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Since its publication in 1516, Utopia has provoked a hailstorm of debate. The minute details More ascribed to his "perfect world" make Utopia still a work of the future.
Thomas More to Peter Giles, Greetings
* * *
I am almost ashamed, my dear Peter Giles, to have delayed for almost a year in sending you this little book about the Utopian commonwealth, which I'm sure you expected within six weeks. You knew, after all, that I was spared the labor of finding my matter, and did not have to give any thought to its arrangement; all I had to do was repeat what you and I heard Raphael say. For that reason there was no need to strive for eloquence, since his language could hardly be polished, first because it was informal and extemporaneous, and also because he is a person, as you know, not as well versed in Latin as in Greek; the closer my language came to his casual simplicity, the more accurate it would be, and in this matter accuracy is all that I ought to, and in fact do, aim for.
I grant you, Peter, that with all this already taken care of, I was relieved of so much effort that there was almost nothing left for me to do. If this had not been so, thinking up the subject matter and arranging it might have required not a little time and study, even from someone of not inconsiderable intelligence and not totally without learning. But if I had been required to write not only accurately but also elegantly, no amount of time or study would have enabled me to do it. As it is, all these concerns, which would have cost me so much labor, are removed and all that remained to do was to write what I heard—not a difficult task.
But nevertheless, even to perform this trifling task, other chores left me almost no time at all. I am constantly pleading one case, hearing another, acting as arbitrator, handing down decisions as a judge, visiting one person or another on business or because it is my duty to do so; I am out practically all day dealing with others, and the rest of my time is devoted to my family, and so I leave nothing for myself, that is for writing.
When I get home, I have to talk with my wife, chat with my children, confer with the servants. All this I count as part of my obligations, since it needs to be done (and it does if you do not wish to be a stranger in your own home); and you must do everything you can to make yourself as agreeable as possible to the persons you live with, whether they were provided by nature, chance, or your own choice, as long as you do not spoil them by your familiarity or turn servants into masters through over-indulgence. As I am doing such things, as I said, a day, a month, a year slips by.
When do I write then? And as yet I have said nothing about sleep and nothing at all about eating, and for many that takes up no less time than sleep itself, which consumes almost half our lives. The only time I get for myself is what I steal from sleep and eating. Because that is so little, I progressed slowly, but because it was at least something, I did make progress, and I sent Utopia to you, my dear Peter, so that you can read it and let me know if I have missed anything. For, though on that score I do not lack all confidence in myself (and I only wish that my intelligence and learning were a match for my not inconsiderable memory), still I am not confident enough to think that nothing has escaped me.
As you know, John Clement, my young assistant, was there with us, for I do not allow him to miss out on any conversation which could be profitable to him because from this sprout which is beginning to grow green with proficiency in Latin and Greek I expect someday a marvelous harvest. He has made me feel very doubtful about one point: as far as I remember Hythloday told us that the bridge which spans the river Anyder at Amaurot is five hundred yards long, but my boy John says that is two hundred yards too many and that the river is no more than three hundred wide. Please try to remember that point. For if you agree with him, I will go along with you both and believe I am mistaken. But if you do not recall, I will stand by what I think I remember myself, for just as I have taken great pains to prevent any inaccuracy in the book, so too, when I am in doubt, I would rather say something inaccurate than tell a lie, because I would rather be honest than clever.
In fact, it would be easy to remedy this defect if you would find out from Raphael himself about it, in person or by letter. And you need to do the same concerning another difficulty which has arisen—who is more to blame for it, I or you or Raphael himself, I do not know. For it did not occur to us to ask, or him to mention, in what part of that new world Utopia is located. Indeed, to remedy this oversight I would be willing to give a sizeable sum, partly because I am ashamed not to know in which ocean the island lies about which I have recounted so much, partly because there are one or two people here, but especially one person, a devout man and a theologian by profession, who is amazingly eager to go to Utopia, not out of idle curiosity or any hankering after novelties but in order to nourish and spread our religion, which has made such a good beginning there. To do this properly he has decided to see to it beforehand that he is sent by the pope and made the bishop of the Utopians. He has no scruples whatever about begging for this bishopric, since he considers such ambition to be holy if it is not based on honor or gain but rather springs from piety.
