Sunday, May 31, 2009

Micah Donohue: “Utopia as Mirror and Desire”

Micah Donohue
New Mexico State University

Reading between the Letters: Utopia as Mirror and Desire

“When you read More’s book about Utopia, you find yourself suddenly transported into another world; so new is everything about you . . .” –Desiderius Erasmus to Antonius Clava, 1517 (The Epistles of Erasmus, vol. 2, 493).


1> Erasmus does not stress the impossible or purely imaginary nature of Utopia in the excerpt from the letter printed above. Instead, he focuses on its novelty and unfamiliarity, likening it, after a fashion, to a new world. However, this “otherness” is immediately problematized by its position in Erasmus’ writing. In this same letter it is wedged between such mundane details as Erasmus’ condolences for the recent death of Clava’s sister, and his gentle reproach to Clava for not writing his letters half in Greek—since he had, by then, “been Hellenizing for more than two years” (493).

2> This link between Utopia and the quotidian is only strengthened in another of Erasmus’ correspondences, this time to physician William Cop. There, he tells Cop that in Utopia one can see “the sources from which almost all the ills of the body politic arise” (503). Although Erasmus doesn’t specify whether he means More’s text reveals or embodies the political faults of early modern Europe, one remark, almost certainly written by Erasmus and contained within the copious marginalia of the 1518 edition of Utopia,
[2] provides a clue to help decipher his meaning. In Book II, this note is written to the side of Hythloday’s report that idleness is neither tolerated nor permitted in Utopia: “O Sanctam Republicam, & uel Christianis imitandam [O Holy Commonwealth—and Worthy of Imitation even by Christians]” (The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. 4, 146-47).[3] If Erasmus holds Utopia up as model worthy to be imitated “even by Christians,” in his letter to Cop he must have meant that Utopia should be seen as somehow revealing the causes of the political “ills” plaguing the European continent in the early 1500’s.

3> Now, by bringing what Erasmus wrote to Cop (informed by the marginalia) together with his letter to Clava, not one image of Utopia emerges but two. The first shows the new world and all of its possibilities, a world that Hythloday stresses is “as from us in customs and way of life as it is removed from us by the distance the equator puts between us” (Utopia 103). The second contrasts the all too familiar problems rampant across Europe with what Hythloday calls “the most prudent and holy institutions of the Utopians” (Utopia 46).

4> Yet if Erasmus attempts to position Utopia within the known world of 16th century Europe, a letter of Thomas More’s will quickly resituate it in as nebulous a location as the name Utopia would seem to warrant. In what is certainly the most intimate, if also the strangest of the handful of letters More wrote to Erasmus about Utopia, he confesses how in his daydreams he has “been marked out by…the Utopians to be their king forever” (St. Thomas More: Selected Letters 85). More indulges his fantasy a little further, describing himself at the head of a regal procession, wearing a monk’s frock, carrying a sheaf of grain, and crowned with a diadem of wheat.
[4] Then, without warning, he interrupts his reverie to say that “the rising Dawn has shattered my dream—poor me!—and shaken me off my throne and summons me back to the drudgery of the courts” (85). Here, More destabilizes Utopia ever further than Erasmus’ doubling of the island-state by transforming the best of all commonwealths into a dream. As in the joke about Plato in Lucian’s satire A True History, the ideal state is nowhere to be found because it only ever existed in its planner’s head.[5] It is perhaps for this reason that ‘More,’ [6] the textual variant of Utopia’s author, can deliver the work’s final lines with a resigned tone that echoes the pessimistic conclusion of the letter to Erasmus. “I readily confess,” ‘More’ says, “that in the Utopian commonwealth are very many features I would wish rather than expect to see” (Utopia 135).

5> By introducing Utopia with epistolary descriptions as opposed as Erasmus’ and More’s, I run the risk of reducing the text into, quoting historian Hanan Yoran, “a kind of jeu d’esprit, devoid of any serious philosophical and political content.”
[7] Nothing could be further from my intent. However, I do not intend to reconcile these different understandings of Utopia immediately. Rather, I want to elaborate them further, increasing the tensions present within the text to the point at which it seemingly must, and yet does not, break.

6> For Utopia to be read as fully as possible, it cannot be reduced simply to an intellectual game. Nor can it resolve those same issues by means of one overarching explanation that interprets what is problematic as part of an elaborate design to keep hidden the text’s “truth.” At issue here is not one interpretation or another, but rather a reading of Utopia which does not seek, to borrow from Michel Foucault’s inimitable language, to “question things said as to what they are hiding, what they were ‘really’ saying” (Archaeology of Knowledge 109). Instead of fixing a meaning to Utopia, in the next section of this essay I will try to chart certain historical influences which contribute to the tensions always at play across the surface of Utopia. That is, as new historicist critic Stephen Greenblatt might put it, I will attempt to situate Utopia in its “cultural context” and reunite it with “the social, ideological, and material matrix in which all art is produced and consumed.”


