Thomas More held the office of Lord Chancellor in the court of King Henry VIII during the Reformation period and became a leader of the Counter-Reformation persecuting Protestants. When King Henry VIII decided to found his own Anglican Church in 1532 and break from the Vatican More's position changed radically. He was now opposed to the Crown itself. False charges were soon brought against him. He underwent a mock trial and was executed in 1535.
Feudalism was the economic model of the time and the power was in the hands of the rich nobles while hard-worked peasants supported their lavish lifestyle. It was also the time of the Renaissance in Europe and the arts flourished, there was renewed enthusiasm for the classics of Greece and Rome and an interest in science and reason promoted by the humanist movement dominated by secular rather than ecclesiastical leadership. Their emphasis was on the dignity of humankind and the power of reason yet retaining Christian values. These writers criticised medieval religion and the feudalist regime in the name of Christian values. In 1517 Luther's 95 theses appeared on a church door in Wittenberg. This marked the start of the Protestant Reformation and religious as well as political conflict throughout Northern Europe.
Thomas More was a great friend of Erasmus, the most famous humanist thinker of the time. He wrote the best-known work in England of the Renaissance: Utopia (1516). Written in Latin, it deals with an ideal state that is inspired in Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics. It is a satirical work imitating the Greek writer Lucius admired by Erasmus and More. Renaissance humanism is perceived in its application of classical ideas to the politics of the time. Like Leonardo Bruni, More believed that ancient political ideas could create the ideal state. But More was also sceptical and used humanistic idealism to criticize contemporary society.
The opening of the book presents fictional documents with the intention of setting a base for the tale in real conversation and actions. Readers see the Utopian alphabet and some poetry which offer an insight into Utopia's lifestyle and values. This first poem underlines Utopian generosity, humility and interest in new ideas. The second poem sings the praises of that way of life and the idealisation of Utopian society.
In Book 1 More, portrayed as a character, and Gilles encounter a Portuguese mariner called Raphael Hythloday (Nonsense) who offers them his ideas on the problems and solutions of society and politics. He proposes the abolition of private property since the only possible path towards a just society is through communal ownership.
In Book 2 Raphael describes some details of life in Utopia which appears as an almost ideal society compared with the European society it is indirectly compared with. However, while More is using his fictional character to put forward his own views, at the same time the character More says he is not convinced about communist practises.
Raphael: “Though to speak plainly my real sentiments, I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily: not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable. Therefore when I reflect on the wise and good constitution of the Utopians — among whom all things are so well governed, and with so few laws; where virtue hath its due reward, and yet there is such an equality, that every man lives in plenty — when I compare with them so many other nations that are still making new laws, and yet can never bring their constitution to a right regulation, where notwithstanding everyone has his property; yet all the laws that they can invent have not the power either to obtain or preserve it, or even to enable men certainly to distinguish what is their own from what is another’s; of which the many lawsuits that every day break out, ....[Raphael then asserts that] the setting all upon a level was the only way to make a nation happy, which cannot be obtained so long as there is property: for when every man draws to himself all that he can compass, by one title or another, it must needs follow, that how plentiful soever a nation may be, yet a few dividing the wealth of it among themselves, the rest must fall into indigence. [….]
Thomas More: “On the contrary,” answered I, “it seems to me that men cannot live conveniently where all things are common: how can there be any plenty, where every man will excuse himself from labour?
In Utopia More brings together a variety of elements such as dialogues from Plato's Republic or the travel pamphlets of Amerigo Vespucci to compose his book about an ideal nation island.
It is a balanced narrative which dreams of an ideal society while More criticises the possibility of such an organisation in the discussions between himself and Hythloday. The discovery of the New World and its mythology gave More a basis on which to imagine a solution to the social and political problems of the emerging mercantile society in Europe where profit triumphed over human needs.
More is careful to distance himself from the views expressed in Utopia, perhaps because criticism of the status quo was not accepted in the autocratic regime he lived in. There are narrative shields between the author and the content, for instance the imaginary documentary evidence in Book 1 and of the fictional character, Hythloday/Nonsense, who describes Utopia in Book 2.
These narrative techniques make it difficult to discern whether More really agreed with the societal changes described in the book. This interpretative problem is compounded by the very name of the book. 'Utopia' which was coined by More from the Greek word meaning nowhere.
Utopia appears as a book that attempts to navigate a course through the ideal and the real, between a desire to create perfection and the pragmatic understanding that perfection, given the imperfection of humanity, is impossible.
Social Problems and Solutions
The questions raised in Utopia on social problems are various. What kind of political or juridical organisations should be set up to answer social questions? Are social problems solvable but unavoidable because of human nature? Should we recognise that changing social conditions will get rid of the problems?
In Book 1 the conversations approach these questions in different ways. The lawyer who has dinner with Hythloday cannot understand why capital punishment does not stop thieving but he hasn't stopped to analyse why thieves steal in the first place. Hythloday explains that since landowners maximise their profits many of their workers have been left unemployed and only survive through theft.
“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them... Instead of inflicting these horrible punishments, it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody's under the frightful necessity of becoming first a thief and then a corpse.”
Humanism strived to apply its ideals to the realities of everyday life. In Book 1 Hythloday is accused by More's character of being 'over academic'. More appears to insinuate that ideals are fine but to implement them you need to adapt them to the reality of a society dominated by power and greed.
