In Utopia, many modern intellectuals say Sir Thomas More advocates an ideal political and social order without private property, competition, citizens quarreling over worldly possessions, poverty and other “evils” supposedly brought on by a market-based society.
At least that is the way social liberals, including left-leaning Christians, tend to interpret this great saint’s 1516 literary masterpiece, believing the English Catholic statesman’s work presents his vision of an ideal Christian commonwealth modeled on the early Church (even if those proto-communist experiments failed).
Recently, Istituto Acton (Acton’s office in Rome) hosted an illuminating seminar led by the medievalist scholar, Dr. John Boyle, whose April 23 presentation Why Thomas More’s Utopia is not a Communist Manifesto addressed some of the common misconceptions of More’s political fiction.
Dr. Boyle is director of the Graduate Program in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and is currently finishing a semester teaching at the University’s Rome campus. He is also a former professor of mine from my glory days at the St. Ignatius Institute of the University of San Francisco in the late 80s. We welcomed him to lead our monthly “Campus Martius” seminar – organized for English-speaking students of the pontifical universities.
Dr. Boyle began the seminar by putting Thomas More’s Utopia in its proper place as a work of intellectual sarcasm.
The entire work, Boyle said, does not represent a paradise-on-earth scenario the English political genius and martyr actively searched for.
Indeed, Boyle explained that Utopia was so cleverly crafted in the Latin language that even erudite Renaissance humanists – the audience to whom More addressed the great social-political questions of his time –might not have understood the subtle brunt of his irony: “Utopia is certainly a puzzling work, which puzzled even More’s contemporaries. Indeed, Utopia is a work of stunning complexity and sophistication, written especially for More’s renaissance contemporaries,” Boyle said.
The seminar was attended by Zenit’s Rome correspondent, Ann Schneibel, who published a follow-up interview with Dr. Boyle yesterday.
While remarking on some of the main communist values playfully envisioned in Utopia (e.g. command and control economies, regulated lifestyles and fashion, shared gardens and housing for family communes, absence of private property, eradication of human envy, etc), Boyle told Zenit:
The political order is not the source of our happiness. This is a theological point, but it’s very dear to More’s heart. The political order can serve to help order men to their happiness, but it cannot achieve it. This is a matter of Church, of the City ofGod. Political order can more or less help, but it can’t achieve what I think, in the modern sense, is the Utopian dream.
“Utopia is a very cautionary tale. I’d say it’s relevant in all kinds of ways, as well as reminding us of humorous good things,” Boyle said.
During the seminar Dr. Boyle explained that More’s life-long friend Erasmus of Rotterdam, the great Dutch humanist and Catholic priest who arranged for the publication of Utopia, wrote to his colleagues in private letters that if they really wanted a good laugh they had better read More’s book about the fictitious island.
“Some of the names [of places] used in Utopia are famously indicative of this [humor]…Utopia is a Greek neologism for ‘nowhere’, the principal city of the island is Amaurot, which means “foggy or phantom”, the principal river…is the Anider, which is Greek for ‘waterless,’ and the man who tells the story of Utopia, Raphael Hythloday, [his surname] is probably best translated as ‘peddler of nonsense’.
To read the rest of Dr. Boyle’s Zenit interview, go here. For your pleasure, you can listen to the entire April 23 Campus Martius seminar below.