Utopia by Sir Thomas More (1478–1535)
Book Review / English Literature

Utopia by Sir Thomas More (1478–1535)

Utopia by Sir Thomas More (1478–1535)
Utopia by Sir Thomas More

Utopia by Sir Thomas More, (1478–1535)

Type of Work: Humanistic treatise

Author: Sir Thomas More (1478-1535)

Time: Reign of Henry VII of England

Locale: Antwerp, England, Utopia

First published: 1516

 

 Principal characters: 

Thomas More: He is the author of this book. He is a writer, lawyer, philosopher, politician, and catholic saint.

Peter Giles: He is a citizen of Antwerp and a friend of Thomas More.

 Raphael Hythloday: He is a traveller and acquaintance of Peter Giles. He is the imagination of More and also the second self whom More created for his own safety. He can easily voice those ideas which are otherwise prohibited at that time.

Cardinal Morton: Churchman and  Chancellor of Henry -Vll

A Lawyer: He is the man who opposed Hythloday’s opinions in Book 1.

Sir Thomas More (1478–1535)

The records for Sir Thomas More’s birth are not exact, although historians deduce he was born on February 7, 1478, in London, England.

More was the son of John More and Agnes Graunger More.

More became a page in the household of Archbishop Morton at age 13 and went to Oxford the following year.

He received a B.A. in 1494 and studied law. Between 1503-1504 he exercised the piety of the monk’s spiritual life and decided to be a monk.

But in 1504 he stood in the election in parliament though he followed austerity throughout his life.

In 1529 he was appointed as lord chancellor of England, the most powerful position in the kingdom below the king himself.

In his adult life, More served Henry VIII and Parliament, and in 1521 he was knighted. When Henry declared himself head of the Church of England in 1531, however, More was forced to choose between his king and his Church.  Even he did not attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn, Henry-VIII’s second wife. Faithful to the Church until his last days, More resigned his chancellor position and three years later refused to swear an oath endorsing the authority of Henry VIII over the Church of England and nullifying that of the pope in England. More was sent to the Tower of London and was beheaded on July 6, 1535. In 1935 the Catholic Church acknowledged his loyalty by making him a saint.
More was perhaps the single most important intellectual in early-16th-century England and was a key figure to introduce humanism in England.

Literary Works:

As early as 1505, when it is believed he considered entering the priesthood, he was translating The Life of Pico (1509), about the famous 15th-century Italian humanist. Also a historian, More wrote The History of Richard III between 1514 and 1518, in which he innovatively forges a symbolic connection between Richard’s physical and moral deformity. This history helped establish the myth that Richard III was an evil, physically deformed dictator who murdered his brothers and nephews to become king of England.

Utopia:
More’s most famous work was his philosophical romance Utopia (1516), in which a mariner tells a story about an ideal state.

The novel was written in Latin from 1515-1516. Later it was translated into English by Ralph Robinson, in 1551. The name utopia is of Greek Origin. It means ‘No Place’.

Sources:  It is based on Plato’s Concept of an ideal state in the Republic. St. Augustine’s De civitate Dei, Vespucci’s accounts of New World voyages, and Erasmus’ Institutio principis Christiani are some of the other sources.

Utopia, which means “nowhere” and is the name More gave to his fictional island, reads like a call for social reform. “When I run over in my mind,” says Raphael Hythlodaeus, the character who describes Utopia, “the various commonwealths flourishing today, so help me God, I can see nothing in them but a conspiracy of the rich, who are fatten-ing up their interests under the name and title of the commonwealth,” a word that simultaneously suggests a state and the commonwealth in the 16th century. Somewhat it echoed the ideology of Karl Marx, propagator of communism.

Book-1

 

Book 1 is set during the rule of Henry-VII. More is introduced by his friend Peter Giles to an alleged companion of Amerigo Vespucci, Raphael Hythloday who condemns the conditions he found in England under Henry Vll: excessive punishment for theft, unjust taxation, unequal distribution of wealth and property, enclosures, the advance of the rich and the desperation of the poor, a vivid picture of the bleak dark social scenario of England – ravaged through war, lawlessness, peasants dissatisfaction and misery and exploitation as well as corruption of church and state,

The story begins when Thomas More travels to Antwerp on a royal mission. There he met Peter Giles, a worthy citizen of Antwerp. Peter Gilles introduced him to Raphael Hythloday ( Greek meaning “a talker of nonsense”). This fictional character Hythloday was a companion of Amerigo Vespucci on their Journey to America.  During one of those journeys, they discovered the fabled land of Utopia, somewhere in the oceans near the Western hemisphere.

Ist part of utopia – does not deal with the legendary island – But Raphael describes the despondency and corruption during the reign of King Henry – VII. He was in conversion with Cardinal Morton Churchman and  Chancellor of Henry –Vll when he suggested some reforms which might benefit England :

  1. Abolishment of the death penalty for theft

  2. Prevention of gambling

  3. Less dependence upon sheep for wool

  4. Disuse of mercenary soldiers

  5. Cheaper prices for all commodities

  6. End of to the enclosure of the common lands for the benefit of a great and wealthy landlord.

Cardinal Morton listened intently to Hythloday’s suggestion but a lawyer objects to him on the ground that these reforms are impossible for the history & customs of England.

 Here More points out some of the social & economic evils in  16th-century European life and through the character of the lawyer More represents the 16th-century society where people are opposed to reform and also sought reasons for doing so.

Book-2

Most interestingly, book 2 is written first before book 1.

