In 1535, Sir Thomas More — lawyer, politician, and noted Renaissance humanist — was writing a book. He was planning to call it Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, which was fitting, because his own tribulations had landed him in the Tower of London. He scribbled annotations, notes, and half-formed ideas for the book in the margins of his psalter, currently on display for the “Reading English” exhibition at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. It was to be his last work. On one page, he has written a prayer in English:
Give me thy grace, good Lord,
To set the world at nought;
To set my mind fast upon thee,
And not to hang upon the blast of
To be content to be solitary;
Not to long for worldly company;
Little and little utterly to cast off the world,
And rid my mind of all the business thereof.
Perhaps he had never thought much of the world in the first place. As a young man he lived with the Carthusians at their monastery in London, spending his days in silent study and prayer. He never took vows, but some said that in later years he still wore a monk’s shirt of coarse animal hair beneath his black lawyer’s robes. He was ambivalent about public service and uncomfortable with the disingenuousness of the Tudor court. In official portraits, he stares off into the distance with a look of polite disinterest; his mind on higher things.
In 1516 he published Utopia, a slim volume on the ideal polity. The word utopia, it has been often noted, is a pun on the Greek eu topos, which means “good place,” and ou topos, which means “no place.” (It was the sort of thing he would have found funny.)
In July of 1535, More was executed. He was reputed to have said he was “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
In Utopia, “the chief end of the constitution is to … allow all the people as much time as is necessary for the improvement of their minds, in which they think the happiness of life consists.” From across a gap of centuries, More’s ideal world bears striking resemblance to a university. But is Yale a good place or a no place?
“Maybe it’s both,” suggests Alexi Sargeant ’15, a student in John Rogers’ “Utopia” seminar. “It’s an alternate society with its own distinct rules, and those rules make for a pleasurable existence. But after we graduate, people find that the rest of the world doesn’t really work like Yale.”
In this sense, perhaps Yale is itself a sort of utopian fiction. In The University of Utopia (1953), former Yale Law School Dean Robert Maynard Hutchins stakes a claim for the indispensability of the liberal arts in a free society: “what every human being needs is a grasp of fundamental ideas and the ability to communicate with others.” The notion of the university as a humanist utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge is an immensely powerful narrative, even as this ideal society arrives with an expiration date.
“I came to Yale because I wanted to learn / and I wanted to learn from the best. / I was tired of memorizing figures and facts / just to pass another test,” sings the pre-naturally cheerful protagonists of the viral “That’s Why I Chose Yale” admissions video. Such an assertion figures Yale as a place where the acquisition of knowledge can be distinguished from concrete objectives such as “pass[ing] another test.” But inescapably, the clock runs down on this intellectual paradise: eventually students have to re-enter the real world. But it never existed in the first place.
“Yale has always tried to be a good place, but it’s not a no-place,” argues Craig Buckley, assistant professor of history of art. “It exists in a physical space; it’s rooted in a larger urban milieu.” This is perhaps the paradox of utopian architecture: if a utopia is by definition a place which cannot exist, how can it be reified in the physical world?
Even before Yale moved permanently to New Haven in 1718, he points out, the city was modeled on a blueprint for an ideal space. Founded in 1638, New Haven was laid out on a nine-grid plan (one of the earliest of its kind in North America), uncannily echoing More’s urban planning for the cities of Utopia, which are “divided into four equal parts” centering around a marketplace.
Yale’s architecture has not always adhered to an ideal plan, however. The campus bears traces of a variety of architectural movements and influences, some of which seem to actively contradict one another. Professor Buckley notes that the architecture of the residential colleges is derived from a monastic tradition based on the Oxford and Cambridge models, which “mark their autonomy by enclosure.” These “communities within communities” are differentiated by high walls, gates, and private courtyards and gardens, acting as mediating entities between the individual and the wider Yale and New Haven community.
Still, professor Buckley suggests that we can locate utopian impulses in unexpected places on campus. Louis Kahn’s designs for the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art may not look like Connecticut Hall, but “utopia resides in the geometry he’s using, in the urge to create ideal forms.” Such a preoccupation with proportion and harmonious geometry reflects an attention to the moral as well as the physical construction of a society.
But how can a building disseminate a utopian ideal? “Architecture is a series of arguments about what might constitute an ideal order,” explains professor Buckley. “In the Renaissance, some locate that ideal in antiquity … others try to find it in the human body itself, in human shapes and proportions.”
However, he adds, utopian architecture is inextricably tied to historically specific conceptions of how humans ought to behave, of what might constitute a moral society. “The notion that an ideal social order can be rooted in the human body is always evolving depending on our changing estimation of what it means to be human.”
Such questions have not lost their potency since the Reformation. Four hundred years after More was executed for treason, he was canonized as a saint. His prayer book might now be designated a relic, but it is on display in a library, not a cathedral —although perhaps one could argue that Yale’s libraries are themselves cathedrals of learning.
“The Yale library buildings are modeled explicitly on the European cathedrals,” says Kathryn James, curator of early modern books and manuscripts at the Beinecke. “They’re designed to invoke a reaction of awe when one enters.” In this sense, perhaps More would have appreciated the interment of his prayer book in a sacred space dedicated to the furthering of learning and knowledge.
It seems fitting that More’s prayer book should find its way to the Beinecke, since Yale has historically served as a center for the study of Thomas More’s life and works. The Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More was produced over 35 years between the 1960s and 1990s, and More also serves as the namesake for the St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center. In 2003, after polling Yale faculty, students, and library staff, the Beinecke selected More’s annotated prayer book for the coveted 50th place in its 50th anniversary catalogue — (ahead of the Gutenberg Bible and First Folio.) All of which prompts the question: why was a university founded in the 18th century as a Congregationalist seminary so preoccupied with a 16th century Catholic martyr?
