Thomas More “Utopia” ctd.

The Cardinal asks Hythloday what kind of punishment he thinks would be the just one for theft. Hythloday says that capital punishment for crimes against property is disproportionate and even Mosaic law, not known for its particular lenience, did not go that far. Besides, it is superseding God’s law “Thou shalt not kill” with man-made law, which is basically the same as if in a given country people agreed to legalize rape or theft. He skirts, though, the question of whether murder should be punished with death – Moses’ law prescribed it, but it also prescribed many other kinds of punishment which seem shocking to us or even to people in the 16th century, If we just take for granted that the Old Testament law is God’s law, why not implement it wholesale and stop bothering about coming up with modern codes? Hythloday is not the most consistent of disputants, I have to say.

Anyway, Hythloday, answering the question about the appropriate punishment for thefts, quotes the example of a (fanciful) land of Polylerites (the name means “People of Much Nonsense”) , which he visited during his travels. Polylerites ordered thieves to make the reparation to the injured party. If the stolen object was gone, the thief’s property was sold, whatever was left after the reparation was made was handed to the thief’s family and he himself (curiously, there were no women thieves in the Polylerite land) was sentenced to a sort of labour camp. The system is not that different from penal labour in many contemporary countries – the prisoners are branded with having a tip of their ear cut off (which I hope no civlized country does nowadays), they also have to wear special clothes of the same distinct colour (Orange is the New Black, anyone?). They are not shackled and are generally free to move about but they have to return at night to their dormitories. They can do public work or can be leased to private people at rates slightly below the market rate of free people. Their friends can give them food, drink, or clothing (provided it fits the uniform regulations), but no money. Generally they are treated humanely (from the viewpoint of a 16th-c. man), but there are very harsh punishments, including death, if they are caught possessing money, conspiring with other prisoners, talking with prisoners from another district etc., in short, if there’s the slightest suspicion of their rebelling. Hythloday is a bit fuzzy on the timespan of their imprisonment – it seems it’s for life, but every year some are pardoned for good behaviour, although he doesn’t explain how many and on what basis. However, the lawyer and other people listening to him are very sceptical and claim this kind of punishment won’t do in England.


Thomas More “Utopia” ctd.

Hythloday moves on to the very famous fragment, the one in which More criticizes the practice of enclosures. Rich men, including some men of the Church, turn out their tenants and convert the fields into pasture grounds, because raising sheep for wool is more profitable than tilling fields. But the price of raw wool doesn’t fall down, because the whole sheep-raising business is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful men who can dictate prices, so weavers and tailors are screwed, too. All this produces huge numbers of people out of work, without any trade, who turn to thieving. The same rich men are responsible for the high prices of livestock, as they buy out young calves, fatten them and sell for quick and easy profit – they created so much demand that soon farmers are not going to be able to keep up with it. Apart from that, there is also much unnecessary spending among all classes of society on gambling and drinking. I think More is a bit inconsistent here – if poverty in England is so widespread, how can everybody spend so much money? I guess it’s just the usual Christian moralist mode kicking in. The lawyer is getting ready to answer Hythloday’s charges in the way he’s been trained to do: summing them up, showing his opponents mistakes and refuting his arguments. But the Cardinal interrupts him, saying that they don’t have the whole day and he must wait until tomorrow to deliver his speech.

Thomas More “Utopia” ctd.

Hythloday tells the story of his visit to England, during which he was a guest of John Cardinal Morton, the chancellor to Henry VII, to whom More pays tribute in this way (he was his page and Morton helped him in getting to Oxford). One day he had a dispute with a lawyer who praised “zero-tolerance” policy of Henry VII, i.e. hanging people for thieving, sometimes as many as twenty at one gallows. The lawyer is surprised that despite such draconian punishments there are still thieves in England and Hythloday points out that many of them turn to thieving out of desperation – if they had means of earning their living, they wouldn’t do it. The lawyer tries to refute his argument by the old chestnut “those who want to, can find work”. But Hythloday argues that first of all, there are war vets who come home crippled, unable to perform their all trade and too old to learn a new one. But putting this aside, since wars are not fought every day, there is the problem of the servants of noblemen. (By servants he means not only people who do menial jobs but the members of the private armies of aristocrats, a post-feudal custom still alive in the late 15th and early 16th century. These men, he says, lead idle lives and can’t do anything useful. When they grow ill, or when their lord dies and his heir starts cutbacks on the army to save money, they are out on the street, with no means of earning money and they often turn to robbery. Hythloday’s opponent tries to argue that the country needs them as a kind of standing army. Hythloday answers that the raw recruits of England often beat the professional soldiers of France and many examples from the ancient and recent history show that sometimes the country has to fight against its “defenders”.  Keeping such a large army is essentially asking for a war so it can be made use of.

Thomas More “Utopia” ctd.

