A Dystopian England: The Literary Imagination as a Mode of Critique in More’s Utopia

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Thomas More’s canonical Utopia perplexes as it advances, as More weaves a tale of a magnificent civilization located in the newly discovered and mysterious “new world.” The tale is delivered by one Rafael Hythlodaeus (his last name meaning ‘dispenser of much nonsense’), a traveler and unique personality, who tells the tale to More himself in character form. A fundamental question that crosses every reader’s mind upon encountering Utopia is just what is More suggesting by outlining the lives of the Utopians. Reactions range from Karl Marx coining the term “utopian socialism” to others saying the satirical nature of the work suggests it is in fact anti-communistic as it would later be understood. By studying the legitimacy given to Raphael in Christian-Humanist terms, the criticisms Rafael expounds upon in book one and the relation between the problems in book 1 and the Utopian solutions in book 2, a greater understanding of what More was trying to achieve becomes clear. Utopia is indeed an ideal society as conceived by Thomas More, and he uses his cleverly devised world as an answer to the problems of England outlined in Book 1 by Raphael. In short, Utopia is a vehicle or a medium with which More enables himself, through a literary imagining, to critique English society. The text is not an active call for the establishment of Utopia in 16th century England as conceived in the text, but moreover a conceptualization of a truly ideal society to compare to the depravity of Early Modern England.

Before analyzing the  cases of critique in Book 1, the first issue that must be addressed is why Raphael’s voice can be taken as More’s own, or why Raphael’s criticisms of England are anything more than an idealistic romp by a long-winded ship captain. Throughout the dialogue between Peter Giles, More and Raphael, Raphael uses a large amount of evidence ranging from scripture (728) to historical evidence (741). At the end of book one, Peter Giles questions whether a better civilization than the European one could possibly exist elsewhere. Raphael refutes this claim by saying simply, “As for the antiquity of commonwealths…you could have a sounder opinion if you had read the historical accounts of that world” (741). Certainly the usage of reason, scripture and history was something More, as a Christian-Humanist, would not have disagreed with. More, who is silent in this section, would certainly not agree with Giles’ assumption that European civilization was unequivocally the most advanced in history, given More’s own classical background. Raphael goes on to say Romans and Egyptians who founded Utopia, emblems of the renaissance of classical thinking occurring in England at the time, stayed in Utopia (741). What we can synthesize from this example is that Raphael is not saying untruths and is given a significant level of legitimacy by More the author. The inability of any of the skeptical listeners, More included, to prove Raphael wrong or unsettle his consistently supported argument suggests that Raphael is more a mouthpiece of More than the character of More himself.

Raphael criticizes kings and enclosures in Book 1 of Utopia, and this is perhaps the most profound demonstration by More’s critique of England. Given the fact illustrated above that Raphael is given a high level of legitimacy within the text suggest that Raphael’s title as the “dispenser of much nonsense” is to lessen the impact of his poignant critique. Raphael first engages arrogant kingship in response to More’s own question why Raphael doesn’t attach himself to a king in service, as More later would to Henry VIII. Raphael responds thusly, “And yet, no matter what excellent ideas our forefathers may have had, we very serenely bid them a curt farewell. But if in any situation they failed to take the wiser course, that defect gives us a handle which we greedily grab and never let go” (723). Raphael is delivering nothing short of a scathing assault on reactionary kingship that justifies its past-looking ways with tradition that is, as he points out, picked and chosen instead of consistently utilized. Interestingly, More does not respond to this statement in any way, moving on to talk about Raphael’s time in England with a cardinal More himself knew outside of the text. More’s silence cannot simply be without meaning, More deliberately chooses not to respond to Raphael’s argument against arrogant kings, leaving the argument to stand for itself in the text. Raphael’s next target is the topic of Enclosure which is a common problem in England throughout its history, which impoverished many peasants. Raphael states, “They (the rich) leave no ground to be tilled; they enclose every bit of land for pasture, they pull down houses and destroy towns, leaving only the church to pen the sheep in” (726). This statement is rich with symbolism as the image of the “sheep” and the “church” illustrate the relationship More would later resent in the Church of England under Henry, devoid of faith and utterly political. The fact that Raphael is directly speaking about England in this scene as well as the usage of the terminology of “enclose”, illustrates clearly that Raphael is critiquing a negative part of 16th century England. Enclosure leaves English peasants landless, without a job, without any purpose; which, as Raphael points out, leads them to a life of crime which is unjustly punished by the English state.

