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.


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