Thomas More uses Greek puns such as Hythloday that means speaker of nonsense, etc. What is he trying to do? What difference would it make for Greek readers and non-Greek readers?

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tl;dr More's wordplay both creates a world and undercuts it. It allows More to tell an entirely plausible story with a straight face while simultaneously signaling that the story is false. It forms part of an intricate strategy of "self-fashioning and self-cancellation" (Greenblatt, p. 12) whereby More raises specific and dangerous questions about society, politics, economics, religion, etc. while safely keeping his own views under wraps.

The truthiness of Utopia

On the surface, Utopia is a credible enough tale, particularly in the context of the Renaissance. More carefully situates his text in a factual context. He really was part of an embassy sent by Henry VIII to Flanders, and the ambassadors his team was negotiating with did indeed have to suspend talks in order to consult with their prince. Cuthbert Tunstall, Georges de Themsecke, Peter Giles, etc. are all historical figures. So the story More tells, of meeting a friend of Giles's named Raphael Hythloday who has returned from a faraway land called Utopia, could very well be true.

Giles tells More that Hythloday has been to the New World with Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci's accounts of his voyages to America (the continent named after him) were published in 1507, to great acclaim. Utopia was published a mere nine years later, in 1516. The tale of a sailor who went on a further journey after leaving Vespucci's service and thereby knew of another strange land would not seem far-fetched to contemporary readers. As Peter Giles wrote in a letter to another humanist, Jerome Busleiden, "Nowadays we find all sorts of lands turning up which the old geographers never mentioned" (More, p. 113).

More creates a careful scaffolding of truthiness around his narrative. The unsuspecting reader would have no way of realizing that he is constructing an elaborate fiction. But More deploys Greek words within his Latin text so as to let knowing readers in on the joke.

Latin and Greek in the Renaissance

To understand how Latin and Greek work in More's text, it is necessary to know the status of each of the two languages in Renaissance Europe. Latin was the lingua franca of the era; to be educated implied the ability to read, write, and speak Latin. Discussing the central place of Latin in the curriculum, Walter Ong writes:

the Renaissance educator was ... compelled to teach Latin because the books in use, contemporary as well as ancient, were books written in Latin or translated into Latin. These included the books on language and literature ... and on every other more or less learned subject. This unacknowledged reason for teaching the language—the fact that pupils had to be able to read it, write it, and think in it—in actuality outweighed all other reasons throughout the Renaissance period.

Ong, pp. 103–104.

This was true of the medieval period as well, but what defines the Renaissance as a distinct era is the renewed interest in the humanities, i.e., the language, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome. More was part of a circle of humanists, the most influential of whom was Desiderius Erasmus.

More, Erasmus, and their counterparts across Europe valued Greek as highly as they did Latin. This marked them as different from their medieval forebears. But their fluency in Greek also set them apart from other educated men of their era. Ong points out that although theoretically held in as high esteem, "Renaissance Greek and Hebrew are sorry failures compared to Renaissance Latin". Works such as Utopia and Erasmus's Encomium Moriae are examples of a flourishing neo-Latin literature during this period; by contrast, Greek and Hebrew "produce no perceptible literature at all" (Ong, p. 104).

Greek words, then, function as a shibboleth for the humanist readers of Utopia. Those who understand them would get a layer of meaning that the ordinary reader would miss.

Greek names and titles in Utopia

More peppers his Latin text with proper names and titles that sound believable enough, but would put anybody acquainted with Greek on alert. The names function in the manner of a wink: their Greek meanings, inaccessible to most readers, signal to the more sophisticated that the narrative should not be taken at face value. Some examples are:

  • The capital of Utopia, Amaurot ("dark city")
  • The principal river, Anyder ("waterless")
  • The title for the prince, Ademos ("no people").

None of these are puns per se. They're fairly straightforward Greek. But insofar as they suggest a meaning beyond what's on the surface, they work in the same way as puns.

And the humanists were big on puns. Erasmus's best-known work, for example, is Encomium Moriae, or In Praise of Folly. But Erasmus's praises of moriae, stupidity (whence the word moron), are also his praises of his friend and dedicatee of that work, Thomas More. More himself pulls off two puns of staggering complexity in Utopia. The first is the name Raphael Hythloday. Robert Adams explains:

The first root of "Hythloday" is surely Greek huthlos, meaning "nonsense"; the second part of the name may suggest daien, to distribute, i.e., a nonsense-peddler. A fantastic trilingual pun could make the whole name mean "God Heals [Heb., Raphael] through the nonsense [Gr., huthlos] of God [Lat., dei]."

