Humans and Animals in Thomas More's Utopia (1) (Critical Essay) By Utopian Studies

Humans and Animals in Thomas More's Utopia (1) (Critical Essay)

By Utopian Studies

  • Release Date: 2008-01-01
  • Genre: Religion & Spirituality

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"Animal psychology," write Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, "has lost sight of its true purpose and, in its games with traps and mazes, has forgotten that it is to the animal alone that it can turn to discuss and conceive the soul" (246). The early modern period, however, had not yet forgotten to turn to the animal. And the literary and cultural criticism of the last two decades has also made a return to early modern animals: their symbolic currency, the textual traces and absences of their lives, and the ways in which they were made to function within writing about human subjects. As Erica Fudge, for example, has argued, they allowed the writers of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century legal, religious, and literary texts to consider the status of humanity and the various kinds of beastly behaviour that might undermine a strictly dualistic separation of humans from animals. For Fudge, animals permitted, indeed forced, an understanding of the precariousness of humanity, and she sees a repeated "loss of human status" in early modern writing about non-humans. "To read for animals in early modern texts ... is to find humans attempting to maintain their status," she writes. "This status is so fragile that a general notion--humanity--can no longer function" (10, 20). (2) Kate Soper, on the other hand, argues that such attempts to deconstruct these dualisms--human and animal, culture and nature--actually assume, and verify, "what they purport to deny: that both terms have reference to distinguishable orders of reality" (39). (3) As this article will argue, Thomas More's Utopia is one such early modern text that persistently plays upon, interrogates, and overturns the relationships between humans and animals within the bounds of its fiction. What I shall propose, however, is that More brings this textual playfulness, with its attendant questions and ironies, ambivalences and paradoxes, into contact with a set of ethical questions: questions not only about the behaviour of humans to one another, both in the fictional world of Utopia and the world of early modern Europe, but also about their behaviour to these same animals. My article asks, in other words, whether More's Utopian fiction is capable of rendering the animals that it employs within its own textual figures as rightful objects of our ethical concern. If the reconsideration of human and