Saturday, February 19, 2005

Week 04 Thomas More and Thomas Wyatt

Notes on Sir Thomas More’s Utopia

Historical Background. Thomas More lived from 1478-1535, the early decades of the Tudor dynasty that stretches from 1485-1603 (Henry VII to Elizabeth I), and served as Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor. When he defended the Church and refused to go along with Henry's desire to divorce Queen Katharine and marry Anne Boleyn, the King had him executed for treason. It was a difficult balancing act to maintain one's loyalty to religious principle and yet serve such a headstrong monarch, and ultimately it proved impossible. It's common today to spin turbulent affairs in political life with the Chinese proverb, "may you live in interesting times"—Thomas More's early Renaissance English milieu certainly qualifies as "interesting times."

The Tudors and their Successors. In political terms, the Tudor period saw increasing centralization of the monarchy at the expense of England's feudal barons. By the time of Henry VIII (who reigned from 1509-47), the country had been bled by the Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster from 1455-87 (that is, from the time of the Lancastrian Henry VI through the Yorkists Edward IV and Richard III, and finally the Lancastrian Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII). But many other things were happening—on the Continent, the Reformation (Martin Luther's spearheading of a break from the Catholic Church and the foundation of "Protestantism") had a profound effect on religious, political, and social life for many Europeans. In England it was a time of growth in commerce and the rise of what today we would call "the middle class," at least in a pre-industrial sense: England came to have a fairly large and influential number of people who were no longer agricultural laborers but who made their living from commerce and professional practice of one sort or another.

The Tudor line was impressive in many ways, but its efforts really did not settle the country's affairs in matters of religion--, Elizabeth I's supposed settlement in favor of protestantism gave way to James Stuart's (James I's) doctrinaire absolutism and then his son Charles I's high-handed intensification of that doctrine until the Protestant landowning class under the banner of Oliver Cromwell engaged them successfully in a civil war lasting from 1642-51 , which itself gave way to the Stuart Restoration of Charles II in 1660, and finally, in 1688, to the "Glorious Revolution" that brought in William of Orange as William III and his Queen Mary and finally guaranteed England's throne as solidly Protestant. The Bill of Rights limited the king's claims to the exercise of authority and guaranteed that Parliament, not the monarchy, would for the most part be in charge of government.

Renaissance Humanism. More wrote his Utopia in Latin for learned humanists all over Europe. It was the universal language of intellectuals—Michel de Montaigne, for instance, was raised with Latin as his native language, and claimed he later forgot how to speak it. The French word "Renaissance" refers, of course, to the rebirth of classical learning that began in Italy and spread from around the fourteenth century onwards, at least through the sixteenth century. The Church had long known parts of the classics, but such knowledge was not widely disseminated outside the church—at least not in Europe. During the Renaissance, however, scholars not so closely tied to the Church's imperatives began to make much of classical literature, and the intellectual flowering that occurred in these times remains a striking achievement. It's fair to say that the great Renaissance humanists looked "backwards" to antiquity for their models in philosophy and social theory, but they did not do this out of a servile desire to imitate their superiors. Rather, the point was to adapt ancient ideas to contemporary life. Although it would be a mistake to see the Renaissance as anti-Christian, it makes sense to say that Renaissance authors like Giovanni Pico della Mirandola promoted human autonomy and even a degree of individualism—it being understood that a humanist defines the "individual" not as we would but rather in terms of certain classical virtues and capacities. (Consider, for example, the persistence of the ancient Roman idela of strength and honor in the Italian term virtù.) Still, much in Renaissance philosophy and the literary arts would have sounded to medieval ears like prideful straying from the straight and narrow path of salvation. (Even more modern critics have sometimes construed the Renaissance as a period of spiritual decadence—see, for example, John Ruskin's eloquent multivolume work The Stones of Venice.) The Church did not more kindly to Pico’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (See also The Pico Project.) any more than it did to certain nefarious claims the the earth revolved around the sun—not the other way around. On the whole, we can find Neoplatonic otherworldliness, Aristotelian civic engagement, and the new discourses of scientific exploration in the intellectual history of the European Renaissance—no single explanation comes close to encompassing this historical and cultural period.

