Focus Question: How does More comment on his times through Utopia? Syllabusoutcome: Describe the interrelationship between the religious environment andthe 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 Iwas letting myself in for. The book is so complex and there are so manyconflicting ideas and interpretations that for a time I considered changing toan easier topic. However, Utopia is a fascinating book and gives an insight inEuropean society just prior to the Reformation – obviously a time of majorupheaval. My initial focus question was : How does Thomas More demonstrate inhis book “Utopia” the hypocrisy of Christianity throughout the middleages and how does he comment on possible solutions. However this question wasmuch too broad and I felt that I was missing the whole point of the text and theinsight it gives.
So I modified the question to “How does Thomas Morecomment on his times through Utopia. ” Commentaries on Utopia were fairlyhard to come by as shown in my diary, though I did find some useful texts. Themovie “a man for all seasons” also gave an interesting insight intothe life of Thomas More. It must also be said that interviews with experts werepractically impossible as literary critics are few and far between and Utopia isno longer a source of inspiration to many people. Overall Utopia was afascinating topic for research and I enjoyed learning more about it.
All writersare 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 throughoutEurope. Furthermore, The Christian church was experiencing a period of greatuncertainty and hypocrisy. Utopia was published in 1516; one year before Lutherposted his 95 theses at Witenberg and the reformation officially began. Therefore, More wrote at a time when there was great poverty amongst theoppressed serfs.
The Church was becoming increasingly corrupt, greedy rulerswere waging wars throughout Europe to fulfill their own petty ambitions and therenaissance was causing a cultural uprising. Resultantly Utopia was a product ofreligious, social and cultural upheaval. As Erasmus once claimed in The Praiseof Folly (1511), “contemporary pontiffs instead of being the vicars ofChrist, had become the deadliest enemies of the Church, striving ceaselesslyafter wealth, honours, and countless pleasures, even stooping to fight with fireand sword to preserve their privileges. ” When this work is juxtaposed withLuther’s 95 theses and especially More’s Utopia it becomes apparent that thesekey intellectuals were deeply dissatisfied with the church.
Central to theirideas was the concept that faith alone, grace alone and Scripture alonejustified a place in heaven without the purchasing of indulgences. The sellingof indulgences was a practice whereby money was paid to guarantee salvation. Inthis way the Church amassed great wealth at the expense of the peasantry. Thusreligious greed compounded social difficulties and made poverty and crime anacute problem which is considered by More in Utopia. In book 1, he considerswhat is wrong with civilisation.
Especially with regard to the severity of thepenal code and the unequal distribution of wealth. More, through his imaginarycharacter Hythloday claims that the death penalty for stealing is too harsh andthat he would much prefer to seek remedies that would eliminate the causes ofstealing. He further describes how, that in the social context of 16th CenturyEurope men were forced to steal out of desperation and starvation. He arguesthat “the system was fundamentally faulty. . .
in which non-productivenoblemen maintained non-productive flunkeys while forcing the common labourersto drudge in abject poverty. ” Furthermore, More makes a comment on thelegal system of the times through discussing the Utopian legal system in whichthe laws are such that the simplest meaning is always correct, such that thereare no need for lawyers and there are no loop holes in the law. Hence people candefend themselves regardless of their intellectual capactity. More then commentson the legal system of the time through the imaginary character Hythloday.
Heclaims ” in fact, when I consider any social system that prevails in themodern world, I can’t, so help me God, see it as anything but a conspiracy ofthe rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organising society. ” More also makes mention of that “blessed nuisance money. ” TheUtopians despise money. “When money itself ceases to be useful, all greedfor 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 contrastssharply with the aristocrats love of money. More claimed through the imaginarycharacter Hythloday In a cultural context, More writes with an air ofexpectation as he believes that Europe is on the verge of a new age. “Tomen like More and Erasmus, humanism seemed to promise it. .
. Humanism itself was amanifestation of something still larger: a general renovation of the humanspirit and its creative impulses. ” The term humanist referred to thosestudents of classical learning and literature, particularly to those whofavoured a new curricular influence on ethics, history and poetry as studied inancient Greece and Rome rather than the trivialities of the current scholarlysystem. More’s humanist affiliation can be seen from the fact that in many waysUtopia has a connection with Plato’s republic, for example in Book 1, Morebegins his book in the form of a debate just as Plato had done.
Also, it meantthat there was somewhat of a power struggle between the humanists and theconservative elites who wished to preserve the privileged position. Essentiallythrough Utopia, More describes both his optimism and cynicism as Europe movestowards a new age. By creating an imaginary Utopia he is satirising thecorruption in the church and aristocracy and pushing for humanist reform. Itwould be easy to read Utopia as simply that, a perfect place and something tomove toward. However there is much more to Utopia then this and when consideredin the religious, social and cultural context of the times it is a call forindividual repentance. It does not pretend to know the answers to problems andits attempts at solutions often seem ridiculous.
Yet it does provide an insightinto this major period of upheaval in Europe. More’s epitaph reads”troublesome to heretics,” yet he wrote of “the community ofproperty, the abolition of private property and the universal obligation tolabour- which are today generally associated with socialism. ” Furthermore,More “a devout catholic. .
. advocated such things as Euthanasia, the marriageof priests, divorce by mutual consent on the grounds of incompatibility andreligious toleration. ” Some literary critics claim that More is making apoint that even the Utopians, despite advocating matters such as Euthanasiaacted better towards each other than Europeans. Therefore More is commenting onthe extent of European wickedness. Others claim that More had Utopia in mind asa positive ideal to work towards, though his epitaph would contradict this. Morewas confused by both the optimism and pessimism, the prosperity and poverty ofthe age.
The contradictions in his writing demonstrate this. Utopia is thereforea complex work to say the least. Whilst it tries to give a description of anideal society it also satirising the corruption within European society. Thisgenre has been used by other writers such as Orwell, Huxley and Atwood tocomment on society in their own times using More’s subtle blend of insinuationand political satire.
“That Utopia does not attempt a final solution of theproblems of human society – for More was to wise to attempt the impossible – butit contains an appeal addressed to all of us, which allows of no refusal, thatwe should try to do each one his share to mend our own selves and ease theburden of our fellow-men, to improve man-kind and prepare for the world to come. ” Therefore, despite all the difficulties in interpreting Utopia, More isultimately calling on European society to change their ways for the bettermentof human-kind, and his principles on religious plurality and social welfare wereforward thinking. Many of the problems he addresses still plague society today.