Thomas More’s Utopia
Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, shortly before the Reformation began. In this essay I will summarize Thomas More’s idea of ‘Utopia’ and discuss how it launched the tradition of the utopian novel.
Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ follows a trio of protagonists made up of Sir Thomas More himself, Humanist thinker Peter Giles and the one time Chancellor of England Cardinal John Morton. All of these characters actually correspond to the biographical background of the real people, but they are still fictional characters and not proper representations of these people. For example, the character of Sir Thomas More may not hold the same views as Thomas More the author. In the novel, More is serving as an ambassador for England and King Henry VIII. He travels to Antwerp and when not on duty he spends much of his time discussing a variety of intellectual topics with his friend Giles who introduces him to a philosopher named Raphael Hythloday. They eat together and Hythloday tell them tales about his travels.
One of the things that Hythloday talks about is the island of Utopia. As he is describing the societies he has visited, Giles and More start to think he would serve as an excellent counsellor to King Henry VIII, but Hythloday refuses and the three begin to argue about it. Hythloday speaks of having a similar dinner with Cardinal John Morton where he spoke of many alternative civil practices that England could be using, but his proposals are scorned until the Cardinal begins to consider them. In short, Hythloday is demonstrating that there is no point in counselling a king who has already made up his mind since he expects everyone to agree with him. He also offers several more examples which he feels prove that no matter how good a policy is, those who are used to a different way of life will always look on it as insane.
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Hythloday goes on to describe Utopia in great detail, focusing on its geography and history. He explains everything about Utopia’s society painting it as a community based on rational thoughts, productivity and communal property. In Utopia there is no war, no class distinctions, no war and very little crime. He believes that Utopian society is much better than any in Europe. However, when he is finished with his descriptions, More says that they are too tired from all the talking to start discussing the finer points of the Utopian society. He believes that some of the customs observed are rather silly, but others are things he would love to see implemented in England although he feels that it will never actually happen.
Thomas More used Utopia to offer up a description of an ideal human society and in doing so he created the literary tradition of Utopian fiction. This particular tradition involves an author attempting to describe in detail their idea of a perfect human society. However, More also is sure to highlight that not everyone shares the same view of what makes a perfect society. Some say that More was using Utopia to make fun of European society.
In conclusion, Thomas More’s Utopia is a complex, but interesting tale of perfection in our society. Not only was Utopia a very good seller, but it also launched an entirely new sub genre.