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The Meaning of More's Utopia

The Meaning of More's Utopia

by George M. Logan

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Examining its relation to ancient and Renaissance political thought, George M. Logan sees Thomas More's Utopia whole, in all its ironic complexity. He finds that the book is not primarily a prescriptive work that restates the ideals of Christian humanism or warns against radical idealism, but an exploration of a particular method of political study and the


Examining its relation to ancient and Renaissance political thought, George M. Logan sees Thomas More's Utopia whole, in all its ironic complexity. He finds that the book is not primarily a prescriptive work that restates the ideals of Christian humanism or warns against radical idealism, but an exploration of a particular method of political study and the implications of that method for normative theory.

Originally published in 1983.

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The Meaning of More's Utopia

By George M. Logan


Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06557-1


The Letter to Giles

What does the Letter to Giles tell us about the book it introduces? First, it suggests strongly, in every aspect of its substance and manner, that Utopia belongs to the tradition of Renaissance humanism. The letter is addressed to the humanist Peter Giles, a friend of Erasmus. Its Latin is humanist Latin; its informal, semi-fictional mode is characteristic of the humanist approach to philosophical topics. The letter takes much of its substance from standard humanist topoi. Claiming, especially in a dedicatory letter, that a work was composed in odd hours or inopportune circumstances had been a convention (sometimes corresponding to facts) of humanist prose since Petrarch's "Ascent of Mont Ventoux" — a virtuoso piece that Petrarch claims he scribbled while waiting for supper in an inn after a long day of mountain-climbing (p. 46) — and his treatise On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others — supposedly written "quickly on a hasty journey" (p. 47). Erasmus begins his dedicatory letter to More in The Praise of Folly with the same topos — he composed the book on horseback — and later has Folly mock this convention, as she refers to "the common run of orators ... [who], when they bring out a speech they have been working on for thirty whole years, and sometimes not their own at all, will swear it was written in three days, for pastime, or even that they merely dictated it" (p. 9). More's highminded identification of himself with learning (Ut., p. 39) and the corresponding elitist contempt of the views of the crowd (pp. 43-45) also embody favorite humanist topoi. The humorous Greek coinages in the letter — Utopia, Hythlodaeus, Amaurotum, Anydrus — constitute a stylistic feature associated specifically with the humanism of the later Renaissance, being an affectation that reflects the fact that knowledge of Greek was only in this period becoming widespread among humanists. Erasmus exemplifies this habit in The Praise of Folly and, through Folly, comments shrewdly on it:

It has seemed well, you note, to imitate the rhetoricians of our time, who believe themselves absolutely to be gods if they can show themselves bilingual (like a horse-leech), and account it a famous feat if they can weave a few Greekish words, like inlay work, ever and anon into their Latin orations, even if at the moment there is no place for them, (pp. 10-11)

At the same time that these Grecisms serve to establish More's affiliation with humanism, they clarify the nature of his intended audience. Greek coinages (like the constant indirect classical allusions in the body of Utopia) are included for the sake of those readers — exclusively humanists — who can understand them. The knowing, self-congratulatory approbation of the book embodied in the commendatory letters in the early editions confirms its impact on this audience. As Folly says, exotic antiquarian references "spread darkness" over the ordinary reader: but "those who understand will be vastly pleased with themselves" (p. 11).

The letter also contains evidence of another kind that Utopia is a book by a humanist directed primarily to his fellows. In this letter More has already adopted the pretense that Utopia records conversations with Hythloday. Modern readers have been so ready to effect the invited suspension of disbelief that they have failed to recognize that most of what is attributed to Hythloday here in fiction is to be attributed to More in fact. As a result, some of what More tells us about the book and his feelings about it escapes notice.

More says that

there was no reason for me to take trouble about the style of the narrative, seeing that his [Hythloday's] language could not be polished. It was, first of all, hurried and impromptu and, secondly, the product of a person who, as you know, was not so well acquainted with Latin as with Greek. Therefore the nearer my style came to his careless simplicity the closer it would be to the truth, for which alone I am bound to care under the circumstances and actually do care. (p. 39)

The main purpose of this passage is to acknowledge that the Latinity of the book does not come up to the highest humanist standards, a purpose that becomes clearer with a sentence a little farther on: "If it had been required that the matter be written down not only accurately but eloquently, I could not have performed the task with any amount of time or application." The remark that Hythloday was "not so well acquainted with Latin as with Greek," in addition to its function in characterizing Hythloday, offers a respectable excuse for the lack of polish of the book's style: the narrative really was "the product of a person who" had been immersed in Greek studies. In fact, More's only substantial publication (apart from the Life of Pico) before Utopia had been the translations from Lucian that were printed with those of Erasmus.

