New College of the Humanities

Utopia: a voyage of exploration

Thomas More's journey to Utopia.

Boyd Tonkin | Published 06 January 2017

Illustration for the 1516 first edition of Utopia.A nondescript modern house occupies a corner site on Naamsestraat, just opposite the late-Gothic University Hall in Leuven, which still serves as academic offices. During term-time in this capital of Flemish Brabant, the Oxford or Cambridge of Belgium, 40,000 students throng narrow streets lined with picturesque colleges, chapels, churches – and an abundance of packed bars. In the busy and prosperous home to both the great Catholic University of Leuven and that mighty quencher of the world’s thirst, Stella Artois, hardly anyone would give a second thought to this building. No plaque draws attention to it. Yet it was on this spot, just over 500 years ago, that one of the most influential secular works of the past half-millennium first emerged from the printing-shop of Dirk Martens. 

Easy to enjoy but hard to classify, Thomas More’s Utopia,  which Martens printed here in December 1516, still spawns endless spin-offs, ripostes and reinterpretations, in part because it dances so nimbly across literary boundaries. Does More’s riddling fantasia ‘concerning the best state of a commonwealth and the new island of Utopia’ count as a jesting satire, an ethical blueprint, a parody travelogue, a philosophical dialogue, a revolutionary tract? Given More’s cunning ironies and feints, you will come a cropper if you read this tall tale supposedly carried back from the new-found Americas by one ‘Raphael Hythloday’ as a communist manifesto propounded 330 years before the Marx and Engels version. Equally, trimmers who seek to gloss over More’s rage at social inequality and contempt for selfish accumulation will have a tough task explaining a work that ends by castigating the actual states of its time as ‘nothing more than a conspiracy of the rich, who are fattening up their own interests under the name and title of a commonwealth’. Five centuries on, the quarrels, and the puzzles, persist and they will do so for as long as readers, writers and politicians (More was all three) wrangle over the core values and institutions of a fair and decent society. 

The voyages of exploration undertaken by Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci and their successors had transformed European society. ‘It’s a unique moment in history’, says Jan van der Stock, a professor at the Catholic University. ‘A new continent was discovered. Suddenly, it becomes clear that there was a world outside Europe – and outside everything they knew.’

With remarkable rapidity, More and his friends responded to that shock with creative speculation about better systems of governance. As letters of praise for Utopia from his pan-European network reveal, More’s learned comrades soon joined in the game. They wrote of the imaginary island as a genuine discovery that Raphael had made as he sailed with the Florentine adventurer Amerigo Vespucci. ‘People were not stupid’, Van der Stock insists: ‘They knew that it did not exist in reality.’ Rather, they seized the chance to think, and plan, a just, peaceful, harmonious community. From its inception, ‘Utopia is not a naive dream. The idea is that we are travelling to Utopia: that we want to reach a better world.’ Utopia was a journey, not a destination. That journey continues. 

More had drawn on an ancient tradition of political and spiritual master-planning, most notably in Plato’s Republic and Augustine’s City of God. The long shelves now crammed with Utopia’s literary offspring began to fill in the early 17th century, with blueprints such as Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun and Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis. More recently, writers and readers bruised by the horrors of modern totalitarianism have so shifted the balance of the genre that Dystopia has effectively conquered Utopia. To students brought up on Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the positive aspects of the form have almost disappeared from view. 

Yet More and his friends would be glad to know that the true Utopian impulse survives in literature, whether via the science-fiction epics of Kim Stanley Robinson (the Mars Trilogy) and Iain M. Banks (the nine novels of his Culture series) or the recent update of William Morris’s News from Nowhere imagined by Robert Llewellyn in his fictional vision of a green, clean, egalitarian and sustainable Britain: News from Gardenia. This vein of ecological idealism derives from Utopia itself. More’s contented islanders inhabit light and spacious garden cities where estates not only raise ‘vines, herbs, fruit and flowers’ but avidly compete in horticultural contests: a sort of Great Utopian Grow-off: ‘They think that the contemplation of nature, and the sense of reverence arising for it, are acts of worship to God.’ In any age, part of the fascination of Utopia stems from its sudden shifts between laws and norms that outrage modern sensibilities (the death penalty for a second adultery conviction?) and daring leaps that vault across centuries, whether it be the Utopians’ utter contempt for astrology (and respect for genuine astronomy), or their sympathy for the belief that animals have immortal souls.

Both advocates and critics of Utopia can agree with one of More’s many allies in the Low Countries, the Burgundian statesman Jerome de Bursleyden. On reading the manuscript in late 1516, Bursleyden wrote to the author to hail ‘a delightful description of a wonderful system’. Whatever the ambiguities More wove into his mock-traveller’s tale about an island paradise, it struck his European collaborators as radiantly clear proof of the value of their shared endeavour. By now firmly embedded in northern Europe, the new humanistic thought had bred a bold masterpiece from (in Bursleyden’s words) the ‘most learned and humane More, supreme ornament of your Britain and of this world of ours’. Although mutual flattery was something of a gymnastic exercise in the correspondence of Renaissance scholars, that note of triumph rings true. Our gang, our merry band of learned and rational reformers, has scored a brilliant hit. Many others will certainly follow. History flows in our direction.

Inside a year, however, Martin Luther had sent his 95 theses on ecclesiastical abuses to the Archbishop of Mainz. Within 20 years, More, former Lord Chancellor of England, would die a ‘traitor’ under the axe at the Tower of London after he refused to endorse the Act of Supremacy that made Henry VIII head of the Church in England. A squeamish, maybe guilty, Henry had at the last minute saved him from the slow death of hanging and live evisceration. Shortly after Martens began to set More’s manuscript on Naamsestraat, chasms would open, and battle-lines solidify. As the Reformation spread, religious division compounded dynastic conflict. Europe’s common ground would become a sectarian killing field. In retrospect, the moment of Utopia was itself a utopian moment. And it shone above all along the cross-Channel routes of thought and trade.

