Sir Thomas More and Utopia
(1516 in Latin/
Ralphe Robynson's 1st
English translation, 1551 /
Dibdin's 1878 reprint edition of Robynson's 1551 translation in Library
Genre: Philosophical travel fiction
married to autobiography and satire. More's playful fusing of genres is
characteristic of European humanism, as is his self-deflating wit. This
also is a clue to how the "novel" emerged in the next two centuries as a
genre of prose fiction pretending to historical truth, even though its readers
and author know it is in some sense a "lie." The text contains
many layers of protective narrative insulation, especially More's decision to deliver the
most radical comments from the persona of the character, Raphael Hythloday.
"conversation overheard" does not entirely exculpate the hearer who reports it, as readers of Chaucer realize after serious consideration of the General Prologue
(ll. 727-48) and the prologue to the Miller's Tale (ll. 59-78).
Characters: "More" (in quotes to distinguish
him from More, the author); Raphael Hythloday the traveler from Utopia;
Giles, More's and "More"'s friend and a native of Antwerp (Belgium);
Utopus, founder of Utopia; the Anemolian ambassadors, and other minor
members of Utopian society. Of all the characters, several are named
allegorically. These include the "Anemolian" (Greek--"windy")
ambassadors, and our main informant,
Hythloday (Greek--"skilled purveyor of nonsense"). Click on the hyperlink
if the story of Tobit and the Angel Raphael is not familiar to you.
Plot Summary: On a diplomatic trip to Brussels,
"More" takes a side trip to the seaport of Antwerp where he falls into
conversation with Peter Giles and Giles' acquaintance, Raphael Hythloday, who sailed with
Amerigo Vespucci. The men go to "More"'s house where, in the garden,
Raphael tells them of the history, customs and culture of the Utopians.
Issues and general research sources:
Before Utopia is even introduced, Raphael Hythloday and "More" the character
discuss the current state of Europe and England. This preface to the
potentially ideal commonwealth's description contains some scathing criticism
and satire of Anglo-European monarchic government, and the tradition of
hereditary nobility. How much of what Hythloday says would be dangerous
had More (the author) put the words in "More"'s mouth? Notice what
"More" says in response to Hythloday's criticisms. This is part of
paradoxical rhetoric, a way to say a thing and un-say it simultaneously.
- More sets out certain geographical and social starting points for the founding of Utopia
which might be viewed as essential for the success of the strange experiment he
- What are they and why do they enable this culture to so radically break away from most
of the European tradition?
- What European states have the most potential to be "utopias" by those physical
and cultural definitions?
- What attributes stand in their way?
- The humanist love of paradox and ironic contradiction shows itself first in the name,
which may mean the "good place" or "no place."
- In what other ways does More set up contradictions within the text which, in effect,
unsay what he is saying even as he says it?
- The mockery of the Anemolian ambassadors' love of gold jewelry and the Utopians' use of
gold for prisoners' chains created a famous paradox for More, himself. Later in
life, when his scholarship and wisdom had brought him offices in Henry VIII's
administration as the Chancellor of the Exchequer (sort of a "Treasury
Secretary" who also administers theological affairs), he had to wear the traditional
"collar of office." To see Hans Holbein's 1527 portrait of More in the
More's work probably influenced the American Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau,
especially in the conception and description of
- Might you find the same tendency toward deliberate self-contradiction in Thoreau's work,
- Other thinkers who may have been influenced, however distantly, by More's
utopian vision: Hobbes' Leviathan (1660), John Locke's
Concerning Human Understanding and
The Two Treatises of Government
(1699), the U.S. "Declaration of Independence" (1776), Thomas Paine's "The
Rights of Man" (1791), Marx's and Engels'
Communist Manifesto (1848).
- Events which may owe their initial plausibility to More's fiction of King
Utopus, a man who changed the organization of a traditional, badly functioning
state: the following real hereditary monarchies or their colonial surrogates
which actually were overthrown, often with great violence, by ideologues who
sought to reshape culture along rational, egalitarian lines: England (Civil
Wars and Protectorate/Commonwealth, 1642-60; Bloodless Revolution, 1688), the
English Colonies (American Revolution, 1776-89), France (1789-99), and the
Spanish Colonies (Haiti, 1797; 1810-24, Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Chile;
- In the same year that
Utopia was published, More's friend, the humanist priest, Desidarius Erasmus,
wrote a Latin essay whose title can be translated
Education of a Christian Prince.
In it, he set out a bold strategy for reforming the hereditary monarchic
states of Europe, one by one, by means of Humanist scholars' tutoring the
heirs to the throne in classical and Christian values. Instead of
learning to rule only as a means to pursue their families' and their own
personal egotistical appetites, such a Humanist "Christian prince" was to rule
"as a good man for the common gain of all," a radical departure from ordinary
royal policy in the previous thousand years. To that end, Erasmus
managed to get himself appointed royal tutor to the son of Henry VII, the
future Henry VIII. From what you know of Henry VIII's reign, how
successful do you think this Humanist plan for political reform turned out to
be, and do you see any alternatives to it or the Medieval status quo? We
could think of Erasmus' effect on English government as gradual and
multi-generational, since Elizabeth I, tutored by Roger Ascham, was a literate
and historical self-conscious ruler who might be said to embody some goals set
out in Education. But the circumstance which actually ended
English sovereigns' beliefs that they were the government and that the
government served them would have to be the trial and execution of
Charles I in 1647-9 on orders of a revolutionary Parliamentary jury.
