The book, Utopia by Saint Thomas More was written in 1515 and published in 1516. Moore was an English lawyer and a Lord Chancellor at the time of writing this book. This book was originally written in Latin and later translated to English. The book is about a fictional island created by the author. It reveals the social, political, religious and economical customs of the island. The society described by the author is a rather perfect one. He then surrounds this description with those of other societies. These other societies have political systems that are chaotic and call for significant reforms. The title of the book has been used rather ironically. The term utopia finds its genesis in the Latin language. It was originally used to imply perfection (Olin, 1989). However, the situations described in the book Utopia, are nowhere near perfect. The book is satirical. The writer used the book to highlight the political and social issues that surrounded Europe during this time.
Britain was experiencing a constitutional monarchy during the period surrounding the writing of this book. A monarchy existed that had its powers restricted by the constitution. It performed ceremonial duties like representing the state in international meetings. Alongside this, the state also had a parliament. This was the main legislative organ. More alludes to this kind of government system in his book Utopia. At the beginning of the book, the author introduces us to one of the roles of the character Thomas More. He is an ambassador of King Henry VII. The author also shows us how the acquaintances of the character Hythloday are trying to persuade him to become an advisor of the king. The author also alludes to the parliamentary aspect of governance when the character of Hythloday talks about the British government coming up with laws (Cousins, 2009). He talks about how these legislations as being unjust. The author is then inspired to bring out the theme of public service. Hythloday is being convinced by his companions to join the king’s court. The reason behind this was so that he could contribute philosophically to the ruling of the state. The author does this intentionally to bring out the need for the leadership of the states to adopt a precise and comparative analysis in the implementation of their policies. The leadership’s lack of service to the people is viewed as slavery. The author brings this out through the character of Hythloday. He says that he would rather refrain from joining politics to maintain his freedom.
During the 16th century, Europe was experiencing major religious reformations. The Catholic Church had been the universal religion. During this period, it was facing many issues that surrounded the low level of morality among its clergy. Many lost their trust in the Catholic Church. Reformations were highly encouraged by the European leaders to break away from the Roman Church (More, 1999). At this time, reformists such as Martin Luther King and John Calvin began to question some doctrines of the Catholic faith. The author’s writing was largely affected by the reforms that had begun to take shape. In the book utopia, the author addresses the legalistic approach of the church. The author talks about adding grace and mercy to religion. In utopia, all the citizens were to say a common prayer, despite their religion. The author brings in the aspect of religious pluralism where other religions are tolerated and treated as equals. This was contrary to the popular belief in Europe during the 15th century. The Roman Catholic was the only recognized religion.
In the 16th century, the land system that existed was that of feudalism. In this system, there existed lords and serfs. The lords were the owners on the land. The land and labour were the main means of production. Those who held possession of the means of production became the elite of the society. They formed the ruling class and used the resources they had to enrich themselves. The lords hired labour from the serfs. The serfs would then acquire accommodation on the land of the lords as a payment for their labour (Davis, 1983). More addresses the issue of feudalism in the book Utopia. He talks about the poverty that the nobles subjects the serfs to. This is because they serfs are made entirely dependant on their masters. Once their lords die, they are reduced to beggars.
The 16th century saw Europe’s thrive in business. Merchants from different parts of the world traded through the Baltic up to the New World. There was a significant increase in accumulation of wealth and economic activities. In the beginning of the century, Spain and Portugal was opened up to the world. This helped in increasing economic activities. The two states required an investment in their institutions. The pacific and Atlantic oceans became key in aiding the movement of the merchants. This sparked significant advancements in the area of sea transportation. New nautical techniques were created to aid in the navigation of the seas. This background helps to bring out the aspect of capitalism.
The 16th century was a period that was experiencing renaissance. It was a significant period of rebirth. The perspective of individuals was broadened during this time. There was a greater demand for art and literature (Olin, 1989). A new standard of sophistication had been developed. The world had shifted from the simplicity of the middle ages. This was crucial for Thomas More. The works like those of Niccolo Machiavelli helped him to venture into some of the controversial issues in society. Books like The Prince encouraged the author to delve in to political issues that needed reformation.
The economic system that existed at this time was that of capitalism. This system was almost run concurrently with feudalism. The elements of capitalism include private ownership of the means of production. The term capitalism also implies creation of products and services for the profit of individuals. There is competitive accumulation of wealth. More gives an idealistic approach to this economic system. He introduces the aspect of communism. This shows his lack of faith in capitalism as away of bringing societal development. In communism, he talks about communal land ownership. The author talks about shifting the resources in a community from the monopoly of a few. More propagates for the abolition of privately owned states. The author brings out the practice of communism in Utopia to build on his satire. The reason behind supporting communism is that it will help to reduce crimes and injustices. Communism does away with classes that come about because of social stratification. In Utopia, there is no poverty. The author also brings out the aspect of private land ownership as a cause of increase in crime levels. The utopians have the common welfare as their main priority.
Gender inequality was rampant in the 16th century. The roles of men and women were defined. This was through socialization. The women were also looked at as a weaker sex. They were not allowed to engage in the same occupations that their male counterparts had engaged in (More, 1999). Equality is a major theme addressed by Thomas More. He presents Utopia as a society where uniformity exists. This is an expression of the authors desire to have equality in the states of Europe. Utopia’s perfection is expressed in its uniformity. The architecture of all the buildings is similar. All citizens work the same number of hours. This kind of uniformity is contrary to what was seen in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. The monarchs faced a great deal of challenge in trying to consolidate the components of the state. These components were like those of commerce and urbanization. This is because of the power struggle that existed between the nobles and lords. In Hythloday’s description of the cities in Utopia, he brings out their uniformity by saying that in knowing one of them, you have known all of them.
The 15th and 16th centuries carried with it many wars. These wars were religious while others involved the lords and the nobles. In Utopia peace was achieved by removing diversity in thought. The nation state system punished offenders on the basis of the existence of a supreme being. Punishment was based on the morality of the soul. A master plan was followed by every member of the society. This plan was passed on from generation to generation.
The character Hythloday has been used to as the vessel through which the author discusses some of the controversial issues in his society. These issues cover a wide scope of philosophical, religious and political issues. These thematic issues subsequently mould the readers’ worldview on issues like gender equality, religious pluralism, and communalism. More proposes that in any society, the main goal of its members should be the welfare of the community as a whole (Cousins, 2009). This perspective has been adapted by many states. An example of a communist state is Cuba. The aspect of equality has also been largely embraced in today’s society. Equality is sought in almost of all aspects of life, be it in marriages, gender, religion and even sexual orientation. The book has helped to cultivate the worldview of equality and uniformity.
Utopia is still relevant even in the 21st century. Some of the issues that were addressed by More are still problematic today. Such issues are like social stratification based on class, discrimination based on religion and exploitation of the poor.
Cousins, Grace. A companion to Thomas More. Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009. Print.
Davis, Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing 1516-1700. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Print.
More, Robinson, Sacks. Utopia. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999. Print.
Olin, Interpreting Thomas More’s Utopia. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Fordham University Press, 1989. Print.