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MonkeyNotes-Utopia by Sir Thomas More
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Irony

Irony is used as one of the effective tones of satire. By definition irony is a statement which conveys a meaning opposite to the one intended. Therefore, the harsh and cruel punishments meted out to thieves in England is regarded as "strait and rigorous justice"

(p.24-25). So also the ironic reference to the useless, dangerous and pampered retainers of selfish lords, who are hailed as the backbone of society, when in reality they are parasites who sponge off society. A standing army in time of peace is seen as a mark of glory and power. But idle soldiers are very often a threat to the home country.

Closely woven with the satire is More's method of mixing the real with the imaginary. To emphasize his points, More often gives examples from historical sources and weaves fantastical ones with them. He thereby strengthens his point. For example, punishment must be humane, otherwise it defeats the purpose. The rehabilitation of criminals is as important as the punishment. This was an article of faith with More. The ancient Romans knew the value of this when they made their felons work for the state in whatever way they could. So too, according to More, do the Polylerites, the neighbors and colonists of ancient Persia, who have an even more human and enlightened code of punishment. Both these examples, the first from history and the second that is imagined, effectively prove More's point in favor of consideration and compassion in punishment.

He uses this same type of support for showing that war and the annexation of territory are wrong and kings should avoid it. While real kings like Henry VIII, Charles V and Francis I did not understand this, the King of the Achoriens did. This shows that he is more clever than his real counterparts. The King of the Macariens is bound by the constitution not to have more than a certain amount of wealth. The wealth of his kingdom is divided among his subjects. This proportional distribution of wealth ensures justice and harmony. This imaginary king is held up as an example to the greedy and selfish kings of the time.


More's habit of interspersing the serious with the jocular is in a similar vein. Even in real life More had the habit of uttering his deepest convictions in a humorous way and his jests with such a solemn face that even his own household was often puzzled. One of the first customs he describes in Utopia is the novel method of hatching eggs. The Utopians have invented a marvelous method whereby hens are not required to sit upon the eggs that are hatched by artificial heat. The chickens, so hatched, follow men and women rather than hens. This is absurd and is sandwiched between accounts of the importance of husbandry to an ideal society and of oxen to a farming community. The solemn account of religion and priests in Utopia contains a description of the priest's vestment. Priests in Utopia eliminate the grandeur of the European prelates in their clothes, and like the shaman, the American Indian medicine man, they are dressed in bird's feathers. Nor are these feathers mere ornaments, there is something divinely mystical in the order in which they are arranged.

Where the use of imaginary examples enhances the arguments put forward, the sudden interpolation of jocular and even silly descriptions detracts from the high seriousness of the work. It adds to the reputation that Utopia is not a very serious book but a jeu d'esprit written in a moment of leisure. This ambiguity is probably a result of More's trepidation that he would suffer recriminations for his views but it is also representative of the Renaissance spirit that often used humor to make serious points about society.

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