English 211 

Quiz #3: Sir Thomas More, Utopia

1) What high post did More hold in the government of Henry VIII?

Lord Chancellor, from 1529-32.  Thus, the inventor of ideal governments was given an opportunity to influence the operation of a real government.   As chief law enforcement officer of England (like our Attorney General), he had to wear his badge of office, a heavy golden seal which hung from a gold collar made from interlocking "S"s which may be seen in the Hans Holbein portrait of More.    This "honor" led to his execution when he could not bring himself to oppose the Pope and accept Henry's divorce of Catherine of Aragon to marrry Anne Boleyn. 

The reader of the Anemolian ambassadors section of Utopia (page 423-4) should be able to detect a horrible irony of which a scholar like More could not have been unaware even before the executioner's ax fell.

2) "More," the character, advises Raphael Hythloday that "you could best perform [a service worthy of your nature] by joiing the council of some great prince, whom you would incite to just and noble actions" (418). Does Raphael agree or disagree?

He disagrees, saying the difference between "service" and "servitude" to a prince is only the matter of one syllable.  He also says he hates the courtiers and others who flock to seek favors from the great man, and he thinks most rulers only wish to learn how they might expand their lands by war even though they can't rule properly the ones they have. 

Once again, this is not far from the truth in late medieval and early renaissance Europe, and makes heavily ironic More's later entrance into the service of Henry VIII.  The basic problem of competition with other rulers and of lusting after the riches of other nations is dealt with in Utopia's construction by making it a nearly impregnable island and by giving it self-sufficiency in natural resources and industry.  Perhaps if this were the case the world over, wars might indeed be rare!   The problem posed in this passage remains very difficult today: what should a trained scholar with political skills do when asked to join the actual, political operations of the nation?  What compromises will be required, and what chances for real reform might there be?

3) What is the most important concept in the organization of the Utopian economy (423-4), and how does it affect the way prisoners are restrained?

Common property (no private property).  The "rarity" of gold and gems lends them a false value, or so goes the argument.   Their beauty is exaggerated by our greed and by their use as monetary signs of the power to command even more enormous sums of goods, land, labor, and technical skills.   To make sure the Utopians don't forget the powerful psychological distortion of values which this can produce, even among folk who have no private property, the gold is used for prisoners' chains (and the gems are given to children for playthings).  This suggests, rather boldly, that wealth restrains the spirit rather than liberating it (see Everyman's conversation with "Goods"), and that jewels and other stylish distractions from the fundamental needs of life cause us to mistake playthings for those of real import. 

You will find a similar expression of this notion in Alfred Hitchcock's  Lifeboat (1944),  in which Tallulah Bankhead plays a spoiled rich woman, Constance Porter, who is persuaded to use her diamond earring as bait to catch a fish so that the survivors of a shipwreck may live.  (John Steinbeck, whose short story was the source of the movie's plot, was heavily influenced by early English literature and also translated large sections of Malory's Le Morte Darthur into Modern English.)

Extra Credit: What does Raphael Hythloday's name mean?

"Raphael" is one of the four archeangels of the Old Testament (Enoch, a noncanonical book), whose domain is to guard human spirits, but Hythloday combines Greek words to make "a skilled conveyor of nonsense."   This, like the name Utopia (Eu-topos=Good Place; U-topos=Noplace) sets up the humanist love of wordplay and logical exercise that also shields the text's more radical implications from the prying tyrannical eyes of real rulers.