Utopia is an instructive call to return to the radical Christianity of Christ, to the purity and simplicity of His words, as the only way of saving mankind from ourselves…
Thomas More’s Utopia remains one of the most puzzling and paradoxical treatises on the ideal state. In order to elucidate More’s true ideas and judgments, an examination of Raphael Hythloday, the state of Utopia, and the dialogue among characters, particularly the characters of Thomas More and Hythloday, is necessary. Utopia is much more than a satire, or even a treatise in political philosophy: Within the dialogue dwell More’s reflections, often dangerously radical, on the nature of man, community and government, freedom and free will. Many critics of Utopia choose between dismissing the commonwealth as diverting satire, labeling it a prescient warning on the dangers of a humanitarian communism, or accepting it as More’s genuine vision of the ideal state and society. Any such singular interpretation of the dialogue narrows More’s political, literary, and philosophical genius and fails to address the ways in which Utopia questions and clarifies our own time, our own government, and our own souls.
Throughout much of Book I, More condemns European institutions and society through the character of Hythloday. He attacks injustices entrenched in English laws and courts, the selfishness, greed, and vanity of political advisors and politicians, the readiness of European elites to engage needlessly in violent wars, the idleness and profligacy of the aristocracy, and the misuse of religion by men in power. Few critics doubt More’s authenticity in these passionate denunciations; more controversial is the character who speaks them.
Hythloday believes the majority of European leaders to be so corrupt that to serve on their counsels would only result in the compromise of his moral virtue; therefore, he avoids devoting himself to an earthly king. The eponymous character of More claims, on the contrary, that the wise and godly man is obligated to serve his king as a means to promote peace, justice, and order within his nation and throughout the greater world. More admits that serving in a political office may involve morally-gray areas, but holds staunchly to the use of a middle- ground philosophy, whereby the prudent politician attempts slowly to influence the policies of a monarch, so as to ensure that “as little bad as possible” occurs. Hythloday disregards this approach as utterly useless for the good of the masses, as well as downright harmful to the soul: “Either they will seduce you by their evil ways, or… you will me be made a screen for the knavery and folly of others. You wouldn’t stand a chance of changing anything for the better by that ‘indirect approach’”. Hythloday, in an effort to maintain the purity and clarity of his own soul and intellect, flees from the corrupting influence of politics, where he would be obliged to “openly approve the worse proposals and endorse the most vicious policies”.
Hythloday attributes his decision to his vehement devotion to personal freedom; he passionately claims that a life as a political advisor to a king, a position he judges to be nearly servitude, would be “absolutely repellent to my spirit”, for he prefers to “live as I please”. In addition, he cuts ties with his entire family and homeland in order to attain complete freedom to travel, discover, and learn, telling Giles and More “I’ve already done my duty by them tolerably well”. He appears to define his familial duty as distributing his possessions, property, and money amongst his relatives, evidence of his perception of a purely material connection to his family, his roots, and his native land. Many readers and critics conclude that More likely intended Hythloday and his opinions to be taken lightly because of this unholy disregard for the bonds of family and homeland, his refusal to serve a king—despite the good such service could bring to thousands of lives—and his proclivity to indulge his own caprices by traveling and exploring. Hythloday seems to define freedom as a selfish detachment from humanity for the sake of pursuing private pleasure, a definition gravely similar to modernity’s.
Such a perfunctory reading of Hythloday’s character detracts from the genius of Utopia. The story of Hythloday’s past, his refusal to serve kings, and his fixation on “freedom” must be interpreted in light of Hythloday’s entire character, a large portion of which is revealed through Hythloday’s discussion of Christianity. Just as he scorns the character More’s adherence to a political “middle way,” so too does Hythloday loathe the “middle ground” adopted by conciliatory Christian preachers, who “have adjusted His [Jesus’s] teaching to the way people live” and in doing so only “make people feel more secure about doing evil.” Hythloday goes on to explain the necessity of the uncompromising nature of Christ’s message, especially when it conflicts with the “the common customs of mankind”. Hythloday sees Christianity as a socially radical doctrine if it is believed, accepted, and lived in its totality. Many examples of “alien teachings” from the Gospels prove the accuracy and rightness of Hythloday’s position:
“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell all your possessions and give to the poor… then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21)
“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37)
Jesus’s message is clear: His Word, his Life, his Way must come first, and if anything of this world stands in the way we must cut it off. Many Christians today would find Hythloday’s interpretation of the Gospel unnecessarily intransigent; for a population steeped in comforts and the secular religion of material prosperity and health, his words are utterly foreign and incomprehensible. Hythloday abandons all his material possessions, as well his family and homeland, in his wholehearted desire to find, follow, and live the Truth. Through a Christian lens, Hythloday’s disengaged relationship with humanity’s common society can be read as an Augustinian ideal: Hythloday is very much in this world, but not of this world, choosing to leave everything in his pilgrimage to gain eternal things. In the eyes of tradition, the freedom Hythloday champions is merely a glorification of selfishness; in the eyes of modernity, this freedom is his inalienable right, the same possessed by every individual; in the eyes of the Church, this freedom from the world is the prerequisite to eternal life.
