New Historian


Thomas More

<![CDATA['Utopia' by Thomas More stands as one of the most influential and ambiguous works of political theory. Its title has been adopted into the English language as representative of a perfect society or place. The description of a completely imagined world was far ahead of its time, and essentially inspired a whole host of utopian and dystopian literature. Even today, the meaning of the work is debated as academics try to pinpoint exactly what More was trying to express. Thomas More is inextricably linked to the Renaissance. He was very much an example of the period's humanist tradition, and one of its most influential figures. He was born in 1478 and educated at Oxford University. He built a reputation as an extremely competent lawyer, while also becoming a well respected historian, philosopher and writer. Alongside Utopia, he also wrote a History of King Richard III and several works on religion and the Church. In 1518 he entered the service of Henry VIII, becoming the Chancellor of England in 1529. This time working for Henry highlights one of the greatest dilemmas in More's life. More was a deeply religious Catholic, to the extent that he followed monastic practices such as extended prayer and fasting, despite not being a monk himself. More's employment for the king came at the time of the Protestant Reformation of the Catholic Church throughout Europe. The process started by Martin Luther in Germany in 1517, soon spread to England. Henry decided that it would be beneficial for him to break from Vatican control, so he could divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon. The Act of Supremacy made Henry the head of the Church of England in 1534. More, who had campaigned against the Reformation since its beginning, refused to attend the wedding of Henry to his new wife, Anne Boleyn. This ultimately led to More's execution for treason in 1535, despite having personally disproved the fabricated charges bought against him. Similar to Plato's Republic, Utopia takes the form of a fictional philosophical conversation. The first book, Dialogue of Counsel, is a discussion between More, Peter Giles (a humanist thinker) John Morton (Cardinal of England) and a world traveller called Raphael Hythloday. The men debate the worth of providing counsel to a prince, and the difficulties in changing people's preconceptions. The second book, 'Discourse on Utopia,' has Hythloday describe the Utopian civilisation in great detail. Among the most significant details are equal rights for men and women, an absence of private property, and great prosperity. Utopia is a society that has no real class distinctions, tolerates all religious beliefs and has little inclination for war. Hythloday describes Utopia as superior to any European country, something the men debate without reaching a definite conclusion. It is never clear in the book whether More is an advocate for the Utopian society. The title he chose comes from a Greek word which means both 'good place' and 'nowhere.' This double meaning is probably intentional, with the suggestion that such a place does not exist important. The characters debate the merits of a society run by philosophers, as is the case in Utopia. No conclusions are reached, but the suggestion would seem to be that this is an impossible ideal. The changes that would be needed to achieve a society in Europe similar to Utopia could never happen, as the fabric of society could never be adequately changed. Utopia is perhaps best viewed as a means to start a debate. It deliberately describes a world that would have been completely alien to its readers. No conclusions are made as to whether Utopia is better or worse than sixteenth century Europe. The point seems to be that readers think about the Utopian society as a point of comparison to evaluate their own.

Related Books

Vol. 1Vol. 1
by Thomas More

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