The historical Thomas More, the author of Utopia, was an extraordinarily complicated man who tied up all the threads of his life in his heroic death. The Utopia is the sort of complicated book that we should expect from so complicated a man. It is heavy with irony, but then irony was the experience of life in the Sixteenth Century. Everywhere--in church, government, society, and even scholarship--profession and practice stood separated by an abyss.
The great difficulty of irony is that we cannot always be sure when the ironic writer or speaker is being serious and when he is being comical. We find that difficulty in Utopia. Edward Hall, the great chronicler of English history of More's time wrote, "For undoubtedly he beside his learning had a great wit, but it was so mingled with taunting and mocking that it seemed to them that best knew him, that he thought nothing to be well spoken except he had ministered some mock in the communication." (*)
In Utopia three characters converse, and reports of other conversations enter the story. Thomas More appears as himself. Raphael Hythlodaeus is the fictional traveler to exotic worlds. More's young friend of Antwerp Peter Gillis adds an occasional word.
Yet the Thomas More of Utopia is a character in a fiction. He cannot be completely identified with Thomas More the writer who wrote all the lines. Raphael Hythlodaeus's name means something like "Angel" or "messenger of Nonsense." He has traveled to the commonwealth of Utopia with Amerigo Vespucci, seemingly the first voyager to realize that the world discovered by Columbus was indeed a new world and not an appendage of India or China.
Raphael has not only been to Utopia; he has journeyed to other strange places, and found almost all of them better than Europe. He is bursting with the enthusiasm of his superior experiences. However, I shall devote most of my remarks to the second "book" or chapter in More's work--the description of the island commonwealth somewhere in the New World. Since the Utopians live according to the law of nature, they are not Christian. Indeed they practice a form of religious toleration.
Utopia provides a second life of the people above and beyond the official life of the "real" states of the Sixteenth Century. Its author took the radical liberty to dispense w...
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... marriage is allowed but strictly controlled so that conjugal relations relieve sexual needs without creating any genuine bonds of intimacy between husbands and wives.
Utopia is thus not a program for our society. It is not a blueprint but a touchstone against which we try various ideas about both our times and the book to see what then comes of it all. It helps us see what we are without telling us in detail what we are destined to be. Utopia becomes part of a chain, crossing and uncrossing with past and present in the unending debate about human nature and the best possible society possible to the kind of beings we are. Utopia becomes in every age a rather sober carnival to make us smile and grimace and lift ourselves out of the prosaic and the real, to give ourselves a second life where we can imagine the liberty to make everything all over again, to create society anew as the wise Utopus himself did long before in Utopia. His wisdom is not ours. But it summons us to have our own wisdom and to use it as best we can to judge what is wrong in our society in the hope that our judgment will make us do some things right, even if we cannot make all things new this side of paradise.
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