Thomas More was the first to coin the word “utopia.” More was the son of a court judge, and a page to Archbishop Morton throughout his youth in London. He was profoundly affected not only by these two great gentlemen, but also by the philosophy of humanism that was spread by Erasmus during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe. As a result of More’s fanatical advocacy of socialism and communism, he was tried, and later executed on July 6th, 1535, at the age fifty-seven. Sir Thomas More is studied today as a leader of Renaissance literature in England because of his famous work Utopia, which was published in 1516. In his work, More creates an ideal society on an imaginary island in strange waters. The word “utopia” is best translated from the Greek as “a place that can never be” because a “utopia” is a perfect society; however, More was simply using this perfect society to satirize life in London during that time period. He was not proposing a solution to England’s ills.
Before Thomas More began writing his masterpiece, he was privileged to read several other works, which enabled him to write Utopia. Plato’s Republic, St. Augustine’s City of God, and the stories about Paradise and The Garden of Eden from the Book of Genesis profoundly influenced More. He was also inspired by several Renaissance reports he received from the Portuguese-owned “New World.” All of these influences led More “to confront all the serious evils of his day, religious, social, and political, but he considered philosophically their remedy, and that in a manner far in advance of the period at which he wrote… Utopia has been interpreted to condone every kind of political theory directed to the transference of power and wealth to self-styled reformers” (Warrington xii). More wanted to reform the society that he lived in; however, it was next to impossible to reform a society that had already been set in its ways. According to Thomas I. White, “More’s Utopia has been aptly described as a work that can be read in an evening but may take a lifetime to understand. One reason for this is that the book is built on the intellectual equivalent of a geological fault. The simple landscape suggested by Utopia’s structure and conception belies subterranean forces that push and pull the book in different directions. The resulting tensions may not lead to earthquakes, but they certainly erupt in dramatically different interpretations of More’s little classic” (White 37). Thus, it is difficult to know what More’s intentions were in writing Utopia.
Per Chad Walsh, noted critic and interpreter of utopian societies, “a utopia is often an oblique satire on the writer’s own society, though it need not be. It can represent simply his attempt to conceive of a perfect society… More offered Utopia as a guide to the improvement of an England that badly needed it. He wished to show that poverty, crime, cruel punishments, and invidious distinctions between classes are not in the order of nature, but are man’s doing, and that man could equally create a just and happy social order” (Walsh 26). He was offering one or two suggestions, but at the same time, he was also satirizing the foolish thoughts of some philosophers and politicians of the day. Yet, critics to this day have continually debated whether More’s Utopia was a satire on the way in which London society operated, or whether it was what he truly felt London society should try to mirror. One can agree, despite whatever contradictions there are to those who claim More’s Utopia was a satire, that England definitely needed some guidance during this period. It seems that More’s Utopia was read as a solution, though it was only meant to be a satire that had some valuable ideas.
While an ideal society seems to be the best solution to England’s problems, one cannot help but ponder why men would dream utopian dreams. “Man is an animal with an imagination; he can conceive of things that do not yet exist, [and] may never exist. Man has the curious and awesome ability to transcend himself and nature… There is also the theory that man once lived in a utopia, but does no longer, and that he is always trying to return. The name of this first utopia was Eden” (Walsh 29). It does not seem that whether or not man already lived in a utopia, or is simply wishing to live in one now, is the central thesis of More’s satire. The important questions still remain: How is Utopia a satire on English society? Is More merely showing men what he believes is the best way to rid London of its problems? Richard Marius has the answer. “More could not have created an ideal society with so many flaws that affronted liberal imagination. More had truly intended to cast Utopia as a dystopia, not a good place but a bad place, one where rule of reason had obliterated the gentler human virtues” (Marius 11). Although there were several seemingly perfect solutions throughout the contents of Utopia, it was not a ten-step program for London society during the sixteenth century. “Utopia [is] viewed as a prototype of the obverse genre, the dystopia. The paradigm More created simply lent itself ideally to satire, because the distance between his imaginary society and the society in which he lived enabled him to contrast the two” (Fox 12). “It is not a blueprint but a touchstone against which we try various ideas about both our times and the books to see what then comes of it all” (Marius 12). More’s work was indeed a satire on the many men who continually dreamed of living in a utopian society. He saw where English society was in comparison to where other countries and civilizations were, and knew that he had to create a society that would give its people ideas, but not build the specifics of the said society for them. Therefore, Utopia was merely a suggestion of ideas (one or two, not as an entirety) that could be conceived as helpful, tolerable and ideal.
