Funny Things In Thomas More’s Utopia: Part VIII - Colombo Telegraph (2023)

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Thomas More used lot of pun and humor in his ‘Utopia.’ He obviously didn’t derive it from Lanka. It was personal to the writer. We Sri Lankans are mostly dull people without much humor, with very few exceptions. One exception in our legendary history is Andare, the court jester. More’s pun and humor, however, always had critical social realism.

A most hilarious Utopian custom that he relates is like the social (sexual) experiment that the SBS TV Australia is now broadcasting named ‘Undressed.’

Without much introduction, we here publish chapter six of Laksiri Fernando’s ‘Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka)’ with its publication link as The purpose is to make the whole book available free of charge courtesy of Colombo Telegraph and Sri Lanka Guardian. This is a short, but an exceptional chapter, in contrast to others. It talks about More’s writing style as well.


“There never was a man more ready to laugh – especially at his own expense – than Thomas More.” – Mario M Cuomo[1]

MANY commentators have agreed that Thomas More kept us wondering whether he was serious or joking in many instances. He had a deep sense of humor and within that humor he was making a social critique of social reality. Even some of his phrases and expressions were quite sharp and telling.

Both More and his friend, Erasmus, seemed to be blessed with enormous sense of humor. When they first met in London in 1499, Erasmus exclaimed “you must be More or no more.” To which More replied, “either you are Erasmus or the devil.” They used to take great pleasure in playing with words and their meanings, most of the time upside down. Again, when Erasmus was going to London on horseback from Rotterdam in 1509, he conceived the idea to write what became his masterpiece, The Praise of Folly. He later related how he came to the idea of ‘Folly’ recollecting the similarity of More’s name to the Greek word of folly, and that is Moria. He in fact dedicated the book to More or ‘Moria.’ Erasmus often called Thomas More, ‘Moria’ as fun. The relevance of Erasmus’ humor to this exposition is that many reviewers believe that Erasmus was closely behind More’s Utopia not only as an editor but also as a partial author.

As we know, More wrote Utopia in Latin. When it was translated into English some sentences ran into long paragraphs and therefore the cohesion of argument or expression sometimes got lost. Nevertheless of that weakness, his humor remained fairly intact. What he said often created imagery. One could picture what he was saying. At the very beginning of his story when he was reporting that he went to Antwerp with Cuthbert Tonstal, a friend and a senior, he said that if he tries to testify for him it would be like “showing the sun with a lantern.” Of course, it is proverb of that time but the way he stated it was simply amusing.

Once he was explaining how the Utopians were breeding chicken. It was not the natural system allowing the hens to hatch the eggs, but it is the incubation system like in big hatcheries today. He said, a “vast numbers of eggs are laid in a gentle and equal heat, in order to be hatched, and they are no sooner out of the shell, and able to stir about, but they seem to consider those that feed them as their mothers, and follow them as other chickens do the hen that hatched them.” What comes to mind is the way the small chicks running behind their feeders.

The funniest thing of all perhaps was the marriage custom that More attributed to the Utopians and the way that custom was described. This can be considered a social experiment on sexuality and in choosing the most (physically and sexually) suitable partners.[2] “In choosing their wives they use a method that would appear to us very absurd and ridiculous,” he said. “Before marriage some grave matron presents the bride naked, whether she is a virgin or a widow, to the bridegroom; and after that some grave man presents the bridegroom naked to the bride.”

Then he argued that ‘if we are to buy a horse even for small value, we are so cautious and see every part of him to make sure ‘that there may be no secret hid under any of them.’ This may be little insulting to women since he was alluding the necessity only in taking a woman as a wife, although the attributed Utopian custom is for both sexes. In the European custom those days, he said, “a man should venture upon trust, and only see about a hand’s-breadth of the face, all the rest of the body being covered, under which there may lie hid what may be contagious as well as loathsome.”[3]

More repeatedly expressed sarcastic comments about human indulgence in gold and silver. Only the Utopians were different, “They eat and drink out of vessels of earth, or glass, which make an agreeable appearance though formed of brittle materials: while they make their chamber-pots and close-stools of gold and silver.” What a way to ridicule the habit of indulgence in gold and silver?

There is reason to believe that even this was not just More’s imagination but something he picked up from his knowledge about Ceylon or India. When Karl Marx was writing about India, in the mid eighteenth century, he mentioned about trade between Europe and this part of the world and said, “From immemorial times, Europe received the admirable textures of Indian labor, sending in return for them her precious metals.” But for the Asians there was no much value in these precious metals. Marx said:

“Even the lowest class, those who go about nearly naked, have commonly a pair of golden ear-rings and a gold ornament of some kind hung round their necks. Rings on the fingers and toes have also been common. Women as well as children frequently wore massive bracelets and anklets of gold or silver.”[4]

It was very much similar to what More said about the Utopians.

