Authors: Thomas More
Translator: Paul Turner
Type: Fiction, novel
Published: 1516, 1965 (this edition)
I read it: March 2015 (re-read)
I read this in college, but all I really remembered was golden toilets. I had forgotten, or never even paid attention to, the structure and overall analysis of the work. And while I call it a novel for purposes of this site, it’s really not (this preceded Don Quixote by close to a century). What would you call it then…a philosophical tract?
Regardless, it has a remarkably modern structure. It kicks off with a couple letters, one from More to his friend Peter in which More shows off the draft but expresses doubt that he should publish it, then the second from Peter to another higher up in which he praises the work and calls for its wide distribution. The bulk of the text is a conversation with Raphael Nonsenso, a cultured traveler who relays his tales of lands that most Europeans haven’t seen firsthand. It’s a clever way for More to couch his ideas within fiction, yet it’s cast as if it actually happened (which apparently some people believed, so there’s a hallmark of a good, or at least respected, author).
The name “Nonsenso” and others with modern English puns are thanks to the translation by Paul Turner. In the introduction he addresses the common question: translated from what? From Latin, apparently, which was new to me. Thomas More decided to write his work in the most timeless way he knew how, and Turner has done an excellent job in extracting meanings as best he can and crafting the book so it makes sense to our modern eyes and ears. The only word left alone is “Utopia” itself, which means no-place. Did you know that alongside Utopia, there are other lands the character Raphael has seen, such as Happiland, Blindland, and Tallstoria? The book is full of this clever stuff.
So what is Utopia like? It’s forward-thinking in a lot of ways, which is surprising because More was intensely religious to the point of asceticism, and conservative to our minds (depending on which books you read). So when he criticizes then-modern cultures with something like the following, it’s eye-opening:
Their last resort will be: ‘This was good enough for our ancestors, and who are we to question their wisdom?’ Then they’ll settle back in their chairs, with an air of having said the last word on the subject—as if it would be a major disaster for anyone to be caught being wiser than his ancestors! And yet we’re quite prepared to reverse their most sensible decisions. It’s only the less intelligent ones that we cling on to like grim death. I’ve come across this curious mixture of conceit, stupidity, and stubbornness in several different places.
Raphael goes to lengths to call out the silliness of European societies, and explain how the seemingly radical ways of the Utopians are often the most logical (“for things always sound incredible if they’re remote from one’s own habits of thought”). Their society is about sharing the workload and finding comfort and belonging in knowing they will never go without food or shelter, because they have no personal property and so everyone’s home is everyone else’s home. While the concepts are dramatically over-simplified to show Utopia in the best light, More makes intriguing points about how a properly run society prevents huge amounts of crime:
Stop the rich from cornering markets and establishing virtual monopolies. Reduce the number of people who are kept doing nothing. Revive…plenty of honest, useful work for the great army of unemployed. Until you put these things right, you’re not entitled to boast of the justice meted out to thieves…You allow these people to be brought up in the worst possible way, and systematically corrupted from their earliest years. Finally, when they grow up and commit the crimes that they were obviously destined to commit, ever since they were children, you start punishing them. In other words, you create thieves, and then punish them for stealing!
If that sentiment doesn’t still have relevance today, then I don’t know what does. Of course, Thomas More on his own couldn’t conceive of an absolutely perfectly functioning society. Things are still patriarchal in Utopia, though the women and children probably have more freedoms in this fictional land than in More’s England. And as for those golden toilets: precious metals are looked down upon so that no one forms useless attachments to them, so they make their chamber pots, as well as the chains of the slaves, out of gold and silver. That’s right, there are slaves in Utopia, though even this has its qualifications. The slaves are either Utopians who have fallen from grace because they committed some terrible crime, or certain types of war prisoners. This seems to reflect More’s steadfast belief in personal virtue and the ability to overcome vices (which themselves are heavily regulated in Utopia). If you’re a slave in Utopia, it’s because you are selfishly weak.
I imagine this work is the furthest that More ever went in openly flirting with critique of popular religion. A hardcore Catholic, he was overly devout in real life. There are moments when the reader sees this shining through, like when Raphael describes bringing Christianity to the Utopians. This makes you cringe for a minute, until it is described that only some of the Utopians have converted, and some still hold to native religions. Not only that, but religious tolerance is a highly valued concept on the island. Then there’s another shift where we read that the homegrown beliefs of Utopians align more or less with monotheism, as if they somehow rationalized their assumptions of nature and conveniently landed on something close to Christianity, or secularly worked their way there because the concept of one father-god is self-evident. And come to find out, the ultimate intellectual shame for Utopians is someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife at all or doesn’t think that humans are divinely special. They basically just wait these people out until they come around to better conclusions! We get a similarly twisty argument when on one page Raphael takes the rich and the noble down a peg, while on the next we read about the inherent goodness and infallibility of kings and priests. More wants to have his hierarchical cake, but eat it in on island incapable of corruption.
Obviously, the only way a modern reader can learn from the land of Utopia is to pick out the best parts and leave behind the worst. Isn’t that how we should aim to build all societies, by using the best ideas according to our admittedly limited points of view? I was pleasantly surprised how much was worth considering from More, as well as the amount of humor he used. Maybe he wasn’t such a curmudgeon after all. The most glaring aspect is how explicitly he advocates for a brand of communism, which considering how radical some people think that concept is today, must have seemed even more so in the 1500s. Paul Turner, addresses that some people refuse to take this angle seriously, but in the appendix he concludes, “I have yet to see any conclusive evidence that More did not mean what he said about communism in Utopia.” That’s a strong endorsement for taking the book’s ideas seriously, instead of as pure farce.
There’s one last piece I have to highlight for the reader and writer crowd, because it’s so keen and amusing. This is from the introductory letter in which More shows reluctance to publish the work:
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 only like the classics, others only their own works. Some are so grimly serious that they disapprove of all humor, others so half-witted that they can’t stand wit. Some are so literal-minded that the slightest hint of irony affects them as water affects a sufferer from hydrophobia. Others come to different conclusions every time they stand up or sit down.
Well, Thomas, you might be sorry to hear that we can be just as fickle in the modern age. And we have yet to build our Utopia. But we’re working on it, you old coot. Or are we?
Music corner: Whenever I think of this book, my mind goes instantly to The Shins song “So Says I” with its tuneful line, “Sir Thomas More, we’ve got another failed attempt.” So many failed attempts. The original track is good, though I prefer the bluegrass cover by Iron Horse.