EESE 10/1996

Peter Wenzel (Aachen)

'Utopian Pluralism': A Systematic Approach to the Analysis of Pluralism in the Debate about Thomas More's Utopia


Most literary scholars believe in the concept of interpretative pluralism, i.e., the idea that for every important work of art there is a multiplicity of different and yet equally valid interpretations, and they refer to it as if it were a generally accepted notion: "[...] it is a mark of a 'great book' that it has the largest number of possible interpretations" (Heilman, 1963: 3); "ours is an age of plurality"; "criticism [...] should be incorrigibly plural" (Kermode, 1969: 14 and 20). From the viewpoint of literary theory, however, the concept is far more problematic than such commonplace references suggest. Two sets of crucial questions are being ignored when the concept of interpretative pluralism is used without any further reflection:
(1) What are the actual causes of the puzzling multiplicity in the field of interpretation? Does the pluralism of conflicting interpretations result mainly from the pluralism of approaches and methods, which is so prominent in modern criticism? Or is it largely independent of method and must it rather be explained against the background of such broader notions as the ambiguous nature of language or the even more general principles and possibilities of gestalt perception?
(2) If in the light of such explanations the concept of interpretative pluralism is viewed as legitimate at all, how exactly can it be defined? Does the term 'pluralism' mean that one should search for an umbrella concept covering all the conflicting interpretations and integrate them into a larger whole, or does it mean adopting a sceptical stance that proceeds on the assumption that all is relative and there is no truth in any of the conflicting interpretative hypotheses? Is - in view of this alternative - a genuine pluralism possible at all or must any attempt to regard conflicting interpretations as equally valid necessarily end up in logical non-sequiturs?

Though these important questions have often been discussed in modern literary theory, they have only rarely been asked with respect to concrete critical debates on a particular literary text.1 This is small wonder, since the critical strategies traditionally used in research reports and prefaces to anthologies - mere descriptions of conflicting interpretations and a cautious attempt at mediation between extreme positions - cannot provide an adequate model for the task. What is needed, instead, is a systematic analysis of the causes that account for the conflicting interpretations and of the argumentative structures used in their defence.

An Analysis of the Debate

For various reasons, the critical debate about Thomas More's Utopia is particularly suitable for such an analysis. Utopia is a brief text with a complex structure. It falls into two clearly different parts presented from two clearly different narrative perspectives: that of Raphael Hythloday, radical and utopian, and that of the More-figure in the text, who is sober and full of scepticism.

Including conflicting perspectives within itself in this way, the brief text has spawned an astonishingly large number of divergent interpretations.2 With respect to their evaluation of More's most important utopian demand, the establishment of communism, these interpretations can be subdivided into five main directions: There is, first, a group of critics - as distant in time from one another as the German 19th century socialist Karl Kautsky (1885), the British historian A.L. Morton (1952), and the German anglicist Thomas Metscher (1982) - who take More's demand for communism as well as his other innovations quite seriously. In complete antagonism to these 'literalists' there is a second group who plead for a different, 'metaphorical' reading of More's work, regarding it not as a blueprint for political reform but as a mere image of what an ideal society might look like. In more recent times, this position, which is favoured by most of the established More critics,3 has been supplemented by two others. There is thus a third reading originally developed in two important articles by T.S. Dorsch (1967) and Merritt Abrash (1977-78), which tries to turn Utopia into a strongly ironical work depicting an unpleasant state of society not very far from the dystopias of Wells, Huxley or Orwell. A fourth reading was initiated by the English writer, critic and mediaevalist C.S. Lewis (1954), for whom More's book is neither a blueprint for reform, nor a metaphorical ideal, nor an ironical dystopia but a mere jeu d'esprit, "a holiday work" or as Lewis puts it in a witty allusion to Wordsworth's famous romantic dictum: "a spontaneous overflow of intellectual high spirits" (Lewis 1954: 169; cf. also Berglar 1978: 195). In addition to these four directions which in the interpretative history of Utopia have survived up to the present there is a fifth, outdated interpretation by the two German historians Hermann Oncken (1922) and Gerhard Ritter (1940) who take Utopia literally, too, but in a completely different sense from the Marxists, reading it as a first model for British imperialism.4