The Genre of Utopian Fiction. In any era, utopian fiction, like pastoral, provides an alternative vision, a make-believe refuge that offers us some perspective on our own time and institutions. Advocacy of radical change depends on the individual author. If you cannot generate utopias, this genre assumes, you will soon lose the capacity for self-criticism and will be able to do no more than accept the status quo, no matter how untenable it may be. Ideologues are the greatest enemies of any system since no human system is perfect. As Wilde says, “utopia is the one shore upon which humanity is always landing.” What one thinks of utopian fiction will probably stem in part from what one thinks of human nature: either we are hard-wired or we are the very soul of change; either we are primarily irrational and aggressive and will always be that way, or we can deal with those tendencies and make progress towards the good life for everyone; either we need to solve the ancient problem of achieving fair and rational distribution of wealth, or much inequality and even injustice in life are necessary to the pursuit of societal prosperity, innovation, and so forth. Utopian fiction's impact will vary according to our vision of humanity’s purpose on earth. Even modern "dystopian" fiction—more of a warning than a promise of a shining and happy future—evokes many of the abovementioned issues. Think of Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, or Woody Allen's Sleeper, for example.

Utopia's Social Philosophy and Economic System. More's Raphael Hythloday advocates utility. His basic accusation is that Europeans live pridefully and irrationally. What good is gold, he asks? Why base the whole of life’s activity on creating artificial scarcities when all you really need is relatively simple to provide? Doesn’t that lead to vulgar materialism, ambition, and godlessness? The Utopians in More's text live simply and according to nature, as if they were following the prescriptions of the ancient stoic philosophers.

Unlike our modern-day consumption-based society, Utopia is a pre-industrial communist paradise that extols "the dignity of labor." In fact, according to Raphael Hythloday, the Utopians have solved the ancient problem of distribution—that is, they have ensured that everyone has enough to live comfortably, rather than some people being obscenely rich and others starving. That would indeed be an impressive accomplishment since the problem still hasn’t been solved today. Utopian economics is based upon abundance, not the hoarding of private property or the endless manufacture of objects that partially satisfy ever more and diverse desires. Since the Utopians aren't trying to produce much more than they need, Adam Smith's C19 theory about "the division of labor" isn't really important—if you don't want to make 10,000 items a day instead of 100, you don't need to worry about dividing up the necessary tasks into the smallest possible unit for efficiency's sake, possibly at the expense of the worker's self-respect and sense of purpose in life. I think that More's Utopia is somewhat less paternalistic than Plato's Republic, since the Utopians have some social and job mobility, but it still seems that everybody has a stable place in society. What Plato sought in his utopian fiction was a commonwealth in which the citizens did what they were best fitted to do—rulers should rule, and workers should work. Plato distrusted democracy because of its supposed appeal to those seeking social mobility on the basis of everything but merit, and believed people should be kept in their place once it had been determined what that "place" was. Thomas More probably would have little more patience than Plato with the messiness of modern democratic governments.

Politics. Raphael has little good to say about European courts and politics generally. He thinks that getting involved in politics would be a big mistake. It would compromise his integrity, and nobody would listen to him anyway. People would just become fearful of losing their place in the existing order. He envisions that old idea that entrenched power soon becomes a law unto itself; if the system works for you and your elite segment of the citizenry, why change things? Systems can be self-perpetuating and self-absorbed, taking no care for anything excluded from the system. Consider, for example, how we talk about "systems" of various sorts today: it is entirely possible to arrive at the conclusion that the health access and care system is in great shape even if many sick or at-risk people are excluded from access to medical care. Does the health care system exist for the benefit of the people, or do the people exist to benefit the system? Isn't it rational to ask the same question of government as a whole? What Raphael argues about politics has a modern ring to it—politics isn't simply about "achieving the good life"; it's about getting and maintaining power for the few.

