Social Utopias of Reformation Epoch – Part 2

Social Utopias of Reformation Epoch – Part 1

Social Utopias of Reformation Epoch – Part 2

Social Utopias of Reformation Epoch – Part 3


Thomas More (1478 – 1535)

Sir Thomas More, also known by Catholics as Saint Thomas More, was an English lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman and noted Renaissance humanist. He was an important counsellor to Henry VIII of England and for three years toward the end of his life, he was Lord Chancellor. He is recognized as a saint within the Catholic Church and is commemorated by the Church of England as a ‘Reformation martyr’. He was an opponent of the Protestant Reformation and in particular of Martin Luther, William Tyndale, Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell.

More coined the word “utopia” – a name he gave to the ideal, imaginary sland nation whose political system he described in Utopia, published in 1516. He opposed the king’s separation from the papal church and denied that the king was the Supreme Head of the Church of England, a status the king had been given by a compliant parliament through the Act of Supremacy of 1534. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1534 for his refusal to take the oath required by the First Succession Act, because the act disparaged the power of the Pope and Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In 1535 he was tried for treason and beheaded. More was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1886 and canonized, with John Fisher, in 1935. In 1980, he was added to the Church of England’s list of ‘saints and heroes of the Christian Church’.

Published during More’s life:

  • A Merry Jest
  • Utopia
  • Latin Poems
  • Letter to Brixius
  • Responsio ad Lutherum
  • A Dialogue Concerning Heresies
  • Supplication of Souls
  • Letter Against Frith
  • The Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer
  • Apology
  • Debellation of Salem and Bizance
  • The Answer to a Poisoned Book

Utopia is placed in the New World and More links Raphael’s travels in with Amerigo Vespucci’s real life voyages of discovery. He suggests that Raphael is one of the 24 men Vespucci, in his Four Voyages of 1507, says he left for six months at Cabo Frio, Brazil. Raphael then travels further and finds the island of Utopia, where he spends five years observing the customs of the natives.

According to More, the island of Utopia is “…two hundred miles across in the middle part, where it is widest, and nowhere much narrower than this except towards the two ends, where it gradually tapers. These ends, curved round as if completing a circle five hundred miles in circumference, make the island crescent-shaped, like a new moon.

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The island was originally a peninsula but a 15-mile wide channel was dug by the community’s founder King Utopos to separate it from the mainland. The island contains 54 towns, each with about 6000 households. The capital city, Amaurot, is located directly in the middle of the crescent island. Thirty households are grouped together and controlled by a Syphograntus (“Styward”), and a Traniborus (“Bencheater”) oversees 10 Stywards. Each town has a mayor elected from among the ranks of the Bencheaters. Every household has between 10 and 16 adults and people are re-distributed around the households and towns to keep numbers even. If the island suffers from overpopulation, colonies are set up on the mainland. Alternatively, the natives of the mainland are invited to be part of these Utopian colonies, but if they dislike it and no longer wish to stay, they may return. In the case of underpopulation the colonists are re-called.

There is no private ownership on Utopia, with goods being stored in warehouses and people requesting what they need. There are also no locks on the doors of the houses, which are rotated between the citizens every ten years. Agriculture is the most important job on the island. Every person is taught it and must live in the countryside, farming, for two years at a time, with women doing the same work as men. Parallel to this, every citizen must learn at least one of the other essential trades: weaving (mainly done by the women), carpentry, metalsmithing and masonry. There is deliberate simplicity about these trades; for instance, all people wear the same types of simple clothes and there are no dressmakers making fine apparel. All able-bodied citizens must work; thus unemployment is eradicated, and the length of the working day can be minimized: the people only have to work six hours a day (although many willingly work for longer). More does allow scholars in his society to become the ruling officials or priests, people picked during their primary education for their ability to learn. All other citizens are however encouraged to apply themselves to learning in their leisure time.

Slavery is a feature of Utopian life and it is reported that every household has two slaves. The slaves are either from other countries or are the Utopian criminals. These criminals are weighed down with chains made out of gold. The gold is part of the community wealth of the country, and fettering criminals with it or using it for shameful things like chamber pots gives the citizens a healthy dislike of it. It also makes it difficult to steal as it is in plain view. The wealth, though, is of little importance and is only good for buying commodities from foreign nations or bribing these nations to fight each other. Slaves are periodically released for good behavior.