7>Utopia was first published in Louvain in 1516. Only a quarter of a century had passed since Christopher Columbus stumbled onto the “new world” he at first mistook for part of the old one. While the influence of Columbus’ discovery on Utopia’s composition is well documented and has been for some time,
[9] less attention has been paid to the interpretive problems that event posed for More as he attempted to fashion the part of the new world in which Utopia was to reside. Like Columbus’ language was in his diary entries about the islands he discovered and the natives he encountered there, the descriptive terms at More’s disposal were limited by the historical discourse and context of which he was a part.

8> Greenblatt has noted that anything Columbus observed during his historic voyage which fell outside of his inherited cultural and interpretive paradigms was immediately stripped of its meaningful status as a “sign” and tended to disappear altogether from his diaries.
[10] The most dramatic example of this is when, after several failed attempts to lure a group of idling natives from a canoe onto his ship, Columbus ordered several of his men to play music and begin dancing. His plan horribly backfired, however, as this festivity was mistaken for an act of aggression. The natives quickly strung their bows and began shooting arrows at Columbus and his crew. Columbus was forced to order his men to fire back, and the islanders immediately dispersed. His ultimate remark about this event is telling: “e nunca más los vide ni a otros en esta isla” (Los cuatro viajes del almirante y su testamento 174).[11] Their behavior placed them beyond the pale of Columbus’ understanding; the only way left to him, then, as he tried to render the experience intelligible for European readers (if only for himself), was one in which the inexplicable foreignness of these inhabitants—along with the inhabitants themselves—vanished from sight.

9> Columbus’ erasure, interesting in its own right, is of use to us as a pointer towards a much larger issue beginning to work itself out in Europe toward the end of the 15th and the start of the 16th century: namely, the dawning realization that traditional epistemological models were not sufficient to make sense of, interpret, and organize a rapidly changing political, intellectual, and theological environment both on the continent and beyond the Atlantic. As one Englishman would put it, writing about Europe scarcely ten years after Utopia’s publication, it was a world “turned up and down.”

10> It is Benedict Anderson’s conviction that it was during this time that the tripartite foundation of medieval European culture—the omnipresence of the Catholic Church, dynastic politics, and a sense of time in which the divine and the mundane met—first began to crumble (Imagined Communities 36). While Anderson will quickly move on to show how out of this unrest Nationalism, that “imagined political community” as he calls it (6), would become the dominant model for structuring governments and states, I am interested in the consequences of Utopia’s composition amidst such turbulence. To situate Utopia historically, it seems, is to try to position it within a flux. The traditional points of reference by which Europe took stock of itself were becoming destabilized. Rocked by the discovery of the Americas, More’s world was also experiencing the first shocks of collision between nascent Protestantism and orthodox Catholicism. It was during this time as well that, as Anderson points out, Latin, which had stitched together an intellectual and religious culture for centuries, began rapidly losing ground to the increasing reliance on, and support of, expression in the vernacular (37-38). The creation of the printing press, while opening the door for a previously unimaginable dissemination of knowledge, would also generate more questions about, and interpretations of, that knowledge and lead, in some cases, to its being discredited.

11> Yet in the face of this exponentially increasing and dizzying wealth of questions and interpretations, what Montaigne called an “infinite diversity of opinion” (Essays 346), no small amount of effort was being expended to preserve the same institutions, models, and systems of knowledge whose foundations were shattering beneath them. Isaiah Berlin has argued that, until the 18th century, the utopian dream of men sharing “a certain fixed, unaltering nature, certain universal, common goals” persisted across Europe (Crooked Timber of Humanity 20). Although history would not bear out the hope for a “harmony of objectively true ends, true for all men, at all times and places” (211), when Utopia was written the desire for universal harmony would still have been a powerful force. Indeed, for Utopia to function as Hythloday wishes, as a beneficial revelation for the Europeans—he says he would never have left Utopia “except to reveal the new world to others” (Utopia 48)—certain commonalities among men must be presupposed. Else, if no belief in a common “human nature” existed, what French humanist William Budé wrote to Thomas Lupset about Utopia would have been both impracticable and absurd: “our age and succeeding ages will hold his account as a nursery of correct and useful institutions from which every man may introduce and adapt transplanted customs to his own city.”

