Drifted toward Dragons: Utopia Today

April 26, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 13 4 min read

It may seem that we have drifted toward dragons when a satirist sits at a senator’s desk (Al Franken) and a comedian’s criticisms land so dry they are mistaken for affirmation (Stephen Colbert).  Actually we’re repeating a journey traveled by Sir Thomas More exactly five-hundred years ago.

In 1509, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was struck by inspiration while horseback on his way to visit More.  The two friends had translated Lucian’s satires together.  Once installed in More’s home, Erasmus penned In Praise of Folly, an attack on the rampant stoicism of the age (think Dick Cheney) and a defense of More’s famous wit.  More was fond of bawdy jokes and puns, and reportedly proud of the fact that his humor was sometimes so arid many didn’t even perceive it.

covercoverIn 1516, More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation.  Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential.  Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind.

Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it.

More wrote Utopia as a young man.  Erasmus published it, and as he prepared it for press More hustled after blurbs like any budding author.  But even he would have admitted that the initial rollout didn’t go quite as planned.  He had hoped to appeal to an audience that would understand the book’s classical puns as invitation to an ironic interpretation.  (Greek: “Utopia” = “no place.”)  In other words, he wanted to criticize everything to book seemed to stand for.  In actuality, More was a monarchist who defended private property, participated in Lutheran-burning, and later lost his head because he refused to sanction his king’s divorce.

His arid wit backfired this time.  Within More’s lifetime, Utopia was cited as justification for communal property in the Peasant War, and was used as a blueprint for civic organization in towns in southern Mexico.

“This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke,” he complained.  “That fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.”  Once officially a member of the court of Henry VIII, More suggested Utopia be burned.

It was too late.  And given the impact of utopian thought since then – the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia. That history will repeat if the next five hundred years are best characterized by an affectless viewing of “The Colbert Report.”  The evidence that our world too suffers from a kind of “irony-deficiency” doesn’t stop with satiric news.  The mantra of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) is a witless business plan for many, and mocking recitals of dirty limericks by Andrew Dice Clay (a Jewish comedian) became revival for Italian misogynists who took them for rhyming mission statements.

Of course, the politics now are all reversed.  The funny guys are all on the left; somber cowboys brood stage right.  Were he alive today, Thomas More might feel most at home among neo-Stoics who under the guise of a “real America” plan to secede, plot for overthrow, or hope to coronate Sarah Palin.

Utopia – the un-ironic version of it that proved fruitful in shaping modern democracy – is the victim of all this.  It’s now largely a pejorative term.  Propagandists who currently target “hope” have already succeeded in making “utopia” synonymous with socialist idealism.  They forget that free markets, mutually assured destruction, and peace through superior firepower are each just as easy to link back to utopian tracts.  Utopia is the scope of the plan, not the nature of the product.

In America, it’s particularly tough to escape the influence of that un-got joke.  President Obama offers frequent reminders that the United States is an ongoing experiment.  Our goal, in our founding documents, is to become a “more perfect” union.  Only tin ears remain deaf to the utopian echo.  When our politicians deride one another’s plans as utopian, they forget that plans can be made and criticisms leveled only because we all live in a version of More’s joke.  The far right thinks its views are those of the Founding Fathers, and that the country’s enemies are crazy utopians who would undo democracy.  But the Founding Fathers were utopians to a man.  They railed not against taxes, but against taxes without representation.  Today’s conservative spirit applied to the late eighteenth century would have resisted even those changes.  George W. Bush once described the benevolent dictator as the best form of government, and Cheney’s quest to expand executive power betrayed nostalgia for monarchy.  Conservatives long for a despot like More’s ironically-intended “King Utopus.”

Yet it’s not just irony deficiency that links us to the past.  We’re also becoming more bawdy.  And in this regard, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Dick Cheney on the floor of Congress or Joe Biden at a presidential press conference.

The only thing that perhaps explains why viewers today prefer “The Daily Show” to CNN or Fox is that the same cultural mood that produced In Praise of Folly has come around again.  But now that the politics have reversed we must ensure that the humor is not so subtle it becomes its opposite.  In this regard there is, I dare say, hope.

Not long ago, Jon Stewart conducted a (mostly) sober debate on the financial crisis with a CNBC analyst (and admitted clown).  It was a riveting interview – one in which an absence of artificial poise and stoicism appeared to enable a further depth of insight.

But when the CNBC clown dodged a question with banter, Stewart called him out on it: “This isn’t a fucking joke.”

And no one laughed.

is the author of a number of books, including The Anarcha Quest, a dual biography of the "father" and "mother" of gynecology, which will be published next year. He sort of lives in New York.


  1. “the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia.”

    This has to be probably one of the most outrageous pieces of reductivist, soft logic I have ever read. By this logic both Aristotle and Augustine of Hippo would have to be read as wry satirists as well – and if that reading could be pulled off (very doubtful), only then would it be fair to say that civilization (and only western, at that) is based on a joke. The concept of a society in some form of benevolent equilibrium is much older than More, and indeed much older than satire itself. More, quantities of irony or satire aside, gave a word to the vocabulary of a preexisting notion, and to conflate intention with word and signified (and to back it up with John Stewart and Andrew Dice Clay to boot), displays a rather disappointing intellectual poverty.

