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Utopia At 500

By Jared Marcel Pollen.


“A map of the world that does not include a utopia,” said Oscar Wilde, “is one not even worth glancing at.” Having also written “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” we can imagine that Wilde was deeply engaged in the intellectual cartography of this map. Today, you can go online and find caches of obsolete maps at various points in human history that advertise a utopia, and always at their origin you’ll find the civilization that drew them. Now the maps have all been completed (there isn’t an inch of this planet we don’t have a satellite image of now) and no civilization can any longer claim the right to place itself at the center. The only place where utopias can still be found is where they’ve always been found: in books. One of these books––Thomas More’s book––which gave the genre its name, turns 500 this year.

Utopia was conceived in 1515 over the course of three months while More was stationed in Belgium negotiating the interpretation of a treaty that would give his king, Henry VIII, control over the wool and cotton trade in Europe. This visit provided the book’s mise-en-scène: there More met the Peter Gilles, who appears alongside More’s textual persona––and Raphael Hythlodaeus––a fictional companion to real Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (after whom the New World continents would later take their name). Hythlodaeus is the book’s central voice, a scholar and world traveler who narrates an account of a society that is described by Gilles as, “like Plato’s Republic, only better.”

Since its publication, Utopia has been, ironically enough, an object of disputed property rights. Disparate and contradictory schools of thought have all claimed ownership over it. For Catholics it is a moral allegory by one its most famous patron saints; for Communists, the first major proposal for the abolition of private property; for Neo-Liberals, a farce on the absurdity of this proposal. Like the greatest works of political fiction, it has bucked the rhetoric of ideology and managed to resist being coopted. But this susceptibility requires that the form be read delicately, with a mind of its intrinsic relationship to irony and play. To take Plato’s Republic as a legitimate proposal, for example, with its selective breeding programs and oligarchic intelligentsia, would provide us with a blueprint for tyranny. To read it as a fantasy is to understand its essential resignation. Plato’s attempt is the one with which More is most heavily engaged. But the tone of The Republic is more tragic than comic, which encourages us to take it as earnest. Others in the genre, like Gulliver’s Travels, Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, and most directly, Lucian’s Mennipus (a deeply heretical writer whose works More loved and translated) actively force the reader out of moral seriousness. At its heart, the task of the genre is ultimately and in both senses of the word to entertain, (i.e. to delight and consider.)

Utopia is a Greek pun, meaning both “no place” (ou topos) and “good place” (eu topos). This affinity for Greek and double-entendre extends to most of the proper nouns found in the book: Hythlodaeus, for instance, translates to “dispenser of nonsense.” Raphael, conversely, means “Gods heals”; while the Latin variant of More’s name, Morus, chimes with morio, meaning “fool.” This makes the voice of More (the real More) difficult to locate within the text. Claims that Hythlodaeus is a ventriloquist for the author’s ideas are based on the factoid that “I” translates to “he” in the Utopian alphabet; but this seems unlikely. These puns, rather, are designed to put the reader in knots in the search for intent. They direct us towards the More’s true meaning and then send us back the other way.

The playfulness of Utopia, its slipperiness and tact is owed in part to the necessity of subterfuge, for satire requires a restraining force against which to sharpen its creative and critical teeth. Accordingly, More performs the duties of a court jester, informing the king of everything that is wrong his the kingdom and using humor to soften the blow, or else escape losing one’s head. (More would lose his head of course, in 1535, after a year of imprisonment for refusing to endorse Henry VIII’s blasphemous ascension as the head of the new Anglican Church. This knowledge provides a somewhat fatalist reading of the first half of the book, which advocates that thinkers befriend kings.) In sixteenth century England free expression was still a tapered privilege of the elite that came with no guarantee of protection or leniency. Thus, a book like Utopia demanded that the piety of its author, as well as the essential flippancy of the material be well established. For this, we’re given an added fictional texture in More’s opening letter to Peter Gilles––drawing on Chaucer’s apologia for the Canterbury Tales––in which the author absolves himself of responsibility by claiming he is merely a reporter, bound by duty to relay the words of his narrator truthfully and without censure. It also includes an unambiguous disclaimer about the potential for misinterpretation, directed squarely at the obtuseness of its audience:

