Topical Utopias: Radicalizing Humanism in Sixteenth-Century England

Article excerpt

The ascription of political "radicalism" to sixteenth-century humanism constitutes one of the more promising ripostes to the overworked notion of an irremediably "liberal" or "bourgeois" humanism. J. H. Hexter, David Norbrook, and Margo Todd have made the rubric of "radical humanism" a viable one for sixteenth-century studies, and their work provides an important critique of the far left's equation of humanism and political complacency.(1) However, their work also at times exhibits an essentializing tendency of its own by suggesting that radicalism was a fixed characteristic of sixteenth-century humanism or at least of particular humanist texts. Thus, although acknowledging that the politics of Renaissance humanism were "Protean," Norbrook makes Utopia the point of origin for a diachronic "radicalism" that extends well beyond the sixteenth century.(2) Norbrook in turn owes much to Hexter, who ascribes to Utopia the "fundamental social conviction" that the "social order based on hierarchy" is "only worth eradicating" and casts the "radicalism" of Utopia as a "window to the future."(3) Most recently, Margo Todd has broadened the arguments of Hexter and Norbrook concerning Utopia to include Erasmian humanism in general. Todd claims that Erasmus's "radical social theory" represented a complete rejection of sixteenth-century norms, based, as they were, on the so-called Great Chain of Being.(4)

I want to use the first English translations of More's Latin Utopia (1516) and Erasmus's Moriae Encomium (1511) to argue that radical humanism in England was often a matter of reception, timing, and topicality rather than a tradition with an inherent politics. The first English translation of Utopia--Ralph Robinson's 1551 Utopia--and the first English translation of Moriae Encomium--Thomas Chaloner's 1549 The Praise of Folie--represent two very different political uses of works that originally had much in common, and whose translations appeared at a historical moment when the possibility of eradicating social hierarchy seemed a real one for England. Of course, both More's Latin Utopia and Erasmus's Moriae Encomium extend Lucianic satire to critique in rather fundamental ways the political and ecclesiastical hierarchies of sixteenth-century Europe. However, both also use the equally Lucianic tricks of shifting perspectives, inconclusive conclusions, and unreliable narrators to make their politics uncertain.(5) Advancing a poststructuralist approach, John Perlette has argued for the "radical indeterminacy" of More's Utopia, as if indeterminacy per se possessed a determinate political nature.(6) But Chaloner's and Robinson's translations demonstrate that the politics of indeterminacy in sixteenth-century humanist books could not be settled in advance but instead were subject to the constructions of individual interpreters.

Sixteenth-century translators in particular could exercise a good deal of latitude in their interpretations of texts. The second English translator of Utopia, Gilbert Burnet, wrote in 1684 that he initially suspected More himself of having been the first translator of Utopia because that first "[t]ranslator has taken a liberty that seems too great for any but the author himself, who is Master of his own Book."(7) Indeed, in the Confutation of Tyndale's Answer (1532), More at least anticipated one form that such "liberty" might take. For there he appeared willing to see both Utopia and Erasmus's Moriae Encomium consigned to the flames rather than translated into English and, like Tyndale's at that time heretical translation of the Bible, made readily available to a broad readership, one liable to "misconstrue" its meaning.(8) Just as Tyndale's translation had turned the Bible into a heretical text, so More imagined the possibility of another master of Utopia transforming his book in an equally dire way. The Reformation and, in particular, the terrifying spectacle of the German Peasants Revolt (1525)--for which More blamed Luther--provide the political context in which More's remark must be understood. …