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Other significant innovations of Utopia include: a welfare state with free hospitals, euthanasia permissible by the state, priests being allowed to marry, divorce permitted, premarital sex punished by a lifetime of enforced celibacy and adultery being punished by enslavement. Meals are taken in community dining halls and the job of feeding the population is given to a different household in turn. Although all are fed the same, Raphael explains that the old and the administrators are given the best of the food. Travel on the island is only permitted with an internal passport and anyone found without a passport they are, on a first occasion, returned in disgrace, but after a second offence, they are placed into slavery. In addition, there are no lawyers and the law is made deliberately simple, as all should understand it and not leave people in any doubt of what is right and wrong.

There are several religions on the island: moon-worshipers, sun-worshipers, planet-worshipers, ancestor-worshipers and monotheists, but each is tolerant of the others. Only atheists are despised (but allowed) in Utopia, as they are seen as representing a danger to the state: since they do not believe in any punishment or reward after this life, they have no reason to share the communistic life of Utopia, and will break the laws for their own gain. They are not banished but encouraged to talk out their erroneous beliefs with the priests until they are convinced of their wrong. Raphael says that through his teachings Christianity was beginning to take hold in Utopia. The toleration of all other religious ideas is enshrined in a universal prayer all the Utopians recite. “…but, if they are mistaken, and if there is either a better government, or a religion more acceptable to God, they implore His goodness to let them know it.”

Wives are subject to their husbands and husbands are subject to their wives although women are restricted to conducting household tasks for the most part. Only few widowed women become priests. While all are trained in military arts, women confess their sins to their husbands once a month. Gambling, hunting, makeup and astrology are all discouraged in Utopia. The role allocated to women in Utopia might, however, have been seen as being more liberal from a contemporary point of view.

In my opinion: one of the most troublesome questions about Utopia is Thomas More’s reason for writing it. Some of the ideas in it, such as the ease of divorce, euthanasia and both married priests and female priests, seem to be polar opposites of his beliefs and those expected of the devout Catholic that he was. The concept of religious toleration seems to jar particularly with the information we have about him as Lord Chancellor: that he was a keen opponent of Protestants who would later kill him. Similarly, the criticism of lawyers comes from a writer who, as Lord Chancellor, was arguably the most influential lawyer in England.

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In addition, the communistic life style of a Utopian shows the value that More placed on a simpler communal life, reflecting his longing for monastic duties. This in obvious juxtaposition to his city life in London. However, some see it as reflecting his pride in public service and working for a common cause.

Utopia is often seen as a satire and there are many jokes and satirical asides such as how honest people are in Europe, but these are usually contrasted with the simple, uncomplicated society of the Utopians.

The second option is that More agreed with the ideas he was propounding. The method of making a story about an imaginary place told by an imaginary man has the effect of distancing More from his radical political thoughts. Apart from Utopia meaning “Noplace” several other lands are mentioned: Achora meaning “Nolandia”, Polyleritae meaning “Muchnonsense”, Macarenses meaning “Happiland” and the river Anydrus meaning “Nowater”. These names are designed to emphasize the illusory nature of the work and Raphael’s last name, Hythlodaeus meaning “dispenser of nonsense” helps to discredit his words among those who get the joke.

The name Raphael, though, may have been chosen by More to remind his readers of the archangel Raphael who is mentioned in the Book of Tobit. In that book the angel guides Tobias and later cures his father of his blindness. While Hythloday may suggest his words are not to be trusted, Raphael meaning “God has healed”, suggests that Raphael may be opening the eyes of the reader to what is true. The suggestion that More may have agreed with the views of Raphael is given weight by the way he dressed; with “his cloak was hanging carelessly about him”; a style which Roger Ascham reports that More himself was wont to adopt. Furthermore, more recent criticism has questioned the reliability of both Gile’s annotations and the character of “More” in the text itself. Claims that the book only subverts Utopia and Hythloday are possibly oversimplistic.