Utopia By Tomas Moore Essay, Research Paper
St. Thomas More is probably one of the most respected figures of the late Renaissance era. Catholics and Non-Catholics alike look to More at least on a literary level. Therefore, what better way is there to honor his greatest work than by writing about it? However, we must also keep in mind that Utopia is his (Thomas More’s) most misunderstood writing (Campbell 25).
Throughout this paper, I wish to cover some major questions that I have concerning the text. Any study on the greatest work of St. Thomas More must include what he means by what he writes, but then again, it is not my main concern and so will take up only a fraction of the overall paper. One of the questions that I plan to take significant amount of time on concerns why Utopia was written, which is not necessarily answered by statements in the first book. I also wish to delve into what is the major theme of the work, which will tie into why he wrote the book. Another major question is how and if More’s work relates to the Renaissance period as a whole. And to prove that Utopia is a work of hope toward the Christian ideal of living together in peace.
We know that More probably came up with the idea for Utopia in the summer of 1515 and that he allowed it to develop in his mind until the fall of 1516 when it was published. The vast majority of the book was written in the Netherlands in 1515 while Thomas More was a member of a mission sent by Henry VIII to negotiate with Prince Charles’ representatives. The remainder of the book, book one, was finished in England in September 1516 (Hexter 15). There are two different opinions concerning Utopia that I would like to bring to attention. There are those who claim that Thomas More intended Utopia to be a comedy of sorts or at least a way of getting people to take their mind off their troubles. Then there is the other view that I prefer: he wrote the book for the elite class, for he feared that if the common people read it then it would be completely misunderstood. They claim that since More never published his work in the vernacular he never meant it to be put in the vernacular, hence, to not be read by those who were not scholars or at least a master of Latin.
I think he had a number of reasons for writing Utopia, one being the major theme, which will be discussed at great lengths later, as well as, his views on Renaissance society. His dominant theme is most definitely the brunt of the second book, but I think the first book deals with the problems that he sees in England in the early part of the sixteenth century. One of the issues I believe that he wants to bring to the eyes of people is the plight of the humble philosopher. I see the dialogue between Raphael and Thomas to be really a conversation between Thomas and his sub-conscience. His sub-conscience is telling him that he must continue to be the philosopher and push for the right way, but then his practical side is being very pessimistic and trying to say that a philosopher will never be listened too, for his ideas are considered too interested in the common good not the good of the monarchy. Another issue that he wants to address in Utopia is definitely a strong stance against capital punishment in lesser crimes, such as robbery. He wants to tell us that we need to begin to look not just at the act or sin, but to look at the reasons behind such injustices and fix that problem. But let us now turn our attention to the theme of Thomas’s writing.
Now that we have finished our discussion about some of the smaller themes in Utopia, it forces us to go into his major theme or idea about Utopia and the real reason why he wrote it. His major theme is at the very heart of what this paper is meant to be about. I am tired of only knowing what this literary or that historian has to say about Utopia. I want to know what St. Thomas More has to say about Utopia, for it is important to get that right so that we may build upon it.
To start off this section I would like to quote J.H. Hexter because I cannot put it into any better words than what he has already done. “As its title hints, the essay which follows is not the history but the biographical sketch of an idea, the idea for the book called Utopia. Like all ideas for books it was born and had its whole life span in the mind of an author. Like all such ideas it ceased to be when the printed book Utopia became a black-on-white reality. At that moment the author’s idea for the book no longer controlled its content, and a new, different, and collective biography begins-the biography of other people’s ideas about what Utopia meant (Hexter 3).” In this section that is what I plan to do, not tell you what other people say More meant, but to actually tell you what More meant.
The theme of Thomas More’s Utopia is not a very easy thing to figure out, for Thomas More seems to have a way of being ambiguous about his own thoughts. There is a predominant view that hails More as the predecessor of Karl Marx; whilst there is another group that sees Thomas More more as an idealist who wished for only a few of the things that he wrote to be implemented; yet there are some who claim More as a staunch defender of private property, a.k.a. Capitalism. But it is my opinion that none of these get at the real heart of what Thomas was writing about. I believe that the theme of Utopia is that we must follow the Christian example of living together in peace and harmony. I do not believe that St. Thomas More really cares about how such an institution would come about, just that it does.
