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Sir Thomas More and Utopia
One of my favorite movies of all time is Ever After: A Cinderella Story. It is a 1998 film adaption of the fairy tale Cinderella and stars Drew Barrymore as the lead female character named Danielle de Barbarac. Danielle’s mother dies very early in her life and as a result Danielle and her father are very close. Her father remarries a baroness with two daughters. Shortly after, her father dies of a heart attack. Danielle now has very few possessions to call her own: a beautiful gown and slippers that had belonged to her mother, the loyalty of the manor's three remaining servants, and her father's copy of Utopia, by Thomas More.
The story ends happily ever after, with Danielle marrying the handsome prince and ridding of her terrible step-mother and step-sisters. The one thing I wanted to know more about in the movie was the book Danielle’s father gave her. Why was Utopia so inspiring to her? Who was the man who wrote this book? Was the book fiction or fact? After reading my syllabus for History 101, I knew right away that I’d like to find out more about Thomas More and Utopia.
Thomas More was more than just an author. He was also a lawyer and statesman. Throughout his lifetime, More earned a reputation as a leading humanist scholar and occupied many public offices, including that of Lord Chancellor from 1529 to 1532. He was married twice and had five children, including one adoptive child. More was a devoted father and husband and cared deeply for his family. His writings and novels sometimes contrasted with what people thought were his personal religious beliefs.
In October 1529, King Henry VIII appointed More to Lord Chancellor after Cardinal Wolsey failed to convince Pope Clement VII to give the King an annulment of his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon. Henry began to convince himself that the Pope was only the Bishop of Rome and therefore had no authority of the Christian Church as a whole. More was fully devoted to Henry until then, and fully cooperated with the King’s new policy.
More absolutely hated heresy. He thought it was a threat to peace and unity of both society and the church. According to an article from Masters of World Literature, he did all he could to prevent the spread of Lutheranism, including “burning at least six people at the stake and imprisoning as many as forty others” (par. 6). Many people thought More’s actions against heretics were too violent and torturous, but he strongly denied these allegations.
As the King continued to deny authority to the Pope, More’s doubts grew. In the early 1530’s, he made a few decisions that would anger the King to a point of extreme measures. First he refused to sign a letter asking the Pope to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine. He then asked to resign after being forced to take an oath declaring Henry VIII as the supreme head of the English church. The King finally granted his request when More told him he was suffering from chest pains.
The last straw for Henry came in 1533 when More decided not to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn as the Queen of England. More did not technically do an act of treason because he wrote the King a letter acknowledging Anne’s queenship and expressing his happiness and congratulations. However his failure to attend the coronation was widely interpreted as a failure to acknowledge her. After failing to take another oath declaring the King as the head of the Church of England, More was convicted of what could be considered false crimes against the King and he was imprisoned. After what is widely thought to be a biased trial, More was convicted of high treason and sentenced to be beheaded.
Throughout his life, More always stood up for what he believed in and he proved to be steadfast and courageous. Although his death was because of treason, it is commonly thought by historians and especially Roman Catholics that More was a great man and did not deserve the death that King Henry VIII declared of him. Thomas Helm, author of an article from Great Thinkers of the Western World, writes:
The years between 1509 and 1520 were exceptionally important ones for More's contribution to literature and the general cause of international humanism. It was during these years that he wrote the History of Richard III, and it was this period that saw More emerge as a humanist of international stature. He also found himself cast in the part of the defender of Erasmus's Greek New Testament and Praise of Folly against Erasmus's conservative critics. Of all his literary achievements during this humanist phase of his career, the greatest, and most famous, in his own day and in ours was the Utopia (par. 3).
I feel that this quote explains how important More’s contribution to world literature has been. This is exactly why I picked Utopia to research. I’m very interested in finding the reason behind his writings.
Sixteenth century England was a time of religious, social and economic unrest. Thomas More started writing Utopia in 1515 when he was 37 years old. In the book, most people think that More was trying to contrast the un-orderly life of European states with the perfectly orderly and sensible social arrangements of the Utopia and even its surrounding lands. According to an article from Masterpieces of World Literature, “How to make a better world for men to live in has fascinated the minds of thinkers in every age. From Plato to the present day, men have been thinking and writing about what the world would be like if men could create an earthly paradise” (par.4).
I feel like Thomas more had a different way of expressing his dislike of sixteenth century England. In Utopia, the practices of the residents were very non-realistic and in some ways humorous, but it was sort of enchanting to think about people living so peacefully.