Raphael—Rebel or Right On? But it's worth remembering that in Greek, hythlos means “drivel,” and daio means “kindle” or “devise.” Raphael Hythloday can also be seen, therefore, not only as a pointer-out of European faults but also as a destructive babbler who needs to be politely silenced. Examine the end of our selection from Utopia, and you'll see "More" the character step in and ask searchingly what will become of "majesty" if Utopian principles were ever to be adopted by Europe's monarchical societies. Will there be no ranking of people? No beautiful displays of wealth and art? No excellence but everything just "adequate"? Isn't inequality the prerequisite for superior achievement? The last-mentioned charge is a common one made against communist societies. An hierarchical society, the idea goes, allows for the development of genuine excellence because a limited number of people are given every chance to achieve superiority. Distribute the resources equally, this criticism says, and you disable the magical effect of the aristocracy-principle that makes excellence possible. In other words, mediocrity is the default button of humanity, so there is no point in depriving the excellent of privileges to benefit the common herd. A variation on this argument is sometimes made against democratic market-based societies as well: if ordinary middle-class people's ideas and tastes are allowed to dominate, say the critics, we will achieve nothing but the lowest common denominator in all areas of life—we will get vapid sitcoms rather than great art, semi-enlightened governance rather than forward-looking statesmanship, and, in a word, the tyranny of the majority. I

Thomas More's View of Utopia. Plato’s aristocratic and otherwordly text The Republic is a large influence on Utopia. Still, it is hard to say exactly where Thomas More himself stands on the viability of his utopia or the value of the criticisms set forth by his character Raphael Hythloday. It’s clear that he intends the text as a criticism of present-day political and social institutions, but also unlikely that he wants to turn the world upside down. It’s hard to suppose that More the Catholic and chancellor to Henry VIII would favor radical and immediate changes in European society, and Marxist critics' claims about his supposed radicalism seem rather dubious.

Notes on Sir Thomas Wyatt

Renaissance humanism tends to treat the individual as a type, a collection of virtues, after the manner of Aristotle. Our own modern sense of the individual as unique and autonomous would be somewhat foreign to them, even though it’s fair to say that the Renaissance has long fascinated people because of the strong personalities we find during that era—it’s an age of wordly popes and even worldlier rulers. Think of Machiavelli’s advice to Princes, the legends of the Borgia popes, Cellini, Leonardo and Michelangelo, and you get the picture.

Wyatt comes off as a modern individual—he is a contemporary political figure trying to deal with his own emotions, states of mind, and confusions about his position in the court of Henry VIII. His lyric speaker is often fragile, confused, threatened. A courtier must behave in an exemplary way, but what are the rules? There are some, but they appear to change based on powerful players’ individual desires. You can read Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier for an idealized version of the court, but Wyatt is in the thick of the real thing. He focuses on personal events—his thoughts and emotions.

“If you would seem honest, be honest” is his advice to his son in a letter. But the court of Henry VIII is all about artifice. Sidney the courtier-poet will later define the literary arts as "feigning notable images" of moral virtue and vice to move readers towards virtuous action. But the Court's artifice is about more immediate political objectives. It’s hard to maintain a position when one lives in a world that places a premium on the competitive manipulation of appearances, right down to the things one says about oneself, one’s sovereign, and others as well as the clothing one wears and the manners one exhibits. In Castiglione/Hoby’s Courtier, the point of being a “courtier” is to embody, and to body forth, the goodness and grace of the sovereign. Outward appearances, as any good Neoplatonist would say, mirror the inward goodness of a person’s soul, and the courtier is the king’s outward appearance, somewhat as Christ is the “Word made Flesh” of God. The Renaissance in both England and on the Continent is a materialistic, competitive age that still convincingly speaks the language of a profoundly Christian ethical and symbolic universe. It would be a mistake to think of someone like Niccolo Machiavelli as an atheist, though one can’t be so sure about his hero Cesare Borgia. The period is rife with conflict between the spiritual and the worldly, but it dismisses neither dimension.