What, then, are the causes of the wide divergences between these interpretations? First, one might suppose them to be grounded in the pluralism of methods in modern criticism, more particularly in the possibility of approaching the interpretation of a text by focusing either on its relationship to its author, its relationship to its reader, its relationship to its context or merely on the text itself.5

On somewhat closer inspection, however, this supposition proves to be wrong. Not only do critics rarely restrict their approaches to only one of the four above-mentioned possibilities, but even where they do, their interpretations need not run in the same direction. As has already been shown with respect to critical discussions other than that on Utopia "critical readings of similar methodology [...] often add up to radically opposed interpretations" (Rabkin 1981: 19; see also Wenzel 1979: 31, 120, 267). As far as biographical arguments are concerned, for instance, both Kautsky and Richard Helgerson, critics who take the pro-communist tendency of Utopia quite seriously, can defend their view by reference to More's personal sympathy for the poor (Kautsky 1922: 209) or his dissatisfaction with worldly greatness and luxury (Helgerson 1982: 106), while Lewis (1954: 217) and Dorsch (1967: 345), who do not take it seriously at all, can base their view on a quote from More's Dialogue concerning Heresies, in which his fictitious interlocutor, the Messenger, characterizes him as a person who was fond of jesting with a perfectly serious face.6 And even those critics that tend to regard both readings as legitimate and think that Utopia simply wavers between the pro-Utopian stance of Raphael Hythloday and the critical stance of the narrator More that appears in the text can ground their position in biographical evidence by postulating an identity crisis of More the author, who in their opinion was torn between the standards of morality and the lure of political power (cf. Greenblatt 1977-78 and Rudat 1980).

Arguments based on the reception of Utopia also lead to widely divergent views. Kautsky (1922: 251-52), J.H. Hexter (1965: 43-48) and Helgerson (1982: 108-09), who regard the pro-communist tendency of Utopia, or, as in the case of Hexter, at least the work's criticism of private property, as meant seriously support their views by citing letters from the humanists Hieronymus Buslidius, Guillielmus Budaeus and Beatus Rhenanus, while their opponents - among them, above all, Lewis (1954: 217), Dorsch (1967: 346) and Arno Löffler (1974: 170-71) - have recourse to early responses to Utopia by William Tyndale, Nicholas Harpsfield, Thomas Wilson and Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus' important comments on Utopia are particularly complex and ambiguous so that they lend themselves to being quoted in support of either a metaphorical and ironical (cf. Heiserman 1963: 164) or a jeu d'esprit-interpretation (cf. Lewis 1954: 217) or even both of these readings (cf. Mason 1959: 107 and Löffler 1974: 168-69). Given this multiplicity of possibilities it is hardly surprising that those critics who have dealt more thoroughly with the early responses to Utopia unanimously stress their plurality (cf. Allen 1963 and Honke 1982) and warn against taking them as reliable sources for fixing the meaning of this text (cf. Logan 1983: 3). A close analysis of the early responses to Utopia, then, confirms the reservations of structuralist and other critics against a reader-oriented approach (cf. Titzmann 1977: 335-37; Culler 1981: 52-53 and 56-57; Nehamas 1981-82: 148). The early responses are by no means unanimous, rather they are multi-layered and contradictory. Like the text to which they refer they can be interpreted in many different ways. A critic's decision to approach More's text through the responses of its readers can therefore lead to very different conclusions. Like the biographical approach, a reader-oriented approach allows pluralism but cannot be regarded as its final cause.