12> As with the epistolary references above, our brief historical survey of the context in which Utopia was written has revealed opposing tendencies and a plurality of vantage points from which to view the text.
[15] Although 16th century Europe was a world “turned up and down,” it was not for that reason any less the locus of a desire to avoid precipitating headlong into such an uncertain future. “We ought to blot out all trace of this infinite diversity of opinion,”[16] wrote Montaigne, no doubt aware that such drastic action would be impossible. Nevertheless, the severity and violence of his appeal to preserve the status quo (“we ought to blot out all trace…”) is echoed both by Columbus’ eliding an entire population and, in More’s text, the Utopian colonists’ practice of expelling any native who “refuse[d] to live under their laws” (67).

13> Nor was the yearning for this kind of stasis unique to the authors above or to other utopian works from the early modern and Renaissance periods. Niccoló Machiavelli, who was anything but sympathetic to utopian thought,
[17] admits the ideality of a city freed from linear time. In the Discourses on Livy, a treatise on republicanism composed around the same time as More penned Utopia,[18] Machiavelli writes that if a commonwealth “could be held balanced in this mode,” one free from time and change, “it would be the true political way of life and the true quiet of a city” (23). However, he immediately disqualifies any such commonwealth as possible “since all things of men are in motion and…must either rise or fall” (23). It is largely this acknowledgment of “motion” which prompted scholar Victoria Kahn to describe Machiavelli as “one of the first critics of Renaissance humanism to propose a new politics of Renaissance studies,”[19] one which emphasized the contingency of the real world at the expense of what, in The Prince, Machiavelli ridicules as the “imaginary conceptions” of numerous “republics and principalities that have never been seen or heard of” (59).

14> It is this apparent obliviousness to “motion” on the part of utopian thinkers, of which the best example is Hythloday’s claim that Utopia has remained virtually unchanged for 1,760 years (Utopia 58), that has led to such trenchant criticisms being leveled against them by everyone from Machiavelli to Spinoza and, perhaps most famously, Karl Marx. In the third section of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, for instance, Marx scorns the utopian Owenites and Fourierists for trying to build socio-culturally impossible “castles in the air” (239). In the first paragraph of A Political Treatise, Spinoza complains that philosophers have “never conceived a theory of politics, which could be turned to use, but such as might be taken for chimera, or might have been formed in Utopia” (287). And in De republica anglorum, written by Sir Thomas Smith in 1583, More is criticized in language reminiscent of Machiavelli’s for making a commonwealth “such as never was nor ever shall be” (142).

15> As I will show, however, these criticisms are unfair in their one-sided treatment of Utopia and the numerous imitations and philosophies More’s inaugural text sparked off. Utopia is both what never is nor ever shall be and what already is and always will be. Frederic Jameson, who we will have occasion to return to shortly, better spells this paradox out in his book Archaeologies of the Future. There, he writes that “it is a paradox that a form [the utopian] so absolutely dependent on historical circumstances…should give the appearance of being supremely ahistorical” (37). It is truly paradoxical, however, only if the real “political ills” that troubled Erasmus cannot inhabit the same imaginary space as, or are antithetical to, the fantasy More spun in his daydreams. But if Freud’s theories on dreams still carry any weight, we know that in texts as in the unconscious the “past, present, and future are strung together, as it were, on the thread of the wish that runs through them.”
[21] Thus may Utopia mirror the context in which it was written at the same time as it expresses a wish to be free from what theorist David Harvey has indentified, analyzing a variety of utopian texts and practices, as “the temporality of the social process, the dialectics of social change—real history.”[22]


16> Perhaps the best way to give an additional sense of Utopia’s complexity, beyond further charting the “real history” amidst which it was written, is to consider the book itself. In many ways the text of Utopia is an excellent illustration of Foucault’s claim that “the frontiers of a book are never clear cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references…it is a node within a network” (Archaeologies of Knowledge 23). Consider, for instance, the fact that it may have been Erasmus, not More, who supplied the title Utopia to a work More had been in the habit of referring to simply as Nusquama.
[23] While the Latin term does mean “nowhere,” it possesses none of the intricacy of the Greek neologism Utopia, which can be understood either as no-place (ου-τοπος) or a blessed place (ευ- τοπος). Another curious detail is the work’s composition. Written in two parts, the “first” book, a dialogue between ‘More,’ Giles, and Hythloday, was actually composed chronologically after the “second” book, containing Hythloday’s description of the island.[24] There are also More’s introductory and concluding letters, both to Peter Giles, which frame Utopia (books I and II). Thus the letters, included in the book Utopia, are simultaneously part of what they must also, paradoxically, stand free from in order to define.[25] If, as More claims to Giles in his prefatory letter, the “matter of accuracy is all I ought to, and in fact do, aim for” (Utopia 3), the unclear boundaries of Utopia would seem to make any accurate report of its sprawling contents difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

