Thomas More's Utopia Holds a Term Paper

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The literary methods that More employs are analogous to those utilized by Galileo Galilei just over a half century later.

Galileo also approached a delicate subject with regard to the Church in a hypothetical and fictitious manner. He had uncovered valid and relatively conclusive evidence that the earth revolved around the sun. Yet, this discovery was a direct contradiction of preexisting clerical interpretations of the scriptures. Even though Galileo was eventually arrested by the Spanish Inquisition for his Dialogue and found guilty of "vehement suspicion of heresy," this was less a consequence of the concepts he presented, than a result of his theoretical mechanism's failure. The full force of Galileo's argument was bestowed upon his best developed character, while the position of the Church was backed by a weak and simple-minded literary creation. More, however, does not make this same mistake. The fact that he gives the proponent of European society his own name and social position necessarily hinders any possible attack from authority. This point illustrates the importance of the oppressive setting in which More found himself and it explains the literary style evident in Utopia, which would doubtlessly be absent from modern interpretations of similar arguments.

Nevertheless, the character "More," cannot be confused with the person bearing the same name. Hythloday stands as the vehicle through which More is capable of presenting his assessments concerning society. The advancing exploration of the Americas allows Thomas More to invent both a character and a land that contrast more traditional surroundings and people. Accordingly, More's opinions are placed both in "More" and in Hythloday; "More" reflects Thomas More's recognition that his beliefs are radical, and Hythloday reflects those unavoidably hidden, radical notions. Hythloday holds that some philosophical principles of truth and freedom must be upheld at all costs, while "More" takes the more pragmatic position that society sometimes demands that such ideals be trumped by necessity. His historic positioning makes such blending of actual events, characters, and locations with their fictitious counterparts possible.

Utopia takes place during a diplomatic journey that More made in life as well as in the book. "More" visits his friend Peter Giles and for the first time encounters Hythloday in his presence. Raphael Hythloday is revealed to be a deep-thinking, philosophically rooted individual, who has spent much of his life traveling and observing foreign cultures. The substantial distinctions between Hythloday and the traditional educated European of his day become apparent when he definitively objects to the proposal that a man of his abilities would be best suited to be in the service of a king.

Hythloday asserts that the objectives of kings and princes are contrary to the ultimate aims of society as he perceives them. He uses an example concerning executions that claries his stance: "for this punishment of thieves passeth the limits of justice, and is also very hurtful to the weal-public. For it is too extreme and cruel a punishment for theft, and yet not sufficient to refrain and withhold men from theft." Hence, the accepted practices and policies of the established order are fundamentally objected to by Hythloday on the grounds that life is intrinsically more valuable than any material goods, or the laws upholding their orderly proliferation. He states, "I think it not right nor justice that the loss of money should cause the loss of man's life. For mine opinion is, that all the goods in the world are not able to countervail man's life." Similarly, Hythloday associates the goals of kings with exploitive and materialistic means. His justification for his positioning of life above kings, laws, and their apparent relationship to social well-being stems from the word of God. God commanded that men should not kill one another; so, the perpetuation of state-sanctioned killing reflects a key contradiction inherent to Christian kingdoms: it places the law of man in an elevated position over the law of God.

This critique of society is the crux of the argument More presents through Hythloday. The peculiar social organization of Utopia is More's attempt at satisfying his philosophical drive to place God's law in its rightful place over man's necessities. These necessities, also, are determined by the requirements of the people; thus, further contrasting Hythloday's position with that of a King's advisor. Kings, of course, are guided by personal ambitions, and the needs of the people tend to only be served if they coincide with these ambitions. The centerpiece of Hythloday's model for rectifying such moral dilemmas is that all property should be made communal. Hythloday asserts this position just before the end of the first section; the second section is devoted to the logistics of the 'working model' that he witnessed during his travels.

Having established the fundamental moral backing behind his argument, More presents his practical suggestions for how a more utopian society would appear -- once again, Hythloday is used to present his case. Utopia is primarily and agricultural society that distributes its goods according to need and free of charge. Lands are communally owned and people work a mere six hours a day. Despite the reduced work day, Hythloday insists that they are just as productive as Europeans due to the fact that everyone contributes to society. In Europe, women, the impoverished, and clerics contribute little to society. Slavery, in Utopia, is not a consequence of political rules but of moral laws; elected officials are not allowed to campaign; marriage is forbidden for life if promiscuity is uncovered; war is almost always fought with conscripts; and all religions are tolerated. Essentially, all of the practices of the Utopians are deductive consequences of accepted moral beliefs. "So More's vision of communism is not only a means of conquering the vices of private property but also the surest way to quell the vice of idleness and its attendant evils."

However, More's depiction of communism is also extremely simplistic and leads to a number of complications that make his overall argument difficult to discern. It is evident that he severely oversimplified the processes of farming, and his consequent structuring of society around it was forced to establish practices that remain highly questionable. The process of colonization, for example, is rooted to his requirement for a stable population. Hythloday recounts, "if there is any increase [in population] over the whole island, then they draw out a number of their citizens out of the several towns, and send them over to the neighboring continent; where, if they find that the inhabitants have more soil than they can well cultivate, they fix a colony, taking the inhabitants into their society, if they are willing to live with them..." However, the issues that arise if the foreigners are not accepting of the Utopians' practices are not addressed. The obvious successive result would be overpopulation; thus, throwing Utopian society out of balance and demanding forceful expansion. Consequently, More has not solved the problems that bring about wars of conquest and expansion. Further inconsistencies can be seen through the Utopians' need to wage war at all; this places the necessities of government once again over the word of God.

Yet, the most glaring contradiction seems to stem from the Utopian toleration of religion when applied to More's life. Thomas More spent the majority of his public life methodically stomping out those he viewed as heretics, but in Utopia he presents a society in which varying interpretations of spirituality are embraced. "It is not clear, however, that More ever considered anything like Utopian religious freedom desirable for Europe. As Lord Chancellor in early post-Reformation England, he wrote scathing polemics against Martin Luther and his English followers and sanctioned, if not actively participated in, the actual persecution of heretics." This contributes to the riddle that is Utopia. Scholars have debated whether the central intension of Hythloday's arguments was meant to reflect More's conceptions of the perfect society or to illustrate the inconsistencies of radical societies.

However, it is my estimation that More's personal views were a synthesis of the perspectives he asserted within the book. He was both the proponent of tradition embodied by "More," and the dreamer of idealism represented by Hythloday. He recognized the contradictions of a social order that places necessity over God, but still chose to utilize the methods of man to prevent the ultimate collapse of society. He fought heretics not, necessarily, because he was philosophically opposed to their positions, but because he believed that they possessed the capacity to utterly misplace the true word of God. In an ideal society, the morals handed down from divinity would stand on their own as universally accepted truths. This is why Utopia must be unknown and separate from Europe: spirituality has been assailed to the point where material means are all that can preserve it. This is More's motivation for working within the corrupt framework of society and…[continue]

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