Nor can the ambiguity of Utopia, as in the case of other texts, be traced to the ambiguity of single words and phrases,7 for the details of the text are by no means difficult to comprehend (cf. Abrash 1977-78: 27). What is truly difficult and problematic is not the micro-level of the text, i.e., its words and sentences, but the macro-level of the many different interpretative schemes into which the incontestable facts of the text can be inserted. Nor does it make much sense to complain that many of these schemes are based on modern concepts and models which are anachronistically read back into the text (cf. Bärsch 1978: 16; Wooden 1980: 97; Kreyssig 1988: 2). For it is impossible to reject a scheme on that account unless it really clashes with the facts in question. This result, however, raises another important question: is it not possible that clashes between the many different interpretative schemes and the facts given in the text are only avoided because each critic selects only those facts from the text that fit his interpretative scheme, while ignoring all the rest?8 In fact, there are many examples that seem to support this hypothesis: critics who champion a Marxist reading focus upon Utopian communism, free education, the six-hour day and the principle of toleration (cf. Kautsky 1922: 298-312; Metscher 1982: 126-29; Bloch 1959: 604-05), while critics who prefer a Christian reading focus upon Utopian philosophy, ethics and religion (cf. Surtz 1957: 192-99) or the numerous affinities between Utopian and monastic life (cf. Chambers 1935: 125-32, 135-37, 143-44). Critics who try to put Utopia into an ironical light emphasize various doubtful or even revolting practices of the Utopians such as their hypocritical methods of warfare, their employment of slaves and their habit of laughing at the mentally deficient (cf. Dorsch 1967: 354 and Abrash 1977-78: 36), aspects of the book that also lent themselves to Oncken's and Ritter's aim of turning Utopia into a blueprint for British imperialism (cf. Oncken 1922: 30*-37* and Ritter 1940: 77-88).9

In view of these findings, one might explain the pluralism of Utopia as a pluralism of partial analyses, each of which takes only a limited number of the total quantity of the book's features into account, and refer for a visual analogy to the figure of a cone, which, as has been pointed out in an interesting discussion of the problems of pluralism by Wayne C. Booth (1979: 31-34), must always appear to an observer in a limited perspective, i.e., (depending on the observer's respective angle of vision) either as an isosceles triangle, or as some irregular shape or even - looked at from the bottom - as a circle, but never as all these different shapes at the same time.

In the case of the discussion about Utopia, however, this explanation - pluralism as a result of partial analyses, each focusing on different parts of the whole - is not fully convincing. For such important features of the book as its plea for communism, for instance, are simply far too obvious to be entirely ignored by any commentator.

Different critics thus read the book differently not so much because they are looking at different parts but because they evaluate the same parts differently, emphasizing or minimalizing their importance. In terms of visual analogy, then, Utopia does not correspond to a cone perceived from different angles, but rather to a spatial puzzle, i.e. a figure in which one and the same part can be put into different frames or schemata of interpretation (on the analogy between spatial puzzles and the multiplicity of interpretations of a work of art, cf. also Leech 1969: 217-20 and Kincaid 1976-77: 785-89).

What we need, then, at the next stage of our considerations is an analysis of the techniques that make it possible for the critic to lend rather different weight to the different parts of a text, centring on some while marginalizing or even nullifying others. Earlier critics indulged in speculations in textual criticism for this purpose - for instance Oncken (1922: 25*), who tried to explain the idealistic features of Utopia as remnants of an earlier textual version revised by More under the impression of his political experiences, or the German philologist Heinrich Brockhaus (1929), who suggested that, originally, Utopia was nothing but a plea for religious reform and that all the secular aspects of the book had been added by More's friend Erasmus. As such textual speculations, which were already heavily attacked in their own day (cf. Sternberg 1932-33: 464-97 and 1933-34: 249-54), are no longer possible today because of the solid research done on Utopia's textual history (cf. Hexter 1965: 21-30), modern critics avail themselves of another, even more effective strategy of lending different weight to different passages: they read them either as referential or as rhetorical.

In fact it is this alternative - the alternative of interpreting parts of the text either referentially or rhetorically10 - that can best account for the pluralism in the discussion about Utopia. For when one takes into account that both the concrete wording of the text and the more abstract intentions behind it are open to either a referential or a rhetorical understanding, one ends up, by means of combinatorial logic, with four theoretical possibilities that are identical to the four major possible readings of Utopia outlined before: the literal reading, which is based on the assumption that both the Utopian institutions which one finds in the wording of the text and the intentions of social reform behind them must be taken in a strictly referential sense; the metaphorical reading, which implies a referentiality only of the reformist intentions but not of the concrete institutions in which they are expressed; the ironical reading, which applies the principles of referential and rhetorical understanding exactly the other way around, taking the institutions literally but suggesting that More did not intend that they be put into practice; and, finally, the jeu d'esprit reading, according to which both the institutions and the reformist intentions lack any meaning whatsoever.

