Response to Northrop Frye on Utopian Fiction

According to Northrop Frye, Thomas More’s Utopia is a work of fiction that “presents an imaginative vision.” He describes utopian fiction as a genre that focuses on engaging the reader by imagining possibilities of a society or culture where communal happiness is achieved. He supports his claim by comparing and contrasting several authors of utopian literature from the time of More and since, and he uses Plato’s The Republic comparatively in his analysis. However, Frye would do well to reconsider using Plato as an example of utopian fiction. According to his own description of the genre, The Republic cannot be considered a work of imaginative literature.

While Frye’s article only mentions The Republic a few times, the context of these references clearly place Plato with More as a utopian fiction writer. He claims that most utopia-writers follow More or Plato in their descriptions of legal structure (Frye 206). He also calls Utopia a revival of The Republic, drawing a correlation between the Greek city-states and the city units of government that began to reappear during the Renaissance (Frye 206). He then divides utopian fiction into two categories based on the emergence of technology in the year 1850 and beyond. In comparing these two new categories, he references Plato, More and Bacon’s works together, saying, “The conception of an isolated utopia like that of More or Plato or Bacon gradually evaporates” (Frye 208). His other references to Plato and More often include Bacon, as if these three were the foundational trinity of the utopian genre he describes.

While Plato presents his republic through the imagination of his predecessor, Socrates, one could not call it a “speculative myth” according to the way Frye uses the term. Frye claims that it serves to be a “vision for one’s social ideas, not to be a theory connecting social facts together” (205). Socrates, however, is clear about the purpose of his hypothetical state; its function is to provide an answer to a theoretical question, namely, “What is justice?” He tells Glaucon, “Suppose we imagine a state coming into being before our eyes. We might then be able to watch the growth of justice or of injustice within it. When that is done, we may hope it will be easier to find what we are looking for” (Republic 55). It is clear that Socrates and his companions have a concrete goal in mind, to which they stay committed throughout the discourse.

Not only do the philosophers have a precise objective, but it appears from the language of the discussion that there is even a specific way to achieve it. There is a right way and a wrong way, as indicated by their occasional arguments over how their social experiment ought to be conducted. At one point Glaucon says, “That is just the sort of provender you would supply, Socrates, if you were founding a community of pigs” (Republic 60). At other points, Socrates expresses his frustration that his companions are not following the logic of his train of thought (Republic 104). With such precise language how can The Republic fall into the category of utopian fiction, which Frye describes as “descriptive rather than constructive” (211)? The Republic is, while hypothetical, a carefully constructed social experiment.

Plato includes in the discourse how careful Socrates is to continually remind his fellows that the purpose of their imagined state is to define justice. He interrupts one of Glaucon’s inquiries, asking, “First, will the answer to that question help the purpose of our whole inquiry, which is to make out how justice and injustice grow up in a state?” (Republic 66). He also says, “The consideration of luxury may help us discover how justice and injustice take root in society” (Republic 60-61). This sets the tone of the work to be instructive and pedagogical, rather than creative or exploratory, as Frye would define utopian fiction. Whereas Frye describes utopian fiction as being less concerned with “achieving ends than with visualizing possibilities” (Frye 210), Socrates constantly warns the reader, as well as his fellow philosophers, not to forget that they have a definite end in mind, to characterize justice.

The goal of Frye’s utopian fiction author is to create a space for satire as a literary device. He would say that More created his vision of Utopia as a projection of elements from his own society in 16th Century England in order to awaken English readers from the “unconsciousness or inconsistency in the social behavior” he would have seen in his day (Frye 207). However, one does not read The Republic and find a satire against the Greek political heads of state. Plato (along with other philosophers and historians, such as Thucydides) did feel that the government of Athens was too self-interested, and he was explicit in his criticisms of them (Dunkle). In his seventh epistle, he wrote, “all the cities of this time are all together badly administered…and I was of necessity driven to acknowledge, in praise of true philosophy, that through it only is it possible to come to fully conceive justice in public as well as private affairs” (VIIth letter, 324b-326b). The Republic’s aim is not carefully hidden in satire or other literary devices; it is a direct response to the philosopher’s concerns with the way his society was governed.