In fact, “More’s own society was rigidly hierarchical and highly regulated, so Utopia may not have seemed as restrictive to him as it does to us. Thus, it is easy to understand why a writer would want to satirize a bad commonwealth” (Logan 8). In satirizing this commonwealth, More was simply presenting a society that was so perfect that it could not truly exist; however, people enjoy reading about ideal utopias because it gives them some kind of hope for the future. “It shows the best society not as a normative or prescriptive model but as actually achieved, as already in existence. Utopia is a description of the best (or, in anti-utopia, the worst) society not as an abstract ideal, and not simply as a satirical foil to the existing society in full operation in which we are invited vicariously to participate” (Kumar 25). “More published Utopia for the purpose of showing… the things that occasion mischief in commonwealths; having the English Constitution in view. The island of Utopia is, in fact, England. More designed [it] to show how England would look, and what shape her relations with abroad would assume, if she were communistically organized” (Kautsky 14). By participating in this communistic utopia, More is able to present a few suggestions, as well as ridiculous (meant to be taken as jocular, and nothing else) ideas, all the while discussing his semi-radical viewpoints on three major issues. The three specific aspects of utopian life that Sir Thomas More attacked in this satire were communism/socialism, religion and marriage/family.
More’s own socialistic outlook on society dates back to when he was arrested and executed for his beliefs. Richard Marius tells readers “ I believe that the answer to the questions in More’s own mind [about socialism] was not that we should create a communist society. But [he does] believe that part of the response that More intended was to make us at least ask the questions, for to question society is to see it, and we must see it before we can do anything to reform it” (Marius 5). Since their leader Utopus basically imposed communism upon the Utopians, one can assume that More was studying the idea that a communistic society is indeed the solution for London society. He was not suggesting this, but merely saying that the equality offered amongst a socialistic society would provide stability. More does include a section on how the Utopians change their houses every decade so that no one person gets accustomed to a higher standard than another; however, the houses are exactly identical according to the section on The Geography of Utopia. Marius later notes that “The communism of the utopia deserves another word to this generation that has seen this once mighty ideology crumble to dust in most places where it once seemed imperial, irresistible and eternal. I’ve [also] noted that the Utopians acted on the premise that to eliminate poverty, the entire economic and social order had to be radically rebuilt from the ground up. That was precisely the view of Karl Marx, but More and Marx came to radically different conclusions about what the social order would be if it were rebuilt” (Marius 8).
The idea of rebuilding the entire society from scratch comes along by way of Utopus, who senses that again, equality amongst the people can only be achieved when things are created from originality, not from existing lands. Unless man rebuilds everything he owns, there can be no sense of justice. Similar in the ideas of socialism and communism, man must work together to bring about the overwhelming outpouring of parity. Thus, More is not suggesting that communism is the only way to go – the “be-all, end-all” answer to the problems in London society; he is satirizing the idea that everything has to be destroyed (and rebuilt) in order to gain fairness and equality. London society was still heavily distinct amongst classes at the time. Marius writes that “to the middle-class people like ourselves, our messy and fragmented society looks good in comparison to Utopia. Here, More’s Augustinian conception of sinful humankind becomes burdensome to the soul, for in the Utopian commonwealth, individualism and privacy are threats to the state. I suspect that we see as clearly as anyone does in Utopia just why communism did not work. The weight of human depravity was simply too much to be balanced by eliminating private property” (Marius 5). A communistic society that contains laws saying that private property is not allowed in society will never last long. People have an inner need to own something, and More is pointing this out in Utopia; he laughs at those who want to take everything away from the people of English society. He basically tells the readers that if such a thing were to occur, they should beware of an outbreak of war.
He concludes by showing how much the Utopians are afraid of war. Exactly. They are so afraid of war that it is necessary to have such a militaristic society with communism at the helm in their society; however, it would not work in London society. According to Kenyon, “More argues [that] men could attain salvation only if temptation were first to be removed. Given this, it was evident to More that social institutions required radical emendation. Consequently, in Utopia, More is to be discovered proposing a series of alternative arrangements such as communism which, he hoped, might remove the temptation of sinfulness presented by existing institutions such as private property” (Kenyon 54). More thought that some of the socialistic views would work in English society, but he knew that London was not ready for an overhaul. He thus satirized what it would be like if England were communistic. There would not be a single freedom such as private property. Just as communism was a seriously discussed issue as one solution for a utopian society, so were the fundamental laws of religion.
