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More’s Utopia: Satire or Social Commentary?

More’s Utopia is a deeply ambiguous and paradoxical text, steeped in a tradition of ancient literature while also playfully subverting both contemporary and modern readers’ expectations. Utopia’s longer title draws attention to the text’s ‘beneficial’ nature, suggesting a straightforward interpretation of the book as a Renaissance Humanist’s recommendation for a ‘republic’s best state’, presenting ‘golden’ advice on how present ills may be corrected through correct social institutions and a sound understanding of human nature. However, such straightforward interpretations of More’s authorial intention are complicated through the ‘entertaining’ yet largely unintelligible jokes found in references to the Greek names and places in Utopia, whose meaning is surely lost on the general contemporary reader. Moreover, the story is filtered through an external figure, Hythloday, which allows More a degree of plausible deniability in order to distance himself from the potentially subversive themes expressed. One questions whether the Utopian commonwealth is indeed the ‘best state’ of a republic, given various unsettling aspects of the state, such as its foreign policy and the extensive curtailing of personal freedoms, implying More’s resignation to the fact that an ideal Utopian state is untenable. Ultimately, Utopia’s richly broad scope for interpretation bespeaks a lack of strong authorial intention; thus, the work serves to dramatise the author’s profound conflict between following a life of scholarly and religious detachment, contrasted with an active fulfilment of one’s civic duty to both family and state.


Read as a work which proposes counsel regarding the improvement of contemporary ills of the English society More inhabited, presented in the form of an actualised ideal commonwealth, Utopia can be firmly placed in a longstanding tradition, starting with Plato, of envisaging the necessary structure of a republic to maximise human happiness. More’s text thus resonated strongly with fellow humanists such as Erasmus, who viewed themselves as political advisors employing reason to convey the vast new learning achieved through global exploration and the dissemination of ancient authors through the Gutenberg Press, as a counterweight to the authority of the Christian tradition, embodied in Hythloday’s scornful rejection of one’s ‘forefathers’ in favour of their potentially ‘wiser’ descendants. All “Utopian” texts grapple with the fundamental problem of supply and demand; whereas the “Land of Cockaigne” posits a world of unlimited abundance to satisfy unlimited desire, Utopian solutions idealise institution over the more ingrained facts of man and nature. This focus on institutions provides Hythloday the basis for the explanation of social ills in contemporary England; vast recent shifts in the nature of employment, where the ‘unreasonable covetousness of a few’ (Page 23) landowners converted arable land into pasture for the increased profits gained from sheep farming left the peasantry dispossessed and destitute. Thus, when Hythloday asks ‘what else can [the peasantry] then else do’ but resort to ‘beggary’ and ‘theft’ (Page 22), he is radically challenging the notion that man commits crime because of innate immorality or conscious choice; rather, he is arguing that particular social institutions have driven him to this state. Similarly, those in power must be reformed through humanist counsel to develop compassion for their subjects: instead of merely viewing them as ends for profit, Hythloday evokes metaphors of positions of mutual reciprocity, arguing that they should be ‘readier…to teach’ their subjects than ‘beat’ them as an ‘evil schoolmaster would’ (Page 19). Drawing on the Platonic metaphor of the king’s ‘duty’ as a ‘shepherd’, Hythloday radically reverses the medieval image of subjects serving their king to argue that the ruler should ‘feed his sheep rather than himself’ (Page 39)  to achieve an ideal commonwealth. Thus, More places Utopia firmly in the tradition of texts which idealise the influence of social reform on human nature to achieve the ‘republic’s best state’, yet in its (albeit ironically flawed) commitment to conveying ‘nothing false’ (Page 7) regarding the veracity of Utopia through the accompanying maps and alphabets, Peter Giles esteems the text ‘superior’ even to Plato’s Republic, since it has ‘exhibited…surpassing excellence’ in manifesting an ideal commonwealth, rather than merely ‘delineating [it] with words’ as Plato did (Page 127).

