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Ideal Society in Thomas More’s Utopia: Critical Analysis

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Thomas More was an English lawyer, author, and humanist who had been active in English politics during the early 16th century before he resigned due to disagreeing with King Henry VIII’s choice to make the king hold authority in the making of church law. Afterward, he wrote the fictional book Utopia which tells about a country without the social and economic injustices in 16th century England (Neild & Bain 2020, p.4). In this essay, I will argue that Thomas More invented Utopia to criticize the problems of 16th century England by showing the flaws that England has, such as Oligarchy and individualism which worsen people’s greed. Even though Utopia suggests the absence of private property to overcome this, it can not be a real solution to fix the social injustices that exist because it is impossible to have all men to be good. People are always caught up in sins, like greed and pride. Furthermore, by being inspired from greek ideas and using rational thinking for the better of people, makes Utopia a humanist fiction that More uses as a device in the form of entertainment to help people reexamine themselves and to be better Christians.

Firstly, More shows the problems that England has during the 16th century by directly pointing them out and presenting Utopia as an ideal model of a country that is flawless. More relates England and Utopia by making them similar with the same number of city-states, dimensions and distance to the equator (Ackroyd, 1998). It was also mentioned that Utopia’s capital city had similar topography as London. This shows how More is imagining his ideal version of England. Furthermore, the book discusses the flaws of society happening at that moment numerous times, such as how “most princes devote themselves more willingly to the arts of war than to the good arts of peace.” and how the rich landowners would change their business for their own advantage and not caring for the laborers who lost their job because of it (More, Utopia ex. 42-47). With this, More criticizes how the English is blinded by their own greed that individualism becomes conventional, resulting in Oligarchy in the society where the rich becomes richer and the poor become poorer. Besides pointing out the problems, More analyses them as well by stating it through Hythloday’s argument that “Poverty is the principal reason for theft” (Wilde, 2017) and that the severe punishment for theft did not stop people from stealing (More, Utopia ex. 44). Moreover, More quips England by drawing attention to the good elements Utopia has which are opposites from England’s. “[N]obody sits around doing nothing”, “[t]hey don’t wear people out by keeping them hard at work from early morning till late at night like cart-horses” and they don’t “waste their time in idleness or self-indulgence” (More, Utopia ex. 76). In this part of Utopia, More is basically pinpointing how the English are lazy, but the ones with power are treating their inferiors like slaves. Therefore, Utopia is shown as a perfect version of London to criticize England.

Moreover, Utopia suggests suppressing private property to help justify the society, but it is actually impossible for it to be effective if put into practice. According to More (Utopia, ex. 66), “there can be no equitable or just distribution of good …. Unless private ownership is completely suppressed.” More is arguing through Hythloday that the only solution to the social injustice is banishing private property. However, he, later on, says through the character Morus that if individuals are not motivated by ownership, then they will become lazy and they will depend on others. When this happens, then there will not be enough production. To further prove this point, Wilde (2017) objects on the abolishment of private property by stating that it will cause social chaos because there are no authority respected and there will be endless bloodshed. This is because what individuals have gained cannot be protected by them, rather becomes public property. Therefore, we can understand Logan’s (2006) argument that “It is impossible to make everything good unless all men are good.” Unless people are not caught up in their own greed, then having all properties to be public will not be any challenge. People can respect each other, help each other without expecting benefits and work for the community. However, realistically, humans are always tangled up in sins and are always trying to satisfy their own pride, so Logan continues that theoretically, the perfect commonwealth can not be created, “let alone in practice.”