Of course, the full degree of dissension and complexity in the debate is not only due to the above-mentioned principles as such but also to the fact that they can be applied very differently to the different parts of the text. As Dorsch (1967: 345) puts it: "no two commentators [...] are agreed as to which passages in Utopia are to be taken seriously and which are to be dismissed as fantasy or jest, and their interpretations vary according to their choice." It is small wonder in view of these facts that critics do not often adhere to just one of the four possible readings but try to combine and mix them. Russell Ames (1949: 8-21), for instance, regarding More as an early anti-feudal, bourgeois thinker, interprets Utopia partly in a literal and partly in a metaphorical sense; to Heiserman (1963) and to Möbus (1966), the work is partly metaphorical and partly ironical, and to the historian J.W. Allen (1960: 153-56), partly ironical and partly a jeu d'esprit. And even critics who tend towards only one of the different readings often feel unable to draw a clear dividing line between what is meant seriously and what is not. This is especially true of the adherents of the metaphorical reading who puzzle over the exact degree of seriousness in More's affinities for communism (for divergent solutions, see Donner 1969: 66-74; Hexter 1965: 33-43; Surtz 1957: 175-91). One cannot, then, but agree with Hexter (1982: 153), the editor of the renowned Yale Edition of More's complete works, who after studying Utopia for more than 30 years sums up his conclusions like this:

The impossibility of deciding which passages are meant seriously is not only the major problem with the interpretation of the report about the Utopian commonwealth itself, but also when one tries to evaluate the critical comments voiced by the More-figure at the end of the book. For these comments, too, can be read either referentially, i.e., as a serious refutation, or rhetorically, i.e., as an ironical confirmation of Hythloday's utopian position. And once again, there are some passages and sentences - such as the More-figure's cautious concession "that there are very many features in the Utopian commonwealth which it is easier for me to wish for in our countries than to have any hope of seeing realized" (quoted from the Yale Edition, vol. 4, p. 245) - that seem to imply actual reservations against the Utopian system on the part of the author More,12 and others - such as the strange argument that the establishment of Utopian communism would lead to the abolition of such 'values' as "nobility, magnificence, splendour and majesty" (cf. Yale Edition, p. 245) - that suggest that in choosing this formulation, the More-figure is only ironically criticizing himself.13 Thus, the pluralism of the different interpretations of Utopia cannot be limited by an analysis of these final passages, however important they may appear at first sight.

While it is impossible, then, to fix the meaning of Utopia by means of textual analysis, a last alternative consists in having recourse to its historical context. But this approach meets with the same difficulties as the biographical approaches outlined above. There is an unlimited number of different contexts upon which the interpretation of Utopia can be based (cf. Culler 1983: 121-30 and 215-16 for a general discussion of this problem). Thus, any critic who holds a particular view on Utopia will find an aspect of the historical background suited for the justification of his view. Champions of the Marxist-literal reading, for instance, point to the social grievances in England in More's time (cf. Kautsky 1922: 214-18; Morton 1952: 35-37) and the communist structure of the societies described in two of the more important sources of Utopia, Plato's Republic (cf. Kautsky 1922: 218) and Amerigo Vespucci's travel books (cf. Bloch 1959: 598-99; Morton 1952: 43-44; Elias 1982: 134; Helgerson 1982: 102). Critics who do not want to take More's communism seriously, on the other hand, point to his being influenced by Lucian's satires (cf. Dorsch 1967: 348-50; also: Heiserman 1963: 164) and the growing influence of the art of rhetoric in his time (cf. Davis 1980: 250-51). Some refer to a letter from More to Petrus Aegidius in which More ironically criticizes an all too literal reading of Utopia (cf. Heiserman 1963: 165; Löffler 1974: 173 and 181-82) as well as to the particularly striking fact that as a politician later in life More always followed a strictly conservative line (cf. Dorsch 1967: 356-62). And, further complicating the debate about the historical context is the fact that it is quite possible for the representatives of both camps to discover other contexts which may be used for neutralizing or invalidating the contextual arguments of their opponents. Thus critics who favour a referential, pro-communist interpretation of Utopia argue that the repressive political condition of More's time simply made it necessary for him to be ironic in some respects (cf. Kautsky 1922: 248; Elias 1982: 113, 128 and 131-32; and Metscher 1982: 126) and that only later political developments - more particularly the events of the Reformation - were responsible for turning him into a conservative (cf. von Koppenfels 1982: 111), while champions of a rhetorical, anti-communist interpretation take the fact that More never published his book in England as a proof for his unwillingness to have it published there (cf. Schulte-Herbrüggen 1977: 259) and claim that the idea that More was forced to be ironic was not convincing either, because, after all, it was also possible for Erasmus of Rotterdam to scourge the powerful without having to fear for his life (cf. Möbus 1966: 81). Thus one argument is put against the other and one context against the next; the main problem, however, namely the question of the respective relevance of all the different contextualizations, is never properly tackled - and perhaps for good reason because it cannot be solved at all.14