Not coincidentally, Utopia addresses both the problems of arrogant kings and enclosure, along with all the other grievances expounded upon by Raphael. For the purposes of this blog the focus will remain on the issue of the importance of counsel in leadership and the economic exploitation of workers in a society. The government More establishes in Utopia is essentially an enlightened monarchy, as the “governor” reigns for life unless suspected of tyrannical behavior. The officials dubbed the trainbors and syphogrants also remain in power unless “good reason” is found to overthrow them. Interestingly, council is brought up often in the section about officials and the Utopian have made taking private council a “capital offense.” Raphael states, “their measures…is to prevent it from being easy, by conspiracy between the governor and the tranibors and by tyrannous oppression of the people, to change the order of the commonwealth” (745). The system is diametrically opposed to the machinations of royal courts of More’s time which dealt almost entirely in secret and amongst the oligarchic elite. What More has created is a direct answer to Raphael’s criticisms of arrogant kingship not listening to the council of his advisors. Here we see a trend in Book 2 of Utopia, each segment of utopian society directly addresses the issues raised by Raphael. Book 1, having been written after book 2, is essentially an introduction to the issues that Utopia will fix in More’s grand thought experiment. The issue of enclosure and economic injustice in general is dealt with in-depth by More. In addressing enclosure and economic injustice, More and his storyteller Raphael almost sound like Karl Marx in his groundbreaking 1848 manifesto. Raphael states, “Yet when these evil men with insatiable greed have divided up among themselves all the goods which would have been enough for all the people, how far they are from the happiness of the Utopian commonwealth”(783)! More directly addresses a counter argument used against Raphael in Book 1 which is why would one give up their own self-interest for a common goal? Here Raphael, More’s persona in the text, says that only by communal production and consumption can people know true happiness. More sets up the system of production and labor to maximize production and minimize negative factors, with workers only working six hours a day; yet this decrease is accounted for by More in the fact that literally all Utopians work. More states, “This phenomenon you too will understand if you consider how large a part of the population in other countries exist without working” (747). Here More again directly addresses the issue presented in book 1 about enclosure driving potential workers to crime. In short, More’s Utopians are a direct answer to the problems of England, not so that More can advocate for Utopian revolution but rather that he can criticize the court of Henry through a less threatening medium.

Thomas More’s Utopia is a profound thought-experiment on a society so very different from any that has ever existed even in our own time. Yet the Utopians represent a conceptualized ideal society, one that any person would want to strive for. By studying the legitimacy given to Raphael, Raphael’s critique of England in book 1 and the Utopian answers to each problem raised by Raphael, a greater understanding of what More was trying to accomplish emerges. Raphael finishes his narrative by saying, “But I readily admit that there are very many features in the Utopian Commonwealth which it is easier for me to wish for in our countries than to have any hope of seeing realized” (784). This is the heart of what Utopia is, a wish upon parchment for a better society in which all may work and have a purpose. By making this world, More inherently critiques England without attacking specific policy as to avoid persecution. Utopia  is not a diagram for societal reformation or even a call for reform, but rather a rich imagination of what we as humans are capable of if not in the present, then on the limitless horizon of the literary imagination.

Cited Edition:

More, Thomas. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Ed. Joseph Laurence Black. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2010. Print.

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Filed under Catholicism, Christianity, Early Modern, English, Humanism, Literature, Thomas More, Utopia

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