Five Tips for Reading Utopia

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Elsewhere I’ve mentioned that in The Daughter’s Year 8 studies, the schedule called for Utopia, by Sir Thomas More, (as well as the play about him, A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt.)  Like many, really most, of the books on our reading list, I had not read Utopia, only heard about it.  Reading the various synopses of Utopia was only marginally helpful.

We got off to a slow start, but after a few adjustments we found ourselves looking forward to the readings.  My goal here is to simply share a few of the things that I learned during our exploration of Utopia.  I suspect you could apply a few of these tips to any unfamiliar work that may be on your reading list.

Tip Number One
Get a book copy.

One for each of you, if you like to read along with your student.  A link is provided by Ambleside Online to an online version, and eager to save money on books, I started the school year planning to use it.  I soon realized we needed to shift to book-in-hand. Scrolling through long blocks of online verbiage was awkward, and the lack of headings or breaks in the text made it difficult to find our place from week to week. So off we went to the used book store. I intended to buy two copies, to more easily mark our readings, follow translator and editor notes, and check our progress. (Incidentally, this is the way we approach Shakespeare and epic poetry as well)

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Tip Number Two
Get a good translation.

All translations are not equal.  Utopia was written and published in Latin in 1516, and then translated into English many times, but initially in 1551.  We picked up a Barnes and Noble hardback edition.  It was the only one in stock at the used book store, so I figured one of us could use the website, and one of us the book.  Um. No.  While the B & N edition (the 1551 translation by Ralph Robinson) was well annotated by Wayne Rebhorn, and included illuminating explanations of More’s use of classical allusions and vocabulary, it was still pre-Elizabethan English.  The online version, by comparison, was stripped of all colorful references, and written in twentieth century syntax with simplified vocabulary.  The two versions were so drastically different that we could not follow each other at all when we took turns reading, and a great deal appeared to be lost in translation.  In the end, I found the translation by Clarence H. Miller, printed by Yale University Press, friendliest to our purposes.

Tip Number Three
Unless you’re a Medieval Studies graduate, get some help.

I’m told there are some texts a careful reader can grasp by committed reading.  I’m not sure that Utopia is one of them. Fortunately, the Center for Thomas More Studies  offers much to assist including study guides and articles. I appreciated the handy list of Raphael Hytholoday’s many contradictions, although your student will begin to pick up on these and likely point them out indignantly as you read.  Also helpful is a translation of the Latin names used for the various countries, people groups, rivers and government titles, all of which are amusingly ironic.

Another source of insight was found in the Yale edition Preface and Introduction. Clarence H. Miller discusses at length the contrast of extremely complicated Latin syntax in Hythloday’s descriptions of corruption and European inequality addressed in Book 1. Miller calls them “marathon” sentences; one has over 900 words. By comparison the Latin sentence structure used in Hythloday’s glowing report of the land of Utopia in Book 2 is simple, one could say overly simple. There is a point being made in this literary device that may not be obvious in English translation.

Miller also details More’s “universalist, absolute, all-or-nothing” word choices used when Hythloday is chronicling Utopian society, a style of diction that More does not use in other writing.  Miller points out that the word “all” is used 200 times, “nothing” 76 times, “none” 68 times etc. He cites for example:  “The island has fifty-four cities, ALL of them large and splendid and having EXACTLY the SAME language, customs, institutions and laws.  They have the SAME layout and they look the SAME, insofar as the terrain allows.”  The too good to be true uniformity is a rather large indication of a tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Tip Number Four
Know your genre.

Read up a little on “Dialogue” as a literary genre.  Dialogue originates with the Greek “logos”  for word, and “dia” for through Plato was most accomplished at using this genre skillfully according to those who know.  More wrote at least two other “Dialogues” and this form of using conversations among men as a way of arguing and exploring ideas was familiar to the intelligentsia of his day.

One article that discusses this – Excerpt from The Renaissance Utopia, by Chloe Houston

Woodcut by Ambrosius Holbein for the 1518 edition of Utopia
Woodcut by Ambrosius Holbein for the 1518 edition of Utopia

Tip Number Five
Make a map.

The Daughter and I studied the Eastern Hemisphere in fifth grade including the horrific effects of Utopianism that propagated as communism in China, and socialism in Russia, and had just finished reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm over the previous summer.  So, from this perspective the inconsistencies and blatant contradictions leapt off the page and we honestly marveled that Utopia could ever have been considered prescriptive.  As we pondered the book, and how to restate its unity in a few sentences, (what the book is about, per our reading in another school book, Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book), we had some rather interesting discussions, but no consensus.  We just couldn’t accept that this brilliant man was writing seriously when there were so many gaps in the logic, and a decided disregard of the realities of human nature.

Coming across this quote from C.S. Lewis, brought us all a sense of satisfying clarification:

…it appears confused only so long as we are trying to get out of it what it never intended to give. It becomes intelligible and delightful as soon as we take it for what it is – a holiday work, a spontaneous overflow of intellectual high spirits, a revel of debate, paradox, comedy and (above all) of invention, which starts many hares and kills none. … There is a thread of serious thought running through it, an abundance of daring suggestions, several back-handed blows at European institutions … But he does not keep our noses to the grindstone. He says many things for the fun of them, surrendering himself to the sheer pleasure of imagined geography, imagined language, and imagined institutions. That is what readers whose interests are rigidly political do not understand: but everyone who has ever made an imaginary map responds at once.

–– C. S. Lewis on Thomas More’s Utopia

1595 Map of Utopia by Ortelius, Flemish Cartographer and Geographer
1595 Map of Utopia by Ortelius, Flemish Cartographer and Geographer

…readers whose interests are rigidly political do not understand: but everyone who has ever made an imaginary map responds at once.

Utopia was written just as the New World was being discovered; an entire land unknown by Classical Greece or Rome, untouched by the Moorish or Far Eastern cultures, and so far, free of European national interests, trade, war, and strict societal stratification. Perhaps, just as air and space travel in the wide blue yonder sparked the imaginations of 19th century science fiction writers to consider pristine planets, perhaps, maps of virgin wilderness tilled the fertile imaginations of 16th and 17th century thinkers (Erasmus The Praise of Folly, Francis Bacon New Atlantis, and Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels) providing vistas through which to ponder and speculate on Edenic possibilities and impossibilities.

In our house, we discussed re-categorizing the book, maybe moving it from the “philosophy” or “political science” shelf and placing it between “fantasy fiction” and “political satire.” I’m glad to have read it, and so is The Daughter. Next year we will be journeying with Lemuel Gulliver and  I suspect we will be better travelers having visited Utopia.

We homeschool eclectically, borrowing from the classical model for Latin and Rhetoric, enjoying Apologia Science and Choral Singing with friends at co-op, learning Algebra with a kid named Fred, studying film and economics with Mr. Garner, feasting a la Charlotte Mason on poetry, living history, literature and nature, and lifting our hearts to the Lord – for it is right to give Him our thanks and praise.

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