17> Confronted with such nebulous frontiers, scholars have gone so far as to criticize Utopia for being incomplete, unfinished, and open ended.
[26] I believe the more common academic response, however, to the destabilized and unsettled text, has been to follow a strategy Jacques Derrida outlines—but by no means endorses—in his seminal essay, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Confronted with “play,” Derrida’s term for the infinite substitution and repetition of signs bound finally to no transcendental signified or “center,” it is the almost inevitable outcome that such uncertainty (in both the epistemological and emotional senses of the word) will be overwritten by a narrative that establishes “a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude” (Writing and Difference 279).[27] In other words, the “center” (or the origin, end, arche, telos, essence, God—all words Derrida uses to signify the same idea), which has been momentarily questioned is quickly, even anxiously, reaffirmed. For the purposes of our discussion, this would mean that, instead of indulging Utopia’s “play,” the hard work is done of reducing its expansiveness to the text’s essential (and central) meaning. A particularly good example of this, both for the quality of its analysis (excellent) and the level of reduction employed (quite high), is Eric Nelson’s “Greek Nonsense in More’s Utopia.”

18> Nelson has argued that the true meaning of Utopia can be uncovered through a detailed study of the clever Hellenic puns informing most of the proper nouns in More’s seminal text.
[28] “More’s network of Greek puns,” writes Nelson, “do not simply entertain, they organize” (890). Specifically organized through More's word-play is not just a debate between Hythloday and More, Utopia’s protagonists, but one between entire political models set in opposition via the speakers who represent them. Linguistically, Hythloday is associated at the generic level with the Greek language, and more specifically with Plato and Socrates: “Hythloday is not the first speaker of hythlos [nonsense] in the Western tradition: Socrates receives this epithet in a famous passage in the Republic” (891). The famous passage in question is from Book I, where the puerile Thrasymachus accuses Socrates of talking pure “drivel [hythlos]” (336d).[29] ‘More,’ through the word moria [folly], is linguistically tied to Latin and represents the traditional Roman model of government inherited by the Europeans. Nelson, in what is certainly his essay's pithiest moment, reminds us that all of Utopia's dialogue is thus occurring “between a speaker of nonsense and a fool” (891). It becomes the reader's work “to determine who the true stultus is” (891). In doing so, they will also decode for which of the two political models More was advocating in Utopia.

19> Nelson makes the compelling argument that More himself, as opposed to the character within Utopia who shares his name, firmly meant for Utopia to back a Platonic model of political organization (894). Hythloday's “nonsense” is only such when viewed from a Roman perspective. Looked at with Hellenic eyes it yields “the optimus reipublicae status” (892). Nelson supports this claim mainly by drawing on the historical participation of More in a circle of English “Graecophiles,” who, among other things, preferred Plato to Aristotle, were strong advocates of Greek scholarship, and who, between 1514-1520, supported Erasmus' attempt to correct the Vulgate Bible by returning to original Greek documents (897-99).

20> Having delved as deeply into Utopia as he can, Nelson unearths what he believes is the hidden and true message of the text. It is neither, in the final analysis, a dialogue (Book I), nor a treatise (Book II). It is rather an appeal and a desire for a system of government modeled on a Greek, specifically Platonic pattern opposed to the neo-Romanic tradition adopted by the European countries of More’s time. While not explicitly commented on by Nelson, a published and open voicing of this desire, given that More was embarking on a career in Henry VIII’s court, could have been very dangerous indeed. Hence, one guesses, the camouflaging of Utopia’s true meaning behind the “network of Greek puns” that Nelson diligently unravels and simplifies into an elegant message.

21> Acts of simplification, however, are never simple or innocent.

22> As Foucault has demonstrated in “The Discourse of Language,” a lecture delivered at the Collège de France in 1970, “commentary’s only role is to say finally, what has silently been articulated deep down” (221; italics in the original). In so doing, commentary, such as the kind we have seen Nelson engaging in above, attempts to eliminate the open “hazards of discourse”—one might say the open possibilities of discourse—by imposing an “identity” on the text in question (222). In an essay on a related issue, the Argentinean author and critic Jorge Luis Borges—a favorite of Foucault’s—links this idea of a work’s openness, as opposed to an “identity” imposed upon it, to its being read across time and even canonized: “[c]lásico no es un libro…que necesariamente posee tales o cuales méritos; es un libro que las generaciones de hombres, urgidas por diversas razones, leen con previo fervor y con una misteriosa lealtad” (Nueva antología personal 226).