Therefore, my dear Peter, I beg you to contact Hythloday, either in person if that is convenient or by letter if you are separated, and see to it that this work of mine contains nothing false and lacks nothing true. And perhaps it would be best to show him the book. For there is no one else capable of correcting any errors and even he cannot do so unless he reads through what I have written. Then too, this will let you see whether he is pleased or annoyed at me for writing this work. For if he himself has decided to commit his labors to writing, he may not want me to do so. And I certainly would not want to deprive his narrative of the bloom and charm of novelty by making the commonwealth of Utopia public.
But in fact, to tell you the truth, I myself have not yet made up my mind whether or not to publish it at all. For the tastes of mortals are so various, the temperaments of some are so bitter, their minds so ungrateful, their judgments so preposterous that a person would do far better to follow his own bent and lead a merry life than to wear himself out trying to publish something useful or entertaining for an audience so finicky and ungrateful. Most people know nothing about learning; many despise it. Dummies reject as too hard whatever is not dumb. The literati look down their noses at anything not swarming with obsolete words. Some like only ancient authors; many like only their own writing. One person is so dour that he cannot abide jokes; another is so witless that he cannot stand anything witty. Some have so little nose for satire that they dread it the way someone bitten by a rabid dog fears water. Others are so changeable that their approval depends on whether they are sitting down or standing up.
They sit around in taverns and over their cups they pontificate about the talents of writers, condemning each author just as they please, pulling him down through his writings as if they had grabbed him by the hair, while they themselves are safe and out of harm's way, as the saying goes, because these good men have their whole heads smooth-shaven so that there is not a single hair to grab on to.
Furthermore, some are so ungrateful that, even though a work has given them great pleasure, they still do not like the author any better because of it. They are not unlike ill-mannered guests who, after they have been lavishly entertained at a splendid banquet, finally go home stuffed without saying a word of thanks to the host who invited them. Go on, now, and at your own expense provide a banquet for persons of such delicate palates and various tastes, who will remember and repay you with such gratitude!
Nevertheless, my dear Peter, raise with Hythloday the points I mentioned. Afterwards I will be free to consider the matter once more. But in fact, if he himself gives his consent—since it is late to be wise now that I have finished all the work—in all other considerations about publishing I will follow the advice of my friends, and especially yours. Farewell, my dearest Peter Giles, with regards to your excellent wife, and be as fond of me as ever, since I am fonder of you than ever.
A Discourse on the Best Form of a Commonwealth Spoken by the Remarkable Raphael Hythloday
* * *
as Reported by the Illustrious Thomas More a Citizen and the Undersheriff of the Famous British City of London
Recently the invincible king of England,=8 Henry the eighth of that name, who is lavishly endowed with all skills necessary for an outstanding ruler, had some matters of no small moment which had to be worked out with Charles, the most serene prince of Castile. To discuss and resolve these differences he sent me to Flanders as his ambassador; I was the companion and colleague of the incomparable Cuthbert Tunstall, whom he recently appointed to be Master of the Rolls, to the enormous satisfaction of everyone. I will say nothing in his praise, not because I am afraid that my friendship might seem to make me an unreliable witness, but because his virtue and learning are beyond my power to proclaim them and because they are everywhere so renowned and well known that there is no need for me to do so, unless I intend to display the sun by the light of a lantern, as they say.
As had been agreed, we were met at Bruges by those to whom the prince had entrusted the negotiations, all of them outstanding men. Their leader and chief was the Mayor of Bruges, a splendid man, but their spokesman and mastermind was George de Themsecke, the Provost of Cassel, who is not only a trained orator but also a naturally eloquent speaker; he is very skilled in the law as well, and also an extraordinarily deft negotiator because he is both intelligent and very experienced. After one or two meetings we could not reach agreement on some points, and so they bade us farewell for some days and set out for Brussels to ask for the pronouncement of their prince.
Meanwhile, as my business required, I made my way to Antwerp. While I was staying there, I was often visited by Peter Giles, among others, though no other visitor was more delightful to me. A native of Antwerp, he holds a post of great responsibility and prestige (and he is worthy of the most prestigious), since for this young man it would be hard to say which is greater, his learning or his virtue. For he is most virtuous and very widely read, and also good-natured toward everyone, but toward his friends he is so responsive, warmhearted, loyal, and unfeignedly affectionate that it would be hard to find even one or two anywhere that you would think comparable to him in every aspect of friendship. He has a modesty rarely to be found; no one is further from false poses; no one combines more prudence with simplicity. Then, too, his elegant speech and his innocent wit are so attractive that his delightful companionship and his charming conversation alleviated my longing for my country, household, wife, and children, though I was tormented by my desire to see them again, for at that time I had been away from home for more than four months.