The first thing that I think that needs to be done is to disprove the other three prevailing notions of what Thomas More was trying to accomplish. Let us start with the prevailing notion that More was an early Marx. Let us take a look at what More has to say about private property, but let us look at what he is actually saying (Hexter 33). In Utopia More himself only makes two comments concerning private property, and after looking at what More says I think we will have a different view of Thomas More. “In the communitie of theire liffe and liuinge, without anny occupieng of money; by the whyche thynge onelye all nobilitie, magnificence, wourship, honour, and maiestie, the true ornamentes and honoures, as the common opinion is, of a common wealth, vtterly be ouerthrowen and destroyed (Lupton 308).” “But I am of a contrary opinion ‘ (quod I) ‘for me thynketh that men shal neuer there lyue wealthelye, where all thynges be commen. For how can there be abundaunce of gooddes, or of any thing, where euery man with draweth his hand from labour? Whome the regarde of his owne gaines driueth not to woorke, and the hoope that he hath in other mens trauayles maketh hym slowthfull. Then when they be prycked with pouertye, and yet no man can by any law or right defend that for his owne handes, shall not ther of necessitie be continuall sedition and bloodshede? Specially the authoritie and reuerende of magistrates being taken away; which what place it maye haue wyth suche men, among whome is no difference, I can not deuise (Lupton 109-110).”
Thomas More says nothing in praise, necessarily, concerning the tales of Raphael Hythloday. All that is said comes from the mouth of the traveler that Peter Giles introduces to Thomas. The mysterious Raphael himself never explicitly agrees with the customs and laws of the Utopians, he is merely telling them to Peter Giles and Thomas More: “for we haue taken vpon vs to shewe and declare theyr lores and ordenaunces, and not to defende them” (Lupton 211). At the end of Raphael’s talk with Peter Giles and Thomas More, More had many questions that he wants to ask, but he doesn’t for he sees Raphael tired from his talk and so he merely compliments the Utopian constitution and the explanation that Raphael had given (Gallagher 68). It clearly demonstrates that there is no forcefulness to Marxism in Thomas More, only that leap that Marxians make to have an authority on their side.
Let us now turn our attentions to those who claim that only bits and pieces of what More writes are to be the thoughts of More himself. Let us take their argument with their own elements and a little bit of common sense. We know that More had an exceptional talent in literature and a sharp intellect (Hexter 12). We also know that a person, who would write in such a fashion, only wanting certain things in his writings to become a reality, would have to be a complete fool when it came to writing. Since we know that More was definitely not ignorant in the realms of literature, it must follow that this was not what he intended, or that he did it on purpose, that he wanted to purposely conceal or hide his intentions in Utopia. The notion that he was trying to conceal his intentions in the work is totally absurd. For there has never been any competent explanation as to why he would do such a thing, and if it was so, at least in some of his letters he would have mentioned it to friends, which he never did. This leads me to the conclusion that it was not his intention to pick and choose certain things out of Utopia to be his “No-Place,” the translation of the word utopia.
Now we are left with those who claim that Thomas More was only trying to protect private property. I will concede to them that this might have been part of his idea, but I believe that it would only have been a minor part if any. You would think that if this were his major concern as Hexter says he would have taken the time to refute the Utopian beliefs. But instead Thomas More, Peter Giles, and Raphael Hythloday retire for the evening. I feel that if More thought it that important, he would have set-up a scenario for the next morning, where Thomas could ask him those questions he had concerning the island of Utopia. Also why would a man who has a strong belief in the words one says, to be strictly obeyed and be truthful, compliment the Utopian constitution if he did not mean to do so, for remember that Thomas was martyred in 1535 for refusing to make a vow.
Utopia is a book of hope; Thomas More has a dream that he wants to see fulfilled. The major dominant theme that runs through the work is that we must all follow the Christian ideal of living together in peace and harmony. It is in the words of the Pater Noster, “thy kingdom come” that More desired (Olin 78).
It is obvious that Thomas More tries his best to make these a Christian people, but since they were just discovered it would be impossible for them to know of Christianity before Raphael and his companions set foot there. Thomas tries to remedy this situation by having the Utopians agree to Christianity so readily, when the Utopians “harde vs speake of the name of Christe, of his doctryne, lawes, myracles yowe wyll not beleue with howe gladde myndes they agreed vnto the same . This was o smal healpe and furtheraunce in the matter, that they harde vs saye that Christ instytuted amonge hys all thynges commen; and that the same communitie dothe yet remayne amongest the rightest Christian companies” (Lupton 269). Also Thomas More spends time showing that the Utopian philosophy is as close to Christianity as one can get without the knowledge of Christ, “in that part of philosophie which intreateth of manners and vertue, theire reasons and opynyons agree wyth ours” (Lupton 187).
Their acceptance of Christianity itself does not prove that it was Thomas’ theme, but it does give a starting point. I would now like to move into the smaller day to day activities of the Utopians to prove my point. Let us start with their idea of community. If there was one thing that distinguishes the Utopians from anyone else is their sense of community. To a Utopian, if there was no community then there was no life. Everything that they had was the community’s and everything they did was for the community. The Utopians had a sense of community of dwelling, living, meals, and of property. Since it is physically impossible for them all to live under the same roof, they do divide them up into a type of family unit and live under one dwelling. But one does not own the house they live in, for it is a community. “And euerye .x. yeare they chaunge their howses by lotte” (Lupton 139), this is their way of remembering that they are one community. Not only do they trade houses but also in the cases of population decreases, people will move from one town to another to live with another new family unit or to start a family unit. This is one example of the Christianity unit that More is seeking. It is very interesting how this community parallels that of a monastery. More was a man who loved the monastic way of life, and believed it to be the Christian ideal. If that was so, then the way that the Utopians lived together was a model for Christians to follow.