United by the Latin in which they both wrote and conversed, More’s European web of admirers ensured that Leuven, not London, had the privilege of seeing Utopia go to press. Already known in Aalst and Antwerp as a specialist in setting and designing Latin texts, Martens had moved his business back to Leuven in 1512. Here, on the doorstep of the university, he forged a bond with the prodigiously gifted polymath, who both worked with and fought against the Leuven faculties: Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. Several times, the leading literary humanist of northern Europe fell out with more conservative colleagues: above all, over his edition of the New Testament in the original Greek, with its potentially subversive implications for Church authority. During his spells in residence at Leuven, Erasmus’s sole steady income came not from the suspicious university but from his sinecure as the absentee vicar of Aldington in Kent. Archbishop Warham of Canterbury had given him the post in 1511, but Erasmus could not stomach the local ale. 

By putting More and Martens in touch, Erasmus was repaying a debt of friendship and helping to balance an account that, so far, showed the Englishman healthily in credit. The pair had met, and bonded, in 1499. More generously hosted Erasmus during lengthy stays at his handsome house in Bucklersbury, near the east end of Cheapside in the City and behind the current Mansion House. While More went out to work as under-sheriff (a senior legal officer) of the City of London, Erasmus skulked around the house, eating, drinking and writing.

His mischievous bestseller The Praise of Folly (1511) was largely composed in Bucklersbury. Its topsy-turvy satire, with true virtue so overshadowed by vice and hypocrisy that only ‘Folly’ can reign on earth, anticipated the tone of dry mockery that marks Utopia. The Greek title, Moriae Encomium, encodes a punning tribute from guest to host. Then, in a 1519 letter about More to the German humanist Ulrich von Hutten, Erasmus would clear his debt with perhaps the warmest tribute ever paid by one author to another. He extols the wisdom, serenity and kindness of his tyrant-hating, animal-loving, wise-cracking friend: ‘it has never yet been my fortune to see a man more free of fault than he’. At this point, More was still hovering on the threshold that divided political theory from court practice. ‘Happy indeed a commonwealth would be’, Erasmus fatefully wrote, ‘if the prince would appoint to each post a magistrate like More.’

Topically enough, Utopia had begun with an English mission to secure a free-trade deal and so defuse the threat of Continental tariff barriers. In early 1515, the new French monarch Francis I and advisers to Charles of Castile, teenage ruler of the Netherlands and future king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, formed an unexpected alliance. To flex their muscles, they decided to hike duties on English cloth exports. As a high-flying City lawyer who acted for the Mercers’ Company, More was appointed to the negotiating team sent to Flanders under Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall to minimise the damage. 

With the discussions stalled, More slipped away to Antwerp in July to meet his fellow-humanist Pieter Gillis (often anglicised as Peter Giles), secretary to the council and so a municipal officer with a role much like More’s. In the company of the charming Gillis, ‘cultured, virtuous and courteous to all’, and in the midst of this teeming port city loud with seafarers’ fanciful yarns about the New World, More’s imagination took flight. Back in Bruges, with their free-range speculations about an ideal state still fresh, he drafted the second part of Utopia: Hythloday’s account of the island and its blissful folk. In London in early 1516, More added the book’s opening section, with its darker dialogues between ‘Morus’ Gillis and Raphael about the miserable state of England, the avarice of the rich, the injustice of enclosure (‘Your sheep … have become so greedy and fierce that they devour human beings’), and the pros and cons of public service. 

In contrast to Raphael, with his scorn for all hierarchies and belief that justice can flourish only when ‘private property is entirely done away with’, ‘Morus’ pleads the case for engagement, and compromise, with the murky world of politics: ‘What you cannot turn to good, you can at least make as little bad as possible.’ At the time, More himself was pondering an invitation from the king to join his Council. After a conscience-stricken delay, he accepted. In so doing, he knew that he had set sail away from Utopia. He did not know, but must have feared, that his new course might lead to the block that awaited him in 1535. 

Before his book reached Dirk Martens’s press on Naamsestraat, More took time out to defend Erasmus against the attack aimed at his friend by the Leuven professor Martin Dorp, after the university had condemned The Praise of Folly. Although these rhetorical skirmishes among Renaissance scholars often sound like play-fights, things got serious – and ugly – between More and Dorp. In an 18,000-word tirade, More rebutted the charges of potential heresy laid at Erasmus’ door with a ferocity that hinted at his own vulnerability. It already felt as if the golden days of banter and fantasy that incubated his Utopia were drawing to a close. The advent of militant Lutheranism, a repressive Catholic backlash, and his own rise to power in the service of orthodoxy would put the blessed island out of reach. 

‘Utopia’, reflects Van der Stock, ‘is something to fight for and go towards. It’s not about trying to make a Brave New World’, but rather thinking the unthinkable in order to engender debate and reform. Just as, for instance, More did when he imagined euthanasia in Utopia, where invalids in torment may end a life that has dwindled to ‘a mere prison cell’, but health officials can ‘never force this step on a man against his will’. Don’t blame More ‘as a Stalin who wanted to implement all this in reality. He was formulating ideas: new ideas, and very splendid ideas … We are looking for Utopia; we are not living in Utopia. That’s a big difference.’ 

The exhibition ‘In Search of Utopia’ runs at M-Museum Leuven until January 17th, 2017:

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