Utopia (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
In response both to the ideals of Renaissance humanism and the New World discoveries, Thomas More described an idealized, imaginary commonwealth in his most famous book, Utopia, which was first published in Latin in December, 1516. Utopia is the name of a highly authoritarian society that suppresses individualism and private property to secure the collective good. While the assertion of individual will is frowned upon in the imaginary Utopia, freedom of thought—but not of expression—is regarded as the chief happiness of life. Although the citizens of Utopia are encouraged to read, idleness is forbidden and hard work is strictly enforced by the state’s agents, the syphogrants. Books that encourage citizens to engage in individualism or religious heresy or which threaten the stability of the Utopian system would presumably be suppressed. As England’s chancellor under King Henry VIII, More led the efforts to suppress heretics, in the belief that heresy led to sedition and civil disorder. In Utopia, however, More playfully imagined a society which remained stable by restricting individualist tendencies to the minds of its citizens.
Ackroyd, Peter. The Life of Thomas More. London: Chatto and Windus, 1998. A helpful biographical study of Sir Thomas More’s life and times, which explores the ideas he developed and the difficult personal decisions that he faced....
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Utopia (Ethics (Ready Reference series))
More coined the word “utopia” for this book and simultaneously provided a noun to describe an ideal society and an adjective—utopian—to signify a hopelessly impractical approach to living. The word “utopia” derives from the Greek for “no place,” but it is also a pun on “good place.” With this play on words, More sowed the seeds of argument regarding his book: Was he serious? Was he a communist, a liberal, an autocrat? Was he an advocate of euthanasia and divorce?
Utopia shows many influences. More was a classical scholar of high standing—a product of the Renaissance. He also pursued a career in law with great success. Amerigo Vespucci’s writings on America inspired him with references to paradisiacal lands and the communal ownership of property. The Catholic Church was the dominant influence of his boyhood, and perhaps of his whole life. Interestingly, More wrote Utopia in a lull before the Reformation; one year after its publication, Martin Luther defied the Church by nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg.
Utopian Practices and Ethics
In book 1, More describes meeting a man called Hythloday, who first castigates European society and then proceeds in book 2 to describe Utopia with heartfelt admiration. Hythloday condemns the idle of Europe, including noblemen and their servants. He...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Antwerp. Flanders city (now part of Belgium) in which More’s novel opens. In 1515 More was part of a diplomatic mission sent by England’s King Henry VIII to Flanders, where he spent many months. While there, he met many of Europe’s leading intellectuals, with many of whom he had already enjoyed a lively correspondence. One of these was Peter Giles, the town clerk of Antwerp. More uses his diplomatic mission, and in particular a visit he paid to Giles, as the starting point for his story. Other than a passing reference to attending a service at a cathedral, More makes no attempt to describe Antwerp; however, it is there that he is introduced to Raphael Hythloday, a philosophical traveler who has returned from Utopia. Hythloday’s story is then told through a frame.
By anchoring his story to the events of a real embassy and real people, such as Giles, More gives his book plausibility, which is further enhanced by his making Hythloday a member of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci’s crew. Vespucci’s highly fanciful account of his voyages to the New World had been published widely only a few years earlier and contributed greatly to the European perception of the Americas as a land of strange peoples and creatures. So successful was More in making his book look like a true account that he was accused by a contemporary critic of having merely written down what someone else told him.
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Context (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Thomas More’s Utopia, written during the turbulence of sixteenth century English political strife, presents an ideal map of the political countryside against which to measure existing states. The English word “utopia” derives its meaning from a Greek term that can be translated “nowhere.” To call a scheme “utopian” is to suggest that it cannot actually be implemented. Thomas More invented the term and applied it to a mythical community, then used his account of this community as a means of criticizing certain European social and political practices that he considered unreasonable.
More’s own life lends interest to the contents of his famous book, for More served Henry VIII, the strong-willed English king, in a number of important political capacities. In 1535, More died on the block for resistance to the monarch’s policies in a power struggle between the English nation and the Roman Papacy. In spite of his humanistic leanings, More stood firm in refusing to recognize Henry’s claim to the title that made him head of the Church in England. As an adviser to the monarch, More became a tragic figure caught between opposing institutional pressures that played a unique role in shaping modern English history.
More’s Utopia is made up of two books. Book 2 (which contains an elaborate description of the Utopians) was written first, in 1515, a year before the completion of book 1 (which discusses several general...
