Commemorating Sir Thomas More, who gave us Utopia

Well, it has been just over a month since my last post. I must apologize to any regular readers of this blog for this extend period of silence, yet there is a very excusable reason. Early last month, I was sent the pageproofs for my forthcoming book, the release date for which is Oct. 11th, 2011, to read over one last time for any minor corrections that I would like to make. In addition, I had to compile my index. Now, if you have not created an index before, it actually is a fascinating intellectual exercise. A writer is forced to map the book’s discussion in such a way as to offer entrance points for readers. I think it is comparable to the connect-the-dot coloring books I use to have as a child, the ones where the picture of a dragon or whatever begins to form as one draws the individual lines.

Moreover, I received some very exciting news: Carolyn Merchant has written an endorsement for the book! Here it is:

A fascinating, well-argued comparison between Francis Bacon’s narrative of recovering human dominion over nature and 17th century skeptics who deny its possibility. Funari draws insightful parallels with today’s proponents of technological solutions and environmental philosophers who propose new ways of living with the more-than-human world. Of interest to anyone who wishes to see how history and literature can inform the roots of today’s environmental crisis.

So my part with regards to the book is over. That is, a project that has been 4 years in the making has reached its final form. Some of my family and friends have asked how it feels to be done with this project. My honest answer to them is that I am trying not to think about it. I suppose it is comparable in a much lesser degree to sending a child out into the world, hoping that you have done everything to prepare them for the harshness they may encounter. In this way, I think that the Latin poet Catullus captures it best: “Cui dono lepidum novom libellum/ Arida modo pumice expolitum?” (“To whom do I give this new little book,/ polished by the dry pumice stone?”)

Also, I want to suggest a new blog to any readers interested in history and cinema. Gabs Roman, a close friend who was invaluable in helping me with different facets of getting my manuscript ready for the printers, has a new blog, entitled Historic Histrionics.  You’ll find here insightful, witty, and, hopefully, irreverent commentaries on Hollywood’s often inaccurate depiction of the past. This is a blog very well worth your time.  (Gabs and I are planning a live Tweeting session for Robert Emmerich’s Anonymous.)

Alright, then, now to the Renaissance in today’s culture. Some of you may know that today actually commemorates Henry VIII’s beheading of arguably the greatest intellectual figure of English history, Sir/St. Thomas More.

The portrait of More as Lord Chancellor.

In 1534 to further his attempt to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Ann Boleyn, Henry VIII pushed through Parliament the Act of Supremacy, essentially establishing the Episcopal Church and declaring himself supreme head. To add a side note here, Henry’s break with the Roman Catholic Church was partially precipitated by events happening on the Continent: Catherine’s nephew, the Emperor Charles V, was essentially holding the Pope Leo X hostage while Henry petitioned him for a divorce.

Back to More. Having resigned his position as Henry’s Lord Chancellor in 1532, a position that he had held since 1529, More tried to escape from public view and quietly retire away from a political scene that was increasingly become hostile to him. Unfortunately this did not work out. More was the intellectual figure of Henry’s England: he had an international reputation as a scholar and corresponded with much of the European intelligentsia. (Erasmus was a close personal friend of More, but more on that in a bit.) So when More remained silent when asked to take the Oath of Supremacy, much was made of it. (More’s strategy was that as long as he remained silent on the question of the King’s Supremacy over the Church, he was not committing high treason.) When brought to trial, Henry’s Solicitor General, Sir Richard Rich, claimed that More had told him in prison that Parliament did not have the legal authority to declare the King the Head of the Church. Though no other evidence was offered against More, the verdict was pretty much a forgone conclusion. Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Season (1966), portrays More as struggling to hold onto his convictions while seeking the safety of his family.  Here’s a clip from the film adaptation of Bolt’s play, starring Paul Scofield as More and Robert Shaw as Henry VIII. In this clip More has just been convicted of high treason  and at last speaks his conscious:

And just because I thought that Jeremy Northam did a superb job portraying More, here is a clip from the Tudors, season 2:

In the image of the martyr who died resisting Henry VIII’s tyranny, I think an important facet of More’s character is often overlooked – his sense of humor. (Erasmus, the European intellectual of the early 16th c., dedicated his most well-known book, The Praise of Folly (1509), to More. The Latin title of The Praise of Folly  [Moriae Econium] is actually a pun on More’s name.) The work of More that best conveys his sardonic wit is Utopia (1519).