“More posits in Utopia a set of social institutions designed to reduce temptation, limit available choices, and channel the will in a requisite direction. The question of whether by living under such constraining institutions individuals nevertheless exercise free will is not developed by More to the extent that it might be” (Kenyon 58). Thus free will , as in the free will to choose whatever religion you want to follow, is a prime target for satire in this work. At the time when More lived, there were many ongoing debates over Puritanism, Catholicism, Protestantism, etc. “The discussion of religion presented in Utopia generates a problem not least because we are informed that although they do not subscribe to full-fledged sixteenth-century Catholicism, the Utopians follow a religion that in terms both of its doctrines and its externals maintains several important prescriptive recommendations relevant to the salvation of Christians” (Kenyon 97). In Utopia, all can practice a religion of any form that they wish. They are required only to attend a church service, which operates in the same manner as a college campus mass does. All of those that attend can take from the service what they wish to since there is no one supreme denomination in the city of Utopia. After More’s struggles with a corrupt church, no wonder he would satirize his experience with religion. “Since Utopians live according to the law of nature, they are not Christian. Indeed they practice a form of religious tolerance – as they must is they are to be both reasonable and willing to accept Christianity when it is announced to them” (Marius 3). “The practices and externals of religious observation are apparently of less moment to utopian theology. Certainly, the formalities of medieval Catholicism are reflected in Utopian practices. On this facet of religious life More’s position is undoubtedly speculative. It is evident that at least a certain amount of revision would be necessary to accommodate some of these offices to the introduction of Christianity” (Kenyon 99). Therefore, it is obvious that Utopia could not be a solution to the problems in society; More himself had no idea how to solve the religious tensions and corruption that was ongoing in the churches in English society. It would be nice if everyone was tolerant of another’s religion, and no one fought to the death with others over which was the true religion; that is pointless though. There are no answers. More knew this, which is why he proposed a solution that was impossible. He was showing others the stupidity of such a belief that there could be one supreme god who created everything, thus he satirizes said beliefs. He had no choice but to present an idea or two, but again, he did not suggest that the Utopian’s religious ways were a solution. Either did he try to solve every one of the problems in London society concerning marriage and divorce.
“The apparent disparity between Utopian religious tolerance and the Lord Chancellor’s rigor has already been touched upon. But how do you account for such Utopian institutions as euthanasia and divorce, both forbidden by the Church for which More died. Or for tactics like subornation of treason, assassination of enemy rulers, and forcible annexation of foreign lands the natural resources of which, in Utopian judgment, have been insufficiently exploited” (Nelson 9)? To insure that people would not want to get divorced because they are no longer happy with the appearance of their spouse, More suggests that the bride and groom be allowed to see each other naked before the ceremony. Therefore, they will know what they are getting themselves into prior to marriage. If they re happy with what they see, the marriage will take place, and there is no case for dishonesty. However, if they did not see the other person naked prior to marriage, then a case could be made for dishonesty if that person were hideously scarred. There is no way that More could logically suggest the idea of seeing a prospective spouse naked before marriage when society at the time frowned on nudity. It was a disgrace to reveal even more than one’s face when in public. More would be condemned for life if he seriously thought he could get away with proposing nudity as a solution to unhappiness. Even today, nearly five hundred years later, nudity in public is still considered disgraceful. Society will almost never be ready for such a thing. More was simply laughing at the many ways in which people tried to avoid the problems of life when he proposed such an idea of nudity prior to marriage. If More had written a handbook, like The Prince, on how to behave and what society should look like, his solution would truly be that people should just deal with their problems in a dignified manner rather than propose such outlandish practices. There is no way to avoid such a problem in life. Life is not perfect. Life is not a utopia, as More would say.
However, the “average human behavior in Utopia is considerably higher than in the rest of the world. Yet even in Utopia, with its splendid education, More thinks it necessary to provide a system of criminal justice: human nature is such that no matter what nurture it receives, some fraction of individuals will always be criminals” (Logan 37). Man may have had an innate goodness in such a society according to More and Logan, but it was not absolute. There were still laws necessary to keep people in line. People needed to be protected legally from deception beforehand. One other interesting aspect of Utopian life that parallels real life is that “after The Fall [in Eden], man was exposed to the prospect of temptation and deadly sin. By contrast, More responds to this situation in Utopia by posting a strict moral code which… he also saw as the inherent inferiority of the female sex” (Kenyon 66). Women were still considered of a lower class in Utopian society. More would have elevated their status if he were truly proposing a new way of life. Instead, he keeps them “where they belong” according to people of the time. Therefore, More was again, not providing the concrete plans on “how to eliminate problems,” but laying the foundation in order to show people how to laugh at themselves when things go wrong. There will never be complete equality; More was trying to parody such a philosophy.
“In all [of] these ways, More showed himself, and his Utopia, to be the product of a new age. His Utopia has a rationalism and a realism that we associate typically with the classical revival of the Renaissance, and that are to be found equally in the architectural utopias of fifteenth and sixteenth-century Italy… Utopia is a fiction whereby the truth, as if smeared with honey, might a little more pleasantly slide into men’s minds” (Kumar 21). More cast his utopian society as one in which life was perfect and ideal, thus it had to be considered satirical since there is no such thing as perfection. By sugarcoating his views and ideas, he was able to create a utopian land that affected humankind more than he expected. He could show mankind how foolish their thoughts were on trying to perfect and correct everything that was wrong with society. A little error can sometimes keep things more in balance. If everything and everyone were perfect, what would man have to strive for? Why would they exist? More was simply presenting a satirical solution to society that he never meant to assume the role of the “be-all, end-all” problem-solver.
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