“Of the same metals, they likewise make chains and fetters for their slaves; to some of which, as a badge of infamy, they hang an ear- ring of gold, and make others wear a chain or coronet of the same metal.”

But to More, these were ‘badges of infamy’ with a particular purpose and that is “to render gold and silver of no esteem.” He went on saying that the Utopians ‘found pearls on their coast and precious stones on their rocks’ but only children adorned them. “But when they grow to years, and see that none but children use such baubles, they of their own accord, without being bid by their parents, lay them aside.”

Then he relates the story about the Ambassadors of Anemolia, an imagined country (or perhaps Portugal!), who became the ridicule of the children of Utopia. It was an occasion of diplomatic importance. The Ambassadors of the nearby countries having known the customs and values of Utopians ‘who despised silk and considered gold as badges of infamy’ were modestly clothed but not the Anemolians. Anemolia, as he explained “lying more remote, and having had little commerce with them, understanding that they were coarsely clothed, and all in the same manner, took it for granted that they had none of those fine things among them of which they made no use; and they being a vainglorious rather than a wise people, resolved to set themselves out with so much pomp, that they should look like gods, and strike the eyes of the poor Utopians with their splendor.”

This happened in Amaurot, the Capital of Utopia, with hundreds of people and children waiting to greet the visiting dignitaries. “Thus, three Ambassadors made their entry with 100 attendants. They all were clad in garments of different colors, and the greater part in silk. The Ambassadors themselves, who were of the nobility of their country, were in cloth-of-gold, and adorned with massy chains, ear-rings, and rings of gold. Their caps were covered with bracelets set full of pearls and other gems. In a word, they were set out with all those things that, among the Utopians, were the badges of slavery, the marks of infamy, or the playthings of children.”

On the one hand, it was not unpleasant to see how they looked big. On the other hand, to observe how much they were mistaken. In the words of Raphael, More said, “You might have seen the children, who were grown big enough to despise their playthings, and who had thrown away their jewels, call to their mothers, push them gently, and cry out,

‘See that great fool that wears pearls and gems, as if he were yet a child.’

While their mothers very innocently replied, ‘Hold your peace; this, I believe, is one of the Ambassador fools.”

The above episode related by More in Utopia resonates the incident of the second Portuguese mission to the King of Kotte in 1505 and the following was what reported by a reputed historian for the period four hundred years after referring to both Portuguese and Ceylonese sources.

“Another officer, Payo de Sousa, was now sent with full powers to conclude a treaty with the King. He was conveyed to the Capital Jayawardhana Kotte, on elephant back with the same precautions as were observed in the case of his predecessor.”

“The courteous but frankly inquisitive crowed which gathered to watch de Sousa’s progress through the town would contain as many women as men, for the Mohammeden habit of seclusion was unknown in the country…The little children were, as now, innocent of clothing, save perhaps a silver chain.”[5]

It is not the description that matters so much but the recorded incident which inspired More’s imagination to create a hilarious story with social significance.

Another instance of humor is when the practice of serious criminals being made bondmen instead of giving them capital punishment in Polylerites described in Book I. The bondmen are marked by their clothing, short haircuts and excision of the ears. Bonding is proposed as an alternative to capital punishment. Then the question arises whether these criminals could not escape easily. The answer given is the following.

“Neither they can have the hope at all to escape away by fleeing. For how should a man that in no part of his apparel is like other men fly privily and unknown, unless he would run away naked?

Howbeit, so also fleeing he should be described by the rounding of his head and his ear mark.”

Of course, if a man was running naked, Polylerites don’t need to check his hair or ear.

As we have already said, More used some Greek words, sometimes invented by him, to create extraordinary confusion as to their meanings. Utopia in normal meaning meant ‘no-place,’ but he used it for the opposite meaning. Likewise, the capital of Utopia was Amaurote, normally meaning the ‘dim-city.’ But it was bright in his description. The main river of Utopia was Anider, meaning ‘waterless.’ How could it be, except in extreme drought? As Hythloday meant the ‘speaker of nonsense,’ Anemolians meant ‘windy people.’

[1] John C Olin (Ed.), Interpreting Thomas Mors’s Utopia, Fordham University, 1989, p. 1.

[2] A similar social experiment is now broadcasted in SBS TV Australia initiated by Tatia Pilleva, almost like a disciple of Thomas More. It is called ‘Undressed.’

[3] Some commentators have said that this particular opinion is a reflection of his personal predicament having to live with a wife (his first wife) who apparently had some physical deformity.

[4] Karl Marx, “The British Rule in India,” New York Tribune, 25 June 1853.

[5] Paul E. Pieris, Ceylon and the Portuguese, 1505-1658, Jaffna, American Ceylon Mission Press, 1920, pp. 27-28.

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