For Yale’s Catholic population, this legendarily, unworldly scholar and statesman is perhaps a particularly appropriate patron saint for a university chapel. “More is a powerful figure for the idea that you don’t have to stop thinking to be Catholic at Yale,” says Catherine Nicholson, an assistant professor of English and a parishioner at the St. Thomas More Chapel. “I think that part of the affinity for More comes from the fact that he ultimately decided to remain a layman, but maintained his fierce religiosity,” agrees Adam D’Sa ’17, another parishioner. “That reconciliation of scholasticism and faith makes More an appealing figure.”
And yet eventually, the story goes, More could not reconcile his faith and his career as a public servant. He disapproved of the king’s break with Rome and the nascent English Reformation, but he merely resigned as Lord Chancellor of England and asked to be left in peace at his house in Chelsea, enjoying scenes of learned domesticity and entertaining the humanist elite. His friend Erasmus tells us that More “was always friendly and cheerful, with something of the air of one who smiles easily, and (to speak frankly) disposed to be merry rather than serious or solemn.” All that was asked of him was that he sign an oath acknowledging Henry VIII as supreme head of the Church of England — a small favor to the king, who had always loved him.
In the Tower, he was not obliged to receive so many guests. He prayed, read, and saw his favorite daughter; he made notes towards his next book. It was a peaceful and meditative existence, not dissimilar to his stay with the Carthusians several decades earlier. Perhaps he had what he had always wanted: to be left alone.
In recent decades, the conventional narrative of More’s life and death has been called into question. “It’s one of the first stories I was told: Thomas More stood up to the King of England,” says Jack O’Malley ’17, a parishioner at the St. Thomas More Chapel. Others have developed a different conception of More: “I admire his martyrdom and appreciate his defense of the Church, but I also think his whole ‘burning Protestants at the stake’ thing may have been a bit heavy-handed,” said D’Sa.
Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall (2010) is perhaps the foremost example of this counter-hagiography. The novel centers on Thomas Cromwell, the son of an impoverished alcoholic blacksmith who rises to become chief advisor to King Henry VIII and architect of the dissolution of the monasteries. In Mantel’s re-telling, More is not the genial and principled statesman of Robert Bolt’s enormously influential play A Man For All Seasons (1954); instead, he is a dour and bigoted religious extremist. The mutual incomprehension between the two men is figured as a clash between medieval ecclesiastical authority and the spirit of reform embodied by Cromwell’s progressive thinking:
“He never sees More — a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod — without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too.”
Cromwell was not a utopian: he thought about exchange rates, poor laws, and how to get the king a divorce. “I am glad I am not like you,” he tells More in Wolf Hall. “I mean, my mind fixed on the next world. I realize you see no prospect of improving this one.”
If More was the virtuous champion of scholarship and faith at Yale 50 years ago, Cromwell is the hero of the new century. “Perhaps there’s something Cromwellian about the project of a rare books library,” muses James, pointing out that the accumulation of texts to construct particular narratives of the past was a crucial feature of Cromwell’s ransacking of the monastic libraries during the dissolution.
A Cromwellian spirit of pragmatism may have prevailed in the creation of the Beinecke Library, which she describes in the 50th anniversary catalogue as “more like a factory tower, a furnace … the laboratory, in short, of the humanities.” But it is also, as professor Buckley points out, a cathedral: the marble panels reflect light like stained glass. And it contains a relic, which has clearly resonated with the Yale community, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
A 1539 record of the dissolution of the monasteries states that the shrines and bones of the old Catholic saints were “taken away and bestowed where they will cause no further superstition afterwards.” The notion that a relic can lose its sacramental aura and become merely an object of historical curiosity underlies the presence of More’s prayer book in the Beinecke: the place “where they will cause no superstition afterwards” is, in some sense, the Yale University Library system.
This particular strain of utopian thinking imagines Yale as an impartial repository of documentary evidence, a place where learning is pursued for its own sake, free from the vicissitudes of sectarian strife and political agendas. And yet it seems improbable that any university has ever achieved a state of perfect utopian isolation: scholarly research at Yale has likely always been conducted under the weight of conflicting opinions from beyond the University walls.
In this sense, Yale is not so much the perfect place as the place that cannot be.
The impossibility of More’s utopia has taken on tragic connotations, but his portrait of an ideal world is rich with satirical undertones. In his writing, as in his life, he is rife with contradictions.
More was a private man, he said, a family man; he had no use for the idle vanities of the court. He kept his thoughts to himself. He only asked that the king leave him the use of his own conscience. And yet it is striking that he imagines a perfect world where public virtue cannot be distinguished from private belief. “You would think that given the circumstances of his death, More would allow some space for individual conscience,” said Sargeant. “And yet there isn’t anything like that separation in his own writings. The people who live in More’s utopia don’t have any privacy at all.”
Like More’s Utopia, Yale markets itself as a society conspicuously lacking in privacy. According to the University’s promotional materials, it’s a place where one can form more secure and intimate relationships with others: “A sense of unity, / immense community / Our friendships will prevail / That’s why I chose Yale.” The cheery denizens of Yale’s admissions videos don’t seem to have any need for privacy, secrecy, or leaving things unsaid.
In utopia, the citizens spend their leisure time reading and attending public lectures. They eat in communal dining halls, and they live in great halls distinguished from each other by particular names.
“The whole island is,” More writes, “as it were, one family.”