The name of More’s protagonist, weighty in paradox, irony, and Christian imagery, cannot be overlooked. The roots of the name “Hythloday” are Greek and translate roughly into “a distributor or expert of nonsense.” If More intended the name literally, then his protagonist is a false counselor, a diabolical deceiver at worst, or a foolish babbler at best. If this be the case, his first name “Raphael” must be a sarcastic choice, as Hythloday would be the antithesis of Raphael, the archangel and the messenger of God sent to guide pilgrims to Christ and heal the sick. More likely, the Greek name establishes a safe foundation for dangerous social commentary: All meaningful philosophical and political reflections or opinions stated by a “distributer of nonsense” cannot be taken as valid, a ploy which allows More freedom to write dangerous, even treasonous, words under the guise of satirical nonsense.
However, More could have intended the name as a serious commentary on how men will accept Truth: They will brand it as nonsense. Just as the Old Testament prophets were persecuted and murdered by the people they sought to reform, and Plato’s enlightened man, upon returning to the cave, was ridiculed by those living in the dark, so too is the prophet of uncomfortable and radical Christian truths derided by those who would cling to their worldly comfort in the familiar injustices of their time. This appears the more likely alternative, especially given that Hythloday’s Christian name is that of the archangel tasked with guiding and healing mankind. Hythloday, then, is both human pilgrim and guide from the divine, connected to humanity but disconnected, sent to heal mankind’s sickened society on earth. He guides, not through direct involvement in politics, but rather through influence in conversation, as at the Cardinal’s dinner where he testifies to justice and peace, sowing the seeds of truth in the souls of his listeners.
In addition to the multiple interpretations of Hythloday’s name, More further develops his character by drawing a comparison to the epic hero Ulysses, a name laden with divergent literary connotations. Critics often claim this allusion supports the malicious role of Hythloday: an intrepid explorer discontented with the blessings of common life who knows and exploits the minds of men to further his own agenda, conceiving villainous lies at the expense of others. Many tragedians and writers have chosen this version of Ulysses: Sophocles describes him as a heartless man completely absorbed in furthering his own self-interest in his play Philoctetes, and Dante dooms his wily, prideful Ulysses to Hell for false counsel.
Conversely, More could be referring to the Homeric Odysseus, a pilgrim who journeyed for ten years in the barbaric wilderness, enduring the wrath of monsters and fickle gods in his attempt to return to home, family, and civilization. The image of a pilgrim searching for home among a savage world mirrors Hythloday’s fundamental Christian perspective and explains his curious withdrawal from the perceived barbarism of his time. Hythloday, similar to the Utopians, believes that the quest for homeland, for Ithaca, is not completed in this world; rather, life in this world is only meaningful if it is directed towards attaining man’s eternal home. For this reason, Utopians rejoice in death, as it is the entry to eternal life, to divine justice, as well as the absolute freedom which they sacrifice in earthly life for the sake of harmony with others. Hythloday’s creed that “the man who has no grave is covered by the sky” and “wherever you start from, the road to heaven is the same length” support the pilgrimage allusion, as opposed to the more cynical interpretation of Hythloday’s association with Ulysses.
Yet another, somewhat obvious (but often neglected) reason to trust that the Christian undercurrents of the dialogue are more significant than often realized is the life of its author. Thomas More, as a lawyer and counselor to the king of England, lived and worked in spheres related to Hythloday’s judgments on European culture and society. The injustice of English laws, the biased nature of her courts, and the corruption and vice rampant in the king’s circles would have been all too familiar to More. Most importantly, however, Thomas More chose to be executed rather than acknowledge the king’s power over that of the church of Rome. After his death, he was canonized a Catholic saint, a status that stems not only from his martyrdom, but from the devotion and faith exhibited throughout his life: As a young man, he prepared himself for priesthood and even ascetic monasticism before marrying and raising a family. Naturally, one may conclude that More would likely harbor righteous anger against the injustices and corruption he witnessed among the powerful of his time. Of the two extremes, in politics and in religion, More’s actions and decisions in his life unveil his true intentions: By choosing a bloody martyrdom over political compromise for the sake of religion, he reveals a forceful commitment to religious purity and ascendancy over the things of this world. This endows Utopia and the philosophical exhortations of Hythloday with a greater significance than mere satire and social critique.
An interpretation of More’s dialogue would not be fully complete without examining his vision in Book II of the island of Utopia, a perplexing, even disconcerting “factual” island state. The nuances of More’s island commonwealth are somewhat illuminated when approached with a Christian understanding of Hythloday. Utopia is rid of discord and faction and structured in accord with so-called justice, nature, and reason. At first appearance, the island seems a paradise, and its inhabitants highly civilized, purged of greed and pride. On further examination, the natives’ curious ideas on life, death, freedom, and virtue, which result in—or perhaps stem from—similarly dubious laws soil the excellence of this “ideal” nation. The defects in Utopia serve to admonish and instruct all peoples of the dangers, and the attractiveness, of mankind’s temptation to cure himself.
