DE OPTIMO REIPUBLICAE STATU DEQUE NOVA INSULA UTOPIA, libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, clarrissime divertissimique viri THOMAE MORI inclutae civitatis Londinensis civis et Vicecomitis
Which is to say, "ON THE BEST STATE OF A COMMONWEALTH AND ON THE NEW ISLAND OF UTOPIA, a truly golden handbook, no less beneficial than entertaining, by the most distinguished and elegant author THOMAS MORE citizen and undersheriff of the famous city of London." Though we are usually content with, simply, Utopia.
To us Thomas More and Utopia are practically synonymous. Surprisingly, the book is mentioned neither in More's first biography, that of his son-in-law William Roper, nor in the late Tudor, probably-partly-Shakespearean play, "The Booke of Sir Thomas More."
There is no trace of the original autograph. We know that More entrusted the manuscript to his friend Erasmus in the latter part of 1516, and that the first printing was done in Louvain before the end of the year. The engraving above comes from that first printing.
Utopia primarily calls to mind the detailed account of Utopian society, but that description applies only to the second part. Part one is a dialogue grounded in English and European realities, focused primarily on the question of whether a humanist should enter public service to give "good counsel" to his prince. More precisely it's a dialogue within a dialogue, the first between More and one Raphael Hythlodaeus, a voyager of wide experience, who, in the coure of his discussion, harks back to a conversation between himself, Cardinal Morton (in whose household More was educated), a common lawyer, a friar and the Cardinal's fool. The character "More" in this dialogue remains largely uncommitted, as does the Cardinal. Most outspoken are Hythlodaeus and the lawyer, who defends the status quo.
There is little talk of radical change (except to the extent that critical examination of current practices can be seen as radical). Hythlodaeus decries the rapacity of kings who, lusting for new conquests, are quite unable to wisely govern their own possessions (I've quoted at some length from this portion in a much earlier blog post, "More Folly," of March 14, 2008). We can certainly applaud this stance while recognizing it to be a relatively conventional humanist call to kings to act justly and to avoid war.
More unusual is Hythlodaeus' response to the question of why theft remains in England when so many thieves are hanged for it. His answer rests partly on simple reason--savage punishments won't deter if people have to steal to eat--but he also puts the question into the context of other interrelated ills. A kingdom's commitment to war results in soldiers returning to society wounded, displaced and with no skills except those of a soldier: violence and theft. The wealth of the aristocracy, combined with their disdain for useful work, divides the country into idle courtiers and overworked peasants. And the enclosure by the wealthy of customarily common pasturage, for their private husbandry of sheep, makes the position of the poor even more precarious: "Oves...vestrae, quae tam mites tamque exiguo solent ali, nunc (ubi fertur) tam edaces atque indomitae esse coeperunt ut homines devorent ipsos: agros, domos, oppida, vastent ac depopulentur. ("Your sheep..., that commonly are so meek and eat so little; now. as I hear, they have become so greedy and fierce that they devour human beings themselves. They devastate and depopulate fields, houses and towns.")
This talk of ills and remedies concludes with Hythlodaeus reaching what he considers the root of these social problems: "Adeo mihi certe persuadeo res aequabili ac iusta aliqua ratione distribui aut feliciter agi cum rebum mortalium, nisi sublata prorsus proprietate, no posse." (""Thus I am wholly convinced that unless private property is entirely abolished, there can be no fair or just distribution of goods, nor can the business of mortals be conducted happily.")
To the claim that such a society could not exist, Hythlodaeus asserts, to the contrary, that such a society does indeed exist, in Utopia, an island he visited after having separated from a New World expedition under Amerigo Vespucci. And so we move from the dialogues of the first part to Hythlodaeus' description of the society of the Utopians in the second part.
That More presents Utopia through the admiring, but distinct, voice of Hythlodaeus has always given rise to caution against identifying Hythlodaeus' admiration with More's. The Utopians are happy, moderately properous and peaceful. Per Hythlodaeus' observation at the end of the first part they have forsaken the use of private property, all citizens working a six-hour day and taking turns at the more laborious tasks like agriculture, In many ways it looks like a society patterned on a well-run monastery.
Nevertheless, one difference between the way we read Utopia today and the way we read it when I was in college is that, at that time, not so very long ago, a large part of the world was under the sway of an ideology dedicated in large part to following More in eradicating private property, or at least private capital, and in creating republics of workers, for workers. It's odd to think that Thomas More, who in the last twenty years has been most conspicuously the darling of neo-conservatives, was within living memory (at least in mine) rather suspect as a fellow traveller with Marx and Engels.
R.W. Chambers' biography of More, from the mid-1930's, catches something of the older wideness of appeal that came out of Utopia:
"That the love of Thomas More unites those who might seem to be separated by a considerable gulf is shown by the fact that the Karl-Marx-Engels Instittute of the Central Executive Committee of the Union of Soviet Republics should have been seeking for information about that great Communist Sir Thomas More from the Sisters of the Beaufort Street Convent...."
This has perhaps gone on long enough for now. But I hope to return to this topic as our anniversary year progresses, and as our own would-be rulers furiously pursue these topics of war, poverty and the gulf between the haves and have-nots.