Out of this World

David Armitage

It can hardly be a coincidence that the historical study of utopias has accelerated as faith in the promises of utopianism has declined. The very idea that utopias, those rose-tinted cities stranded outside time, might have a history is itself a recent discovery, and has largely sprung from assessments of More’s Utopia, the work that revived the ancient genre of the ideal commonwealth for the modern world. More’s work has been heralded as both a harbinger of Communism and as the intellectual first-fruits of the modern bureaucratic state. The corruption and collapse of the one, and the distrust and fear of the other, have made More’s solutions for human depravity seem distant and even actively repugnant in ways that earlier generations of readers could hardly have foreseen. History has reclaimed Utopia and made its vision of a well-regulated present a thing of the past.

The serious historical appraisal of Utopia begins with the imposing Yale edition of 1965, which presented both Latin and English texts along with magisterial introductions by Edward Surtz and J.H. Hexter. For Surtz (a Jesuit), More was very much Saint Thomas; for Hexter (a Whig), he was more clearly Sir Thomas, and their rival interpretations have challenged future scholars to find the truth behind the gangly hybrid of the library catalogues – ‘More, Thomas, Sir, Saint’. Yet the Thomas More who wrote Utopia in 1515-6 would have to wait five years to be knighted, and 420 to be canonised; neither sir nor saint, he was a successful lawyer, entering middle age with a large family, a comfortable post as a London judge and a reputation as one of England’s leading classical scholars. If he had died before writing Utopia, he would now be remembered not as a martyr, or even a statesman, but as an exemplar of Northern European humanism, that combination of the hard-hat disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and ethics which had been fashioned in Italy and the Low Countries in the decades before his birth and imported to England by his teachers Grocyn and Colet and his greatest friend, Erasmus. Utopia was the culmination of More’s humanism, yet it was almost his swan-song to a set of genres which he had mastered, only to abandon them for the ephemeral work of a royal councillor and the higher task of theological controversy.

If we have forgotten that Utopia was in Latin, and its author a humanist, we also need to be reminded that Utopia was only the book’s subtitle. ‘I am sending you my “Nowhere”, which is nowhere well written,’ More wrote teasingly to Erasmus in September 1516, and the enclosed manuscript, when it appeared in print three months later, bore the title, ‘On the Best State of the Commonwealth, and of the New Island, Utopia’ (De Optimo Reipublicae Statu Deque Nova Insula Utopia). More’s European readers would have recognised it immediately as a work of moral philosophy, in a tradition stretching from Aristotle to Cicero and beyond. Most modern editions drop the full title, as they abandon its humanistic apparatus of dedicatory epistles and pointed marginalia. This may give the book a kind of accessibility but it obscures the work’s origins in a movement that was as serious about its wit as it was in its scholarship.

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