Deprecation of one's style is another humanist convention, and often an especially pained display of it is designed to call attention to the excellence of the style, as in the disclaimer that Poggio attaches to a collection of his letters: "This book, although it may seem to represent a man who is unlearned and of no great account, ... may be ... a sort of incentive ... by which you may be stimulated to greater endeavors, that is, to imitating the literary style of the ancients from which I am very far away" (p. 22). But in More's case the deprecation surely reflects genuine anxiety. He was, after all, a provincial humanist in "ultima Britannia" (Catullus XXIV.4) and nervous like all provincials in offering himself to the great world. His nervousness about the book (presumably on several scores) is also recorded in a number of letters written around the time of its issue (Cor., nos. 20, 22, 26, 28-32, 34). Moreover, Erasmus' remark that there is some "unevenness" in the style of Utopia (Erasmus to Hutten, EE, 4:21), together with the list of More's solecisms and barbarisms compiled by his enemy Brixius, confirm that More had reason for uneasiness in this matter.

The letter tells us, then, the kind of reader for whom Utopia was designed. This information is significant for interpretation in two ways. First, it suggests the range of learning we need in order to be adequate readers: familiarity with the classical, patristic, and Renaissance books that form the common intellectual property of humanism and with the ideas and concerns that characterize the humanists, especially those of More's generation and the immediately preceding period. Second, the fact that Utopia is addressed primarily to a humanist audience implies that we should anticipate and accept as themes of the book only those that More could plausibly be expected to address to such an audience, and that we should be correspondingly reluctant to accept any reading of Utopia that suggests that the book is designed to tell humanists either things that we cannot imagine them (or More) being interested in or things that they already knew (though, indeed, works of less serious humanists often simply repeat humanist commonplaces).

Unfortunately, almost all criticism of Utopia embodies such implausibilities. In particular, the most influential recent commentators, the humanistic interpreters, tell us that More is rehashing, albeit in eloquent and mystifyingly indirect form, the shared political ideals of Erasmian humanists. Utopia is seen, that is, as essentially a speculum principis, a book more or less identical in substance to such works as Erasmus' Education of a Christian Prince — although in form it is (unlike the relentlessly simple and direct specula) obviously designed for an audience of sophisticated literary scholars. Seebohm had in fact characterized Utopia as having "a very similar object" to that of The Education of a Christian Prince(p. 229; cf. p. 217), and there are like statements in the works of most of his successors. Caspari, for example, says that "in Utopia, More drew a picture clearer and fuller than anything his friend Erasmus had produced, of a humanistic state, of a society which was inspired by the central ideals they held in common" (p. 90; cf. pp. 91, 101, 117), while Schoeck tells us that the purpose of Utopia is "the creation of a model or mirror," "a model by reference to which reforms might be achieved" (1969, pp. 285, 287). Skinner says that the interpretation of Utopia "simply as a contribution to a more general 'programme' of humanist reform ... helps to capture much of the spirit of More's book," although in some respects More's pattern of "a virtuous and harmonious commonwealth" differs from the prescriptions of other northern humanists (1978, pp. 255-56, 261; cf. Elton 1977, pp. 43-44; Bradshaw, p. 20).

It is a little surprising that these writers have been so pleased to conclude that Utopia is closely affiliated with the speculum principis, a genre that is accurately characterized by Hexter as "wretched and dreary" (1952, p. 103). In a period that witnessed the brilliant beginnings of modern positive theory, the late specula (except for Machiavelli's radical reformulation) appear, to historians of the development of political thought, as uninteresting survivals of an outmoded tradition. And indeed it is in this way that Utopia is usually regarded by these historians (with the notable exception of Skinner), who share with the humanistic interpreters the view that Utopia is only a sort of disguised speculum. J. W. Allen allots Utopia four pages in his History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century. He is impressed, as almost all readers are, by the descriptive and analytic power of Hythloday's account of England in Book I, but he views Book II as only a "fairy tale" (p. 154) pieced together of ideals that More knew would remain unrealized and whimsical elements "calculated rather to amuse than to suggest" (p. 156). George H. Sabine's admirable History of Political Theory, the standard survey, devotes two pages to More (as compared to twenty-two to Machiavelli). Sabine also praises the account of England in Book I, but "this attack upon the economics of business enterprise ... was really motivated by a longing for the past" (p. 436) — a view that reflects the influence of Chambers. Although Utopia embodies "a worthy moral idea," the book is (as to Allen) "pitiable," expressing "the reasonableness and open-mindedness of humanism, and withal the futility of a moral aspiration that cannot make its account with brute fact" (p. 437). Utopia is thus "an isolated and unimportant episode in the political philosophy of its time. It illustrated rather the dying utterance of an old ideal than an authentic voice of the age that was coming into being."