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Advising Princes (World Philosophers and Their Works)
The early discussion centers on whether philosophers ought to advise rulers—a question provoked by Giles’s and More’s suggestion that Hythloday’s extensive knowledge could be put to such use. Hythloday shows little interest in attempting to advise rulers. At the same time, he argues that the social arrangements of the Utopians (whom he discovered somewhere below the equator) would serve well as a basis for “correcting the errors of our own cities and kingdoms.” He is nonetheless convinced that to serve a king in an advisory capacity would make him miserable. “Now I live as I will,” Hythloday argues—illustrating the tension existing between private and public demands on a person—”and I believe very few courtiers can say that.” Hythloday insists that princes do not want advice from philosophers, that what they seek is agreement with their fixed policies of waging constant, aggressive warfare. Princes ignore sound advice and refuse to tolerate any posture except that of absolute agreement among their counselors. “They are generally more set on acquiring new kingdoms rightly or wrongly, than on governing well those that they already have.” Hythloday illustrates his viewpoint by recounting an episode that had occurred at a dinner given by a famous Cardinal. At this affair, Hythloday became entangled in a discussion when another person present praised some judicial practices that Hythloday thought foolish.
What Hythloday advocates...
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Private Property (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Hythloday returns to his economic thesis—that the chief cause of evil customs is the existence of private property. Only among the Utopians has he found a social system that makes virtue the primary goal of living. Other nations seeking to create sane institutional arrangements undermine their own efforts by maintaining private property and a money economy. Their laws hopelessly try to protect for the individual what, by the nature of private property, must always stand under threat. Hythloday advocates the total abolition of money and privately held property.
More objects to this view, although he shows interest in a fuller description of the Utopians while insisting that absolute equality of possessions means that many will cease working. People need the incentive of the hope of gain, according to More. From a policy enforcing equal possessions in cases when all people experience extreme want, only warfare and constant factionalism can ensue. People require authority over themselves based on some distinction in abilities and worth. To More’s objections, Giles adds his own view that other people are not better governed than the English. His reason for so thinking is that the abilities of English and European rulers are equal to those of other persons. European governmental practices also rest on long historical experience. Hythloday replies that the Utopians also possess a long history—that their peculiar success in managing their affairs results...
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Utopia (World Philosophers and Their Works)
In book 2, three aspects of Utopian civilization receive consideration under a number of separate headings. Hythloday describes first the island where Utopia exists and the number, distribution, and geographical arrangements of its cities; second, the social and political institutions of Utopia; and third, the ideas and moral norms by which the Utopians live.
Each city in Utopia is divided in a manner as to require several magistrates. From the body of the magistrates, three representatives are chosen to meet in the capital city once a year. Individual cities contain households fixed in number and built on a planned model, thirty households requiring one magistrate in a given district. Agricultural pursuits aiming at economic self-sufficiency require existence of country households containing forty men and women each. These households receive their members on a rotational basis from the cities. Each Utopian must take a turn at farming and related forms of labor, thus spreading the burden of physical work; but individuals particularly fond of country life and work may remain longer than the otherwise stipulated two-year period. Something very much like scientific farming operates in Utopia.
A wall surrounds each city. Its inhabitants work only six hours each day (an astounding suggestion in More’s time). The remainder of a citizen’s time is devoted to private pursuits. These pursuits indicate that Utopia is a society composed of...
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Bibliography (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Ackroyd, Peter. The Life of Thomas More. London: Chatto and Windus, 1998. A helpful biographical study of Sir Thomas More’s life and times, which explores the ideas he developed and the difficult personal decisions that he faced.
Baker-Smith, Dominic. More’s “Utopia.” New York: HarperCollins, 1991. A complete study of Utopia that balances analysis of its contents as a literary work and as a treatise on political theory. Includes information about the history of Utopia’s composition, the Renaissance humanism that permeates More’s thought, and the sources that influenced its ideas and literary style.
Fox, Alistair. Thomas More: History and Providence. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. This intellectual biography details the evolution of More’s thought, delving deep into his views about God and humanity.
Fox, Alistair. Utopia: An Elusive Vision. New York: Twayne, 1993. A veteran More scholar offers an interpretation of More’s aims in the writing and vision of his famous Utopia.
Guy, John. Thomas More. London: Arnold, 2000. A study of the life and thought of the author of Utopia.
Hexter, J. H. More’s “Utopia”: The Biography of an...
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