23> Beyond the theoretical issues just raised, there are several additional ways in which we could question how effectively Nelson’s reading ties together all of Utopia. We might ask, for instance, why More, a man who could be clear regarding where he stood on even the most polemical issues,
[31] was, in his private epistolary references to Utopia, plagued by an inability to adopt a clear stance on his work? In the most famous example, a letter addressed to Erasmus and dated September 3, 1516, More puns off the Latin title of his work, Nusquama, joking that Erasmus will find it “nowhere well written” (St. Thomas More: Selected Letters 73). In a letter from October of that same year, also to Erasmus, More remarks that if men of such distinction as Erasmus and Peter Gilles approve of his book, he “shall begin to like it [himself]” (80). We have already seen how, in the letter to Erasmus discussed above, More (not ‘More’) problematizes any political appeal Utopia might be making by situating it within what he calls—in the space of two paragraphs—a “daydream,” a “fascinating vision,” and, simply, a “dream” (85). In fact, in no one of the letters in which Utopia makes an appearance does More not potentially distance himself from his project. Any kind of false modesty aside, this is unexpected if he was, as Nelson maintains, inspired to write Utopia out of a commitment to classical Greece and to advancing a Platonic theory of government.

24> Curious too is the fact that in his vitriolic and troubling Responsio ad Lutherum, More uses variations of the words “nowhere” and “nonsense” to pejoratively describe Luther and the emerging Reformation church. After giving a one-sided and reductive account of Luther’s views on sin, the flesh, and the church, in which Luther is painted as having hopelessly mired himself in a paradox of saying that no one is without sin at the same time as he stresses that the church—made up of people—is sinless, More dismisses his theological nemesis as merely “absurde diceret [talking nonsense]” (The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. 5, Part 1, 160-61).
[32] Undoubtedly, a link to the hythlos of Socrates and Hythloday is not what More intends, unless More also means to connect these characters to Luther’s “beshitted tongue” (181), but then what is to be made of the fact that ‘More’ will ultimately dismiss many of the institutions he has heard Hythloday describing as “absurde…instituta [absurdly established]” (Complete Works, vol. 4, 244-45)?

25> Also damaging to Nelson’s reading is how More describes Luther’s vision of the Christian church. Given the commitment to Platonism that Nelson makes so much of, a link between Plato and the Reformation is the last thing we might expect More to make—especially since More, in one of the most scatological and graphic passages of the Responsio, advocates that Luther “lick…the very posterior of a pissing she-mule” (Complete Works, vol. 5, Part 1, 181).
[33] Yet, that is precisely the connection More does make. Luther’s church is, More says, “imperceptible and mathematical—like Platonic ideas—[and it] is both in some place and no place [et in loco sit, et in nullo loco sit]” (166-67). Not only is what will come to be known as the Protestant church linked to Platonism, the argument can be made that it is joined, by virtue of the Latin phrase in nullo loco sit, back to Nusquama, the original title of Utopia. This partial conflation of Lutheran theology and Utopia (and hence the exposure of Utopia to More’s own vitriol), would only further complicate an already intricate and labyrinthine text. Additionally, it would make sustaining a reading like Nelson’s that much more difficult.

26> But even granting that Nelson’s article can answer the questions I raise above, the issue remains of Utopia’s inspiration being a specifically Platonic model of the ideal state. At one level, “Greek Nonsense” is undoubtedly correct when it asserts that Utopia supports a “fundamentally Greek ethical framework for political life” (894), but curiously it never pauses over whether such a frame is viable in any context other than a literary one. Author Yves Charbit, in “The Platonic City: History and Utopia,” does linger over just that issue, resituating Plato’s the Republic, Statesman, and Laws within the historical context of his career as a politician—a career, it turns out, characterized by disillusionment and failure.

27> Charbit reminds his readers that all of Plato's works on government, ranging from the Republic, c. 375 B.C., to Laws, c. 349, were written after a string of disastrous political experiences (220). As a member of the Athenian aristocracy, Plato would have been associated with both of Athen's oligarchic revolutions (the first occurred in 411, and the second in 404), neither of which lasted a year before democracy was forcefully reestablished (219-20). But perhaps worst of all, there was Plato's unproductive association with Dionysus, ruler of Syracuse, in 387 B.C., which went so badly that “Plato had to flee and return to Athens” (220). Plato’s Letters VII and VIII recount this doomed attempt to convert the young ruler to philosophy.

