Saturday 6 July 2013

Utopian Alphabet

I wrote a bit about the interface between science and religion just now to celebrate the birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) and his attempts to drive a coach-and-six through NOMA. Today is also the anniversary of a regrettable event in the history of humanism - the execution of Sir/St Thomas More in 1535.  More was done to death for being insufficiently enthusiastic about Henry VIII's switch of swyve from La Aragon to La Boleyn.  He was condemned on the evidence of a gombeen man called Richard Rich, the Solicitor General.  More, trained as a lawyer, attempted to counter RR's testimony to the tribunal with reason "Can it therefore seem likely to your Lordships, that I should in so weighty an Affair as this, act so unadvisedly, as to trust Mr. Rich, a Man I had always so mean an Opinion of, in reference to his Truth and Honesty, ...that I should only impart to Mr. Rich the Secrets of my Conscience in respect to the King's Supremacy?".

I think we should continue to lift our hats to the memory of Thomas More if only because of his anachronistic belief that women and men were equally capable of learning and scholarship and so should be given the same educational opportunities.  He practiced this aspiration in his own family and made sure his three daughters knew as much Greek and Latin as his son John.  Indeed his daughter Margaret (Meg) surpassed her siblings and was accounted the most learned woman of her century.  Check out A Man for All Seasons on netflix or buy the book of the play (40p + p&p!).

The other thing More is famous for (after 500 years nobody minds now about his potty-mouth attacks on Martin Luther, his friendship with Erasmus or his predilection for a little light flagellation) is writing Utopia - his idyllic vision of a tolerant and civilised society to contrast with the life and times of his own day.  Being More, the title is a pun in Greek referring both to a perfect place (ευτόπος) and no place (οὐτόπος).  He also supposed that the Utopians would write different from what he done and so created a cypher to show how alien and wonderful they were:
or, clearer,
This elegant conceit caused a bit of a headache for his poor printer who excused himself thus "THE Utopian alphabet, good reader, which in the above written epistle is promised, hereunto I have not now adjoined, because I have not as yet the true characters or forms of the Utopian letters. And no marvel, seeing it is a tongue to us much stranger than the Indian, the Persian, the Syrian, the Arabic, the Egyptian, the Macedonian, the Sclavonian, the Cyprian, the Scythian, etc. Which tongues, though they be nothing so strange among us as the Utopian is, yet their characters we have not. But I trust, God willing, at the next impression hereof, to perform that which now I cannot: that is to say, to exhibit perfectly unto thee the Utopian alphabet. In the meantime accept my goodwill. And so farewell." 

Don't you just love the etc. after the l-o-n-g list of alternative orthographies? Considering how hard it was to set type it's a wonder how wordy the writers of the 16th century were. More himself wrote half a million words in his Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer to More's own his orthodox  Dialogue Concerning Heresies. I can't quite see him writing a Haiku. 

But it's hard not to admire his aplomb when approaching the scaffold " "I pray you, I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself".  He was canonised in 400 years later in 1935 and his feast day is the 9th of July (next Tuesday).

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