Oct 271990

Thomas More’s Utopia paints a fanciful portrait of an ideologically advanced society. The fictional ‘artist’ of this land, the Platonic skipper Hythloday, offers much commentary on the customs and attitudes of the Utopians during his recounting of his “travels” in their Republic. The language of one such commentary—concluding remarks on pride—presents a harsh view of this “prime plague” which harkens one’s memory back to passages recounting the Utopian view of gold, silver, and jewels. (p.453)

To begin with, More’s Utopians possess an inspiring opinion on the worth of “precious” metals and gems. Realizing the danger of placing value on such useless though pretty trinkets, they undermine the accepted value of them by forging the expensive metals into chamberpots, slave’s shackles, and children’s toys and baubles. The end effect of this, as the Anemolian ambassadors discovered to their shame, is that the significance of these riches is distorted or convoluted, and those taking pride in them are assumed to be “fools.” (p.445) It is the embarrassment of the ambassadors which makes the connection between this narrative passage on gold and silver and More’s deeper remarks on pride.

Hythloday (i.e. More) clearly condemns pride in man as “the begetter of all other [plagues].” (p.453) In an extended conceit in which he personifies Pride as a woman, More points out that “her riches [are] valuable only as they torment and tantalize the poverty of others.” Herein lies the link to the Utopian view of gold. Because “Pride measure her advantages not by what she has but by what others lack,” the Utopians have made possession the brunt of ridicule. (p.453) Therefore, if Pride is born of owning something of worth, they reverse the above rule by making the ownership of gold, silver, and gems something base or childlike; pride is circumvented by demeaning the object which would otherwise breed such strutting self-love.

Unfortunately, there remains, for the Utopians, a problem with such a view of worth. Granted, they do not worship and revere the Almighty boullion, but they are not as free from pride as they would like to seem. Hythloday makes a point of describing the amused reaction of the Utopians upon viewing the ambassadors. It is vital to note that their humor was bred of the self-same pride which they (pridefully) claim to have eradicated. By assuming the bejeweled ambassadors to be slaves, childish, or fools, they hold them up to ridicule for verification of their righteousness just as the ambassadors tried to do—but in reverse.

Therefore, though the Utopians have shifted the instigating impetus of pride away from useless, purposeless gold and silver, they have failed, ultimately, to eradicate that “monster.” (p.453) Instead, they take pride in finer, more virtuous things like hard work, equality (for all but slaves, of course) and the commonwealth. For this reason, they do deserve praise; that praise, however, should not be too generously showered upon them. They just might get even more swelled heads.

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