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Furthermore, Utopia presents as a humanist fiction because we can see how More uses humanist ideas in the book and how it is heavily influenced by Greek theory. According to Brotton (2006), Utopia was written: “in direct imitation of Plato’s fashionable treatise on an ideal state, the Republic.” More wrote Utopia as a reordered society, diminishing the flaws in real life, which is the style of Greek theory. Furthermore, Utopia was also inspired from ideas in Greek theory such as when he reorders the society, he has focused on the absence of private property, an aspect taken from the Republic. (Ackroyd, 1998). More also apply “rational analysis to the design of a self-sufficient society-with no functionless parts, no layabouts” (Logan, 2006), another view from the Greeks. Besides that, there are humanist ideas where More emphasizes on rational thinking in certain aspects of Utopia. For instance, euthanasia and divorce are allowed in Utopia (Brotton, 2006). Both of these are examples that contradict with Christianity, the common religion then. However, humanists would allow them because it is for the people’s good and wellbeing. There are also ideas in Utopia that are obviously humanist, such as when Brotton (2006) mentions “all things are held in common” and “no men are beggars”, and ideas that are concealed, like when Priests are responsible of education in Utopia (More, Utopia ex. 123). This shows how education is highly valued because priests who are responsible in religion also become responsible for education.

Lastly, Thomas More wrote Utopia not with the main purpose of entertaining, but with entertainment as a device, he wants to help people reflect on themselves and see that Christianity is a good religion that teaches humanity ideas and how to be a good human being. Firstly, we are informed that Utopia is inspired from the Bible, alongside greek philosophy. Based on Ackroyd (1998), there is “a special reference to Acts of Apostles, where ‘they had all things common.” More is going against the stereotype that religion and humanism goes against each other. Instead, he is using religion as a foundation of his book that highlights humanistic values. Furthermore, “He wanted to make points about the degree of harmony between a purely rational polity and a truly Christian one” (Logan, 2006). Hence, we can see more trying to convince the reader that there are good and rational elements that Christianity teaches. Logan (2006) also states that according to More, “Utopia is not ideal because it’s not Christian.” More is also trying to tell people, especially the English, that they should have lived selflessly like the utopians or better than the utopians since they have been exposed to Christianity. As a matter of fact, More wants the readers to use Utopia as a handbook for learning (Boesky, 1996) and a device to reexamine themselves and society (Hansot, 1974) that teaches not to be too individualistic. Instead, they should contribute more to society and not be slaves of greediness. However, the best way to get people to read this ‘guide’ is to give it in the form of entertainment for “a fiction smeared with honey, might a little more pleasantly slide into men’s minds.”(Hansot, 1974). For this reason, Thomas More invented Utopia, so that people can improve themselves without being directly told to.

To conclude, Thomas More invented the ideal society which is Utopia is because he wants to point out the problems of 16th century England where the people are selfish and obsessed with their own richness and power by making Utopia physically similar, but a good version of England, so that More could show the flaws of England directly or by quipping. However, Utopia cannot be an ideal solution to the actual society because it practices the absence of public property, which can only be effective if everyone is purely good and selfless. Unlike utopians, it is inevitable for real people to sin because none of us is perfect. Being inspired by the greek philosophy, Utopia centers on the humanist idea that people should live for others to have the best outcome for themselves. Thus, Utopia is purposed to be a guide for the people to be better human beings and to give perspective to the humanistic side of Christianity.

Bibliography

Primary Source

  1. More, T 2020, Utopia Extract, Trinity College Foundation Studies, Melbourne.

Secondary Sources

  1. Ackroyd, P 1998, The life of Thomas More, Chatto & Windus, London.
  2. Boesky, A 1996, Founding fictions: utopians in early modern England, The University of Georgia Press, Athens and London.
  3. Brotton, J 2006, The Renaissance: a very short introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. Hansot, E 1974, Perfection and progress: two modes of utopian thought, MIT Press Cambridge.
  5. Logan, G 2006, ‘Humanist More’ in Thomas More Studies, The Centre for Thomas More Studies, University of Dallas, Texas, p. 1-6.
  6. Neild, J & Bain, S 2020, Introduction and notes to Utopia essay, Trinity College Foundation Studies, Melbourne.
  7. Wilde, L 2017, Thomas More’s Utopia: arguing for social justice, Routledge, Abingdon.
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