Jimmy Breck-McKye

Developing opinions

More's 'Utopia' May Mean 'Nowhere' - But That Needn't Make it a Satire

When students read More’s Utopia, the first thing they learn is that the name is coined from the Greek for ‘no-place’, or ‘no-where’. The second thing they usually learn is that the name Hythloday means ‘peddler of nonsense’. From this spring two responses: either that the tale is fraudulent, and More expects us to ridicule it, or that More wants to publicly disavow the tale to avoid political controversy.

I think both interpretations miss something: that though the tale is fictional, its fiction isn’t supposed to matter. Words are hollow in Utopia, and communication rarely occurs as planned. Messages get lost; topics of argument are forgotten. But that’s okay, because the real value of words isn’t in their center, in the semantics of the message, but on their edges in some fashion – the digressions they lead to; their accidental consequences; the marginalia of a book; as philosophical thought-experiments; where they end up rather than where they were intended to lead.

In this model, it doesn’t matter if the original message was a falsehood, because the message’s ultimate value was never in what it meant to begin with. In fact, I’ll eventually argue that to read the name ‘Utopia’ as signifying the work’s fiction is itself a kind of paradox. This will become clearer later.

Utopia, when we take the thousand-foot view, is a story about digressions. Morus is on a diplomatic mission to Belgium to meet with representatives of the King of Castille. He is a message-carrier: the diplomats represent their respective princes and let them communicate over distance. This is the very first communication anyone tries to make, and it only gets half-way completed before Morus moves on to Antwerp. He visits a church – but on his way home, he’s distracted yet again and pulled into a conversation, via a friend, with Raphael Hythloday. Thus begins the real substance of the book, and the rest of his business we hear of never again.

From each digression springs another. When the three men discuss how Hythloday could assist the commonwealth, he yanks us into a lengthy dialogue about poverty; a discussion on punishment; an intrigue to undermine foreign powers; and eventually a remark about a fanciful republic named “Utopia” that expands into the real substance of book. Each new thread ends up more valuable, more interesting than its ‘parent’: in each case, as readers, we lose track of where we were, because the conversation at hand is incrementally that much more engaging. The original message is lost, but so what? It’s real value is on its edges – on where it led – more so than was in its center.

But this makes sense in a story about exploration. As a sailor, Hythloday moves without destination, stumbles onto new lands, and returning to Europe by accident. If Utopia’s text seems rudderless, if its words find value and significance quite by accident, it is because Utopia mimics a kind of textual and intellectual exploration itself: it’s apparently not quite certain what conclusion we will reach from reading it. Meaning emerges from the edges of the argument, rather than its center.

Hythloday’s dialogue demonstrates this, with meaning arriving by accident rather than skill or rhetorical direction. Of course, it doesn’t take much to accuse him of communicating poorly: he’s argumentative, abrasive, confusing and very likely making it up as he goes along. And he’s given a clear foil in a lawyer who can assert with robust certainty exactly where his argument will lead, and just how it will take us there. But through the lens of the ‘exploration’ metaphor, Hythloday’s style looks less unstructured than emergent – its erratic and inchoate progress successful nonetheless.

Take his explanation of thiefdom. This seems the path of his argument:

  1. There are many injured veterans. But wars are rare – so let’s disregard that;
  2. You have many idle noblemen, who extract rents wantonly;
  3. They each carry a train of useless knights;
  4. When their masters die, they are abandoned to the world, cannot work, and turn to theft;
  5. Soldiers make good thieves, and these large standing armies force nations to go to war, and can turn on their governments;
  6. These soldiers are not even worthwhile, and as long as you have them, it is to the commonwealth’s cost;
  7. In England, there is also another cause of stealing: enclosure.
  8. (He then explains how the economic consequences of enclosure compound each other)

It’s a flailing, topsy-turvy, winding, wending argument. It offers one idea – injured veterans – and immediately discards it. Then it apparently promises a complaint against the harsh rents of a profligate nobility. Then an incongruous invective against idle knights. Then a bizarre argument that these unemployed retainers end up England’s supply of theives. Then a sojourn against standing armies. And then – finally – Raphael reaches what will become his real argument – the one he sticks to and will now, at last, press consistently: enclosure.

As a piece of rhetoric, it’s all over the place. Hythloday is trying out ideas before our eyes, and he moves from each in an unexpected and often quite irrational way. Clearly, he doesn’t know where he’s going, and the reader has a hard time following him. But as an ‘emergent’ argument, it works perfectly: Raphael is ‘exploring’ ideas and hopping between threads of thought in much the same way that, as a sailor, he explores foreign continents and hops between islands, until he finds one with real promise. Hythloday’s emergent style relates directly to Morus’ digressive one: dialogues whose destinations are unpredictable and incidental.

Contrast that with the style of the lawyer who faces him. His rhetorical style is structured and easy to follow, with destination firmly set:

"Indeed, sir", quoth he, "you have said well, being but a stranger
and one that might rather hear something of these matters, than
have any exact or perfect knowledge of the same ...

For first I will rehearse in order all that you have said; then I
will declare wherein you be deceived through lack of knowledge in
all our fashions, manners and customs; and last of all I will answer
your arguments, and confute them every one."