Henry VIII is the Sun around which his officials and courtiers revolve. If you work for Henry, your primary task is to exalt his rule, and secondarily to do his bidding in official and unofficial affairs. It isn’t that people thought Henry was illegitimate, but rather that centralization of power increasingly required exalted claims about how the ruler came by his right to rule—by James I’s time in the early C17, we see the full “divine right” theory of rulership supplement dynastic birth as the justification for sovereignty, and of course divine right theory is partly what will get James’ son Charles I in trouble with the Puritan faction that eventually executed him during the Civil War of the 1640’s.

Many courtiers come from aristocratic backgrounds, but don’t have the liquid wealth to maintain themselves in such lordly status, so as the age of absolutism proceeds, once-independent courtiers gravitate towards getting themselves a place at court. It is with Henry that we might say the movement to centralism in government is nearly complete; his reign goes from 1509-47, and 1534 saw him copy Martin Luther’s Reformation or splitting off from the Catholic Church, except that with Henry the point had more to do with his own marital troubles and his desire to avoid sharing power and revenue with the Church than with spiritual matters.

Wyatt’s biography is quite interesting. In 1520, as a young man of 17, he married Elizabeth Brooke. She turned out unfaithful, and of course Wyatt anguishes much in his poetry over this problem. At 23, he went to Italy and France as a diplomat. He got into trouble with Henry in 1536 over Anne Boleyn and was sent to the Tower of London, but was subsequently pardoned and became ambassador to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s Court on the Continent. He got into trouble again in 1538 on a treason charge, and was later arrested on the charge in 1541, but was let off again so long as he agreed to reinstate his wife (he had a mistress named Elizabeth Darrell from 1536 to his death, and had been estranged from his wife), but he died in 1542, so he didn’t live long enough to enjoy his return to favor.

With a biography like that, a man may be forgiven his constant search for constancy, honesty, and truth as opposed to self-interested manipulation and sham in the name of religion and political authority. Wyatt sought fidelity in love and friendship, but it wasn’t easy to find. He never says it was, either—that’s one of the beauties of his poetry, isn’t it? It rings true to Wyatt’s own struggles, and doesn’t whitewash his complicity in courtly and romantic intrigue. Erotic pursuit was a political act back then, just as Orwell says sex is in 1984.

So what is the value of lyric poetry for Wyatt? Well, it is a way of assuming and exploring an honest role, a way of being honest and not just seeming so. The hope would be that by taking on a lyric voice, the poet can attain clarity about the erotic, spiritual and political matters that trouble him. It’s customary for us as children of the romantics to consider lyric poetry cathartic in its expressiveness: the soul escaping on the wings of language, as it were. In a Wordsworthian ode like “Tintern Abbey,” we expect that our speaker will eventually arrive at what has been called an “affective resolution” to the problems that plague him—the loss of creative power, of a once sustaining connection to nature and other human beings, etc. The best romantic poetry never oversimplifies such problems or claims that imagination conquers all or that language is a transparent medium of expression. Nonetheless, it is generally optimistic about expression’s capacity to deal with the problems of the autonomous self. But in Wyatt’s case, although there may be an initial hope that clarity will come and allow him to solve his troubles in real life, or at least set up a kind of pastoral refuge from the maelstrom of urban court life, the hope is likely to be frustrated, and the poem is likely to register and reflect upon that frustration. Metapoetically, he tends to admit the failure of his lyric utterances to set him free—free, that is, from complicity in the treacherous and hostile world that he describes. Art may be “wish-fulfillment,” as Freud said, but sometimes artists are well aware that fulfillment of their wishes isn’t possible. To get clear on something, to rehearse one’s difficulties, is not to slip out of them.

The meter of Wyatt’s poetry is purposefully rough, not smooth the way his later editors in Tottel’s Miscellany try to make it. He’s trying to capture difficult turns of intellect and emotion. The same is true of John Donne.


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