In his book More insists that social institutions need to be scrutinised and that ideal conceptions can offer ways to change them. As a high-ranking government official More has to be seen in Utopia as critical of the recommendations of change. However, the book contrasts real social problems like poverty, crime and corruption with the ideal Utopian society. Even if the author does not believe in some of the solutions he at least offers new viewpoints on the social problems of his own society.
Society vs. Individualism
Hythloday speaks in favour of abolishing the right to private property and adds that the early Christians and the contemporary monasteries lived by this tenet. He argues that the elimination of private property would lessen individual pride which is at the source of crimes and abuses. By eliminating class hierarchies Utopia has got rid of poverty and unemployment. This is the opposite of a feudal society where poverty abounded and labour opportunities were unequally shared.
“for what justice is there in this: that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, that either does nothing at all, or, at best, is employed in things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendour upon what is so ill acquired, and a mean man, a carter, a smith, or a ploughman, that works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labours so necessary, that no commonwealth could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs? ”
The basic assumption in an utopian society is that people are untrustworthy. The inhabitants only obey civic rules through fear of punishment in the afterlife. This concern is what motivates opposition to private property which would divide the community. Reason is behind their rules and they are in favour of the rationally making common welfare a priority and achieving private interests by this means when possible. However, privacy is a taboo in Utopia and doors are made so as to allow access to anybody. It is considered criminal to discuss politics in private and political business must be conducted in the public sphere. For the common good the State even has the power to re-establish families according to population distribution.
Uniformity and dissent
Renaissance mythology painted the New World as a new Garden of Eden. However Utopia is not natural and had to be planned and crafted out laboriously by its founder Utopus. It was, however, an exercises in sameness, not diversity. The territory is urbanised with contiguous fields, not jungle. The cities resemble one another since the housing architecture is the same and clothing is blandly similar. Everyone works the same hours daily and the legal, religious and political practises are uniform. All 54 urban centres have "exactly the same language, customs, institutions, and laws." The European trend in More's time was to increase uniformity to consolidate the nation State. The Spanish crown wanted to establish one language from the many dialects in the Empire. France implemented regional administration with national taxes, public works and a national war effort. Henry VIII beheaded More himself in England for refusal to recognise his new Church. The contemporary nation State looked more like nationalised feudalism than a new beginning.
Moral education and the Greek concept of appreciation of justice, beauty and happiness are integral parts of Utopian society. Modelled on Plato's Republic the State is ruled by philosophers. Following the Roman tradition Utopians erect statues of their great ancestors as examples of virtue.
Athens looked favourably on individualism and privacy but the Roman concept of public citizen is the model in Utopia. The utopian citizen must be vigilant against tyranny. They are the pillars of a society which depends on the moral character of individuals. Both family and State educate the next generation in the values of society.
"They were most of them selected among the learned men, by their chief council; though some learned it of their own accord. In three years they became masters of the language, and could read the best Greek authors.
Indeed, I am inclined to think they learned the language more easily, from its having some analogy to their own. For I believe they were a colony of Greeks; and though their language more nearly resemble the Persian, they retain many names, both for their towns and magistrates, which are of Greek derivation. I happened to take out a large number of books, instead of merchandize, when I made my fourth voyage. For, so far from expecting to return so soon, I rather thought I should never return; and I gave them all my books, among which were many of Plato's and some of Aristotle's works. I had also Theophrastus on plants, which to my great regret was imperfect; for, having allowed it to lay-about while we were at sea, a monkey had found it and torn out many of the leaves. They have no grammarians, except Lascares, as I brought not Theodorus with me; and no dictionaries except Hesychius and Dioscorides. They highly esteem Plutarch, and were much taken with Lucian's wit, and his pleasant way of writing. Of the poets, they have Aristophanes, Homer, Euripides, and the Aldine edition of Sophocles; and of historians, Thucydides, Herodotus, and Herodian."
Parody vs. facts
Utopia is presented as a fictional work using the imaginary characters of Hythloday, Gilles and More himself. Utopia too is carefully staged as a fantasy of the imagination not a real place. The account is a fictional story which indirectly offers philosophical truths. Even Hythloday's central description of Utopia in Book 2 is framed between the introductory ideas of the letter in Book 1 and the final thoughts of the letter at the end. Fiction and truths are subtly intertwined to produce ambiguous interpretations for fear of reprisals.
The fictitious unreality of Utopia is underlined by the author through the names in the book: Utopia means nowhere, Amaurot, the main city means phantom, the river Anyder has no water, Ademus the ruler is a man with no people. In this way Utopia parodies the fraudulent contemporary New World adventure stories. Humour, parody and fictional characters also permit More to criticise the prevailing social order of corruption in Church practices, politics and societal malpractice.
The author explores his imagined world through the fictional travel of adventurers in the New World, in particular through the myth of Paradise. Utopia is a place of supposed perfection yet readers see that it is imperfect. More is in favour of pursuing perfection but he also observes social reality with the rational humanist mind.
The philosophical exploration in the book is based on the belief that discussion can start processes of social improvement. His Utopia is described a "medicine smeared with honey". Exploring the concept of a New World island makes serious philosophical comment easier to digest.
However, Utopia is more a mirror of England than of a New World island. It is a reflection of More's England with its private property. It is also a looking glass in which the readers can recognise themselves in society and imagine improvements.