Sample Question

"Underneath More’s fun was a creed as stern as that of Dante, just as underneath his old chain, was the shirt of hair": A Serious Jest. Should we read Utopia as C.S. Lewis chooses to; as nothing more than a "holiday work, a spontaneous overflow of intellectual high spirits, a revel of debate, paradox, comedy and invention?"

The divided nature of the political and philosophical issues in Utopia that are left unresolved is mirrored by the ‘seriocomic mode’ of the book. The paradoxical tradition characterised by the Latin phrase serio ludere – to play seriously, is typified in the works of Lucian, Horace, Rabelais, Erasmus and later Swift. This type of writing satisfies the Horation maxim that literature should combine delight with instruction: as both ‘dulce et utile’. It is the perfect form of fiction for a divided and complex mind as irony distances the author from being complicit with the books ideas, it enables a depiction of more than one side of the argument and excuses definite commitment to any distinct judgment as declarations are undercut and qualified by turns.

Is More’s satire just a sugared pill for his philosophical, religious and political vision,making lessons easier to swallow through humour? In Book One, ‘More’ talks of the reasons for ‘thievery’ and critiques land enclosures. Instead of idealising the pastoral and perpetuating the idyllic icon of the shepherd with his flock, he shows arable farming for what it really is – the reason for unemployment and persecution of hundreds of agricultural farmers:

"‘Your sheep’ I replied, ‘that commonly are so meek and eat so little … have become so greedy and fierce that they devour men themselves’"

This imagery, so ridiculous by its contrast to the accepted norm of sheep behaviour; the ideal is twisted into surreal, works to incite laughter but also draws us to examine the consequences of farming changes and commercial aggression.

Praise of Utopia we have to notice is often undercut by bathetic humour, as new suggestions and methods are taken to the extreme; the radical is twisted by the author to appear as alien and ridiculous. The organisation of farm work, which appears as a reasonable and harmonious arrangement, is followed by the account of a man hatching chickens. Whilst this process seems technologically advanced it is made ridiculous by being told in the same dead-pan and ostensibly informative authorial tone;

"As soon as they come out of their shell, the hicks recognise the men, follow them around, and are devoted to them instead of their real mothers".

Therefore, by including such practices amongst more ‘serious’ accounts More seems to deprive Utopia of its practical efficacy; equal reverence is given to chicken hatching as to warfare – which values are we supposed to take seriously? Is the pre-marital ritual of the Utopians being advocated as a model for the reader’s behaviour? Much like in the counsel described in book one, every proposal is met with opposition, this time in the form of satire. Thus, we can see the tentative nature underlying the ostensible radicalism of Utopia.

It is worth noting, of course, that many of the subjects touched upon in Utopia are so radical as to be dangerous if a monarch objected to them. For this reason, we might say that many of the seemingly comic elements such as the names and the occasional ridicule of Utopia by the listeners are placed as damage limitation were anyone to suggest that More actually sided with the Utopians in every detail. It is unlikely that he did – Utopia is above all a kind of playing out of possibilities like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and modern science fiction – but we should not be too quick to ignore the serious messages behind Utopia.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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