Identity and Power in Sir Thomas More's Utopia and Virgil's Aeneid
In 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is internalized by the people, becoming a cult of self-surveillance where the uniformity of physical appearances is superceded only by the uniformity of identity.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 panopticon where norms such as the work ethic are enforced by the belief that “everyone has his eye on you, so you’re practically forced to get on with your job and make some proper use of your spare time” (84). The inhabitants of Utopia become docile bodies, whose mere acquiescence to the system is precisely what perpetuates and gives power to the state’s commanding gaze. In effect, More’s description of the Utopian society foreshadows the shift of the modern day nation-state from juridical to disciplinary powers. Laws are not needed because the code for living is already so naturalized that they are considered to be obvious and unchangeable.
This ability of the state to enforce a normalized identity simultaneously gives it the power to eliminate all that falls outside this narrow category. For example, Raphael describes the game of vices versus virtues that the people play for leisure, “a pitched battle between virtues and vices, which illustrates [. . .] how much strength vices can muster for a direct assault, what indirect tactics they employ, what help virtues need to overcome vices, what are the best methods of evading their attacks, and what ultimately determines the victory [. . .]” (76). The “game” takes on...