An ingrained predisposition towards pride, accentuated by the institution of private property, is presented as a fundamental cause of social ills in both Utopia and More’s own moral philosophy; it is this ‘chief vice’ which drives rulers to ‘contempt or hatred of his people’ (Page 40).  Hythloday argues for the abolishment of private property, ‘wherein there is nothing within the houses that is private or any man’s own’ (Page 54), is as a remedy for this human sin, since it is only when people count something as one’s own property that they believe themselves superior than others who do not have as much belonging to them. It is institutions such as leagues (particularly prevalent in More’s England at the time) which cause men to ‘think themselves born adversaries and enemies one to another’ (Page 96), and rationalise their superiority, rather than adopting and being bound by a more compassionate worldview that is adopted by the Utopians, wherein ‘no man ought to be counted an enemy which hath done no injury’ (Page 97). Indeed, this radical change in the institutions which govern Utopia shows tangible effects in the subjective worldview of the Utopians: they view the ‘point of humanity and gentleness’ as ‘giv[ing] to others’ (Page 78), and adopt an open-mindedness when encountering foreign Romans and Egyptians; Utopia thus anticipates Marx’s dialectical analysis of material conditions giving rise to specific ideologies and worldviews. Through associating gold with ‘chamber-pots’ (Page 71) and viewing precious, valuable stones as mere ‘toys and trifles’ (Page 72) the Utopians transcend petty western materialism to achieve a more common appreciation of humanity bound together through shared empathy and benevolence rather than division through private property, thereby treating the whole population as if it ‘were one family or household’ (Page 69). Through socially engineering the population’s perception of goods and ‘exil[ing] and banish[ing]’ (Page 45) the notion of private property, rendering all things ‘common,’ Hythloday believes he has found a resolution to the aforementioned conflict between supply and demand, so that ‘every man hath abundance of everything.’ More himself viewed the ‘arrow of pride’ from which the ‘pavice of God’ protects man is ‘worldly wealth and prosperity’, inferring that he understood the need for institutions (in this case religious) to regulate man’s innate predisposition towards pride: this is also seen in Utopia, where the belief in the ghostly presence of past ancestors ‘feareth’ the population from ‘all secret dishonesty’ (Page 111). Yet, it is problematic to readily accept the effacement of individuality as part of securing the most ‘beneficial’ aspect of Utopia; indeed, for the modern western reader steeped in a highly individualistic culture, the notion of ‘garments’ all being ‘of one fashion’ (Page 57), and rigidly structured daily routines seems to be problematically tyrannical and authoritarian.

Any simple reading of Utopia as the prescription for an ideal state is quickly rendered problematic through the inclusion of obscure jokes and paradoxes which result in the Utopian state becoming increasingly farcical, yet ultimately ‘entertaining.’ C. S. Lewis usefully identified Utopia as ‘a spontaneous overflow of intellectual high spirits,’ that is ultimately an inconsequential endeavour: it ‘starts many hares and kills none.’ The influence from Lucian, the Syrian satirical poet from antiquity, is evident; in the discovery of ancient knowledge that characterised the Renaissance period, More translated Lucian’s comic texts, and was struck by his technique of serio ludere (to “play seriously”), where serious points were made under the guise of jokes. Erasmus, a close friend of More, also inhabits this tradition through his highly ironic work The Praise of Folly, in which the figure of ‘Folly’ nonsensically performs a declamatio on the nature of folly (a sign of man’s sinful nature) itself. More was drawn to a more serious use of the technique of irony, whereby a mind (such as his) divided and unable to reach a conclusion between the two differing benefits of either accepting public office or remaining close to his private affairs, produces an ironic discourse which can be skilfully conveyed through the technique of serio ludere. More knew of his wilful obscurity in composing Utopia in Latin with Greek allusions since he had previously written in the vernacular when writing the unfinished History of King Richard III (ensuring greater readership among those illiterate in Latin and Greek); thus, the book’s ‘entertaining’ nature appears merely narrowly aimed to appeal to learned humanist scholars such as Erasmus. The Greek names featured in Utopia serve to cast conservative doubt and render the utopian project farcical by suggesting that its features can never be actualised; the word Utopia puns on the Greek words “eu”, “ou” and “topos” to mean either “good-place” or “no-place”, while the ‘Achorians’ (Page 36) are the people of “no-place”, and the name of the supposedly trustworthy narrator Hythloday can mean “peddler of nonsense” or “expert in trifles.” More engages in playful irony for those who would understand, since he deliberately intended the ‘knowing reader’ to comprehend that ‘the city was a phantom’ and ‘the island was nowhere.’ In his translations of Lucian, More identified the Horatian prescription for literature to combine both ‘delight’ with ‘instruction,’ and thus the playful nature of Utopia is clarified by this Horatian influence. In a letter to Peter Giles, More signifying his larger intention: through his ironic work, he hoped ‘the truth, like medicine smeared with honey, might enter the mind a little more pleasantly,’ suggesting that he was prescribing an alternative method of organising society when writing Utopia. With this in mind, one can explain More’s attempts to achieve deniability in his composition in order to distance himself from the radical critiques of private property and the ruling class: by casting himself in the role of transcriber rather than the active creator of myths of political upheaval, More seems acutely aware of the wider political implications of his text, and how it’s meaning may be ‘micsonstrue[d]’ and readers ‘take harm’ from it.’