28> In light then of Plato’s experiences, Charbit is right to ask how the political dialogues, and especially the Republic, “can…be read without bearing in mind that Plato was a witness of these events, and even a protagonist in them?” (220). If the answer is, as I believe it to be, that they cannot, then the Republic, Statesman, and Laws must be recast into what Frederic Jameson has called “new wish images of the social” (Archaeologies of the Future 16). That is to say, Plato can, but can only, accomplish across an imaginary and textual space what proved impossible for him to do in the real world: organize a republic successfully. At the same time, then, as he “inspires” More in his authorial endeavors to craft the optiumus republicae status, the pattern Plato provides is as ephemeral as it was in the case of his own literary commonwealth.


29> To explain what Jameson means by “new wish images of the social,” it is necessary first to describe how utopias are formed according to Archaeologies of the Future. For Jameson, it is a mistake to approach any utopia with positive expectations. Rather than start with the plans the utopian architect has for her city, Jameson believes our attention should be focused on what necessarily happens prior to any blueprints, drawings, or plans being unfurled: violence—but violence which the text then either ignores or only cursorily addresses. This violence, however, is neither indiscriminate in its target nor haphazard in its implementation: it is aimed at what the utopian has identified as the fundamental problem of her society, what Jameson calls a society’s “root-of-all-evil” (12). In More’s case this was money and private property; in Plato’s, it was private property and an educational system which perverted the development of its citizens from infancy. The degree of change which will result from extirpating this poisoned root is complete re-creation. “The modification of reality must be absolute and totalizing,” writes Jameson, “the Utopian text is at one with a revolutionary and systemic concept of change rather than a reformist one” (39).

30> More provides ample support for this claim of Jameson’s, and the initial violence of Utopia is terrible and profound. The commonwealth Hythloday describes, it turns out, once had a different name. Before its conquest at the hands of the good king Utopus, this kingdom was known as “Abraxa.” Utopus, however, not content at this merely nominal change, had to alter his newly acquired territory physically as well. So much so, that he ordered a fifteen mile wide trench dug across the isthmus connecting Abraxa to the nearby continent, effectively transforming his newly won “Utopia” into an island. This, he felt, was necessary to do in order to bring the “crude and rustic mob” of Abraxa up to “a level of culture and humanity beyond almost all other mortals” (53). Hythloday leaves no question that the “level” to which Utopus elevates his new citizens is one characterized by the absence of private property and money. “It seems to me,” Hythloday says, “that wherever there is private property, where everything is measured in terms of money, it is hardly ever possible for the common good to be served with justice…unless you think justice is served when all the best things go to the worst people” (Utopia 46).

31> Plato’s Republic also adds to Jameson’s argument. Because our attention is immediately stolen by the masterful play of shadows and light in Book VII, several other interesting passages often go relatively unremarked. One such moment, and the one relevant to this discussion, is the section in which Socrates reveals exactly how an existing city may be reorganized to allow philosophers to rule in it. As he casually and more than a little chillingly explains, it will be necessary to banish anyone over the age of ten from the city out into the surrounding fields in order that the remaining children may be reeducated into the “customs and laws” Socrates has been describing (541a). Without this preemptive strike, so to speak, the great republic would never be more than the “daydream” Socrates assures us it is not (540d).

32> Yet for these problems (More’s, Plato’s, or any Utopian’s) to be elevated to the position of being responsible for all of a given society’s other evils, the conditions of that society must be such that their identification is possible in the first place. This implies both a certain level of societal complexity as well as a general consensus among citizens about its problems. Many people other than More, for instance, were worried about the civil and juridical issues Hythloday raises in Book I. The move from these problems to their root, and Jameson insists on this point, is always the result of simplifying a complex and expansive web of factors into an imaginary model which permits (or, as we saw with Derrida, demands) a center around which everything can be organized (Archaeologies 14). Eliminating that “center” would dissolve the existing social constellation, or so the Utopian believes at any rate, and would allow for new configurations, “new wish images of the social,” to be elaborated in its stead.

33> Jameson, however, never ceases to be attentive to the realities of Machiavelli’s “motion.”
[36] The “pocket of stasis” the utopian can shore up against time’s current can only last so long before changing material conditions “sweep it away altogether” (16). Whether the utopian space is temporary or not, Jameson has identified a feature of Utopia that we have been stressing since the beginning of this paper: that at the same time as More’s text is undeniably a wish for change and looks for the new world Erasmus points it toward, it is also the product of the environment in which it was produced. “As with the imaginary construction of a chimera,” Jameson writes, playing off Spinoza’s comment above, “even a no-place must be put together out of already existing representations” (24).