Versions of Pluralism

Only one conclusion can be drawn from these findings: an emphatic plea for the acceptance of the concept of pluralism in interpretation. And in fact, a large majority of the contributors to the debate about Utopia seem to agree on this conclusion, since references to the complexity of More's work and the legitimacy of the multiplicity of its interpretations are legion.15 Still, on somewhat closer inspection it soon turns out that the different critics have very different concepts of pluralism in mind, when emphasizing the plurality of the debate.

To many of them, confirmation of the plurality of the debate is little more than a handy starting-point for their own interpretation, which after some concessions to the opposing camps, returns to the claim of a single legitimate reading. This holds true, for instance, for Metscher (1982), who after admitting that irony and ambiguity are relevant features of Utopia (cf. p. 121: "The examples of More's ironic method which Dorsch gives are certainly convincing") revalues their function in a Marxist sense, thus returning to what Booth (1979) has termed 'critical monism'.

Another type of seeming pluralism is diametrically opposed to this, namely the assumption that the meaning of Utopia is little more than a mirror of the social, religious and political preconceptions of its interpreters so that, ultimately, every reader may regard the book as he likes. A nice formulation of this critical stance is provided by Johnson (1969: 1), who opens his interpretation of Utopia (which becomes more definite later) with a very sceptical comment:

If this were meant quite literally, Utopia would mean anything and nothing at the same time, and all critical statements about it would remain without any cognitive value (cf. the definition of scepticism in Booth 1979: 17).

Other critics again try to solve the dilemma by accepting parts of the conflicting positions as true while rejecting others, thus practising what Booth (1979: 21) has termed 'eclecticism'. A good example of such an 'eclectic' pluralist is Russell Ames (1949: 164-70), who tried to steer a middle course between Kautsky (1922) and Chambers (1935) without accepting either of their positions as a whole. But an eclectic version of pluralism does not have to be confused, as Booth (1979: 24-25) has argued, with a genuine pluralism, which does not try to cancel out parts of the conflicting interpretations but holds them all to be entirely acceptable. Only in recent times have such genuinely pluralist readings of Utopia, which once formed a small minority among the monistic interpretations, become more frequent and influential,16 and some critical contributions have even tried to show that the pluralism in the interpretative history of Utopia can be traced back to the structure of More's book itself (cf. Wooden, 1980 and Grace, 1989). It is these approaches that are, in the opinion of the author of this article, on the right track: only if criticism succeeds in showing why (to take up Heilman's formulation from the introduction of this article) 'a great book has a large number of possible interpretations' can the concept of interpretative pluralism be rationally accounted for and be more than a fashionable critical catchphrase.

Summary and Conclusion

As the foregoing extensive analysis of the debate about Utopia has shown, the zeal for interpretative pluralism in modern criticism is often little more than mere lip-service, and the development of a solid basis upon which the concept of pluralism might be grounded has largely remained a utopian critical project. The project could become a concrete Utopia, however, if more studies were devoted to analysing individual critical debates from a metacritical perspective, looking at the causes, foundations and legitimacy of the different positions adopted in each debate. The present article was intended as a first step in that direction. It is its purpose to show that with the help of a clearly structured set of categories, even such a puzzling debate as that on More's Utopia can be subdivided into a limited number of directions that result logically from different possible combinations of referential and rhetorical modes of understanding. The complexity of other critical debates may rest upon other factors, such as the ambiguity of individual words or lines (as is often the case in poetry) or a plurality of political and ideological systems with which the text may be aligned (as in the case of George Orwell's 1984, which has been understood as a reflection of a communist, fascist, or even a technocratic Western society).17 A comparative study of such debates will promote a more critical attitude toward interpretative methods and strategies and will lead to a deeper understanding of the conditions under which conflicting views on the meaning of texts can be possible and legitimate.