One day, after I had heard mass at the church of St. Mary, which is remarkable for its beautiful architecture and its large congregation, when the service was over and I was getting ready to return to my lodgings, I happened to see Giles conversing with a stranger who was getting up in years. His face was sunburned, his beard untrimmed, his cloak hanging carelessly from his shoulder; from his face and bearing I thought he looked like a sea captain. But then, when Peter saw me, he came up and greeted me. When I tried to answer, he took me a little aside and said, "Do you see this man?" (At the same time he indicated the person I had seen him talking to.) "He is the one," he said, "I was just getting ready to bring straight to you."
"He would have been all the more welcome to me on your account."
"Actually on his own," he said, "if you knew him. For there is no mortal alive today who can give more information about unknown peoples and lands, and I know that you are very eager to hear about them."
"My guess was not far off, then," I said, "for when I first set eyes on him, I immediately thought he was a sea captain."
"But in fact," he said, "you were far off the mark. Certainly he has sailed, not like Palinurus, but rather like Ulysses, or even better like Plato. This man, who is named Raphael—his family name is Hythloday—has no mean knowledge of the Latin language but is especially proficient in Greek; he has devoted himself to Greek more than to Latin because he has totally committed himself to philosophy and he knew that in that field there is nothing of any importance in Latin except some works of Seneca and Cicero. Out of a desire to see the world he left to his brothers his heritage in his homeland (he is from Portugal), joined Amerigo Vespucci, and was his constant companion in the first three of the four voyages which everyone is now reading about; but on the last voyage he did not come back with him. He sought and practically wrested from Amerigo permission to be one of the twenty-four who were left behind in a fort at the farthest point of the last voyage. And so he was left behind in accordance with his outlook, since he was more concerned about his travels than his tomb. Indeed he often used to say, 'Whoever does not have an urn has the sky to cover him,' and 'from everywhere it is the same distance to heaven.' This attitude of his would have cost him dearly if God had not been merciful to him. However, after the departure of Vespucci, he traveled through many lands with five companions from the fort, and finally, by an extraordinary stroke of luck, he was transported to Ceylon and from there he reached Calicut, where he opportunely found some Portuguese ships and at last, beyond all expectation, he got home again."
When Peter had told me this I thanked him for his kindness in taking so much trouble to introduce me to someone whose conversation he hoped I would enjoy, and then I turned to Raphael. After we had greeted each other and spoken the usual amenities that are exchanged when strangers meet for the first time, we went off to my house, where we conversed sitting in the garden on a bench covered with grassy turf.
And so he told us how, after the departure of Vespucci, he and his companions who had remained in the fort gradually began to win the good graces of the people of that land by encountering and speaking well of them, and then they started to interact with them not only with no danger but even on friendly terms, and finally they gained the affection and favor of some ruler, whose name and country escape me. He told how, through the generosity of the ruler, he and five of his companions were liberally supplied with provisions and ships on the sea and wagons on the land—together with a trustworthy guide who took them to other rulers to whom he heartily recommended them. After many days' journey, he said, he discovered towns and cities and commonwealths that were very populous and not badly governed.
On both sides of the equator, it is true, extending almost as far as the space covered by the orbit of the sun there lie vast empty wastelands, scorched with perpetual heat. The whole region is barren and ugly, rugged and uncultivated, inhabited by wild beasts and serpents and by people who are no less wild than the beasts and no less dangerous. But when you have traveled further, everything gradually becomes milder. The heavens are less fierce, the ground is green and pleasant, the creatures are more gentle, and finally one sees peoples, cities, towns, which not only trade continually among themselves and with near neighbors but also carry on commerce with distant nations by land and sea. From that point on they were able to visit many countries in all directions since there was no ship traveling anywhere in which he and his comrades were not eagerly welcomed.
Excerpted from UTOPIA by Thomas More, CLARENCE H. MILLER. Copyright © 2014 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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|Pt. 1||Introduction: More's Utopia in Historical Perspective||1|
|Letter from Peter Giles to Hierome Buslide||202|
|A Meter of Four Verses||205|
|A Short Meter of Utopia||206|
|Gerard Noviomage of Utopia||206|
|Cornelius Graphey to the Reader||207|
|The Printer to the Reader||207|
|Ralph Robynson's Dedicatory Letter to William Cecil||209|
Posted November 1, 2010
No text was provided for this review.