Initial Musings on Sir Thomas More’s Utopia

I am currently working my way through Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. I’m a third of the way through and I don’t know what the author’s conclusion will be.  Is he fer or agin it? Does he believe this ideal society is possible or even desirable? Where I am at this point in the story, a traveler named Raphael is sharing his adventures and encounters with Utopia and some other civilizations with Mr. More and another companion.  They are trying to persuade him that, with his experiences and knowledge, he ought to be working as an advisor and consultant in the court of a King.  Raphael poo-poos this idea. As he sees it — and he can back this opinion up with experience he has had in courts — it is a waste of time and could even bring harm. He refers to it as enslaving himself to a King. One fellow responds, “Soft and fair! I do not mean that you should be a slave to any king, but only that you should assist them and be useful to them.” And then Raphael answers back,  “The change of the word does not alter the matter.” That made me chuckle. You can use your pretty PC terms, but it doesn’t change reality.

Raphael says the courts of kings are already quite full of obsequious personnel — bootlickers, brown-nosers (learned that term more than 30 years ago when my dad wouldn’t go out on strike with the other workers.) He knows that,  should he attempt to join the ranks, he would be a threat to these fawners and flatterers and they would immediately be finding ways to eliminate him.

“Now if in such a court, made up of persons who envy all others and only admire themselves, a person should but propose anything that he had either read in history or observed in his travels, the rest would think that the reputation of their wisdom would sink, and that their interests would be much depressed if they could not run it down: and, if all other things failed, then they would fly to this, that such or such things pleased our ancestors, and it were well for us if we could but match them. They would set up their rest on such an answer, as a sufficient confutation of all that could be said, as if it were a great misfortune that any should be found wiser than his ancestors. But though they willingly let go all the good things that were among those of former ages, yet, if better things are proposed, they cover themselves obstinately with this excuse of reverence to past times. I have met with these proud, morose, and absurd judgments of things in many places, particularly once in England.”

I love that bit about how they have let go of good things from the past, but if you dare challenge their place, they suddenly become so respectful and protective of the past. Earlier they could not care less about old ways, but now they say we should respect our ancestors and their ways.

He then goes on to relate an experience in the court of the Archbishop of Canterbury where he has a lengthy discourse with several nobles expressing his thoughts about how ridiculous and ineffective it is to execute common thieves. He is opposed right and left by these nobles, but when the Archbishop/Cardinal does agree with a portion of what he’s said, he notes, “When the Cardinal had done, they all commended the motion, though they had despised it when it came from me…”

After another discourse on a king and his advisors discussing war and acquisition strategies, Raphael’s listeners (the ones telling him he ought to work for kings) give him the ol’  “you’re going about this the wrong way” talk.

If when one of Plautus’ comedies is upon the stage, and a company of servants are acting their parts, you should come out in the garb of a philosopher, and repeat, out of _Octavia_, a discourse of Seneca’s to Nero, would it not be better for you to say nothing than by mixing things of such different natures to make an impertinent tragi-comedy? for you spoil and corrupt the play that is in hand when you mix with it things of an opposite nature, even though they are much better. Therefore go through with the play that is acting the best you can, and do not confound it because another that is pleasanter comes into your thoughts. It is even so in a commonwealth and in the councils of princes; if ill opinions cannot be quite rooted out, and you cannot cure some received vice according to your wishes, you must not, therefore, abandon the commonwealth, for the same reasons as you should not forsake the ship in a storm because you cannot command the winds.

They say just because it doesn’t go your way or you can’t use your preferred method, you should not abandon the institution. Your method and ideas, although they might be better, are disruptive and startle your audience so that they cannot be receptive to your message. They tell him that he “ought rather to cast about and to manage things with all the dexterity in your power, so that, if you are not able to make them go well, they may be as little ill as possible.”  Raphael responds, “According to your argument, all that I could be able to do would be to preserve myself from being mad while I endeavoured to cure the madness of others…”  He believes that this casting about method goes against the “the greatest part of those things that Christ hath taught us, though He has commanded us not to conceal them, but to proclaim on the housetops that which He taught in secret.” Yet he notes that “the preachers seem to have learned that craft to which you advise me: for they, observing that the world would not willingly suit their lives to the rules that Christ has given, have fitted His doctrine, as if it had been a leaden rule, to their lives, that so, some way or other, they might agree with one another. But I see no other effect of this compliance except it be that men become more secure in their wickedness by it…”   Very interesting that statement —

I see no other effect of this compliance except it be that men become more secure in their wickedness by it

He makes two more observations that I want to note here.  He says that a man cannot keep silent in court (as they may be suggesting that he should be) unless he is willing to be seen as complying and approving of their “worst counsels.”  He also believes there is a danger of becoming corrupt yourself by your association there. “…he will be so far from being able to mend matters by his ‘casting about,’ as you call it, that he will find no occasions of doing any good–the ill company will sooner corrupt him than be the better for him…”

He goes on to a discourse of the evils of property — thoughts I’m having problems with understanding and possibly with which I’m not in agreement.  Maybe I’ll have the ol’ epiphany and write about that another day.

Okay, perhaps this is long and if you’ve made it this far, you will find out that I relate a lot to what this fellow Raphael is communicating. Two specific encounters in the life of Jack and me come to mind. One is with a religious corporation and another with a small town government. In expressing what we found to be true and trying to communicate our thoughts about how things ought to go and exposing the problems, we were told “you’re going about this the wrong way,” “if you won’t decide to not be critical, you ought to leave,” “nobody asked you to come here,” “don’t leave! You need to stay to help make changes.” Things and people that had been previously mocked by them were suddenly so important and revered. Certain authorities were threatened by the message and sprang into action. Both groups made their attempts at slandering our character.

At some point, when you see that your message is not received, then it is time to move on. In staying, you take the chance of becoming corrupt yourself. Compliance only makes the evil feel more comfortable in their ways. Leaving may not help the problems in the institution, but staying might possibly cause more harm to them and definitely will harm you and yours. Nothing is worth having Truth and your character corrupted.

This story of Utopia is about some ideal society — I’m supposing. But I’m finding this interaction between Raphael, the traveler/philosopher, and his friends and their desire and insistence that he ought to join up his knowledge with some established institution very timely.  I could file it under The more things change… or Nothing new under the sun

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One Response to Initial Musings on Sir Thomas More’s Utopia

  1. Pingback: Utopia finale Part 1- “No Unnecessary Labor” | Pelham House

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