Back From Utopia

This year’s quincentennial of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia coincides with an exceptionally spirit-blighting presidential election, making his work especially relevant, writes Scott McLemee.

November 2, 2016

One detail from Sir Thomas More’s Utopia stuck with me after reading it long ago, and it’s come to mind with some regularity over the past few months: on More’s imaginary island, anyone who aspired to high office was judged to be, for that very unreason, unfit to hold it.

This fall happens to be the book’s quincentennial. More sent the manuscript to his friend Erasmus in September 1516, and it was in print by the end of the year. That the anniversary coincides with an exceptionally nasty and spirit-blighting American presidential election seems providential, as if to confirm that the Utopians were definitely on to something.

Apart from the systemic ban on political ambition, my only other recollection of Utopia was that it was a bit dull. The sole thing that kept me going was the adolescent conviction (long since abandoned) that starting to read a classic implied a commitment to finishing it, come what may. So when I returned to the book recently, it was without fond associations -- and no expectation at all of laughing, since its satirical quality had gone right over my head.

The title is a pun in Greek: More’s ideal society is a good place (eu-topia) that’s also no place (u-topia). The play on words, while minimally hilarious, hints that the author is working in the same ironic vein as Erasmus had just a few years earlier in The Praise of Folly. There, everything people treat as important, dignified or admirable is shown to be evidence of human foolishness at work. More’s detailed picture of a happy, harmonious, prosperous country serves to highlight the corruption and irrationality of the social and political system 500 years ago -- with every reason to think things would only get worse.

Utopia opens with a reference to Henry VIII, then reigning as “the unconquered King of England, a prince adorned with all the virtues that become a great monarch,” which certainly seems prudent. (Henry did eventually have the author executed, but not for his literary efforts.) The narrator and a friend are joined by one Raphael Hythloday, a learned and widely traveled gentleman, who has some experience with royal failings. Those occupying the throne tend to be “more set on acquiring new kingdoms, right or wrong, than on governing well those they possess,” for example. Influence on the court comes from “only those for whom the prince has much personal favour, whom by their fawning and flatteries they endeavour to fix to their own interests.” His complaints are broad enough to limit how much offense they might give to any particular sovereign.

The narrator and his friend try to persuade Hythloday that his wisdom and experience should be put to use in changing the system from within -- that is, by becoming a courtier. He refuses on the grounds that any reforms he might propose would meet with “proud, morose and absurd judgments” by those with a vested interest in the status quo.

Things are better organized in Utopia, a land somewhere beyond the equator where Hythloday lived for five years. His listeners prevail upon him to describe the place -- and so he does, at some length. The prolonged explanatory monologue became a standard element of utopian fiction; in this, the genre’s foundational work, it fills the remaining two-thirds of the book.

It’s a communist manifesto, minus any process of historical change in getting there. On Utopia there is no private property, no poverty and very few laws. The inhabitants exchange houses every 10 years and dress in simple, standardized clothes. They are industrious and work at the jobs for which they are suited by talent and temperament. Money is not used except in one emergency situation we’ll consider. The Utopians are pagans but well behaved. “One of their most ancient laws,” we’re told, is “that no man ought to be punished for his religion.” Before being married, a couple sees each other naked at a public ceremony; this may be shocking to Christendom but it prevents unwelcome surprises.

Whether More was advocating the policies and arrangements that his traveler described -- or even considered them realizable or desirable -- has been a matter for much subtle argument. (Given More’s subsequent persecution of Protestants, the religious pluralism in Utopia was never more than a thought experiment.) But what struck me while rereading the book was More’s consistent sense that social inequality and moral viciousness are as linked as chicken and egg.

“Pride, that plague of human nature,” says Hythloday, “… does not measure happiness so much by its own conveniences, as by the miseries of others; and would not be satisfied with being thought a goddess, if none were left that were miserable, over whom she might insult. [Pride] thinks its own happiness shines the brighter, by comparing it with the misfortunes of other persons; that by displaying its own wealth, they may feel their poverty the more sensibly.”

So keeping in mind that More himself was a lawyer, and a successful one, there’s a moral and satirical reason why Utopia has no attorneys: the inhabitants “consider them as a sort of people whose profession it is to disguise matters and to wrest the laws, and, therefore, they think it is much better that every man should plead his own cause …. After the parties have laid open the merits of the cause, without those artifices which lawyers are apt to suggest, the judge examines the whole matter, and supports the simplicity of such well-meaning persons, whom otherwise crafty men would be sure to run down …”

The Utopian policy regarding money allows More to score an especially sharp jab at pride and privilege. The Utopians accept that it’s necessary to keep a certain amount of gold and silver on hand, says Hythloday, in case they need it when dealing with other countries. But since they themselves judge the value of metals by their use, they have a much higher regard for iron. Rather than just pile up the gold in storage, however, they use it to make chamber pots and chains for criminals undergoing punishment. Likewise, they make practical use of jewels by giving them to small children as playthings.

A group of visiting dignitaries once wanted to overawe the Utopians with their power and wealth. And so they made their grand entrance, dressed to impress: “The ambassadors themselves, who were of the nobility of their country, were in cloth-of-gold, and adorned with massy chains, earrings and rings of gold; their caps were covered with bracelets set full of pearls and other gems -- in a word, they were set out with all those things that among the Utopians were either the badges of slavery, the marks of infamy or the playthings of children.”

More also ran diplomatic missions for England. He was on one to the Netherlands in 1515 when he started writing what became Utopia. The image of an ambassador decked out in fancy handcuffs and wearing, say, a solid-gold toilet seat around his neck is surprisingly broad for a writer of More’s learning and station; he clearly had mixed feelings about his own political role. But after 500 years, it’s still reasonably funny, and it puts the trappings of political ambition in a suitably critical perspective.


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