  2. No, no, Trautwine, you’ve jumped into your indignation so quickly that you seem to have misread what the article is saying. In context, the sentence you quote says that More’s Utopia was a critique of the idea of human-made utopias in general, and that most utopia-centered thought since the book’s publication could have benefited from a deeper appreciation of the satiric purpose of More’s writing. The sentence makes no claim that More is the originator of all Utopian thinking, and neither requires or suggests that earlier writers on Utopian thought need to be read as satirists. Surely when a writer makes a generality as sweeping as the one in this sentence, the generality is meant to be suggestive rather than definitive, and can only be understood within the overall framework of the writer’s argument. Looked at that way, as part of the total essay, the sentence here is an inspired angle on Utopia — an angle that I at least found exciting. Surely accusations of “intellectual poverty” are overstated and more than a bit silly.

  3. Utopian thinking is characterized by the belief that the world — at whatever stage in its development the thinker happens to be living and thinking in — can be better than it is. It is a good quality to have.

  4. A concise and well-argued explanation of why this simplistic view of Utopia is wrong (and a great little book on its own account) is J.H. Hexter’s More’s Utopia: The Biography of an Idea.

  5. Sam – Is it really necessary or appropriate to use the loaded and unduly insulting word “simplistic” when dealing with someone who obviously knows a great deal about More’s Utopia and merely takes a different approach from the one you prefer? I’m sure you know that the J. H. Hexter text you praise has its own fair share of critics on many points, and I’m sure you also know that you can’t honestly and with intellectual good faith attack Hallman’s ideas based on the one-page summary in this article. Whatever your motives, you come across as someone with a personal bias so strong that it’s hard to take anything you say on this topic very seriously. (Actually, reading your post over, it’s so clumsily written that I can’t tell for certain if you’re attacking Hallman or the post from Hank, but either way your response is inapt.)

  6. RTW – Yes, I’m sure that Hexter must have inspired some critics, but I don’t know who they are. Do they argue for a simplistic interpretation of More’s Utopia?

  7. If you’re not even aware of the standard criticisms of Hexter’s work, you’re not competent to discuss More’s Utopia with such arrogance, and you lack the expertise you’ve affected to hold on this subject. And even if you were competent, your continued assertion that Hallman’s clearly well-informed perspective on Utopia is “simplistic” would mark you as more vindictive than insightful, and as more jealous than incisive.

  8. It’s not clear to me that Hallman is well informed. His facts are readily available to everyone everywhere. What “expertise” is needed to judge his argument simplistic? Any reader of More can see that it is for herself.

  9. I’m just spotting this exchange a few days late — sorry for being behind the game a bit!

    Sam and Trautwine’s take on this post — and on my admittedly playful take on More and the history of utopian thought — is pretty typical academic-style response to any kind of literary musings on a subject that choose to value breadth over depth. It’s not really worth responding to.

    But let’s do remember that the Hexter is more than fifty years old. We’ve had all of Frank Manuel (Utopian Thought in the Western World) since then — and many other significant thinkers on utopian history as well. And suffice it to say, this article — and my book on utopian thought — is very much versed in all of it. That More’s utopia is inscrutable is fact, but that it’s a kind of un-got joke is an idea I bounced off a number of highly-respected scholars, and just about all of them seemed to agree that it’s a good way of characterizing the history of the book.

    As to whether we can find important expressions of modern ideologies in utopian texts, I suggest the following reading:

    Communism: the citations of utopian Robert Owen in Engels’s “From Utopia to Science”
    Fascism: Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Coming Race”
    Socialism: Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”
    Capitalism: Theodor Hertka’s “Freeland”

    Actually, it’s pretty basic stuff…

  10. Hallman – I think I see the sense in which your article is meant to be what you might call a kind of joke, in homage to More. Well played!

    Would it kill the joke to say outright that it is really meant to suggest the difference between the irony of, e.g., More and that of Colbert?

    If so, then we have never really disagreed. I’d only add that a way to see the difference in more detail is to read Hexter’s book…

  11. There’s certainly a contrast between Colbert and More…in fact, the only point of continuity is that Colbert mimes conservative values to mock them while More seems to advocate communism, but means to criticize the values he describes. (Obviously, I go into this is somewhat more detail in IN UTOPIA itself.) They’re ironic. Currently, I’d say, the far right has lost any sense of irony at all…and that was partly what Erasmus was getting at in In Praise of Folly.

    Yes, we could go to Hexter…or we could go to Katusky, who believed More was a Marxist. Or we could go to C.S. Lewis. Or, more recently, George Logan or Peter Ackroyd. (I went to all of them.) The bottom line is that characterizations of More and his book tell us more about the people doing the characterizing than they do about More or the book. None of us are exempt from that.

    Even Hexter understood this…after all, he warned that “blinding sandstorms of the winds of doctrine” obscured More’s meaning even to scholars fifty years ago.

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