34> Utopias are fantastic and ephemeral wishes; they are fictions. They are detached from reality and are the “castles in the air” Marx accused them of being. At the same time, however, those imaginary palaces were built from the ground up; utopias, as Roland Barthes once said, are marked by “the everyday.”
[37] Desires and daydreams they may be, but ones rooted in real historical conditions. Far from detracting from Utopia’s worth, situating the text within the realm of desire assures its openness. Desire is the nebulous and contorting province of dreams, and as Freud remarked about the interpretation of dreams, they can never be decisively said to have come to a conclusion.[38] By rereading Utopia in this way, the exclusionary commentary Foucault worried about, and Nelson attempted to perform, is overturned in favor of Borges’ misteriosa and Derrida’s “play.” Instead of trying to uncover the “deeper meaning” of Utopia, the meaning that is “supposedly nearer its essential truth,” by opening More’s text to the play of the influences inscribed across its surface we can begin, as Foucault wished, to read Utopia not as the depository of an ultimate truth, synthesis, or aufgehoben, “but as events and functional segments gradually coming together to form a system”—or to form a book, or a commonwealth.[39]


[1] I am indebted to Jeffrey Knapp’s An Empire Nowhere, where I first came across this letter of Erasmus’ (see p. 51 for his modified translation).

[2] The title page of the 1517 edition of Utopia (the Paris edition) attributes the marginalia solely to Erasmus; as Edward Surtz, S.J., notes, however, Peter Giles likely had a hand in composing some of the marginal notes as well (see the Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. 4, p. clxxxvi, for Surtz’s discussion of the marginalia’s authorship).

[3] Although I have followed The Complete Works here, all further quotations from Utopia, unless otherwise specified, will be from Clarence H. Miller’s 2001 translation of Utopia, published by Yale University Press.

[4] More’s description of himself further develops how the prince is described in Utopia: “the ruler is not singled out by his clothes or a crown but rather by a sheaf of grain he carries” (101).

[5] By the end of A True History, Lucian and his shipmates have visited this world and the next, the depths of the ocean and outer space, but conspicuously absent, despite the fact that they ask after it and want to find it, is Plato’s republic.

[6] To avoid confusion, ‘More’ will always be used to designate the character within Utopia, while More will exclusively refer to the text’s author.

[7] From “More’s Utopia and Erasmus’ No-Place,” p. 11.

[8] From “Shakespeare and the Exorcists,” p. 98.

[9] Since at least as early as 1946 in Arthur Morgan’s Nowhere was Somewhere (Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1946). Morgan’s argument that More’s Utopia bears a relationship with the Incan Empire is taken up by contemporary theorist Frederic Jameson in Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and other Science Fictions, pp. 24-26.

[10] Marvelous Possessions, p. 88.

[11] “I never saw them again nor any others on this island [Trinidad].” (Translation mine). As Columbus continues his voyage, his next encounter with “Indians” will be markedly different. Although the language barrier still represents a “gran pena” for both parties, both the natives and Columbus’ crew can, apparently, communicate through gestures (177). What makes this communication (or Columbus’ belief that it is occurring) possible, it seems, is an all too familiar European desire for gold and other riches. As Columbus says, “procuré mucho de saber dónde cogían aquel oro, y todos me aseñalaban una tierra…al poniente [I put great effort into finding out where they collected their gold, and all signaled to me a land…to the west” (178, translation mine). This sharply contrasts with those men discussed above, who despite Columbus’ showing them things that “lucían [shined]” (174), understood neither his words nor gestures (see Greenblatt’s Marvelous Possessions, p. 91, for his account of the events narrated above).

[12] Robert Thorne writing to King Henry VIII (1527), quoted in An Empire Nowhere, p. 29.

[13] “But soon the potential of the new process [printing] became obvious, as did its rôle as a force for change as it began to make texts accessible on such a scale as to give them an impact which the manuscript book had never achieved,” from The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800 by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, p. 248.

[14] The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. 4, p. 15. Budé’s letter is included among the prefatory letters to the text of Utopia.

[15] These tendencies and vantage points include: the discovery of the new world and its assimilation through inherited concepts, the beginnings of nationalism, Catholicism’s waning power and Luther’s revolution, and the impact of printing on knowledge and its dissemination.

[16] Essays, p. 346.

[17] Isaiah Berlin notes that, according to Machiavelli, “men are not as they are described by those who idealize them—Christians or other Utopians—nor by those who want them to be widely different from what in fact they are and always have been and cannot help being” (Against the Current 41).