In an attempt to combine both honestas and utilitas (honour and expediency), the central topics addressed in a classical deliberative oratory, there are aspects in Utopia which strike both the contemporary and modern reader as unpalatable and difficult to square with a knowledge of More’s own strict religious and moral convictions, thus problematising Utopia’s conception as the ‘best state’ of a commonwealth. In More’s attempt to convey the absolute veracity of the Utopian commonwealth, alongside accompanying maps and alphabets, these unsettling aspects of the state may serve to render Utopia more credible as an actual place, rather than an idealised fantasy devoid of flaws. Critics who argue for the text as an illuminating insight into the ‘things that occasion mischief in the commonwealths’ reconcile these negative aspects of Utopia as being a ‘mirror’ held up ‘for all Englishmen’ and wider Europe to signify morally reprehensible acts that occurred in supposedly civilised countries. In this reading, More is drawing attention to the increasing prioritisation of expediency over honour found in emerging Machiavellian politics, the enslavement of prisoners of war and the use of mercenaries such as the ‘Zapoletes’ (‘arch-sellers’) (Page. 101) in Utopia, figures which More likely deriving from notorious contemporary Swiss mercenaries. More’s own strong Catholic beliefs (which were manifested in his persecution and burning of protestant heretics during the Reformation) contrast strikingly with the progressive Utopian practice of religious toleration, where every man has ‘free liberty and choice to believe what he would’ (Page 109). Moreover, More’s steadfast conviction in the sanctity of marriage which eventually led to his execution by refusing to acknowledge ‘spiritual validity of [Henry VIII’s] second marriage,’ is difficult to reconcile with Utopia’s liberal attitude to divorce, where ‘the full consent’ of both parties allows a couple to be ‘divorced asunder and married again to other’ (Page 91). Thus, inherent in Utopia are unresolvable ambiguities in questions of authorial intent, giving rise to increasingly subjective critical readings of the text as identified by George M. Logan, where ‘undisguised recommendations for reform’ are found alongside morally questionable ‘Utopian practices’ that must instead be ‘interpreted as ironic recommendations of their opposites.’ It is clear that confident, partisan readings of Utopia’s intention will fail to capture its richly inherent ambiguity; however, through considering R. W. Chambers’ socio-historical observation that if a ‘Sixteenth-Century Catholic depicts a pagan state founded on Reason and Philosophy,’ then he cannot be ‘depicting his ultimate ideal,’ one can posit that, though the text inordinately stresses the “new” initially, the hoax of the Utopian project serves conclusively to reject the progressive prescriptions of the text in favour of the authority of tradition. The “textual” More’s chief objection to Hythloday’s evocation of the Utopian state is the ‘principal foundation of all their ordinances,’: ‘the community of their life and living without any occupying of money,’ (Page 123) thus since the rest of the Utopian project cannot operate without this singular radical shift in the structure of society, More finally admits he would ‘rather wish for than hope after’ many aspects of the ‘Utopian weal-public,’ adopting a pessimism expounded in his 1501 lectures on Augustine’s City of God by accepting that a Utopia can only ever exist in “no-place” – the imagination of a human mind or in the eternal union with God in heaven.

To conclude, Utopia’s wilful ambiguity and obscurity reflect More’s own ambiguity and uncertainty towards the ideas he was expressing; some were deeply held convictions whereas others were radically ‘new’ and subversive suggestions for ‘a republic’s best state.’ Thus, the text serves as a medium for dramatizing thought processes in the dialogue form, rendered both ‘beneficial’ and ‘entertaining’ through the clarity with which contemporary issues are deconstructed, and the ironic distance More establishes between himself and the sentiments conveyed. Through the extensive narrative layers and textual constraints imposed by More within the text, the authorial voice and intention is repeatedly capitulated to wilful ambiguity and obscurantism, thus providing each reading with infinitely differing meaning, imbuing this ‘golden little book’ with lasting posterity to continue to challenge and humour modern readers for centuries to come.



Primary Texts

Bruce, Susan ed., Three Early Modern Utopias: Utopia, New Atlantis, The Isle of Pines (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

More, Thomas, Utopia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)

Secondary Texts

Campbell, W. E., More’s Utopia and His Social Teaching (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1930)

Chambers, R. S., Thomas More (London: Jonathan Cape, 1963)

Erasmus, Desiderius, The Praise of Folly and Other Writings (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989)

Kautsky, Karl, Thomas More and His Utopia, trans. by H.J. Stenning (New York: Russell & Russell, 1959)

Kraye, Jill, ed., Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Lewis, C. S., English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (London: Oxford University Press, 1954)

Logan, George M., The Meaning of More’s Utopia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983)

Olin, J. C., Interpreting Thomas More’s Utopia (New York: Fordham University Press, 1989)

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