Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’


'Utopia' by Thomas More.
‘Utopia’ by Thomas More.

For those who don’t know, Utopia depicts a fictional society and its religious, social and political ideals. In some ways, it is quite similar to some of the ideas that Plato had in The Republic and some of the ideas of other Greek philosophers like Cicero and Polybius.

When you look up Utopia on Wikipedia (a mine of information, though not to be used in serious scholarly work!), there is a section on the meaning of the work:

“Most scholars see it as some kind of comment or criticism of contemporary European society, for the evils of More’s day are laid out in Book I and in many ways apparently solved in Book II. Indeed, Utopia has many of the characteristics of satire, and there are many jokes and satirical asides such as how honest people are in Europe, but these are usually contrasted with the simple, uncomplicated society of the Utopians. Yet, the puzzle is that some of the practices and institutions of the Utopians, such as the ease of divorce, euthanasia and both married priests and female priests, seem to be polar opposites of More’s beliefs and the teachings of the Catholic Church of which he was a devout member.”

In a lot of ways, Utopia is a criticism of the European society of the early sixteenth century, but it seems to go against a lot of More’s personal beliefs. Utopia promotes religious tolerance, which goes against the many people More burnt at the stake during his tenure as Lord Chancellor. But Utopia was written in 1516 and so it could be argued that More’s religious tolerance changed later in his life (he didn’t become Lord Chancellor until 1529), possibly in response to the threat from Lutheranism and other heresies which were becoming more prevalent.

Other aspects of Utopia which go opposite to More’s own beliefs, like married and female priests and divorce, for example, seem unexplainable. It doesn’t seem right that he should forego his own beliefs, even in a fictional

Thomas More by Hans Holbein.
Thomas More by Hans Holbein.

work. However, as I’ve previously said, it is possible that his beliefs changed and developed over the years, in opposition to the development of new heresies. Perhaps More only because quite so devout in later life, and was not necessarily so in his earlier life.

The quip about the honesty of people in Europe is clearly funny, as the European monarchs (Henry VIII, Francis I of France, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who replaced Maximilian I in 1519) were probably the least honest and most deceptive of everyone. After the major peace summit at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 between the French and the English kings, they were soon at each other’s throats again and England moved instead into alliance with Charles V and the Holy Roman Empire. During Thomas More’s lifetime, and indeed Henry VIII’s reign, alliances changed every few years and there was almost always a war of some sort on the continent.

More discourses a lot on the value of the individual to the community, and what people should and shouldn’t do:

“While they are on the road, they carry no provisions with them; yet they want nothing, but are everywhere treated as if they were at home. If they stay in any place longer than a night, everyone follows his proper occupation, and is very well used by those of his own trade; but if any man goes out of the city to which he belongs, without leave, and is found rambling without a passport, he is severely treated, he is punished as a fugitive, and sent home disgracefully; and if he falls again into the like fault, is condemned to slavery.” (Book 2, Chapter 5)

The individual is portrayed as being essential to the running of the whole, but More also makes it very clear that the community as a whole will protect its individuals – it’s not everyone for himself like it is today. People support each other. But there are repercussions if you go somewhere unsanctioned, and the punishments seem over the top. Slavery, really? But maybe that’s just me. The modern view of slavery and an ideal society is probably very different to the Early Modern one. Slavery was still legal up until 1833 in England, and was considered to be making use of people who were considered to not be able to be useful in another way.

To conclude, Thomas More’s Utopia outlines the problems in Early Modern England, and proposes a new and ideal society. This was only a whistle-stop analysis of a very small section of it, but it’s clear even in a small section, why it appealed to an early Tudor society, even if More does seem hypocritical, based on his beliefs of later years.

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