[18] Dated to between 1513 and 1519 (Discourses on Livy, introduction, xlii).

[19] From “Habermas, Machiavelli, and the Humanist Critique of Ideology,” p. 470.

[20] In De republica anglorum Sir Thomas Smith attempts to “truly” map out a “table of a commonwealth,” i.e. England, which he then compares with other commonwealths “at this day in esse, or [that] doe remain described in true histories” (142). Utopia, like Plato’s Republic and Xenophon’s Persia (described in Anabasis), being fictitious, merits only his contempt.

[21] From “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming” (in The Freud Reader), p. 439.

[22] From Spaces of Hope, p. 160.

[23] See Peter Ackroyd’s The Life of Thomas More, p. 184, and Richard Marius’ Thomas More, p. 154, for a discussion of the shift from Nusquama to Utopia.

[24] See The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. 4, pp. xvi-xvii.

[25] This becomes even more complex if one also includes, as is done in The Complete Works, letters written not only by More but also ones by Erasmus and William Budé (2-15).

[26] For a more thorough discussion of this point, see Robert Shepherd’s “Utopia, Utopia’s Neighbors, Utopia, and Europe,” especially p. 843.

[27] My juxtaposing the ideas of Derrida and Foucault in no way implies these two writers weren’t critical of each other. As can clearly be seen in “Cogito and the History of the Madness,” an essay crafted in response to Foucault in Writing and Difference, pronounced disagreements existed. That being said, the two at least shared a desire to explore, to quote Nietzsche from the Will to Power, the possibilities of reading “a text as a text without interposing an interpretation” (266).

[28] Thus according to Nelson’s article, the Polylerites, for instance, broken etymologically down to their Greek roots, are a “people of…much nonsense” (890). The Anchorians can be read as a “people without a country” (815). The most famous pun is, of course, the title of Utopia itself.

[29] All quotations from Plato follow Plato: The Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns.

[30] “A classic isn't a book…that necessarily possesses this or that merit; it is a book that generations of men, motivated by diverse reasons, read with anticipated fervor and a mysterious loyalty.” (Translation mine).

[31] Consider both More’s involvement with Luther and the protestant debate and, later, his commitment to Catholicism that would result in his execution.

[32] This is only one of the accusations More levels against Luther. The book abounds in profanities and obscene descriptions. For a good discussion of the work, see Thomas More by Richard Marius, pp. 278-285.

[33] Writing in this style was not necessarily More’s idea, in The Life of Thomas More Peter Ackroyd claims More was commissioned by Henry VIII to respond, “in the same vitriolic terms” (227), to a diatribe Luther had written against a treatise the king had published entitled Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martin. Lutherum (this, in its turn, was a response to Luther’s Concerning the Babylonish Captivity of the Church). This may also explain, Ackroyd continues, why the Responsio was published under a pseudonym (227).

[34] The following passages in particular, from Letter VII, give a sense of Plato’s experience: 329b, 335d, and 336b-337e.

[35] And Socrates admits as much to Glaucon in the Republic: “A pattern, then,” says Socrates, “was what we wanted when we were inquiring into the nature of ideal justice and asking what would be the character of the perfectly just man….We wished to fix our eyes upon them as types and models, so that whatever we discerned in them of happiness or the reverse would necessarily apply to ourselves….Our purpose was not to demonstrate the possibility of the realization of these ideals” (Book V, 472c-d, emphasis added).

[36] Although he follows a modern disciple of Machiavelli’s, Niklas Luhmann. See pp. 14-15 of Archaeologies for a discussion of Luhmann’s ideas, especially “differentiation.”

[37] In “SADE I” Barthes stresses that the defining feature of a utopia, in this case the sexually explicit one of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, is “measured far less against theoretical statements than against the organization of daily life, for the mark of utopia is the everyday; or even: everything everyday is utopian: timetables, dietary programs, plans for clothing, the installation of furnishings, precepts of conversation or communication…” (17, emphasis added).

[38] See The Interpretation of Dreams, Part II, pp. 153-154.

[39] All quotes from The Birth of the Clinic, preface, pp. xvi-xvii.

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Micah Donohue is a graduate student at New Mexico State University in the final semester of his master’s degree in English Literature. He hopes one day to have worked extensively on the early modern preoccupation with the ideal city or commonwealth, especially as it is represented in the work of Thomas More, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Martin Luther. More immediately, however, he is looking forward to spending next year traipsing about central Mexico with his wife before beginning the arduous task of applying to doctoral programs.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Two (2009): Dialogues & Exchanges

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