Sir Thomas More: Is Utopia really a “Utopia?”

Sir Thomas More’s Utopia contains passages that appear paradoxical or laughably absurd, both to More’s contemporaries and modern readers alike. Many of his ideas may have been called parody, or as an over-reaction meant to shed light on injustices he saw in England at the time. More’s Utopia has lent its name to an entire genre of modern fiction, one which is often accused of being preachy, since its main approach is to present worlds better than our own. More seems to feed our society’s seemingly endless desire to create fictional perfect worlds, but More’s Utopia is far from what we now consider to be a “Utopia.” More’s intentions, while still unclear and very much open for debate, appear to be critical of Utopia more often than they endorse it.

My initial view upon reading Utopia is that Hythloday was intended to be More, and that the character only existed to distance More from the possible backlash against the political ideologies in Utopia, which, if attributed to him, could be considered treasonous. But throughout the work, this initial response breaks down. The more I read, the more I realized that my initial assumptions about Utopia were based on our modern society’s Utopian fiction, a genre that Utopia itself doesn’t really fit into. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, in its introduction to Thomas More, makes a point that Utopia “is not, or not directly, a call for revolutionary social reform. It is, rather, a meditation, if the form of a dialogue, on the question of whether intellectuals should involve themselves in politics” (570). This question is one that should be considered when viewing any type of utopian/dystopian fiction, regardless of its intent. Some utopian fiction has been created specifically for the purpose of social reform, and Thomas More’s Utopia itself has been used to that end, like in the case of New Harmony, Indiana. When the fiction is intended to promote social reform, then it becomes even more important to consider whether or not the intellectuals who created it should be involved, or could ever be successful, in politics. Nevertheless, the influence Utopian fiction has had is clear. Utopias and dystopias distill a society’s hopes and fears, and they reflect back directly on that society. From the early-mid 20th century’s dystopian fiction of 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World, to mid 20th century’s hopeful visions, seen in such works as Star Trek, these works are each a microcosm of the society’s mentality at the time of their popularity, and the issues they deal with reveal insight into their surrounding culture. More’s Utopia, however, does not seem to follow this model. It is not a clear description of 1516s hopes and fears, and instead often borders on surreal. Thomas More is not Gene Roddenberry, who made it very clear that his intentions were to create a perfect society. To read him as such would be to ignore almost every aspect of More’s actual life.

Thomas More’s Utopia, to a modern reader, often straddles the line between Utopia and Dystopia, as most good utopias do, but its age makes it difficult to tell what aspects were intended as hopes and which were fears. More’s intentions have never been adequately clarified. George Sanderlin writes, “What is the meaning of Thomas More’s Utopia? Is it a ‘mirror for princes’ for Henry VIII, corresponding to the Intstitutio principic Christiani which Erasmus wrote for Charles V? Is it a subtle exhortation to the sixteenth-century proletariat to revolt–they have nothing to lose but their blue apprentice coats? Is it a defense of medieval collectivism against the new commercialism… Learned names stand behind each of these theories, and the list of hypotheses above is by no means complete” (74). At a loss for any single meaning of the work, Sanderlin also suggests that “A critic may make a purely personal interpretation, like H.G. Wells’s contemptuous of Utopian ‘Whiggism’” (74). Eva Braun once remarked that Utopia is a city without philosophy. (Engeman 136). Clearly, twisting Utopia to fit into one’s worldview is a common thing to do, and one I intend to avoid by examining More’s intentions.