It’s a rigidly organized argument with a clear teleology: he’s certain what he’s going to say, and signposts exactly how he’ll lead us there, too. But is this really a better form of argument than Hythloday’s? It’s not just obnoxious and self-assured, it’s a fundamentally dishonest way to engage in debate. There’s no intention to listen or respond here, and no opportunity offered to reply. Raphael speaks copiously, but he has at the least tried to reach out for new ideas. The lawyer’s rigid, unyielding structure, on the other hand, excludes him from real dialogue.

Our author seems to agree and immediately crushes the lawyer’s prediction of how things are about to unfold: the Cardinal interrupts, expresses boredom, and moves the topic on.

There is a germ of some positive philosophy of language here, though – whilst our direction is uncertain, we do make progress, at least of a sort. Is More celebrating the power of words’ surfaces – the consequences they have ancillary to their meaning; the potential of digression and discovery; the value of the texts ‘outside’ the kernel of the book, like his mock marginalia and his letters to Peter Giles? Maybe. But More is no postmodernist – he does not welcome the triumph of subjectivity and individuality over meaning and intentionality. The exchange between the Friar and the Fool makes that clear.

A jester, playing his role too well, makes a flat and infertile joke about ignoring the pleas of beggars. An otherwise grave Friar bursts into laughter, and asks how – if he has a solution for beggars, what solution he might have for mendicants. The jester makes the obvious point that Hythloday and the Cardinal have already discussed what to do with those who will not work. This enrages the Friar such that he begins to hurl all manner of words – insults, biblical allusions, and even the threat of a papal bull. The Cardinal is so alarmed by the escalating row that he subtly beckons for the Jester to depart.

Both men in this exchange are using words rather than expressing with them, and the effects of words only map to the intents of their users by accident. The Jester’s poor form manages to somehow tickle a sour and irascible monk; the monk’s responses achieve success – the Jester quietly leaves – but only because his disruptive outburst prompts the Cardinal to intervene.

The Friar’s rants themselves are each hollow: he flings disparate insults; he quotes Proverbs 26-5 (‘answer a fool according to his folly…’) whilst Proverbs 26-4 still rings in our ears (‘do not answer a fool according to his folly’); and in quoting a papal bull, invokes a speech act, a message without any descriptive content at all. These empty words hit their mark, but only by dint of a third party, and the result is absurd. In fact, More’s faith in the power of language at this point hits such a nadir, that he ends the dialog with the slightest of non-verbal gestures: a subtle hand movement outweighs all the sound and fury that precedes it. Even Hythloday despairs, and cuts the matter short.

It’s not as though Hythloday’s mode of dialogue – fixated on the surfaces of words – is always helpful, either. Our first impression is him leaping into outrage when he confuses the sounds of two words, their absolute physical surfaces. Specifically, he muddles Giles’ inservias – ‘in service to’ – with servias, meaning slave (the Latin text makes this confusion more apparent; Hythloday’s actual response there is that ‘there is merely one syllable between the two’).

Raphael exhibits a curious kind of surface fixation when he excuses the radicalism of his proposals. He cannot understand why someone would find these policies absurd, when he has seen them implemented himself. It is as though Hythloday lacks an effective theory of mind – he cannot peer ‘into’ the intents of his audience, see that they do not benefit from his own individual experience. If Raphael is telling the truth when he claims he cannot lie, perhaps he honestly cannot intellectually separate the surface and interiors of messages.

And what of those ancillary materials in the book? It’s not as though the marginalia are entirely trustworthy: between their insights, there is plenty of redundancy, wrong-headedness and plain misinterpretation. The maps and alphabets are entirely fraudulent, and liable to distract an undiscerning reader with their exoticism and detail.

Perhaps that is the point. When Hythloday tries to explain poverty and theifdom, he throws us several ‘false flags’ that could easily distract a reader liable to skim and skip the text [1]. Is More doing the same here? Does he intend for naive readers to walk away satisfied at a fantastical description of a newly-discovered state, whilst the audience he really wants to engage with actually do so? It would seem plenty of More’s less learned contemporaries took the work at face value, after all [2]. But this presupposes that the center of the message has more value than the surface, and we’ve already seen that this is problematic.

In fact, isn’t dismissing Utopia as fictional based on its etymology itself a kind of ‘responding to the surface’? That the name resembles Greek words is an incidental trait – isn’t it a kind of distraction of its own? We have to get distracted by “Utopia”’s surface before we can dismiss Utopia’s interior. That’s the paradox I mentioned at the start: you can’t simply say that “Utopia” means “nowhere”, and that this means Raphael’s description is somehow hollow, unless you first decide to respond to sounds rather than messages – and that turns out exactly the same kind of ‘hollowness’ we’re accusing Hythloday of as he riffs off the homonyms of inservias.


[1] e.g. what appears to be the beginning of an attack on the non-working nobility; or another instance when he appears to start a typical diatribe on the dangers of gambling (which he actually reveals to be something else entirely – gambling is bad, he says, because storing money in a single building prompts burglaries).

[2] I think it is very interesting that More clues us to the origin of the word ‘Utopia’ in an attached letter to Peter Giles – another piece of content at the edges or the surface of the work. (I appreciate my argument might reach a monotone if I point out any more of these instances.)