Most readers know nothing about literature––many regard it with contempt. Lowbrows find everything heavy going that isn’t completely lowbrow. Highbrows reject everything as vulgar that isn’t a mass of archaisms… Some are so literal-minded that the slightest hint of irony affects them as water affects a sufferer from hydrophobia.

Utopia falls between Plato and Lucian, somewhere at the intersection of elegy and mockery, and its ironies are only brightened when shone against the facts of More’s life. Indeed, it is hard to reconcile the wit that gave us such a book with the man of the horsehair shirt, the self-flagellator and J. Edgar Hoover-like figure of More’s later years. For the greater part of the 1520s, as an apparatus of state tyranny, More was the scourge of English men and women undergoing a renovation of their faith. He sent people to the rack for reading the Bible in their own language, picked food fights with Martin Luther and William Tyndale and produced a flurry of vicious and puerile pamphlets against the “lewd sect” of reformists; the copiousness of these efforts––Respondio ad Lutherum (1523), The Supplication of Souls (1529), Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1530), and Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer (1532)––far outweigh any promotion of religious freedom More may have made under the guise of fiction just a decade earlier. Among all the pages produced in his lifetime, Utopia is a singular ambiguity. One of the tender ironies of the book is that it not only anticipated but contributed to the desire for institutional reform that More would later become so hostile towards, reform that by the early sixteenth century was a matter of time and historical momentum. That the pluralism of Utopia is so diametrically opposed to More’s own conduct leads one to believe that the book arose out of a period of frustrated innocence, of intrepid theory untrammeled by the realities of practice. It also encourages a sympathetic interpretation of More himself, as a man snatched up in the reactionary fervor of the period, desperately attempting to preserve an unraveling theology and navigate the court of an increasingly mercurial and profligate monarch.

But More’s life and legacy to modernity has been obscured by palimpsest, to the point that he’s become a figure of hero-worship among the young and idealistic. Thus, to encounter the facts of his later life is a useful exercise in disenchantment (such was this writer’s experience.) The source of our softened opinion is two-pronged: the Catholic church, who canonized More as a saint in 1935; and Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons. The former is intellectually trivial and should come as no surprise for a church that has canonized far more undeserving people as saints. Bolt’s contribution is doubly insidious though, as it successfully lobbies a false portrait of a man for the admiration of those who should be least inclined to like him. In this rewrite, More is an early-modern Socrates––bearer of the inner dialectic, moralist and political prisoner who greets his execution with placid conviction. But the parallels between Socrates and More are facile when stripped of their superficialities. Socrates was a champion of the self: he defended the theoretical life over one of public service, rejected the divine authority on which law and polity were founded and accepted his death with irony and impiety. More’s inner compass, conversely, was not to the self, but to the law. His litigious devotion to papal doctrine far eclipses the light of the moral conscience in Bolt’s depiction, and his death is ultimately marked by his submission to a totalitarian regime over an authoritarian one.

The relationship between More and Socrates exists only, albeit sharply, in the realm of fiction. Both were architects of a dream polis, and deeply engaged with the question of how to reconcile social life with the life of the mind. Historically, the task of determining what role philosophy should play in civil society was one that required unthawing the antagonism between wisdom and power initiated by ancients. The basis of this antagonism is the trial and death of Socrates, in particular the Apology, which illustrates civil society’s essential hostility to the theoretical life. At his trial, Socrates says that he remained a good citizen because he stayed out of Athenian politics. On the day he was appointed epistate of the boule council––his only time of public service¬¬––he refused to put to vote a motion that called for the execution of Athens’ leading naval generals for their refusal to retrieve the bodies of dead soldiers from the sea after the Battle of Arginusae. This retrieval was divine mandate, and refusal to comply was considered a transgression, even if it meant the sacrifice of the survivors. The council, besotted with moral indignation, overruled Socrates, who said he would do nothing against the law––the law in this case being solitary reason, guided by the self, not the dictates of theology. Alas, this is something More would never share, even in the last days of his life as a prisoner in the Tower of London.