Of course, one may finally raise the question whether this plea for a metacritical analysis of interpretative pluralism does not - like all Utopian projects - also have some objectionable, 'dystopian' sides to it. Even less rationalistic attempts at a foundation of pluralism - such as Booth's (1979) concept of 'critical understanding', which puts pluralism mainly on an ethical basis - have met with strong objections from critics for whom - as for Mitchell (1986), Erlich (1986) and Rooney (1989) - pluralism is only a concealed form of "dogmatism", "monism" and intolerance because it tries to force all variety and dissension under a common umbrella. Likewise, the present suggestion to look at critical debates from a metacritical perspective, putting each interpretation into its pigeonhole in the pluralist system, might be seen as an attempt to restrict critical liberty, creativity and innovation, though it is certainly not intended for such a purpose.

Of course, it is difficult completely to dispel such anti-pluralist reservations. It must be admitted that like all Utopian projects, the present plea for a truly pluralist approach to criticism is attractive in many respects and less satisfactory in a few others. But like all Utopian projects, it must be understood mainly as a legitimate attempt to overcome acute grievances - in this case, grievances in criticism such as the one-sided defence of a position without taking note of other people's arguments and the use of pluralism as a mere catchword without any deeper reflection.


The first set of questions has been tackled, for instance, by Culler 1980, the second by Booth 1979, who provides a scrupulous discussion of pluralism from the viewpoint of the Chicago School. Booth's ethical rather than strictly logical definition of pluralism has met with sharp criticism from other critical quarters. For recent contributions to the debate on pluralism, see: Juhl 1980, Armstrong 1983, Calinescu 1983, the issue of Critical Inquiry 12 (1986), devoted to "Pluralism and Its Discontents," 467-596, and Rooney 1989. - Apart from Culler 1980, one of the few pioneering studies looking at the pluralism of critical discussions on particular texts is Knauth 1981, who analyzes the debates on Baudelaire's poem Spleen IV and Beckett's En Attendant Godot. But these debates are less controversial than that about More's Utopia, since Baudelaire critics disagree only over the causes but not over the general nature of the satiety of life described in the poem and Beckett critics concentrate their debate on a single point of indefiniteness in the play, i.e., the identity of Godot. The problem of interpretative disagreement has also been taken up in German philology by Grewendorf 1975, Meggle/Beetz 1976 and von Savigny 1976, but their studies are devoted to a minute analysis of argumentative structures rather than to the causes of pluralism in interpretation.

For useful surveys of important contributions to the debate, see Seeber/Bachem 1982: 150-53, Erzgräber 1983: 25-26, Lange 1984: 26-27, and the detailed study of Kreyssig 1988: 8-62.

Cf., for instance, Donner 1969 (1945), Hexter 1965 (1952), Surtz 1957, Schulte Herbrüggen 1960 and 1977.

For a convincing rejection of this interpretation, see Donner 1969: 98-101 and Möbus 1966: 45-59.

On the possibility of classifying the methods of literary criticism in this way, cf. Abrams 1971: 6-29, Jefferson/Robey 1982: 7-10, Wenzel 1993: 149-61, Nünning 1995: 9.

Interestingly, Elliott 1963: 184 draws a different conclusion from the same passage: to him, the passage does not prove that More is not speaking seriously in Utopia but that the question of his seriousness cannot be decided.

For this approach, cf. e.g. Empson 1953 (1930); Beardsley 1970: 44-47; Ruthven 1979: 155-56 and Wetherill 1974: 110-16.

