chapter  7
The achievement of Utopia
Pages 12

With typical irony, More lets readers know something of the seriousness of his intentions in writing Utopia in a letter to Peter Giles that was appended to the Paris edition of 1517. Adopting a tone of feigned indignation, he refutes a suggestion from an un-named reviewer that he had written fiction rather than fact. More claims that if he had been writing fiction he would have been able to offer the ‘more learned’ readers some playful hints about its invention by calling the island a nowhere, the capital city a phantom, the river waterless and the governor as someone without a people. As it is, he says, he was obliged to give them the ‘barbarous and meaningless’ names of Utopia, Amaurot, Anyder and Ademus. These are, of course, the names that carry precisely the meanings he claims he had been unable to convey because of the duty to uphold the ‘veracity of a historian’ (U: 109). Speculating on what the freedom of writing fiction would have enabled him to do, he reveals that he might have used the artifice of the ‘tale’ to help the reader grasp the truth, ‘like medicine smeared with honey’. Behind this false denial lies the clear implication that the commonwealths he saw around him were sick, and sorely in need of treatment, but what is ‘the truth’ that More wanted to convey? I have argued throughout that Utopia presents a powerful plea for social justice,

and this chapter will summarise the salient points of my interpretation. The first part argues that Hythloday’s trenchant critique of the existing social order reflects the author’s views. The Utopian alternative is conceived as a theoretical solution to the various problems identified in Book 1, establishing the structural conditions for a just commonwealth but presenting new problems in the shape of strict social

controls. This is explained by reference to More’s conflicted view of human nature. The second part will consider the practical political implications of the text. I argue that the author has in mind a via media between the radical position advocated by Hythloday and the pragmatic one suggested by Morus, so that adopting the path of gradual reform adumbrated in Book 1 offers a direction of travel towards the eventual goal of a commonwealth of social justice. The final part argues that one of the great achievements of the text lies in posing fundamental and discomfiting questions about the political, social and economic structures that govern the lives of all members of society. It urges its readers to overcome an attitude of resigned acceptance to social injustice as though it were some sort of natural calamity, and provokes a renewed insistence that another world is possible.