July 6: Thomas More, martyr and smooth operator

Utopia is one of those books I read in college which I instantly forgot, and now, years on, I find its prose style forgettable. (It is, I know, translated from the Latin, and so has the old-timey problems that plague most of the translations.) Here's how it starts:

THE MOST victorious and triumphant King of England, Henry the Eighth of that name, in all royal virtues, prince most peerless, had of late in controversy with the right high and mighty King of Castile, weighty matters and of great importance. For the debatement and final determination whereof, the King’s Majesty sent me ambassador into Flanders, joined in commission with Cuthbert Tunstall, a man doubtless out of comparison, and whom the King’s Majesty of late, to the great rejoicing of all men, did prefer to the office of Master of the Rolls.
So there we are, full of debatements and final determinations whereof. It's as if More were the patron saint of lawyers or something! There's one other thing I note, and not to the benefit of the prose either -- which is that More ladles out the flattery like someone introducing the next speaker. It's one thing to overpraise the King (for all the good it did him), but Cuthbert Tunstall? (There's about 100 more words of praise for C.T. that follow). A bit further down we encounter Peter Giles, of whom, "it is hard to say, whether the young man be in learning, or in honesty more excellent."

Utopia having (I looked it up) some radical notions in it, it is possible that all this praise right from the get-go is designed to put the reader off so that only the cognoscenti would bother to proceed. If so, mission accomplished.

Then we meet Raphael Hythloday, who is going to tell us about Utopia, and if I were Idealistic Young English Teacher Who Tries To Make It Relevant, I would talk about how "The New World is like space!" and "Utopia is the first science fiction novel!" but I won't. However, I do like how Raphael is given street cred because he scorns the Latin classics in favor of the Greek ones -- it's sort of (and I guess I can't help relevantizing) like preferring bands before their songs were chosen to be on "Gossip Girl".

The final part of this reading shows that More had paid attention during the many committee meetings he must have sat in on. He and Peter Giles are trying to persuade Raphael to go inside the Beltway and counsel kings, but Raphael says no way:
Moreover, they that be councillors to kings, every one of them either is of himself so wise indeed, that he need not, or else he thinketh [emphasis added] himself so wise, that he will not allow another man’s counsel, saving that they do shamefully and flatteringly give assent to the fond and foolish sayings of certain great men. Whose favours, because they be in high authority with their prince, by assentation and flattery they labour to obtain....Then if a man in such a company...should bring forth anything, that he hath read done in times past, or that he hath seen done in other places: there the hearers fare as though the whole existimation of their wisdom were in jeopardy to be overthrown, and that ever after they should be counted for very fools, unless they could in other men’s inventions pick out matter to reprehend, and find fault at.
It reminds me of a passage about committee meetings in one of those Stephen Potter "Upmanship" books:
If rival makes obviously good bold and original point, counter it
(i) by saying: "Yes, I think that's a good idea -- I wonder if we were right to discard it five years ago where there was all that rows." Or
(ii) if you can only think of something conventional and commonplace as alternative, make your flat suggestions in an "of course I'm completely mad" voice (Flairship) and add: "I know you'll think I'm making a fool of myself, but I think some of us are bound to make fools of ourselves before anything really happens, don't you?" Or
(iii) simply say: "Yes, but that isn't really what we're discussing, is it?"
No wonder "Utopia" means "No place".


Anonymous said...

Nice attempt. Actually "English are so cliché" translates to "Les anglais sont TELLEMENT cliché". Before making fun of us, please look up for the correct translation.