Hythloday tells More and Gilles a lot of interesting things about the countries he visited, their customs, laws and institutions. They didn’t talk, as More observes drily, about the miraculous monsters (which were de rigeur in travel narratives in these times) because it is much easier to come across dragons and harpies than sensible governments. More says that Raphael with his vast knowledge should become an adviser to some powerful king or prince, but Raphael is not interested in either money or power. He has already given away his possessions to his family so that they don’t have to wait until his death and he does not care for money himself. He likes his freedom and does not want to sell himself into the servitude of any king. More then tries to argue that Hythloday should become an adviser to a king, if not for his own sake, then for the sake of common people, who could benefit from some good governing practices. But Hythloday again dismisses it, saying that neither princes nor their courtiers want to listen to good advice. Princes are mostly interested in wars, and the courtiers in preserving status quo – if they can’t find any arguments against reforms, they say “what was good enough for our ancestors, is good enough for us”.

Thomas More “Utopia” ctd.

Gilles says that Hythloday travelled around the world, through America, reaching Ceylon and then via Calcutta going back to Europe on a Portuguese ship. Gilles introduces Hythloday to More, after which they all go together to More’s house and Hythloday starts his story. Hythloday travelled with Amerigo Vespucci on his four travels and during the last one he asked Vespucci to leave him with a few of his companions at a fort somewhere far away in America. (More is a bit fuzzy here, as he first mentions twenty-four companions, but then he writes only about five). Hythloday and his companions become very friendly with the locals and their prince, who helps them with the means of transport and gives them a guide when they set off on a journey. After passing through the dangerous equatorial zone of deserts and savages they reach more civilized areas. People there are skilled seamen, but they didn’t know the compass, the use of which was shown to them by Hythloday.

Thomas More “Utopia” ctd.

I’ve thought about the phrase “I’d rather be truthful than correct”. This is the ultimate praise of one’s subjective conscience: More prefers being true to his own convictions and being potentially wrong than correcting his book if the data is not sufficient to convince him. But on a larger scale it could be interpreted as the meaning of the whole “Utopia” – it is not a factually correct description of a real island, but through this medium he can express some of his deeper beliefs. And on even a larger scale, it’s like the ultimate praise of the freedom of thought and belief, something that More eventually died for. It’s a pity he didn’t think about it when he tortured and executed people suspected of heresy, I should add.

This section is rather humdrum and serves as the introduction. More ends his preface with the standard author’s complaint about how readers don’t really appreciate good books and there’s no pleasing them. He also exhorts Gilles to get the answers from Hythloday, in person or by letter, and also to get him to read the book, if possible.

Book 1 starts with describing the circumstances of More’s meeting Hythloday. He went on a diplomatic mission to Low Countries in the retinue of the real-life diplomat Cuthbert Tunstall (the mission is historical, too). During a break in the negotiations, More travels from Bruges to Antwerp, where he befriends Peter Gilles. One day, after the Mass, he notices his friend talking with a man who looks like a sailor because of his sun-burnt face and a long beard. Peter greets More and tells him he would like very much to introduce the stranger to him.

Thomas More “Utopia”

More’s most famous work begins with an elaborate title explaining that the work is by “the most distinguished and eloquent author”. Is it More’s own or his publisher’s?  In the opening letter More is not boastful at all but self-deprecating. The letter is addressed to Peter Giles (or rather Pieter Gillis), a Flemish friend of More. Apparently it was a conversation with Gillis that gave More the idea for Utopia, but since the premise of the book is that that this is a real story told by a real traveller Raphael Hythloday (whose name in Greek means “the peddler of nonsense”), More has to keep his tongue firmly in cheek and invent a new origin story. So he says that he met Raphael Hythloday in Gillis’ house, and the book is the record of their conversations. He apologizes profusely about how long it took him to write the book. “I really didn’t have to invent anything, or worry about the style, all I had to do was to write Raphael’s words down”, he says, disingenously. “But you know my work keeps my busy, and after work I need to talk to my family and servants, and still I have to eat and sleep” (More’s biographer claims he slept only 5 hours a day and got up at 2 am), “so I have little time for any extracurricular activities.”

He further strengthens the pretence of writing a true story by asking Gilles about some unimportant detail – More’s servant says it was 200 yards, More recollects it was 500 yards, does Gilles remember how much it was? If his friends agree it was 200 yards, More will correct the figure, but if they don’t, he will rely on his own memory – “I’d rather be truthful than correct”. I need to think longer about this sentence, becomes it seems to me the key to Utopia.

And most importantly, More admits with shame that he must have missed the most important thing which is where exactly Utopia is. So he would really, really appreciate if Gilles could ask Hythloday about it, because a friend of his, a priest and theologian, is really keen on becoming a Christian missionary and dreams about becoming the bishop of Utopia.