More, p. 5, n. 9.

This is worth unpacking. On the one hand, the fact that Raphael Hythloday's name requires three languages to understand itself works to shield More's fiction from being open to view as a fiction. Anybody reading the text would know Latin, of course, or they wouldn't be reading it. But Hebrew and Greek would be known only to the highly cultured humanists of More's circle. So the fact that Hythloday is a distributor of nonsense would be clear to none but those in the know.

However, what of "Raphael"? The name signifies a healer, and not just any healer; God's own healer, God the healer. Alternatively, it's an appeal: God, please heal. And heal how? Through the nonsense of God. Hythloday's story may be nonsense, a mere folly, a moria. Yet there's something in there that's both divine and healing in its very nonsense.

The same sort of double pun prevails in the second pun, the title of the work itself. The unsuspecting will take Utopia simply as a name. The more sophisticated will realize that this ideal republic is outopia, no place at all. But there's a twist. Just as Hythloday is not just a dispenser of folly but also a healer, perhaps this no-place is a eutopia, a good place after all?

The Liar's Paradox

More cheerfully underlines the simultaneous building and dismantling of his Utopian world. Speculation that Utopia was fiction began to circulate as soon as the work was published. The second edition of Utopia is prefaced by a letter to Peter Giles wherein More insists that the story is fact and Utopia is a real place:

It's perfectly possible that if I'd decided to write about a republic, and a fable of this sort had occurred to me, I might have spread a little fiction, like so much honey, over the truth to make it more acceptable. But I would certainly have tempered the fiction so that, while it deceived the common folk, it also tipped the wink to the learned, who were capable of seeing through it. So, if I'd done nothing but give special names to the prince, the river, the city, and the island, which hinted to the learned that the island was nowhere, the city was a phantom, the river was waterless, and the prince had no people, that would not have been hard to do, and would have been a good deal more clever than what I actually did. Unless I had a historian's devotion to fact, I am not so stupid as to have used those barbarous and senseless names of Utopia, Anyder, Amaurot, and Ademus.

More, pp. 124–125.

In its doubling down on the truth of a fiction, this is nothing so much as an mirror image of the liar's paradox: "Eubulides says, 'This statement is a lie'". I am not so stupid that I'd make up those names, More maintains. I'm telling the truth. It would have been more clever to lie. The moron says he's no moron, because if he were, he'd not have made up the names he's made up.

What is the point of this dazzling display of indirection? Is Utopia a rhetorical game, a performance highlighting its own virtuosity, a conjuring trick where illusion and reality become indistinguishable? It is indisputably those things. But there's more to it than that, and the paradox of Utopia is part and parcel of the paradox of More and his era.

The questioning of received wisdom that's foundational to Utopia was also foundational to the Renaissance. Cosmology, geography, and theology were all overturned as Copernicus, Columbus, and Luther radically challenged existing conceptions of the world. This opened up possibilities, but also dangers. When there are no foundations for truth any more, all that's left is extremely slippery ground. And More was part of an uncommonly volatile world, the court of Henry VIII.

Stephen Greenblatt, in an influential reading of More and his times, relates the rhetorical strategies of Utopia to the role-playing necessary for survival in the court. As both a deeply devout man and an ambitious one, More was fully engaged in the philosophical, political, and religious debates and affairs of his day. Greenblatt argues that More adopts masks as a way to navigate the treacherous politics of the court and the religious upheavals of the times. In such times, being definitive about one's stance is perilous; far better to adopt masks that allow one to further one's ambition while keeping private beliefs unknowable.

By creating a plausible eutopia that's also an outopia, More puts forward radical ideas of how society and government might be organized and simultaneously undercuts those ideas. Utopia—the imagined country, and the linguistic hall of mirrors he uses to imagine it—gives More a way to question received wisdom about the familial, religious, political, and economic organization of society, and a way to withhold any answers. The debates engendered by this wondrous book are far from settled, and we can't point to More's own stance as definitive: it's impossible to pin down.



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