After the dialogue of Book 1 of More’s Utopia, we come to the discourse of Book 2, in which Hythloday relates his impressions of Utopia. In this fifth post, Chloë Houston explores the opening of Book 2 and the way in which its depiction of rocks that surround Utopia recall Augustine’s reflections on the ‘happy life’.
The discourse of
on the best state of a commonwealth, Book II:
as recounted by Thomas More, citizen and undersheriff of London
The island of the Utopians is two hundred miles across in the middle part, where it is widest, and nowhere much narrower than this except towards the two ends, where it gradually tapers. These ends, curved round as if completing a circle five hundred miles in circumference, make the island crescent-shaped, like a new moon. Between the horns of the crescent, which are about eleven miles apart, the sea enters and spreads into a broad bay. Being sheltered from the wind by the surrounding land, the bay is not rough, but placid and smooth instead, like a big lake. Thus nearly the whole inner coast is one great harbour, across which ships pass in every direction, to the great advantage of the people. What with shallows on one side and rocks on the other, the mouth of the bay is perilous. Near mid-channel, there is one reef that rises above the water, and so presents no danger in itself; a tower has been built on top of it, and a garrison is kept there. Since the other rocks lie under the water, they are very dangerous. The channels are known only to the Utopians, so hardly any strangers enter the bay without one of their pilots; and even they themselves could not enter safely if they did not direct their course by some landmarks on the coast. Should these landmarks be shifted about, the Utopians could easily lure to destruction an enemy fleet, however big it was.
(Thomas More, Utopia, ed. George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, rev edn 2002), Book 2, pp. 41-42)
Even the seemingly straightforward title of Book 2 (see left) reminds the reader that this is a text in which all is not as it appears. For one thing, we are told that this is Hythloday’s discourse ‘on the best state of a commonwealth’, not on the island of Utopia itself. Are the two things – Utopia and the best state of a commonwealth – definitely the same? The presence of multiple voices in this text is also brought to the fore: this is Hythloday’s discourse, but it’s being recounted by ‘Thomas More’, himself a character in a text written by a man of the same name. Although signalling a move from dialogue (a form that by its nature includes more than one voice) to discourse (a form that usually has only one), the text continues to point to its own many layers of narration and meaning.
There is so much to think about in this one paragraph of Utopia. The geographical features of Utopia, and particularly its inaccessibility to strangers, call to mind Aristotle’s advice that the best territory for the polis is ‘difficult of access to the enemy, and easy of egress to the inhabitants’. We might also note Utopia’s similarity in size, if not in shape, to England, remembering that More’s friend Erasmus asserted that More ‘represented the English commonwealth in particular’.
In this post I want to focus on just one moment, the description of the rocks that surround Utopia. The only safe passage to Utopia has one high crag, which is visible and thus seems safe, and hidden rocks nearby which, being invisible, are perilous to sailors. This image of visible and hidden rocks in close proximity calls to mind another description of the means by which an idealised society is accessed: in the fourth century, the early Christian theologian and philosopher Augustine wrote a dialogue about the pursuit of the happy life, De beata vita, in which he warns against taking an apparently ideal location at face value.
Like voyagers to Utopia, travellers who sail to Augustine’s land of the happy life also enter through a harbour, beside which stands an ‘immense mountain’. Rather than delivering the happy life to the travellers, the mountain is in fact accompanied by dangerous ‘hidden rocks’ and draws them away from the harbour and destroys them, flinging them into darkness. The mountain at the harbour-mouth suggests that both visible and invisible threats can in fact be treacherous: Augustine goes on to describe philosophy as a safe harbour in which to rest while assessing how to reach the part of the land ‘that alone is really the happy one’.
We don’t know whether More had Augustine’s visible and invisible rocks in mind when he wrote this description of Utopia’s harbour at the opening of Book 2, but it’s not impossible. More knew Augustine’s writings intimately, having given a number of lectures on Augustine early on in his career (as his son-in-law and biographer William Roper recounts). In the comprehensive Yale edition of More’s works, no writer is referred to in his religious writings more often than Augustine, whom More considered the pre-eminent Christian authority after the Bible.
The analogy of the journey and the rocks at the entrance to the ideal society in De beata vita shows the reader that in philosophy the journey has its own importance, and ideal destinations are not always what they seem. Philosophers are – like Hythloday – seafarers, who encounter difficulties on their travels, like the rocks which make the entrance to Augustine’s happy life and More’s Utopia hazardous. If More was deliberately recalling this in Utopia – a text which teems with references to other works of Christian and political thought – then it’s a telling echo with which to introduce a seemingly ideal society. There are many ways in which the discourse of Book 2 subtly undermines the authority of Hythloday’s narrative, just as Book 1 frequently unbalances the reliability of his perspective. In the discourse on Utopia, More prompts the reader to question the truly ideal nature of Utopian society from the very first lines of Book 2.
In the next post, Professor Sarah Rees Jones from the University of York, explores the description of Amaurot, the capital city of Utopia.
Augustine, The Happy Life, trans. Ludwig Schopp (London: B. Herder, 1939)
Aristotle, Politics, VII, trans. Benjamin Jowett,
Erasmus, The Correspondence, trans. R. A. B. Mynors and D. F. S. Thomson, in Collected Works of Erasmus, ed. Peter G. Bietenholz et al. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974-)
Roper, William, The Lyfe of Sir Thomas More, ed. E.V. Hitchcock (London: printed for the Early English Text Society by H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1935).
Marius, Richard C., ‘Augustinianism and Carnival in More’s Utopia’, Moreana, 35 (1998), 129-50
More, Thomas, The Complete Works of St Thomas More, Volume 9: The Apology, ed. J.B. Trapp (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979)