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SAAD EL-GABA LA WY Christian Communism in Utopia, King Lear, and Comus There is a tendency in Renaissance scholarship to lump together passages on the theme of order as representative of the general intellectual and religious climate, without attempting to point out divergences and exceptions which reveal minor trends of thought. The conception of a divine and rational order in the universe has been made so familiar by Tillyard, Lovejoy, and other scholars that I do not need to linger over it, except to say a few words about the great chain of being. The ethical, social, and metaphysical components of this doctrine are drawn from Aristotle, from Plato and Neoplatonism, and from the Stoicism of Cicero and Seneca. In the Renaissance, however, the conception is firmly based on Christian theology, which asserts that the whole universe, from God down to inanimate nature, is a hierarchy of being. This assumption holds for society, which is not a chaotic aggregate of individuals but a hierarchical organism in which everyone has his place and function. Biblical texts were often used to defend inequality in the class system, as in Thomas Elyot's statement in The Governo",·: 'Also Christe saithe by his evangelist that in the house of his father (which is God) be many mansions ." But it is my intention to put aside for a while Ulysses' speech on degree in Troi/us and Cressida, Elyot's defence of the status quo, or Hooker 's hierarchy of laws, in order to concentrate on one of the minor trends, that of Christian communism, in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, with reference to specific literary works. With its religious basis Christian communism regards the levelling of society as the logical and full expression of charity. Egalitarian sentiments can be found in many features of the medieval under-world. As G.R. Owst has amply shown, some medieval homilists writing in the vernacular forcefully condemned the exploitation of the poor by covetous land-owners. They occaSionally dwelt on the idea that, as descendants of Adam and Eve, 'the rich and the poor are alike and equal.' There was also a tendency among them to expound the theme of revenge against the rich on the Day ofJudgment. Certain popular preachers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries gave full expression to social radicalism, openly attacking traditional institutions and bluntly presenting the case of the poor: 'Avenge, 0 Lord, our blood that has been shed! ... Ourlabours and UNIVERS IT"i' OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME XLVU, NUMBER 3, SPRI NG 1978 0042-0247178/°500-0228 $01.50/0 © UNIVERSITY OFTORONTO PRESS 1978 CHRISTIAN COMMUNISM 229 goods .. . they took away, to satiate their greed. They afflicted us with hunger and labours, that they might live delicately upon our labours and our goods ... And those robbers yonder gave not our own goods to us when we were in want, neither did they feed or clothe us out of them ... 0 just God, mighty judge, the game was not fairly divided between them and US.'2 The positive direction of Christian communism can be exemplified by john Ball's words in one of his sermons: 'Ah, ye good people, the matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall do till everything be common, and that there be no villains nor gentlemen, but that we be all together, and that the lords be no great masters than we be.'3Jt is not surprising that john Ball became a leader of the Peasants' Revolt and that other preachers were partly responsible for its outbreak.4 These homilists may have been acquainted with a number of communitarian efforts in ancient history besides the communism of the church in jerusalem recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. NeoPythagorean and Stoic ideas of the golden age were conftated with the memory of a primitive communism in the early church. Theologically the community of goods is founded in the oneness of Christ with the Father and the unity of Christ's followers in him. The true imitation of Christ can be attained through brotherly love, manifest in the defeat of selfishness and the sharing of earthly goods. The communistic principle is based in some...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 228-238
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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