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 Collection)

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.   Nevertheless, the "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; Peter Giles, More's and "More"'s friend and a native of Antwerp (Belgium); King 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, Raphael 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:

  1. 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 Utopia's paradoxical rhetoric, a way to say a thing and un-say it simultaneously.
  2. 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 contemplates there.
  3. The humanist love of paradox and ironic contradiction shows itself first in the name, which may mean the "good place" or "no place."

    More's work probably influenced the American Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, especially in the conception and description of Walden.

    • Might you find the same tendency toward deliberate self-contradiction in Thoreau's work, as well?
  1. 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 The 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.
  2. 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 century.
  3. 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 Utopia?
    • Can you tell where Raphael Hythloday is trying to take you when he says "if you had been in Utopia with me"?
  4. 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 Everyman and Utopia."  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.  
  5. Responses to Utopia from its readers produced a wide range of prose and visual artifacts.  Click 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, The Ambassadors.  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 Everyman and Utopia."

To go to the St. Thomas More Web Page, click here

To go to the Society for Utopian Studies web site maintained by Naomi Jacobs of U. Maine, Orono, click here.

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