In Book 2, these deplorable conditions described in Book 1 are contrasted with those in the ideal land once visited by Hythloday, the state of Utopia (“nowhere”), where war, religious turmoil, crime, poverty, private wealth, and money do not exist. An interesting feature of Utopia is its total religious toleration. The land is arable, the weather is pleasant and cultural. Total uniformity…based on equality…communal nature of governance…everyone is happy and prosperous. No social hierarchy.

There is a total of nine chapters. Each chapter of this book relates to different aspects of Utopia.

In the very first chapter Geography of the country is described. The land is safe from intruders as the entrance is rocky. Utopia is an island kingdom which is crescent-shaped and about five hundred miles in perimeter. There is a total of fifty-four cities of the same perimeter and area. The founder of the land is the fabulous King Utopus. Amaurote is the capital of the cities where the prince lives.

The government of Utopia is relatively simple and largely vested in older men. A unit is created undertaking thirty families. one man chosen by election every year is selected as the leader. Every ten groups of families elect a member of the island council. This council in turn elects the prince. He serves throughout his life.  He is deposed only because of tyranny. The council meets every three days to discuss the issues. No decision is made in haste so there is no mistake.

Raphael Hythlodaye describes the customs of Utopia, a remote island in the New World. The state is democratic socialist and communistic. Individualism is not more important than the advantage of all though. The real interest of each and all are recognised as identical. All goods are community-owned.

Chapter 4 describes the organized labour system in Utopia. Every person works but not overworks – six hours a day, time divided equally between morning and the afternoon. As every person works there are enough food and other livestock. There is no beggar in this state.

The rest of the time people had to take part in other creative and productive works – self-development through various means of education. Their special skills and interests. All the citizens are taught its fundamental works – agriculture, trade, etc.  No surfeit, no extravagance, no flamboyancy. All goods are community-owned. People do not desire to have more than their fellows. Even a prince leads a simple life. He is designated by a sheaf of grain. It is his mark, his symbol.

Chapter 5: Elders are respected and obeyed by youngers. Elders are served food first then the youngers. Ideological development of communal life.

The welfare of the family is a state matter. Family is the basic unit of the Utopian state. People are concerned about the collective progress of the commonwealth, not self-interest. No private wealth. Golds are used to chain criminals and gift to children as toys and playthings. Clothes are the same in texture and style except for the man of noman clothes are made for durability. No unemployment, neither poverty nor luxury.

Chapter- 6: Travel without permission of authority is prohibited. If you travel for more than one day

Chapter -7 Crimes are limited .. even then if anyone indulges, he or she is enslaved under state authority rather than put to death. The state should not be deprived of any citizen’s services. There is no law as there is no law.

So slavery is not taken as a regular practice but if anyone does a crime he is enslaved in the place of being executed. Killing a man for his crime does not teach him anything. So giving a chance to live and learn the ways of life is real judgement.

Sick persons are attended to with care. They are shifted to spacious hospitals erected in each quarter of each city. In the event of a painful and incurable illness, the priests consult with the patient and encourage him to choose painless death. So the concept of euthanasia, and mercy-killing is approved for those who are suffering from non-recoverable diseases.

 Adultery is regarded as a crime and punished by slavery.  Premarital sex is a punishable offence. Marriage for love is encouraged, but also prudence in selecting a mate. Males must be 22 and women 18. Otherwise, marriage will be considered illegal.

Before marriage bride and groom are allowed to meet and observe one another physically and from other aspects. So no case of deformities…no fraud case. If the marriage is unhappy then they are allowed to divorce with mutual consent. They can marry after divorce.

Utopians do not sign any treaty with other countries. But they help other countries in their need.

Chapter-8 Utopians detastes war. Utopians take part in the war to rescue their land from tyrannical rulers and oppressors but not for their own interest of money or land.  They feel war is unjustified. They hire mercenaries and barbarians to win the war for them.

Religious toleration is described in the last chapter, chapter nine. Except for atheism, and except for those who urge their opinions with offensive violence utopian commonwealth backed all types of religious practices, Christian and others. Temples are open to all. Priests are respected.

Revision:

Utopia is a social and political satire by Thomas More, a statesman and humanist of Renaissance England.

It was written in Latin.

More’s friend Erasmus helped him to publish it in Louvain in 1516.

The gist:  Two parts.

In the first part an imaginative traveller, named, Raphael Hythloday describes the shortcomings of English society. In the second part, he narrates his wonderful visit to a perfect society on the imaginary island of Utopia which he visited recently –

This book was translated into German (1524), Italian  (1548), French (1550), English (1551) and Dutch (1553).

It also inspired later utopian writings like Tommaso Campanella’s Citta del sole ( The City of the Sun) and Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis

 And this novel’s name ‘utopia’ a literary term is derived that suggests all the novels related to the same theme of the ideal society. The concept of utopian and dystopian society evolves out of More’s Utopia. The work is so famous in Western Civilization that its title has come to be symbolic in our minds of an idealized state.

 Utopia is one of the most influential works written during the Renaissance. topics employ various communist methods to prevent problems … Open-ended …The author does not resolve the issue but left it to the readers

Utopia, envisioned by More is not a state of freedom, but a state in which dissent is impossible. Such ideas were considered radical at the time Utopia was published, and the kind of religious toleration proposed by More would not be achieved until the 18th century.

Marx’s political vision through a communistic approach is largely co-related with more’s vision of this utopian society that is based on religious belief.

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6 August 2022