Fortunately for More's reputation as a political theorist, the view of Utopia as a disguised humanist speculum is untenable, not only because (as we shall find in Chapter Three) the reading of Book II that it entails is rendered insupportable by discrepancies between Utopian practices and humanist ideals, but also because it is incompatible with the fact that Utopia is addressed to a humanist audience. Why should More write a book to tell his fellow humanists what they already knew and to recommend to them what they already approved? Indeed, the very means used to establish that Utopia is a restatement of humanist orthodoxy — citing the numerous parallels between ideas in Utopia and those in other humanist works — is self-defeating, since the more these ideas are shown to be humanist commonplaces, the less plausible it appears that so serious and brilliant a thinker as More should write a book merely for the purpose of reiterating them. To be sure, the humanistic interpreters sometimes claim that More's intended audience is some other group, even though their own researches clearly imply that Utopia is designed primarily for humanists. Although Surtz at one point says that Utopia is ... addressed to humanists filled with dislike and disdain for the old order," and that "Hythlodaeus is giving their common idealism classic utterance" (Ut., pp. cxlvii, cxlviii), he also constantly echoes Chambers's thesis that Utopia is designed to move Europeans in general, and their leaders in particular, to reform (e.g., 1957a, p. 199; 1957b, pp. 7, 19-20)· Similarly, R. P. Adams says that Utopia is "a 'mirror' not merely for a magistrate but for all Englishmen" (1962, p. 141), while Skinner links Utopia with Italian "civic humanist" works addressed "not merely to the leaders of society, but also to the whole body of the citizens" (1978, p. 215). But if Utopia is addressed to this less erudite audience, why did More make it so difficult, so cliquish — in a word, why did he aim it so far over the heads of most Europeans and their rulers? Humanist rhetorician that he is, More is quite conscious of the need to choose a literary mode appropriate to his intended audience. When he addressed a more general audience, as in his defenses of humanist learning or in the English version of The History of King Richard III, he used a different style and often a different language — the vernacular (which is also employed, for the same reason, in the civic humanist treatises cited by Skinner).

Rejecting the idea that Utopia is a disguised rehash of humanist prescriptions, we are forced to confront afresh the fundamental interpretive question about the book: if it is political theory (and yet is not simply a summary of More's and other humanists' political ideals), what kind of political theory is it? The Letter to Giles, which presumably is designed to tell what lies before us, offers two clues, both, however, tantalizingly enigmatic.

First, just as the letter suggests an aspect of Utopia about which More was especially anxious (its Latinity), so also it suggests an aspect in which he took particular pride. To apprehend this suggestion, we must again apply what More says about Hythloday to himself.

The letter begins with an apology for More's delay in completing the book. Giles will be surprised that a book that he "looked for ... within a month and a half' has arrived only after almost a year:

Certainly you know that I was relieved of all the labor of gathering materials [inueniendi laborem] for the work and that I had to give no thought at all to their arrangement [dispositione]. I had only to repeat what in your company I heard Raphael relate. (p. 39)

Hexter argues that this passage tells us that Book II and its introduction were essentially complete when More returned from the Netherlands in 1515, and that Book I was an afterthought (1952, pp. 28-29; Ut., p. xxii). But the primary intention of the passage is surely to remind Giles and other readers that a good deal of reflection and much collecting and arranging of materials from many sources were necessary in order to turn into a book the conversations with Giles that presumably gave rise to Utopia. More again alludes to this fact, in the same indirect fashion, a few lines farther on: if he were not simply reproducing Hythloday's remarks (which of course he is not), "the gathering or the arrangement [uel excogitatio, uel oeconomia] of the materials could have required a good deal of both time and application even from a talent neither the meanest nor the most ignorant." There is a related boast a little later. Asking Giles "to remind me of anything that has escaped me," More goes on to say that "in this respect I do not entirely distrust myself. (I only wish I were as good in intelligence and learning as I am not altogether deficient in memory!)" (p. 41). In addition to its function in establishing fictional verisimilitude (rendering it plausible that More should recall Hythloday's talk more or less verbatim), this remark is designed to call attention to the astonishing powers of memory that the eclectic and synthetic procedure of the book illustrates.


Excerpted from The Meaning of More's Utopia by George M. Logan. Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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