Utopia was originally written in Latin and it depicts a fictional island society and its religious, political and social customs. There are many educated interpretations on what the word Utopia means. The interpretations are something along the lines of “a perfect society” or “good place land.” It is suggested that More got the idea to write the book from Erasmus, when they jointly translated some of Lucian’s works from Greek into Latin.
The book is in two parts; Book 1: Dialogue of Counsel and Book 2: Discourse on Utopia. The book tells of a traveler named Raphael Hythloday who travels to Utopia, which is placed in the New World. More links Raphael’s travels in with Amerigo Vespucci’s real life voyages of discovery. Raphael travels even further than Vespucci’s men and finds Utopia. Thomas Helms suggests:
[More] was committed to giving form to humanist values in the interest of social reformation and religious renewal. Making use of his inventive powers, More thus has his fictive Hythloday narrate the story of an imaginary island and its republic of virtuous pagans who live in a state of nature and have the advantage of reason alone to guide their affairs (par. 10).
There is no private ownership in Utopia, with goods being stored in warehouses and people requesting what they need. There are also no locks on the doors of houses, which are rotated between citizens every ten years. Women do the same work as men and every citizen must learn at least one essential trade. Slavery is also featured in Utopia and it is reported that every household has two slaves. The slaves are either from another country or Utopian criminals. There are several religions on the island as well.
Most people have ideas but really do not know why Thomas More wrote Utopia. Many of the ideas in the book, such as married and women priests seem to be polar opposite of More’s beliefs, being the devout Catholic he was. The concept on religious toleration is very different than what we’ve seen with More in his role as Lord Chancellor. This was when I came to realize that I believed the book was some sort of satire. Why would a man who burned people at a stake for being Protestant write a novel about some society where all religions lived together in harmony if it wasn’t a big joke? There was also the concept of women being priests and priests being married. I became very aware of the satirical nature of the book after reading about More’s lifestyle and beliefs.
What is the particular attraction to Utopia? D.B. Fenlon answers this question in his article, “England and Europe: Utopia and Its Aftermath”. Fenlon says:
Utopia is a political satire. It is a society so organized as to subvert property and rank. Property, according to the argument of Utopia, promotes pride, which in turn governs the institutions of a normally Christian Europe. The Utopians have removed the roots of pride. Organized as a society where property is held in common, Utopia enjoys conditions favourable to the promotion of justice, piety, and peace (par. 12).
Obviously More new that English society could never be like Utopian society and he must have found that quite amusing.
The politics of Utopia have been influential to the ideas of Anabaptism, Mormonism and Communism. While utopian socialism was used to describe the first concepts of socialism, later Marxist theorists tended to see the ideas as too naive and not grounded on realistic principles. The religious message in the work and its uncertain, satiric tone has also separated some theorists from the work. An applied example of More's Utopia can be seen in Vasco de Quiroga's implemented society in Michoacán, Mexico, which was directly taken and adapted from More's work.
The great difficulty of irony is that we can’t always be sure when the ironic writer or speaker is being serious and when he is being funny. We find that difficulty in Utopia. Edward Hall, the great chronicler of English history of More's time wrote, "For undoubtedly he beside his learning had a great wit, but it was so mingled with taunting and mocking that it seemed to them that best knew him, that he thought nothing to be well spoken except he had ministered some mock in the communication."
The historical Thomas More was an extraordinarily complicated man who tied up all the threads of his life in his heroic death. The Utopia is the sort of complicated book that we should expect from so complicated a man. It is heavy with irony, but then irony was the experience of life in the Sixteenth Century. Everywhere--in church, government, society, and even scholarship--profession and practice stood separated by a void.
Fenlon, D. B. “England and Europe: Utopia and Its Aftermath.”
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th Ser., Vol. 25. (1975), pp. 115-135.
Helm, Thomas E. "Thomas More." Great Thinkers of the Western World
(Annual 1999): 145. General OneFile. Eastern Michigan University.
13 Mar. 2008 .
More, Thomas. Utopia. New York: Norton & Company, 1992.
Sanderlin, George. “The Meaning of Thomas More's Utopia”. College English.
Vol. 12, No. 2. (Nov., 1950), pp. 74-77. < http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0010-0994%28195011%2912%3A2%3C74%3ATMOTM%22%3E2.0.CO%3B2-F>
"Utopia." Masterpieces of World Literature (Edition 1989): 916(2).
General OneFile. Eastern Michigan University. 13 Mar. 2008
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"Sir Thomas More And Utopia." 123HelpMe.com. 07 Mar 2014