Utopia – Thomas More

I feel bad that I’ve not posted anything for over a month, but various circumstances have conspired to prevent me from writing anything new and so, to assuage my blogger’s guilt, here’s something you’ve not seen before. This is an essay I wrote waaay back in my first term at University; I’ve removed a few paragraphs from its original 2,500-word length, just to make it digestible as a blog post.

New stuff soon, I promise.

Tomcat.

UtopiaCritical approaches to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia fall largely into one of two camps: those who conceive of the book as an exercise in material idealism – a literal representation of More’s perfect society – ; and those who consider it to be fantastical irony, a satire of early 16th Century political practices and attitudes, not a pamphlet for social reform.  It’s true that large tracts of the text are dominated by a meticulous and microscopic focus on the exact mechanisms of ostensibly utopianist economic and social ideologies, but there’s also a definite undercurrent of cynicism and incongruity that perpetually destabilises the narrator’s appeals to seriousness.

In the opening book, for example, Cardinal Morton comments that “One might rather hear of something […] than have any real or perfect knowledge of the same”, and it is striking that just after Morton challenges the the veracity of secondary report, Thomas More (the narrator) reveals that he has only heard about the land of Utopia himself via the testimony of a rather baroque and eccentric individual – Raphael Hythloday – whose surname translates from the Greek as ‘peddler of nonsense’.  This playful warning against the reliability of third-party accounts acts as a signifier to the reader that Utopia shouldn’t be taken at face value.  Popular readings conceive the work to be an idealist suggestion for a new order of society, but beneath Utopia’s façade of social idealism sits a dark satire profoundly critical of the politics of contemporary England.

The interpretive pluralism that colours the critical landscape surrounding Utopia is markedly antagonistic, with commentators variously attempting to categorically pigeonhole the work as either i) entirely serious, or ii) entirely satirical; as John Guy surmises:

Idyll or Ideal? This is the enigma of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516).  What is the book about? How was it received […]?  Does it represent More’s ‘ideal society’? Or is it merely intended, like Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, to ‘laugh men out of folly’?

The result of this essentialist approach is a tradition of criticism that is often negligent of the full intent of More’s multi-faceted writing, the problem so eloquently put by Alastair Fox:

Commentators have numbered the streaks on Utopia so often that one hesitates to try yet again. They have identified variously its function as a paradigm, […] its seriousness, its frivolity as a jeu d’esprit […] yet somehow Utopia escapes from all attempts to contain its meaning

It follows, then, that a reader should not attempt to dismiss one side or another of this dichotomy between satire and seriousness, but should remain open to the multiplicity of meaning and subtle ambiguity in More’s work.

Warning bells should initially sound before the reader even arrives in the land of Utopia, when Hythloday makes comments about its geographical remoteness. In addition to Utopia (the place) being geographically remote, Utopia the text is elusive on more subtle levels.  Textually the work doesn’t actually exist in a single, definitive edition. John Guy, again:

 There is no holograph or definitive text.  Until recently there has never been a single Utopia.  A standard edition […] was not available until the Yale Edition of Utopia appeared in 1965, and even then doubts must be expressed about the accuracy of the English translation.

Indeed, Utopia was originally composed in Latin, and More’s original manuscript, which he sent to the Dutch humanist Erasmus during printing, has been lost.  So much textual uncertainty must be viewed as an appropriate circumstance when the tone of the book is considered; much like the eponymous land and the philosophical ideal itself, the very text of Utopia eludes us, and without an authoritative script how can we really know its philosophy?

There are problems with authenticity on a narratological level, too.  More is not the primary narrator of Utopia, and his fictional counterpart, Morus (“Fool”), is merely an interested onlooker.  It is the aforementioned Raphael Hythloday who describes the land of Utopia to the reader. So, to break it down: Hythloday reports his journey to Utopia to Morus, a semi-fictional character in an overall work of the imagination composed by Thomas More, no definitive text of which has survived.  Supplementing these several voices, the reader also has to wrestle with Ralph Robinson, the original translator of the book, responsible for the marginalia that are included in most modern editions.  While it’s often tempting to trivialise marginalia as nothing more than a historical curiosity, in the case of Utopia they function as a crucial aid to narrative coherency.  For example, when Hythloday describes Utopia’s cities:

None of the cities desire to enlarge the bounds and limits of their shires, for they count themselves rather the good husbands than the owner of their lands.

Robinson has added in the margins:

But this nowadays

is the ground of all

mischief.

So many narratological layers definitely function as an alienation device, and further distance Utopia from the ‘real-world’. This was undoubtedly More’s intention when he contrived such a complex narratology; by removing Utopia from any realistic and graspable set of discourses, More is both covering himself against personal accusations of heresy or treason (the land of Utopia isn’t especially Tudor-friendly) and establishing his work as satirical by highlighting the unreachable-ness of Utopia.

Nonetheless, Utopia is not entirely facetious and distant.  The book pretends to a very high literary tradition, and treats its inspirations with a dour sense of reverence.  It begins with the familiar classical motif of a scholarly conversation in a garden: a scenario that mirrors the opening of Plato’s Republic, and is even reminiscent of key scenes in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. In a twee way, the ‘conversation in a garden’ is also suggestive of an older English tradition of dialectic which includes The Owl and the Nightingale, (and in some ways Utopia parodies this secondary English interpretation of a classical Greek trope).  In mimicking the form of such influential works of writing, More is instituting his work in a specific convention of philosophical literature and all its attendant seriousnesses and pomp.