First of all, Utopians ensure order by rooting out traces of greed and pride in the individual, delivering a primarily benevolent collective identity which allows the Utopians to freely pursue human nature where reason guides, an action which constitutes Utopian “virtue.” This definition is further clarified with reference to the Utopian’s ultimate goal in life: the Epicurean pursuit of finely ordered pleasures and service of the common good. The virtue of the Utopians harmonizes well with the philosophy of Aristotle, in which virtue is described as the habit of activity leading towards the fulfillment of human nature: the good life, our ultimate end, a life according to reason. The fundamental difference between the two philosophies reveals itself slowly, and is rooted not in the Utopian definition of virtue, but in the Utopian definition of human nature.
In Utopia, the freedom of the individual, the ability for each to choose how and where to live, is sacrificed for the maximization of the collective happiness of all citizens. This self-sacrifice comprises the base of Utopian society, and paradoxically serves to both enslave and liberate its citizens. Utopians forgo their individual freedom of will for the sake of nationwide material and spiritual contentment with the world. However, the laws and arrangement of society deliver to each individual freedom from the vices of greed and pride, which historically haunt mankind. The possibility of sin eliminated, the Utopians are free to do whatever they wish in the direction of the only other path open to them: a life of “virtue.” As a result, the prevalent goodness, discipline, and sacrifice in Utopia, which at first appears such a marvelous achievement, is compromised; the instant free will is removed from the life of the mind, any claim of virtue rings hollow. No value exists in a “virtuous” life if that virtue is not won through internal struggle against a temptation. In Utopia, there is no struggle because all temptation has been systematically eliminated. The ultimate end of humanity on Utopia is thereby limited, and this grave flaw at the heart of Utopian philosophy is loudly reflected in the policies of the island on deliberate death, imperialism, war, and the dissolution of the family.
The commonwealth possesses several notably Christian characteristics, however. The opportunity for a contemplative or active life in service to others, the communal bond, and the strong discouragement of personal vice all reflect aspects of the monastic life that More devoted himself to for some years prior to his marriage. In addition, the contempt for gold and jewels, respect for humility, and dignity in labor all can be classified as ideal Christian concepts. Therefore the island, while grievously flawed, also attains heights More “would wish rather than expect to see”.
Hythloday, then, reveals to mankind the vision of “Utopia”: the good place, the no-place, where man communally seeks to raise himself beyond mortal weaknesses and vice, but in doing so drastically falls away from the essence of humanity. Without family, without a personal connection to land and place, within a paradoxical culture of death, and fully content in their own superiority and civility, the Utopians believe themselves the highest form of life, the most progressed, thereby justifying their imperialism and the shameless use of mercenaries they deem less than human. In attempting to transcend man’s natural, God-gifted limitations, we fall away from the Image in which we were created. In the technological modern age, the temptation to ignore humanity as fallen Creation in favor of the pursuit of material and social perfection, and progress, is more prevalent, and deadlier, than ever before. In such attempts as the transhumanist movements in Silicon valley and in genome research applied to embryonic design, we desire to be gods, thus losing the idea of what it means to be human. Any endeavor, through purely human means, to deify or raise up a new and “better” race of man is destined not only to fail, but to pull mankind deeper into the error of sin and death brought about by our first attempt to do much the same in Eden.
Thomas More, through his cunningly-designed dialogue, depicts a society that has attempted to cure itself, but that has only managed to suppress the devastating effects of sin through the Christian monastic influences of strong communal bonds, dignified and meaningful labor, and the recognition that mankind’s ultimate end is beyond life on earth. In our society, we have already lost much of the medieval Christian history that once constituted the basis of civilization and that tempered man’s hereditary, inevitable movement towards self-deification. In addition, More’s narrative reveals the emptiness and irony at the heart of mankind’s attempt to cure himself, to free himself from the effects of his Fall: By doing so, he must discard God’s ultimate gift, free will, through which we caused this valley of tears, of trial, of soul-forming, in the beginning. Raphael Hythloday, in More’s tale, reveals both the grave danger in the heart of every man and every civilization, but he also offers the antidote.
Hythloday’s contradictory name explains his binary character. In his participation in the divine image, he is able to understand reality and through this graced knowledge, or sight, to guide mankind. Due to our Fallen nature, we view his vision through the fog of human error, vice, and ambition. Therefore, he is both a Raphael and Hythloday, but his Christian name corresponds to a truer reality, just as “babbler of nonsense” correlates with the Fallen, shallow reality the majority of men see. If viewed in the clarifying light of the Gospel, which Hythloday preaches alongside his political discourse, Utopia is an instructive call to return to the radical Christianity of Christ, to the purity and simplicity of His words, as the only way of saving mankind from ourselves.
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