The shaky commerce between the philosopher and civil society is the central preoccupation of Utopia’s first section. Prior to unpacking the laws and customs of the crescent shaped island, Morris (narrative persona of More), Peter Gilles and Raphael Hythlodaeus discuss the state of things in modern Europe. The case is made against capital punishment for minor offenses. Instead it’s recommended that criminals who are not an immediate danger to others pay their debt through labor, while regulated employment should be given anyone not working in order to reduce poverty and criminal behavior. A foreign policy based on expansion and conquest is condemned, along with obscene wealth and, of course, private property. Whether or not these reforms are achievable hangs on the argument of whether or not it is worthwhile for the philosopher to enter public service. We’re told by Hythlodaeus that unless institutions can be overthrown entirely and replaced with new ones, the prospect of influencing extant authority is nil. Service in court, rather, has a way of corrupting the interests of the self, which invariably adapt to the interests of those in power, and the knowledge that the wrong advise could mean banishment or death encourages sycophancy and compliance. True dissent is therefore impossible. In life, More would earn his reputation for loyalty in court as long as his interests were aligned with those of the state. His conduct was not as oleaginous as his colleagues, like Cromwell or Howard, and his persecution of heretics was perfectly aligned with his sovereign, who had earned the title “defender of the faith” for his Defense of the Seven Sacraments (1519), a book which More was the spiritual, if not actual author of. But this vocal allegiance would collapse into semantic neutrality once More found himself in opposition to power. Here, life would follow art: the escape hatch of rhetoric is More’s (the fictional More’s) solution to the Socratic antagonism in Book I. To be able to influence or dissent artfully, he says, so as not to appear doing so, one can locate a balance between bureaucracy and the pursuit of truth, and this should be the goal of the man of thought in politics. Glaring at the reader in these passages is how this flirtation with statecraft would become the self-fulfilling mandate that ultimately lead to More’s execution. It is also disappointingly unalike the philosopher who first assigned himself the role of gadfly on the ass of the body politic

The Apology shows us that the task of self-examination is one that requires neither audience nor consent. This is expanded upon in The Republic, which ends with the concession that philosophers, unfit to be beholden to the opinions of others, can never be kings. Instead, we’re given the rebuke that politicians should sooner take up philosophy. By the time we get to More and Machiavelli, thinkers were still apprehensive about the philosopher being king, preferring instead an advisory role that guided political life from within. With the Enlightenment, the philosophes took this influence even further and extended the reach of reason to the bourgeoisie; and by the time we reach Marx, we get a total rejection of the educated class, and philosophers are reproached for thinking over doing.

The question of how to synthesize theory and practice, contemplation (otium) and action (negotium) is as old as philosophy itself, but which had also evolved from the speculative exercises of The Republic into genuine possibility in More’s time, as the ideas of individuals, specifically Luther, proved capable of inspiring institutional change. Whereas The Republic was a daydream born out of frustrated contempt for the inadequacy of Athenian democracy, Utopia was drafted at a time when Europe was rife with political and religious aggravation and fertile for reform. But overhauling institutions is a potentially dangerous, tyrannical, destructive idea if you believe institutions are reflections of human nature. Therefore, mass political change requires the belief that there is no such thing as human nature, or less extreme, that human nature is malleable. The new humanism made this belief possible, particularly On the Dignity of Man by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (whom More also translated and knew well.) In the Dignity of Man, Pico tell us that we can be angels or apes, and that whatever we become is our choice alone: “In conformity with free judgment, in whose hands [God has] placed thee thou art confined by no bounds; and thou wilt fix limits of nature for thyself.” It may be difficult for a modern reader to appreciate just how radical such an idea was at the time, as the church had taught for centuries that the scala naturae was fixed, along with man’s place in it, and only salvation, not transcendence was possible within its strata.

