Analysis of Thomas More's Utopia
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 with the entire social order based on private property, as Plato had done for the philosopher elite in his Republic.
More took the communism of Plato's republic or of the "golden age" supposed by Ovid and later adapted by the Christian fathers. But he kept the fallen human nature that Augustine believed to be the curse of the Fall. He then created a literary carnival, allowed himself the freedom of speculating on the sort of commonwealth would arise from a juxtaposition of seemingly contrary ideas. No wonder that the little poem that introduces the work, supposedly done by "Mr....