Let us now turn our attention to the idea of community of living. In Utopia there are several things that the community does in the matter of living together, prohibition of the use of money, common training in arms, community of habitation, education, and meals. What would happen in a society in which everyone did these same activities together all the time? It seems to me that it would eventually lead to a uniformity or equality amongst everyone. Everyone is equal; that has a familiar ring to it. Are these not the ideas of Christ, who said that all are equal before the eyes of God and that since the first shall be last and the last shall be first we must all live together in equality. More is trying to show us that we must return to the teachings of the Gospels and live together like we were told to do.
Community of property is a very delicate subject to work with when it comes to Utopia. I have already outlined the varied opinions people have on this subject, but let us stay away from whether he believes in community of property, but deal with what he is trying to say. In Thomas’ work, Raphael talks about the holding of everything in common. This is a very common theme throughout Christianity, the early Christians, monastics, and the Latin Fathers. What did they Utopians gain when they embraced community property? They gained equality, just because one member has more money there is a tendency to claim superiority, and without such a medium they can not do such a thing. So what they are gaining as well as monastics, the Latin Fathers, and the early Christians was the Christian ideal that no person is better than another person is.
It is this ideal of Christianity that Thomas sought, not the particulars in which he wrote in his book. At the time, I believe that his description of Utopia was one of the ways that he thought it could be done. And I am positive that if someone had a different idea of coming up with the same ends, Christian ideal, but with a different method he would endorse it whole-heartedly. Thomas More was a man of reason, and sought only what was best for mankind.
Now that we have completed our journey into what is the hope of Utopia and why it was written, we must ask ourselves a fundamental question: Is this work typical of the Renaissance period? Inherently, I would have to say that Utopia is a work that springs directly from the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a time of humanism, a time of getting back to nature, and a time of rediscovery of the ancients. Utopia in some ways encompasses all of those ideas. The work looks at man and tells us of the wonderful things that he can accomplish and it is as Kumar tells us: “a creation of Renaissance humanism” (Kumar 35), we are told of the way in which they do not abuse the lands and use only what they need, and in what I consider a comical sense they learn the best of the ancients from a shipwrecked Roman and “many choose to regard utopia as primarily Greek in inspiration” (Kumar 37). Oh yes, Utopia is a shining example of the Renaissance. But then again, it is not alone in its desire to find the perfect world, for many different views of what a utopia would be, began to circulate after the publication of Thomas More’s work. Now humor me as I expound on my thoughts.
Utopia is one of thirteen different books written on a “utopia” between the years of 1516 (publishing date of Utopia) and 1625 (publishing year of La Repubblica d’Evandria). All of these books deal with different types of “utopias,” some deal with good government, others with the idealization of existing societies, others with the construction of ideal cities, others with glorifying the ancient cities, others with secret societies, others with world empires and plans for universal eternal peace, and others with theocratic millennial kingdoms (Eliav-Feldon 3-4). But it goes to show us that Utopia was not a work that was ahead of its time nor was it a work dwelling in the Middle Ages, for his ideas were echoed by others.
Though Utopia encompasses all of the dominant ideas in the Renaissance, I believe that humanism was the idea that most greatly influenced the work. According to Miriam Eliav-Feldon there were three things that happened that enabled this new genre called utopia to appear. She feels that the belief in a “divinely ordained” structure must have toppled, for in such a structure a person was not allowed to reflect on God nor his creation: it belongs to the notion that God made it the way he wants it to be. In addition, mankind had to in some way begun to feel responsible for their own outcome. The second thing that must have happened was that man realized that he was allowed some pleasures in this pilgrimage on Earth. The final thing that had to occur was that though man was damaged by his fall from grace he was not completely corrupted, man could decide what was right and what was wrong and how things should come about (Eliav-Feldon 5-6). In other words, Eliav-Feldon says the Renaissance had to happen.
Campbell, W.E. More’s Utopia & His Social Teaching. New York: Russell, 1973.
Eliav-Feldon, Miriam. Realistic Utopias: The Ideal Imaginary Societies of the Renaissance. New York: Oxford UP, 1982.
Gallagher, Ligeia. More’s Utopia and Its Critics. Chicago: Scott, 1964.
Hexter, J.H. More’s Utopia: The Biography of Idea. New York: Harper, 1965.
Kumar, Krishan. Utopianism. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1991.
Lupton, J.H. The Utopia of Sir Thomas More. Oxford: Clarendon, 1895.
Olin, John C. Interpreting Thomas More’s Utopia. New York: Fordham UP, 1989.