When reading Utopia, I was constantly surprised at how modern many of the ideas seem. And then when reading about More’s life, I was equally surprised to see how those modern ideals I thought he favored were not reflected in his own life. J.H. Hexter writes in his “Thomas More: On the Margins of Modernity,” that “[More] did not in the end stand firm for free thought, or for toleration, or for emancipation from the bondage of medieval bigotry and superstition.” Also surprising to me was More’s thoughts toward socialism, since Utopia to me seemed to support what we would now consider Marxist principles, such as the common ownership of property, an idea he borrowed from Plato. “Although Karl Kautsky was sure that at the horizon Sir Thomas had seen the red light of the Marxist dawn, More did not even throw himself into the struggle for socialism. Instead he approved of the execution of men who were burnt at the stake because they rejected the spiritual control of the medieval church; and in the end he died a martyr for the unity which through the centuries that orthodox and persecuting Church had imposed on Europe.” More’s dedication to his religion took me some time to understand, and it has made me question his dedication the religion espoused in Utopia, one which would not call for execution or martyrdom over petty theological quibbles (not to make light of More’s conviction). The Utopian religion values personal happiness, “They think it is an evidence of true wisdom for a man to pursue his own advantage as far as the laws allow it,” and it also has lenient (compared to England) punishments. “all the while I was there one man was only punished on this occasion… Upon his having frequently preached in this manner he was seized, and after trial he was condemned to banishment, not for having disparaged their religion, but for his inflaming the people to sedition” (640). All of this is a stark contrast to More’s approval, or at least condonation, of burning heretics at the stake.

Thomas S. Engeman believes that the secret of More’s actual intentions when writing Utopia lies in the character of Hythloday, and of what More thinks of him. “If Hythloday is an intelligent and credible witness, we can assume that More is is sympathetic to his political teaching. If, as indeed seems the case, Hythloday is not a credible witness, Utopia must be seen in an altogether different light.” (132). Hythloday is the one who actually tells the story of the Utopians. He is describing them to More, who frequently interjects. But these interjections shouldn’t be read necessarily as More’s own voice. More based his Utopia on Plato’s Republic, and the writing is similar to a Platonic dialogue, which often has straw men butt into the conversation only to be cut down by Plato. In the dialogue, More appears to play the straw man. It would be strange to think that he would place himself in the dialogue only to have his ideas rebuked by a fictional character who he actually disagrees with. In the dialogue, the character of More is “practical, traditional, and loyal to his family and friends, his England” (Engeman 135). But seeing as the real More he died at the hand of “his England,” his dedication is worth questioning.

While Utopia might not be More’s perfect world, it definitely is Hythloday’s. Hythloday believes entirely in Utopia, to the point where Engeman describes him as Utopia “writ small” (134). He is hardly a character, since Utopia barely has a narrative. His characterization is seen through his descriptions of the island. He defends against the accusations of More and the Cardinal, and seems entirely convinced that Utopia is a model society. Engeman believes that this does not reflect well on Hythloday, and that he is a ruler masquerading as a teacher (144). “Like the priests,” who, in Utopia, cannot be convicted of crimes, “Hythloday rules indirectly, while professing that he does not seek to rule or that political rule is superfluous” (146). Hythloday reads as a zealot. His dedication to Utopia is cult-like and has no reason to be trusted. His descriptions, while they take on the role of a historical documentary, are not necessarily based in fact. As a result of this, it is reasonable to suggest that More, despite having himself concocted the idea of Utopia, is at the very least skeptical of it.

More’s intentions, then, have to be read as ironic. His political ties to England, while resulting in his death, make him impossible to envision as a philosopher. “He was politically ‘committed’ in a way impossible to imagine of Plato” (Engeman 148). More was first a politician and lawyer, not a philosopher. Pontificating about what-ifs simply doesn’t suit him, and therefore reading Utopia as a “what-if” about English society doesn’t make sense. While More may have shared principles with Hythloday, his real commitments were to England and the the church, not to his fictional Utopia.

 

Works Cited

Engeman, Thomas S. “Hythloday’s Utopia and More’s England: An Interpretation of Thomas More’s Utopia.” The Journal of Politics 44.1 (1982): 131-49. JSTOR. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

Hexter, J. H. “Thomas More: On the Margins of Modernity.” Journal of British Studies 1.1 (1961): 20-37. JSTOR. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

Kessler, Sanford. “Religious Freedom in Thomas More’s “Utopia”” The Review of Politics 64.2 (2002): 207-29. JSTOR. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

Sanderlin, George. “The Meaning of Thomas More’s “Utopia”” College English 12.2 (1950): 74-77. JSTOR. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

“Utopia” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2012. 570-646.

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