Blogging Utopia (7): Greek Books

In our latest post, guest blogger Carla Suthren looks at the way in which Hythloday’s Greek library and his efforts to teach the Utopians Greek highlight the ‘serious playfulness’ of More’s Utopia.

Ascensius printing press
The printing shop of Badius Ascensius, 1508. Badius published Erasmus’ Latin translations of Euripides’ Hecuba and Iphigenia in Aulis in 1506.

When they heard from us about the literature and learning of the Greeks (for we thought there was nothing in Latin, except the historians and poets, that they would value), it was wonderful to behold how eagerly they sought to be instructed in Greek. We therefore began to study a little of it with them, at first more to avoid seeming lazy than out of any expectation that they would profit by it. But after a short trial, their diligence convinced us that our efforts would not be wasted. They picked up the forms of the letters so easily, pronounced the language so aptly, memorized it so quickly, and began to recite so accurately that it seemed like a miracle […] Thus in less than three years they had perfect control of the language and could read the best authors fluently, unless the text was corrupted. I have a feeling they picked up Greek more easily because it was somewhat related to their own tongue. Though their language resembles Persian in most respects, I suspect their race descends from the Greeks, because their language retains some vestiges of Greek in the names of cities and in official titles.


Before leaving on the fourth voyage, I placed on board, instead of merchandise, a good-sized packet of books; for I had resolved not to return at all rather than come home soon. Thus they received from me most of Plato’s works and more of Aristotle’s, as well as Theophrastus’ book On Plants, though the latter, I’m sorry to say, was somewhat mutilated. During the voyage I carelessly left it lying around, a monkey got hold of it, and from sheer mischief ripped out a few pages here and there and tore them up. Of the grammarians they have only Lascaris, for I did not take Theodorus with me; nor any dictionary except that of Hesychius; and they have Dioscorides. They are very fond of Plutarch’s writings, and delighted with the witty persiflage of Lucian. Among the poets they have Aristophanes, Homer, and Euripides, together with Sophocles in the small typeface of the Aldine edition. Of the historians they possess Thucydides and Herodotus, as well as Herodian.

(From George Logan, ed./trans., Utopia: A Revised Translation, Norton Critical Editions, 2010)

Carl Suthren is a third-year PhD student at the University of York, completing a thesis on the reception of Euripides in the Renaissance period, with a particular emphasis on Shakespeare.

Encouraging the spread of knowledge of Greek was one of the major preoccupations of More’s humanist circles.  John Colet, for example, founded St Paul’s school in 1509 with Greek on the curriculum; William Grocyn was More’s tutor and the first lecturer in Greek at Oxford; Erasmus was a tireless advocate of studying Greek both in his published educational writings (such as De ratione studii, 1512) and in his private letters.  Reading Greek was far from being an isolated academic concern, but was inextricably bound up with political and religious questions: disagreements over how the Greek of the New Testament should be translated, and who should be allowed to translate it, were fundamental to the Reformation.

Here, however, More is exclusively concerned with classical texts, and in fact the Greek New Testament is notably absent from the list of books brought by Hythloday to Utopia.  Hythloday’s comment that the travellers ‘thought there was nothing in Latin, except the historians and poets, that [the Utopians] would value’ might seem rather extreme, but it actually comes rather close to sentiments expressed elsewhere by More in his own person (as in a letter to John Batmanson from 1519, in which he declared that the Romans had contributed nothing to philosophy).

The eagerness and facility with which the Utopians take to Greek is clearly exemplary.  It also affords an opportunity for More to draw attention to the fictionality of his text, while ostensibly providing an explanation for the Utopians’ success.  They picked up Greek easily, Hythloday claims, because their language is related to Greek, and indeed ‘retains some vestiges of Greek in the names of cities and in official titles’.  More at once explains why (within the fiction) so many names in Utopia are Greek in form, and invites the reader with Greek to look closely at them, just in case they had previously missed any of the jokes.

The Greek names in Utopia are ludic, if not ludicrous, but at the same time there is a certain promise contained in the suggestion that the Utopians might be direct descendants of the Greeks that would be particularly attractive to a Renaissance humanist like More.  This promise seems to be borne out by their response to Hythloday’s Greek books.

The catalogue of books that More has Hythloday bring to the Utopians seems to reflect More’s own views on what ‘the best authors’ would consist of.  It covers philosophy, biology, grammar, poetry, and history, and is fairly typical of humanist lists of recommended reading for learners of Greek, such as the one given by Erasmus in De ratione studii.

More specifies that the editions Sophocles carried by Hythloday are ‘in Aldus’ small typeface’, meaning that they were the famous Aldine editions printed at Venice by Aldus Manutius, whose print shop was an important centre for European humanists.  Aldus’ innovative ‘small typeface’ and introduction of the smaller octavo format meant that the Homer, Euripides and Sophocles at least were highly portable, and ideal for a traveller with limited space.  In fact, it is quite possible that all of Hythloday’s books are Aldines, since every single one of them had been published by the Aldine press by 1515 (though they were not all equally small).  This little catalogue gives some indication that new publications were not slow to reach England from the continent: Hesychius’ dictionary was first printed in 1514, only a year or so before More was composing Utopia in 1515-16.

Aldus had died in 1515, the year before Utopia was printed.  Hythloday’s library can perhaps be read as a paean to his achievements, in printing all ‘the best authors’.  When the Utopians master the art of printing and set up their own press, they are effectively recreating an idealised version of Aldus’ press, immortalising his life’s work in the no-place of Utopia.  And yet, they cannot progress, but are limited to forever reprinting these Aldine editions.  It might be feared that the loss of one such as Aldus would result in a similar stagnation of the humanist project.

Utopia can be characterised as an exercise in the ‘serious play’ advocated by Lucian – one of Hythloday’s recommended authors – and centuries of scholarship has tried to unpick exactly what More is ‘serious’ about.  One thing that he was certainly serious about is Greek, and we can be sure that in the best state of any commonwealth that More was in charge of Utopian levels of enthusiasm for Greek would be required.  But what are we to make of the monkey?

Hythloday describes regretfully how his copy of Theophrastus’ treatise On Plants was ‘somewhat mutilated’ en route to Utopia, since he left it lying around, and ‘a monkey got hold of it, and from sheer mischief ripped out a few pages here and there and tore them up’.  More may well have been writing from experience, since he himself owned a pet monkey (immortalised in a portrait of the family by Holbein).  Does the monkey also represent those hostile to and ignorant of Greek, who can do much damage to the humanist cause? Or is this a wry comment on Theophrastus’ treatise, which could perhaps stand to lose a few leaves without suffering much by it? Or is it simply a charming dash of realism designed to add depth to More’s description of Hythloday’s voyages? Like so many details of Utopia, Hythloday’s Greek-destroying monkey playfully invites and resists interpretation.