- Two years before More and Erasmus were writing their experiments with
social change, Niccoló
Machiavelli wrote Il Principe (The Prince), in which he discussed
systematically the ways princes could acquire principalities to rule, how
they could maintain their rule, and what major dangers they faced.
Dedicating and delivering the fancy presentation manuscript to Lorenzo de
Medici, Machiavelli hoped to move Lorenzo to unify Italy using NM's
political strategies, which tend toward the ruthlessly pragmatic and make no
mention of Christian doctrine, at all. In part because
Machiavelli was "thinking
medievally about publication," his work had almost no influence until
after his death when it finally found its way into print. Erasmus and
More, by contrast, planned to use the new technology of printing to spread
their ideas. All three books were "plagiarized" and "pirated,"
reproduced without their authors' permission, but More's and Erasmus' books
were reprinted, whereas Machiavelli's was mainly recopied in manuscript.
How does the medium of reproduction affect the spread of these authors'
ideas? Which would be easier to suppress by burning? By
Shakespeare's time, Machiavelli's name had become so identified with English
notions of Italian political chicanery that the stage "Machiavel" was a
familiar type character, openly announcing to the audience his desire to do
evil and seeking power without scruples. By contrast, the use of
"utopian" for one who has idealized notions of the perfectability of society
does not become commonplace until a hundred years, in the seventeenth
- Erasmus also wrote an essay on scholars' proverbial reference to the
classical "Seleni of Alcibiades" which contained a
notion relevant to More's strategy in Utopia. In classical
Greek households, a "Silenus" was a
grotesque statue of an old man playing the flute which was popular as a curio.
They were carved such that, if you knew how to open them, you would discover
within the figure of a god, resplendent in its beauty. At one point in
Plato's Athenaeus (v), Alcibiades, Socrates' bad-boy student, described Socrates,
himself, as a sort of Silenus, ugly on the outside but when properly opened, revealing a
god. Knowledge, Erasmus' suggests, might just be like a Silenus, ugly on the
outside, but containing something beautiful within it, and learning might be discovering
how to open the ugly things we encounter in reality to discover the beautiful things they
might contain. He mocks most people's love of surface beauty by suggesting that most
people are Sileni "in reverse," with their beauty on the outside and ugliness
and immorality on the inside. He even goes so far as to say that "nobody is
further from true wisdom than
those people with their grand titles, learned bonnets,
splendid sashes and bejeweled rings, who profess to be wisdom's peak." (Wonder
who he's talking about?)
- In More's critique of social order, economy, and government, do you see any aspects
which seem grotesquely distorted, and might they contain a tiny kernel of something
beautiful if interpreted correctly?
- Might Utopia, itself, be a kind of Silenus? For instance, notice that in the last
sentence I did not italicize or underscore the name, Utopia.
- Where is
- Can you tell where Raphael Hythloday is trying to take you when he says "if you had
been in Utopia with me"?
- Utopia often is called an important Renaissance work because it imagines
we could redesign human culture to improve it, rather than (like medieval
thinkers) assuming that most human innovations were imperfect, flawed by our
fallen intellects (Genesis).
While writing my feedback for
Melissa Grow's great presentation on Utopia in 2011, I realized that I had missed an
easy place to link it to my discussion of English literary culture "caught between
She began by
emphasizing the passage’s discussion of “idleness.”
I missed a cue there because Sloth is one of the deadly sins in medieval
Christianity, though it becomes “leisure” in Renaissance and Modern culture, a
thing to be desired rather than shunned.
So More is starting from a very old-fashioned point of view in his attack on the
nobles and their followers. Indeed, many of
the "medieval More"'s
Utopian attitudes toward work and community could be found in Chaucer's General
Prologue portraits of the Parson and his brother, the Plowman. The real
innovations, the thinking we might assign to the "Renaissance More," are related to economics, religion, and
marriage. The Wife of Bath, herself, very much a forward thinker, would
approve husbands and wives seeing each other naked before the wedding.
(She would take it further, forsooth!) The moneyless economy clearly has
yet to appear on a national level, though utopian communes sometimes manage to
simulate it on a small scale. Income disparities might be said to be worse
than they were in medieval England--the poor can only get to a certain level of
poverty before they die, but
today's rich people could
buy and sell the entire C16 English kingdom several times over. (If
you click on the link, look for noble titles and see how many noble fortunes are
still founded in "Property" [rents], as in medieval times.) Religious
toleration of the Utopian sort does not arrive in England until the twentieth
century. Worshipers of the Roman Church might not be burned at the stake
or have their property confiscated much after 1660, but equal rights and
opportunities for education and employment were forbidden anyone who did not
swear oaths to the English Church and to renounce and oppose the Pope.
- Responses to
Utopia from its readers produced a wide range of
prose and visual artifacts.
here for M. Bishop's 2005
British Dental Journal
article discussing the "tooth ship" in the
foreground of the famous Ambrose Holbein engraving of the map of Utopia,
part of a "memento mori"
(L. "remember death") death's head hidden in the map, which was
included for the first time in the third (Latin) edition published in 1518.
Click here for Allen Farber's web page (SUNY
Oneanta) dedicated to Hans Holbeins' 1553 double portrait,
Ambrose's brother's painting contains an even more cleverly hidden
memento mori and a host
of related allegorically interpretable objects that comment on the two men's
relative place in the cosmos, caught between God's infinite vision and
humanity's suddenly expanding grasp of its own place on the planet and in the
universal order of Creation. Or we could say in
English 211 terms, they are "caught between
To go to the St. Thomas More Web Page, click
To go to the
for Utopian Studies web site maintained by Naomi Jacobs of U. Maine, Orono,
Back to English 211, Syllabus View.