Utopia is so ambiguous a work that one critic calls it “the most slippery of texts: in no other literary work is the question of authorial intention at once more pressing or more unanswerable.” As such, we can’t take at face value anything we read in the book. Questions the text invites but never resolves include: can a utopia be established on earth, and, if not, why imagine one, especially when philosophy falls on deaf ears in the courts of kings? Moreover, does the Utopia that Raphael Hythloday describes really nurture human happiness, or is it oppressively totalitarian? (The name “Hythloday,” it is appropriate to add here, likely means something like “peddler of triflers,” “kindler of nonsense,” and yet the traveler also shares his first name with Raphael, the angel who helps man understand the ways of God.)
As if to make his own text even slipperier, Thomas More the man led a life dramatically inconsistent with Utopian law and order, in what amounts to an extreme clash between his literary “ideal” and his lived reality. He was a lawyer—but lawyers are banned from Utopia for being too cunning in their interpretations of the law. He was a devout Catholic who, during the Reformation, tortured Protestants and approved of burning them at the stake as heretics—but Utopia is tolerant of all religions (just not the irreligious), and those who “vehemently and fervently” attempt to convert others are banished or enslaved.
There are even internal inconsistencies in the description of Utopia itself, it would seem. One critic, Stephen Greenblatt, argues that, though Utopians are only required to work six hours a day, a close reading reveals that the workday as described in the text would really fill one’s day from sunrise to sunset. At the end of Book II, even Thomas More the character says, “Many things came to mind which in the manners and laws of that people seemed to be instituted and founded of no good reason.”
What are we to make of this literary house of mirrors, of all these maze-like questions, ambiguities, and inconsistencies? Many readers have simply found Utopia to be nothing more, at last, than a grand literary joke, impossible to pin down and so difficult to connect with. But perhaps there is a more fruitful way of engaging with the work. In the first theme we discussed how Utopia is “nowhere,” but the potential for a utopia is everywhere. What More’s ambiguities direct our attention to are the great difficulties that await us as we seek to realize that potential; Utopia cannot be built in a day, as it were. These ambiguities also require that we carefully weigh and examine matters for ourselves, that we awaken and listen to our inner philosophers—which is, after all, the first step all of us must take before any of us can begin the journey to utopia.
The Ambiguities of Utopia ThemeTracker
The Ambiguities of Utopia Quotes in Utopia
This school philosophy is not unpleasant among friends in familiar communication, but in the council of kings, where great matters be debated and reasoned with great authority, these things have no place.
Utopus…even at his first arriving and entering upon the land [which was to become Utopia], forthwith obtaining the victory [over the natives], caused fifteen miles space of uplandish ground, where the sea had no passage, to be cut and digged up. And so brought the sea round about the land.
But if the disease [of a Utopian] be not only incurable, but also full of continual pain and anguish, then the priests and the magistrates exhort the man…that he will determine with himself no longer to cherish that pestilent and painful disease…but rather…either dispatch himself out of that painful life, as out of a prison or a rack of torment, or else suffer himself willingly to be rid out of it by other.
Now and then it chanceth whereas the man and the woman [in a marriage] cannot well agree between themselves, both of them finding other, with whom they hope to live more quietly and merrily, that they by the full consent of them both be divorced asunder and married again to other.
Their [the Utopians’] chief and principal purpose in war is to obtain that thing, which if they had before obtained, they would not have moved battle. But if that be not possible, they take so cruel vengeance of them which be in the fault, that ever after they be afeard to do the like.
Though they [the Utopians] be in divers opinions, yet in this point they agree all together with the wisest sort in believing that there is one chief and principal God, the maker and ruler of the world… For every one of them, whatsoever that is which he taketh for the chief God, thinketh it to be the very same nature to whose only divine might and majesty the sum and sovereignty of all things by the consent of all people is attributed and given.
He [Utopus] made a decree that it should be lawful for every man to favour and follow what religion he would, and that he might do the best he could to bring other to his opinion, so that he did it peaceably, gently, quietly, and soberly, without hasty and contentious rebuking and inveighing against other.
As I cannot agree and consent to all things that he [Hythloday] said…so must I needs confess and grant that many things be in the Utopian weal-public which in our cities I may rather wish for than hope after.