Fiction is an element in Plato’s work, yet it is not used in the same manner as More’s. As Frye suggests, utopian literature uses fiction to make room for possibilities within the audience’s imagination, making the reader a participant in the work of seeing the author’s vision. In Plato, however, fiction is used to make the citizens of the state believe that they sprang forth from the earth. It is a tool in the creation of the state itself, not a literary device of Plato’s for the readers. Socrates calls these “convenient fictions,” and he justifies them by comparing them to what the poets have done (Republic 106). Yet, while even Socrates admits the story they’re telling the citizens is somewhat preposterous (Republic 106), Plato makes it clear that the purpose of the deception is to “have a good effect in making [the citizens] care more for the commonwealth and for one another” (Republic 107). Thus, even the use of imaginative language has the same instructional purpose throughout the work.

Utopia includes several levels of narrative voice, which is consistent with how Frye describes utopian fiction. The reader has the task of differentiating between the character of Thomas More, the narrator of Raphael Hythloday, and the historical More who authored the work. More holds a level of ambiguity here which makes the reader’s job that much trickier. One can speculate the author’s intentions and make a case for any number of ideas as to whether the historical More actually believed his creation to be a model which societies should emulate. His life was full of differing vantage points– humanist, Catholic, statesman and religious ascetic. As Frederick L. Baumann writes in the Journal of Modern History, “The writer of the Utopia preaching religious toleration seems quite different from the later, bitter religious controversialist. It seems hardly possible that the successful Englishman enjoying to the full the good things of life is the same man who gloried in his hair shirt and the prospect of martyrdom” (Baumann 610). This involves the reader that much more in interpreting the philosophical implications of Utopia – where are we to find the author’s message in the midst of his seemingly counteracting personas?

Plato’s biographical background offers readers a more lucid interpretation, one in which the reader is safe to assume that the philosophical implications of The Republic match the beliefs of its author. While one can trace slight variations or developments in Plato’s philosophical dissertations, scholars like Mary Margaret Mackenzie conclude that “throughout his life Plato is, in one way or another, committed to the Socratic dictum ‘virtue is knowledge’” (Mackenzie). In his essay “Genre Theory”, Brian C. Caraher proposes that Plato even wished to replace Greek poetic literature and drama with the genre of philosophic dialogue, using The Republic itself as one such work (29). One may conclude that Plato – philosopher, teacher and founder of an educational institution in Athens (Suzanne) – wished to use The Republic instructively.

The character of Thomas More ends Utopia by confessing that “many things be in the Utopian weal public which in our cities I may rather wish for than hope after” (Utopia 217). The two verbs More chooses in this conclusion are intriguing. He leaves the reader asking what the difference is between a wish and a hope. By concluding with this perplexity, More creates the imaginative element that Frye identifies as the basis of utopian fiction as a genre of literature. This question can also be seen as a line drawing the contrast between More’s fiction and Plato’s philosophic discourse. One could argue that More may be dismissing the idea of conforming to Utopia’s ideals as a fanciful wish, and that Plato’s work is the business of hoping after an actual manifestation of justice through the perfection of the state. As Socrates says, “we are constructing, as we believe, the state which will be happy as a whole” (Republic 107), Plato’s purpose is unquestionably clear.

Frye gives a thorough and engaging analysis of utopian literature and More’s special use of imaginative creativity and satire. It is apparent, however, that he errs in categorizing The Republic with More as a piece of utopian fiction. While Plato’s work may have been a prototype for authors like More to draw from, it is a piece of writing that explicitly communicates the ideals and values of Platonic philosophers, not a work of imaginative fiction meant to engage readers with creative possibilities. In following his own definition for utopian, Frye would be better off considering Utopia itself the original of its kind.

Works Cited:

Baumann, Frederick L. “Sir Thomas More.” Journal of Modern History, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Dec., 1932): 604-615. Caraher, Brian G. “Genre Theory: Cultural and Historical Motives Engendering Literary Genre.” Genre Matters. Ed. Garin Dowd, Lesley Stevenson, Jeremy Strong. Bristol: Intellect Books, 2006. 29-38. Dunkle, Roger. “Plato’s Republic.” The Classical Oigins of Western Culture. Classics Technology Center of Brooklyn College, New York, NY. 1986 Frye, Northrop. “Varieties of Literary Utopias.” Utopia. Ed. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1992. 205-211. Mackenzie, Mary Margaret. “Plato’s Moral Theory.” Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol. 11, No. 2, (Jun., 1985): 88-91. More, Thomas. The Utopia of Sir Thomas More. Ed. William Dallam Armes, M.L. New York: Macmillan, 1912. Plato. Epistle Seven. Platonis Opera, Ed. John Burnet. Oxford University Press. 1903

Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford. London: Oxford University Press, 1945. Print. Suzanne, Bernard F. “Plato and His Dialogues.” Essays on Ancient Greece. University of Evansville, Exploring World Cultures Online Collection. 22August 1996


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