it as anything but “a unique but fully determined product of a particular concatenation of social and psychological factors” (4). Though such phrasing might be a bit gratuitous, Bauman raises an interesting point here: pointing to the research of Nechama Tec, he imprints upon the reader that rather than examining the Holocaust as an “aberration” of human behavior, it must be viewed as a sort of “sleeping menace”- that the kind of moral extremism exhibited on both sides does not arise as a result of human development, but rather exists alongside the norm, and only surfaces when conditions permit (7). Bauman argues that we mustn’t examine the Holocaust through a sociological perspective, but rather see the Holocaust as a revelation of what society is capable of given the culmination of “efficiency…technology…[and] subordinate thought and action to the pragmatics of economy” (13). This inductive approach forces us to reevaluate sociological perspectives on a sweeping scale, which is Bauman’s major point, but his conclusion- that the Holocaust occurred as a result of modernity, advancement, and the conditions that they brought on- is flawed. While this assertion holds a basis in valid reasoning, Bauman merely takes steps in the right direction. The point he seems to miss, however, is ironically his own- that the correlation between the development of industrial and unethical means and the occurrence of genocide are not directly related. It becomes clear, however, when applying Tec’s disputation of the “social determinants” of morality that the Holocaust was not a result of the times, but more accurately a simultaneous development that fostered in an era of efficiency and modernity (5).
In forming an ideal society, having common moral values among the population is a necessity. In order to sustain an idyllic state, each citizen must have a strong moral compass that does not conflict with others. In both Utopia and The Republic, More and Plato emphasize education as an important factor in generating a common moral code. Both emphasize the importance of morality, but then describe deceptive and indecent strategies used by the state to manipulate citizens.
Both More and Plato recognize education and enlightenment as important in teaching their citizens moral values. In The Republic, the allegory of the cave demonstrates the effect of education on the soul. In the allegory, the sun represents the form of the good, and in order to reach it citizens must study arithmetic and dialectics (Plato, 196). If the citizens master these subjects, they will truly understand the “good,” making them the most moral beings. Like in The Republic, In Utopia, citizens must be trained in different subjects from an early age (More, 77). Through education, Utopia’s inhabitants will form their own ethical values. Both More and Plato believe that knowing “truth” is a key component in developing a moral code, and truth is discovered through education.
The irony in More’s and Plato’s emphasis on creating moral citizens is that the state is, in itself, very ethically wrong. The way Utopians win wars is by going into other countries and issuing propaganda that turns the citizens of that country against one another (More, 66). In The Republic, the state censors stories that portray gods as anything but perfect (Plato, 58). Although they consider truth to be the origin of morality, Plato and More develop cities in which the governments are actually dishonest and corrupt. While the citizens are expected to be ethical, the rulers are expected to be dishonest and immoral. More and Plato contradict themselves many times in the course of describing a completely just and ethical state, proving that even the most idyllic society has corruption.
Thomas More’s Utopia and Plato’s The Republic both address morality in the context of ideal civilizations. Similarities arise when each novel describes its people, and how they come to be functioning and ideal members of Utopia or the perfect State. Each author describes some sort of conditioning process that each society’s residents must go through. However, Plato’s subjects are closely inculcated with specific information and preplanned cultural influences from birth; thus, they know nothing other than their enforced goodness. More’s Utopia was first populated by “rude and uncivilized”(p. 28) people, who, through generations of residing in their perfect civilization, came to be virtuous citizens. The only true morality is that which is displayed by someone who has been presented with the opportunity to be dishonorable.
Book VII of The Republic features Socrates’s description of the perfect society. To build it, Socrates suggests that everyone over the age of ten be expelled from the city, and those remaining—who possess the most potential—will be trained until the age of fifty to be perfect citizens or Philosopher Kings.
Similarly, in books II-IV, Plato describes that guardians of another perfect society, the Luxurious State, must be specifically taught what is and isn’t appropriate to do and think. The populace is told fictitious stories of its gods and rulers to instill respect. Various information, both true and false, is strategically fed to and withheld from the citizens of the Luxurious State to ensure that they unknowingly grow to be dignified, trusting, and most importantly, moral— but is accidental morality actual morality?
The answer is no. More’s Utpoia was founded by one man who created an artificial island away from the rest of society, and used its old, corrupt inhabitants to populate his new city, Utopia. When Utopia’s government and laws were established, the new citizens could choose to either follow or break the law, and accept the consequences. Through generations, Utopians grew to appreciate their lifestyles, and became exceptionally virtuous people. They witnessed acts of evil, saw their consequences, then often chose not to commit them for the benefit of society and themselves. Plato’s people are made “moral” by masterminds, while More’s people are made moral by the community. Plato’s citizens are characterized by a fictitious and enforced integrity, whereas Utopians are truly moral, because they are exposed to evil, and choose to be honorable.