The text Utopia was written by Sir Thomas Moore in 1516, just before the outbreak of the Reformation. More s life flourished through the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, which were influential years in the Renaissance, a flowering of art and thought that began in Italy and flooded through Europe and England. Humanists often stressed the dignity of man and the power of reason while remaining deeply committed to Christianity. Their thought and writings helped to break the strict religious orthodoxy that had forced itself through the Middle Ages. Humanists often argued against feudalism as it promoted a society dominated by the rich and unfair on everyone else. Further, they saw feudal society as irrational.
Utopia was originally written in Latin, is a text that depicts what is claimed to be an ideal human society through the eyes of the narrator Raphael Hythloday. It is also largely based on the voyages of More himself, specifically to the Netherlands. It was one such voyage a diplomatic mission from England that More invented his ideas about a Utopian society.
However, while More may have visualized the Utopian Islands as a perfect society, it is inarguable that the utilitarian society of Utopia was a criticism of the European world he saw around him. Thus, it is important for the readers to understand and respond to the specific time.
There are many ways to view the utopian society; some may view it as the result of rational thought or Humanist beliefs, others as an alternative to feudalism, a statement in favour of communal society, or an effort to promote reform according to Christian values.
The book Utopia is composed of two parts the first written last, and the second written first. The second book is the one in which the utopian society is portrayed and the issues raised closely represents the thinking of humanist Erasmus.
The first part of the novel serves as an introduction to the two main fictional characters of the novel More and Hythloday. It debates reasoning as well as social critique. Hythloday cannot stand the inequalities and injustices on the existing England and Europe and reveals possibilities for reform using his example of a Utopian society. The second part is written through the eyes of Hythloday and his explanation of the Utopian society of More. It serves as an improvement for where equity is offered. Some are very sensible while others are extremely extravagant.
The major values raised within this text questioned perfection in society in matters of kingship, councillors, laws, justice, property, work, wars and religion. The idea of justice is open-minded and not excessive. Prevention of crime by good examples is better than harsh punishment. Private properly and money are the two great sources of inequality. These are abolished in an ideal commonwealth and everything is free and easily available. To enable this everybody should work; nobody can live off the labour of others.
More’s land lacks classes because everyone shares in the same work, everyone is equal, and everyone has the same rights. In Utopia there is an obligation for all to work a minimum of six hours everyday at whatever he is best at. All people spend time in the country working the land, as this is an agriculturally based society they must assure themselves of continued crop growth. In addition to creating the same conditions for everyone, this assures that they will have ample supplies to restrain the fear of want. All clothing is plain and simple, designed only for utility and practicality. In addition, to prevent any manner of splendours, the Utopians exchanges homes every ten years and eat together in mess halls. As Hythloday said, “Men and animals alike are greedy and rapacious from fear of want. Only human pride glories in surpassing others in conspicuous consumption. For this kind of vice there is no room whatsoever in the Utopian way of life.”
Proper families do not exist because children are easily moved around from household to household, depending on which occupation they would like to learn. Since there is very little distinction in occupation, dress, accommodation, riches, or use of free time and pride is almost non-existent in Utopia. However, It is true that there are separate groups in Utopia, magistrates, the prince, priests and the learned, but these groups by no means form a social or economic class.
In a classless society there is no classifying of one group by another. This suggests that More was most likely disgusted by the luxury of sixteenth century Europe’s ruling class. He saw that this luxury was a result of the poverty of the surrounding peasants and if poverty was to be excluded from Utopia then so must the ruling class’ luxury.
Utopia is only put forward so that the audience will understand that Utopian values are really the fundamental values of human nature, and that the world is not a perfect place. It is as Hythloday says at the end of his tale, “I must confess that there are many things in the Utopian Commonwealth that I wish rather than expect to see among our citizens.”
The Utopian priests seem to have been written to criticize European priests. Utopia gives two related reasons as to why there are so few Utopian priests. First, as a means of keeping up respect for the office, the number of priests is limited. Second, Utopians did not believe many people were moral enough to fulfil the role of a priest. In Europe, the corruption, and poor education of priests was a matter of public knowledge, humour, and criticism. The faces of the Utopian church were its priests, and the text Utopia claims that the ideals of the Catholic Church were presented to society as embarrassments.
Religious treatment of women allow the practice in which women must admit their failings to their husbands while they do nothing in return but forgive seems highly unfair, and demonstrates an assumption of superiority in the men. Given the gender situation in the sixteenth century under which women were subservient to first their father, then their husband. However, women in Utopia can become priests, and this would have been a shift from More’s generation. Even in modern society, the Catholic Church does not allow female priests. This is one example where Utopia implies the ignorance of gender, offering females a chance at equality.
Utopia is a depiction of a semi-ideal society and all of the criticism of European society that ideal represents, and it is a explanation on itself and its themes. The book can at times be inconsistent, just as More himself could: a man who preached religious toleration and logically mistreated Protestants, decides to remain a Christian rather than enter the priesthood but ultimately died a willing victim for his faith. Ultimately, Utopia is a book that, like More, attempted to navigate a course through the ideal and the real, between a want to create perfection and the practical understanding that perfection, given the imperfection of mankind, is impossible.