If the book’s content is tricksy and ambiguous, then its form is conversely a somber reference to high philosophy. What Utopia seems to be offering, then, isn’t either total satire or total seriousness, but a convergence of the two.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the book’s lengthy treatise on the value of gold in the land of Utopia.  Thomas More pre-empts Marx’s abolition of personal property by several hundred years, and with gold having no worth as a commodity, the Utopians put the metal to more practical uses:

Of gold and silver they make commonly chamber-pots and other vessels that serve for most vile uses not only in their common halls but in every man’s private house.

In simply using a chamber pot, the Utopians are, unknowingly, defecating over the entire value system of mercantile Tudor England. Hythloday remarks that the worship of gold is meaningless; which is at best a simplistic observation in humanist terms, but More’s criticism is more complex than it may initially appear.  In combining the images of gold and excrement (whose relative market values, it must be obvious, exist in the most extreme polar opposition) the writer is commenting on the state of the contemporary European economy.  The importation into Spain of a very large amount of gold from the ‘New World’ had led to a debasement of the coinage. Spanish gold travelled all over Europe as troops in the Spanish army were paid, and with this massive influx of the metal, gold lost its value and this importation became a cause of inflation, which very few people in the Sixteenth Century understood.  Though More’s analogy is comically hyperbolic, its intention is obvious; gold was becoming increasingly less valuable, and he is utilizing the satirical aspects of his fiction (a nation of people shitting into gold pots) to make a serious contemporary economic comment.

Many of Utopia’s more ‘liberal’ ideologies (to employ a modern usage) would have been viewed as unrealistically extreme, treasonous, even blasphemous in Sixteenth-Century England.  Legitimizing euthanasia and divorce would just have been ridiculously excessive (even for a Lutheran!).  Sir Thomas More, a stringent Roman Catholic, would never have advocated such ideas, yet in Utopia euthanasia and suicide are endowed with special moral validity, even praised: in certain situations a man of Utopia may righteously “dispatch himself”.  Such crude language is hardly reflective of More’s personal philosophy; obviously this is not a serious suggestion for a new social practice. The references to euthanasia or suicide, as with all other Utopian policies, are examples of More expressing his serious contemporary concerns via the medium of mocking, satirical devices – a making-stupid of those ideas to which he is opposed.  We have established that the land of Utopia is impossible, and so by placing euthanasia inside it, More highlights what he considered to be the unfeasibility of the idea; mocking extremist and irreligious social reformers whilst ensuring his more serious ideas, for example those about greater and more available hospital care, are also channeled to the reader.

As a resolution, then, Utopia clearly cannot be defined under any single, reductive critical criterion, and any attempt to do so remains an ultimately futile endeavour.  Utopia is a convergence of two ostensibly conflicting literary discourses: hysterical satire on the one hand, and a solemn program for social reform on the other. More’s satire and his social reform are not mutually exclusive disciplines.  Despite what traditional criticism surrounding Utopia dictates, the presence of satire does not destroy the moral integrity of realistic, socially reformative ideologies, nor vice versa.  As the gold chamber pot pertinently demonstrates, More’s culture criticism is expressed via his satire: they function as one in the same, each enriching the other. Utopia is not a tug-of-war between two differing goals, it’s a fundamentally modern bringing-together of opposites, and therein, to me, lies its enduring appeal and literary successfulness.

Tom.

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3 responses to “Utopia – Thomas More

  1. The raising hand icon you use becomes an apt metaphor for your post. I hope you are still reading. I thought of you yesterday as I poached from my Uncle’s bookshelf in London, the third book in the Border Trilogy knowing that this year I will read it. I left Blood Meridian behind, but I will be back for that eventually.

    Interesting essay about a book I am not familiar with. It seems ironic and as if the author may have had the last laugh that it defies critical categorisation and must therefore be accepted not as one thing or the other, but having the infinite possibility of being either or both. A credible illusion perhaps.

    • That’s a coincidence, I recently bought the final Border Trilogy book, also with the intention of reading it this year at some point. ‘The Crossing’ gave me such an emotional throttling that I think I’ll wait a few months before tackling ‘Cities of the Plain’ though. I always prefer reading McCarthy in summer, too, for some reason…

      Yeah, ‘Utopia’ is definitely a tease, I’d be tempted to call it post-modern in a genre-theory kind of way if it hadn’t been written in 1516 or whenever. 🙂

      Many thanks for reading and commenting – always much appreciated.
      T.

  2. You might be interested in a rather offbeat interpretation of the Utopian enigma that I read some years ago. I reviewed Utopia: Fact or Fiction? soon after it was published in 1992 (republished at http://wp.me/s2oNj1-utopia) and while, two decades on, I’d probably be a lot less credulous and a lot more critical if I was to re-read it now, I still would like there to be just a little smidgeon of something in the author’s thesis. I’d be interested in your thoughts…

    But, as you say, “Utopia clearly cannot be defined under any single, reductive critical criterion, and any attempt to do so remains an ultimately futile endeavour.” And I do like your conclusion that “satire and … social reform are not mutually exclusive disciplines”.

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