Utopia By More Essay

Focus Question: How does More comment on his times through Utopia? Syllabus
outcome: Describe the interrelationship between the religious environment and
the social and cultural context on which the literature draws. Introduction:
When I chose to review Utopia, I can honestly say that I had no idea of what I
was letting myself in for. The book is so complex and there are so many
conflicting ideas and interpretations that for a time I considered changing to
an easier topic. However, Utopia is a fascinating book and gives an insight in
European society just prior to the Reformation – obviously a time of major
upheaval. My initial focus question was : How does Thomas More demonstrate in
his book “Utopia” the hypocrisy of Christianity throughout the middle
ages and how does he comment on possible solutions. However this question was
much too broad and I felt that I was missing the whole point of the text and the
insight it gives. So I modified the question to “How does Thomas More
comment on his times through Utopia.” Commentaries on Utopia were fairly
hard to come by as shown in my diary, though I did find some useful texts. The
movie “a man for all seasons” also gave an interesting insight into
the life of Thomas More. It must also be said that interviews with experts were
practically impossible as literary critics are few and far between and Utopia is
no longer a source of inspiration to many people. Overall Utopia was a
fascinating topic for research and I enjoyed learning more about it. All writers
are influenced by the times in which they live and Thomas More was no exception.

He wrote Utopia during a time of great upheaval and expectation throughout
Europe. Furthermore, The Christian church was experiencing a period of great
uncertainty and hypocrisy. Utopia was published in 1516; one year before Luther
posted his 95 theses at Witenberg and the reformation officially began.

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Therefore, More wrote at a time when there was great poverty amongst the
oppressed serfs. The Church was becoming increasingly corrupt, greedy rulers
were waging wars throughout Europe to fulfill their own petty ambitions and the
renaissance was causing a cultural uprising. Resultantly Utopia was a product of
religious, social and cultural upheaval. As Erasmus once claimed in The Praise
of Folly (1511), “contemporary pontiffs instead of being the vicars of
Christ, had become the deadliest enemies of the Church, striving ceaselessly
after wealth, honours, and countless pleasures, even stooping to fight with fire
and sword to preserve their privileges. ” When this work is juxtaposed with
Luther’s 95 theses and especially More’s Utopia it becomes apparent that these
key intellectuals were deeply dissatisfied with the church. Central to their
ideas was the concept that faith alone, grace alone and Scripture alone
justified a place in heaven without the purchasing of indulgences. The selling
of indulgences was a practice whereby money was paid to guarantee salvation. In
this way the Church amassed great wealth at the expense of the peasantry. Thus
religious greed compounded social difficulties and made poverty and crime an
acute problem which is considered by More in Utopia. In book 1, he considers
what is wrong with civilisation. Especially with regard to the severity of the
penal code and the unequal distribution of wealth. More, through his imaginary
character Hythloday claims that the death penalty for stealing is too harsh and
that he would much prefer to seek remedies that would eliminate the causes of
stealing. He further describes how, that in the social context of 16th Century
Europe men were forced to steal out of desperation and starvation. He argues
that “the system was fundamentally faulty…in which non-productive
noblemen maintained non-productive flunkeys while forcing the common labourers
to drudge in abject poverty. ” Furthermore, More makes a comment on the
legal system of the times through discussing the Utopian legal system in which
the laws are such that the simplest meaning is always correct, such that there
are no need for lawyers and there are no loop holes in the law. Hence people can
defend themselves regardless of their intellectual capactity. More then comments
on the legal system of the time through the imaginary character Hythloday. He
claims ” in fact, when I consider any social system that prevails in the
modern world, I can’t, so help me God, see it as anything but a conspiracy of
the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organising society.

” More also makes mention of that “blessed nuisance money.” The
Utopians despise money. “When money itself ceases to be useful, all greed
for it is also entirely submerged; then what a heap of troubles is leveled down,
what a crop of enormities is pulled up by the roots.” This contrasts
sharply with the aristocrats love of money. More claimed through the imaginary
character Hythloday In a cultural context, More writes with an air of
expectation as he believes that Europe is on the verge of a new age. “To
men like More and Erasmus, humanism seemed to promise it…Humanism itself was a
manifestation of something still larger: a general renovation of the human
spirit and its creative impulses. ” The term humanist referred to those
students of classical learning and literature, particularly to those who
favoured a new curricular influence on ethics, history and poetry as studied in
ancient Greece and Rome rather than the trivialities of the current scholarly
system. More’s humanist affiliation can be seen from the fact that in many ways
Utopia has a connection with Plato’s republic, for example in Book 1, More
begins his book in the form of a debate just as Plato had done. Also, it meant
that there was somewhat of a power struggle between the humanists and the
conservative elites who wished to preserve the privileged position. Essentially
through Utopia, More describes both his optimism and cynicism as Europe moves
towards a new age. By creating an imaginary Utopia he is satirising the
corruption in the church and aristocracy and pushing for humanist reform. It
would be easy to read Utopia as simply that, a perfect place and something to
move toward. However there is much more to Utopia then this and when considered
in the religious, social and cultural context of the times it is a call for
individual repentance. It does not pretend to know the answers to problems and
its attempts at solutions often seem ridiculous. Yet it does provide an insight
into this major period of upheaval in Europe. More’s epitaph reads
“troublesome to heretics,” yet he wrote of “the community of
property, the abolition of private property and the universal obligation to
labour- which are today generally associated with socialism.” Furthermore,
More “a devout catholic…advocated such things as Euthanasia, the marriage
of priests, divorce by mutual consent on the grounds of incompatibility and
religious toleration. ” Some literary critics claim that More is making a
point that even the Utopians, despite advocating matters such as Euthanasia
acted better towards each other than Europeans. Therefore More is commenting on
the extent of European wickedness. Others claim that More had Utopia in mind as
a positive ideal to work towards, though his epitaph would contradict this. More
was confused by both the optimism and pessimism, the prosperity and poverty of
the age. The contradictions in his writing demonstrate this. Utopia is therefore
a complex work to say the least. Whilst it tries to give a description of an
ideal society it also satirising the corruption within European society. This
genre has been used by other writers such as Orwell, Huxley and Atwood to
comment on society in their own times using More’s subtle blend of insinuation
and political satire. “That Utopia does not attempt a final solution of the
problems of human society – for More was to wise to attempt the impossible – but
it contains an appeal addressed to all of us, which allows of no refusal, that
we should try to do each one his share to mend our own selves and ease the
burden of our fellow-men, to improve man-kind and prepare for the world to come.

” Therefore, despite all the difficulties in interpreting Utopia, More is
ultimately calling on European society to change their ways for the betterment
of human-kind, and his principles on religious plurality and social welfare were
forward thinking. Many of the problems he addresses still plague society today.


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