This is the frontispiece for the 1516 edition. It is a map of the fictional Isle of Utopia.

Begun while on a diplomatic mission in Antwerp, Utopia is fictional account of a supposedly ideal society that has been isolated from the rest of the world for centuries. From the beginning of the book, More demands a very attentive reader. The text this layered: it appears as More’s letter to Peter Giles which includes More’s transcription of Raphael Hythlodeaus’s description of his travels in Utopia that does not begin until the second part. More removes the reader thrice textually from Utopia itself. Moreover, More gives a few puns, often lost in translation, that signal to the reader the irony of the text. Hythlodeaus’s name is an amalgamation of two Greek words, hythlas that translates to “non-sense” and daiein, “to distribute.” So the person offering an account of a utopian society is a peddler of non-sense. Furthermore, utopia, a word which More himself originated from Greek, can be translated one of two ways, either as eu-topia, essentially a “good” place, or as ou-topos, “no place.”

Rather than summarize the entire window into Utopian civilization that More creates via Hythlodeaus, here are just some highlights:

1) Utopians have a communist economy: there is no conception of private ownership, nor is there any monetary system. While there is an abundance of precious metals and gems, these are used to pay foreign mercenaries to fight their wars. Hythlodeaus notes how the wearing of gold actually marks one as a slave, while citizens wear leather jerkins of the craftsmen. (You can see why More’s text appealed so much to Marxist scholars of the 1960s.)

2) In his description of the cultural rituals, Hythlodeaus recounts the custom of the betrothed couple having the opportunity to see each other naked prior to being wedded. If we take More as being sincere here, he is being incredibly progressive, suggesting the importance of sexual compatibility for a successful marriage.

3) The Utopians live in a rigid society, that constantly polices its citizens. For example, the size of the households, of which there are sixteen in each of the fifty-four cities that make up Utopia, is strictly maintained between ten and sixteen adults. Or in order to travel between the different cities, one must gain the permission of the local magistrate, or in Utopian language, the syphogrant. Idleness is not tolerated. As Hythlodeaus claims, “So you see that nowhere is there any chance to be idle; there is no excuse for laziness, no wine taverns, no alehouses, no brothels . . . no hangouts.”

Before delving into his account of Utopia, Hythlodeaus tells More that had he seen Utopia firsthand like he himself had and live there for five and half years, “then doubtless you would grant that you never saw people well ordered, but only there.” Here Hythlodeaus voices the irony that pervades More’s text: unless you have actually lived in Utopia you will never be able to live in Utopia. Or as Clarence H. Miller states in his introduction to the Yale University Press edition: “We are always being brought back to the basic paradox: the institutions cannot be introduced unless they have already been introduced” (xvi).

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About Anthony Funari

Hi, thanks for taking time to stop by my blog, Renaissnace Matters. So here's a little bit about me . . . I am student, scholar, reader, writer, teacher, and general enthusiast about the European Renaissance, a.k.a the Early Modern period. In May 2010, I graduated with my doctorate in English Literature from Lehigh University, focusing my dissertation on the literary reaction to the Scientific Revolution. I currently have an article in the recent issue of Early English Studies (EES). Also, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book through Palgrave MacMillan, Francis Bacon and the 17th-Century Intellectual Discourse.
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2 Responses to Commemorating Sir Thomas More, who gave us Utopia

  1. guildnstern says:

    Excellent! Thanks for the rec, and the post! You have inspired me to tweet.

    For all the faults of The Tudors, I thought some of the performances on the show were secretly brilliant. Thomas More was definitely one of them. I feel like I should know a little more about his exact dealings with Henry VIII because I did read a lot about him, but do you know how much truth is in the offhand comment he makes that ends up getting him executed? (Wish I could remember the quote now, would make this question more clear.)

    My only real connection with Utopia is the movie Ever After (starring Drew Barrymore. I know. This is probably shameful to me). She’s fighting to get her friend – a fellow servant – out of his soon-to-be enslavement in the Americas and quotes Utopia: “If you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners corrupted from infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded, sire, but that you first make thieves and then punish them?” The quote works. So Thomas More is a beast, apparently.

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