This has been suggested, for instance, by Hexter 1965 (1952): 12-13: "Finally, the methods by which some present-day writers have arrived at their divergent opinions are not above criticism. They have tended to treat Utopia as a grab-bag of ideas. This enables each writer to pull out the ideas that best suit his own taste, to exalt those ideas above others, and thus to impute to More a hierarchy of conceptions elegantly coincident with the writer's own predilection." - Without reference to the debate on Utopia, Jones 1975: 193 and Nehamas 1981-82: 147 have explained interpretative pluralism in a similar way.

Interestingly, there are only very few English critics who think that Utopia is morally corrupt and yet meant seriously, such as the Scottish historian J.D. Mackie 1952: 263-64, who tried to construct a parallel to the totalitarian régime of Hitler: "[Utopia] resembled strangely the Germany of Hitler. It was an organized community wherein everyone had his place; where there was no unemployment; where the rough work was done by alien labourers or by the forced toil of persons who did not conform to the standards set by the state; where all citizens were trained to arms [...]; where aggression was justified whenever Lebensraum was needed on the ground that an intelligent people could use land better than their uninstructed neighbours."

For a general comment on the significance of this alternative in interpretation, cf. de Man 1979: 7-12, Culler 1980: 65 = 1981: 78, and Culler 1983: 249: "The opposition between referential and rhetorical functions of language is persistent and fundamental, always at issue in the act of reading, which requires decisions about what is referential and what is rhetorical."

The passage, published only in a translated German version (Hexter 1982), was translated back into English by myself. The original German wording is: "Manchmal meint [Morus] es ernst, manchmal auch nicht. Im Bericht überläßt er es dem Leser, dies jeweils herauszufinden. Diese Einschätzung ist nicht immer leicht, und es ist daher nicht verwunderlich, daß es bei den Lesern unterschiedliche Urteile darüber gegeben hat, wann er es ernst meinte, wann er ironisch war (also ernst auf andere Art und Weise), wann er mit einem Begriff. der ihn interessiert, dem er sich aber nicht verpflichtet fühlt, spielt und wann er nur Spaß macht. Obwohl einige Stellen offensichtlich völlig ernst gemeint und einige andere wirklich nur als Spaß zu verstehen sind, enthält der Bericht selbst keine ausreichenden Anhaltspunkte, um eine zuverlässige Bewertung von Morus' Prioritäten vornehmen [...] zu können." 12
Cf., for instance, Ritter 1940: 68; Donner 1969: 71; Schulte-Herbrüggen 1977: 258; Dorsch 1967: 363, and, for a contrary interpretation, Erzgräber 1983: 40, who takes the passage as a proof for an intention to put Utopia into practice.

Cf., for instance, Surtz 1957: 183; Davis 1980: 267; Helgerson 1982: 108; Metscher 1982: 125; Logan 1983: 242 and, methodologically most interesting and convincing, Hexter 1975. For a contrary opinion cf. however Allen 1971: 59 and Löffler 1974: 170-71.

Quite rightly, therefore, Seeber 1982: 150 points out that the 'technique of historical contextualization, applied with enormous diligence and penetration, is now gradually growing stale,' and likewise Kreyssig 1988: 210 in her voluminous study of Utopia comes to the conclusion that attempts at contextualization do not open a way towards a strict classification of the work (in the German original: "lassen die zeitgenössischen Bedeutungszusammenhänge zur Utopia keine strenge Kategorisierung des Werkes zu").

Cf., for instance, Sylvester 1968 in Marc'hadour 1977: 290: "The Utopia of Sir Thomas More is a book which has meant many different things to different men. Like other great books, its literary excellence has generated a host of varying interpretations" or, more recently, Grace 1989: 274: "Utopia manages quite well to accommodate all manner of contrary readings."

Typically, the interpretation of Utopia in the Thomas More-volume of the important Twayne's English Authors Series concludes with a genuinely pluralist summary: "The Utopia is drama, fiction, political science, sociology and theology. In it we see More the idealist and More the pragmatist, the conservative medieval Catholic and the modern social reformer" (Jones 1979: 77).

Even in the case of Utopia, this factor has contributed to the plurality of the debate, as can be seen from the above-mentioned attempts to link More's commonwealth with British imperialism (cf. Oncken 1922 and Ritter 1940) or German fascism (cf. Mackie 1952: 263-64), though these hypotheses were not convincing enough to gain much ground in the discussion.


[Separate bibliographical file]