The intellectual climate of early sixteenth century England wasn’t exactly ancient Athens, but the new mobility of the soul under humanism, together with the discovery of the New World gave the early modern mind a unique vantage from which to view the future of civilization. Two decades before Utopia was written Europe discovered there was another side of the map––the most advanced societies in the world became “old” overnight. Imagination of what was possible was tested by the travel narratives of early explorers, who often obscured, either by ignorance or intent, the boundaries between fact and fiction about what existed in the western lands. This gave writers an occasion to exploit the credulity of their readers, as well as the new sense of cultural relativism that the New World injected into European life. Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals” is a good example of this. Reports of alternate societies in the Americas demonstrated that divine law and inherited rule were not the universal and guiding principles of civil society, but customs.

The arbitrariness of custom is what gives satire its escape velocity as criticism, and it is with this arbitrariness that Utopia’s second half is concerned. In Utopia, divorce and euthanasia are legal, as well as marriage between male and female priests. (More’s opposition to divorce [specifically Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon] is well documented; while union among priests was viciously attacked in A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, in which More referred to Luther as “an open incestuous lecher” for his marriage to Katharina von Bora.) In a more playful spirit, Hythlodaeus describes how the value Utopians assign to precious objects challenges our own––gems are given to children, who outgrow them and come to see them as playthings of infancy; while auriferous items are a mark of bondage or punishment: “…anyone who commits a really shameful crime,” we’re told, “is forced to go about with gold rings on his ears and fingers, a gold necklace round his neck, and a crown of gold on his head.” These reversals, specifically those regarding marriage and divorce would have been tacitly ludicrous and parodic to the book’s audience at the time, but are somewhat lost on a reader viewing the book from the heights of modernity.

The most salient feature of Utopia is its absence of land ownership. Indeed, much of the book wrestles neurotically with the idea of private property. It is the argument we return to again and again as the root cause for all other social ails. We know from More’s other writings that he was likely opposed to the elimination of private property. In his ad Lutherum, More located an enthymeme that made communism inconsistent with the moral injunctions of the Decalogue: without ownership, he claimed, the commandments against theft and covetousness could not exist; therefore the God must have fixed such laws around the right to property. Again, More’s legalism triumphs. The absence of property will also not make theft and greed obsolete, thus laws regulating criminal impulses are still necessary. Still, Utopia’s incessant and largely humorless persistence on this one point encourages the reader to see a modicum of its author’s beliefs in the narrator. It remains the book’s most ambiguous trait, and the ideological tug of war over it weighs largely on the assumption of its true meaning. Whether the abolition of property is to be taken seriously or not, it is likely that More was not having the argument with himself so much as he was with other Christians, who were warmed to the idea by their interpretation of the gospels. We’re given hint of this when Hythlodaeus explains the Utopian’s receptivity to Christianity: “…I should imagine they were also considerably affected by the information that Christ prescribed of His own disciples a communist way of life, which is still practiced today in all the most truly Christian communities.”

This accounts for Christianity having been “successfully introduced” in to the country, as we’re told in Book I––because it agreed with many of the ideas that Utopians already held and arrived at independently. There are several religions on the island, some pre-pagan––sun and moon worshipers, though most Utopians are deists whose beliefs, regardless of sect, are anchored in a prime mover and the immortality of the soul. We are told: “…if there be any other [religion] than either of them is being more acceptable to God, he desireth him that he will of his goodness let him have knowledge thereof, as one that is ready to follow what way soever he will lead him.” Christianity’s successful introduction into Utopia seems to lie here, implying that Catholicism succeeded by virtue of its own rightness. The tolerance of the Utopians therefore, is not for a society in which several wrong religions are able to coexist, but rather one in which the “right” religion will prevail and absolve the common morality of others. As Aquinas was able to read Christ into the teachings of Aristotle, so too did More believe that a “path to theology” could be built through the thinkers of the ancient world. So in Utopia, More gives the worthy pagans that Dante resigned to the first circle of his Inferno a second chance, and allows them the chance to become the Christians history had disabled them from being.

