Ulysses in Antwerp: The Lucianic Aesthetic of Thomas More's Utopia

UNCP Author/Contributor (non-UNCP co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Eric C. Verhine (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP )
Web Site: http://www.uncp.edu/academics/library

Abstract: Both the historical person and the literary works of Thomas More are notoriously challenging to interpret, not the least because More himself so frequently hides his intentionsand communicates in knowingly ironic and enigmatic ways. To suggest the peculiar complexities one encounters when reading More, I begin with an investigation of an anecdotewhich relates More’s quasi-legendary mode of communicating and work through the various ways one might seek to understand the anecdote itself and the meaning of More’s statement within it. Building on what is learned in this investigation, I turn to More’s most enigmatic communication of all, Utopia. When one opens Utopia one finds, before anything else, the provocative, perplexing persona of Raphael Hythlodaeus. I make the case that Hythlodaeus, not his island, is the central conundrum of Utopia and that understanding why More characterizes him so ambiguously is the best way to understand what More seeks to accomplish in Utopia. If More’s aim, as most assume, was to design an ideal commonwealth in the tradition of Plato, why did he complicate his work by telling most of it through the mouth of a man like Raphael Hythlodaeus and as if it were a true account? Why not follow Plato’s model, bringing into being an openly fictional commonwealth through a trustworthy narrator? If Hythlodaeus’ account of the island of Utopia is the main thing, then why does More keep calling the reader’s attention to Hythlodaeus himself? My argument is that sorting out why More created such a demanding narrator ends in an understanding of what More sought to achieve through Utopia, not so much what he meant by it. Most interpreters of More have refused to countenance the full significance of More’s characterization of his narrator and so have failed to recognize that More’s aesthetic decision to complicate his work in this way signals the definite context to which Utopiabelongs: the renewal or revival of the study of ancient Greek language and culture in the northern countries, a movement which Erasmus and More were orchestrating at the time of Utopia’s publication in large part through their efforts to popularize the work of Lucian of Samosata. In 1506, More and Erasmus had published a set of translations of some of Lucian’s dialogues. In 1509, Erasmus published his Encomium Moriae, a work explicitly indebted to Lucian. In the 1510s, Erasmus nearly broke himself over his new edition of the Greek New Testament and his endless exertions to find audiences to appreciate this labor, a task which essentially involved finding readers of ancient Greek. Then, in 1516, More published his Utopia, which he meant not merely as another spur to the study of Greek, but as an attempt to mediate a poetic drawn from the works of Lucian and, through Lucian, since Lucian himself was a mediator of classical Greek culture to the Roman Empire, from the Greek tradition. In this tradition, in works like the Odyssey and Plato’s Protagoras and especially in the works of Lucian, one meets with numerous unreliable or even trickster narrators. The central claim of this study is that More meant his readers to see Raphael Hythlodaeus as in that tradition. The bulk of this study will focus on demonstrating what techniques and outlooks More took from Lucian and his tradition and how he adapted them to his own purposes in the Utopia and suggested ways for other humanists to do the same. I finally arrive at an understanding not so much of what More intended the Utopia to mean, for the final meaning of this work is intentionally inscrutable, but of what More must have wanted the Utopia to accomplish – totrain his readers in a skeptical mode of intellectual inquiry that could counter many of the false and superstitious habits of thought that More thought were corrupting the church of his day.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2020
Thomas More, Utopia, Raphael Hythlodaeus, Plato, Reasmus, Encomium Moriae, Characters,

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