The only intolerance, we’re told, is for intolerance itself. The Utopians loathe proselytization and punish any person who attempts to coerce another to adopt a certain faith: “If he could not by fair and gentle speech induce them unto his opinions, yet he should use no kind of violence and refrain from displeasant words.” Regrettably, this was an posture More would not only fail to uphold in his own life, but actively violate with both the pen and the rack. We can be safe in believing More was not averse to the prospect of cleansing the church. The fact remains however that he viewed Lutheranism not as a reformation, but as a war on the institution that held a monopoly on Truth and salvation. In this he was correct: Luther’s threat was not renovating the establishment, but the proposal that we could live without it. The desire to change an institution first requires a change in mind. Luther showed that the change in mind leaves the institution undesired. And it was against this absenteeism that More lead a bloody campaign with unflinching brutality. As the only link to Christ on earth, there was nothing outside the Church––thus, an amendment of any kind could only have come from within it. It is this top-down vision of reform––changing the power, not the person––that is concealed at the heart of Utopia, and it partially explains the conviction that drove More to act the way he did later in life. At the very least, it suggests that he didn’t betray Utopia as much as it might appear. He may have been upholding its core conceit.

Still, the question remains whether or not Utopia means what it says. This critic’s opinion is that Hythlodaeus earns the title “dispenser of nonsense” in the author’s eyes, whose outlook is more Lucianic than Platonic. James Wood, in his excellent essay on More, describes Utopia as Saturnalian––its inversions serving less as a vision of true reform than as a pang of intolerable perfection: “More did not intend for us to live in Utopia so much as be logically mocked by it.” While it is evident that Utopia is, at its heart, a comic work, this willingness to elevate the book as a whole to meet its most flippant aspects seems difficult to maintain. The book is comedy surely, but it is only an obtuse reader who thinks that comedy is the antithesis of seriousness. Comedy is a serious business indeed, especially when it tells the truth; and certain truths are only deliverable by way of jest. Anytime figureheads are pilloried, values are mocked and institutions are upended, you are in serious territory, and this is the territory in which Utopia should be considered, regardless of intent.

Finishing his account, Hythlodaeus notes that the Utopians have “eliminated the root causes of ambition, political conflict and everything like that.” The frank dispassion, the tired brevity of this praise contains a smirk, one that is directed as the simplicity of the exercise. Perfect in conception and dangerous in reality, utopias remain uncontaminated as long as they remain of the mind. To be a king of infinite space is easy, but it is also necessary. As Allan Bloom says in The Closing of the American Mind: “Utopianism is, as Plato taught us at the outset, the fire with which we must play because it is the only way we can find out what we are. We need to criticize the false understandings of Utopia, but the easy way out provided by realism is deadly.” The way out of realism is fiction, which has always been the outlet through which our species has flirted with the transcendent and the blasphemous: the notion that we can be something other than what we are is among the profoundest of human longings. Utopias amplify this desire and flaunt it with ease and credulity so that we continue believing in their conceit. The point is to be fooled––or be made a fool of. Whether the mouth of Utopia’s mask follows the parabola of comedy or tragedy, it still gives us a map of the world worth looking at, a map that pretty soon may be redrawn for us by real dystopian waters.



Jared Marcel Pollen‘s work has appeared in The Millions and Open Letters Monthly. He currently lives in Windsor, Ontario.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 1st, 2016.