Thomas More's Utopia Holds a Special Place Term Paper

Pages: 10 (3266 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 23  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Literature

Thomas More's Utopia holds a special place in both literature and history. The book is a unique exercise of imagination that culminates in a science-fiction like vision of the ideal society. It also, however, reveals More's development of a social and religious consciousness that would eventually be responsible for his death and martyrdom. Still, "The actual configuration of the Utopia described in the second part of More's volume may seem on the surface to be devoid of reference to institutions historically prevalent in Christendom. Yet the dramatic setting for Hythloday's opportunity to recount what he saw in Utopia is a conversation that takes place just after More has come from mass at Norte Dame, 'the most beautiful and most popular church in Antwerp.'" Additionally, the philosophy and politics evident in his utopia reveal their close relationship to Augustinian values. In short, the book exposes More's individual perspective regarding European society, which lays the foundation for communism, and his deep reverence for the traditional hierarchies of Christianity that so many have come to associate with his trial and beheading. The two perspectives appear irreconcilable, but More's idealism and pragmatism come together by understanding his philosophical motivations for each.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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Thomas More was born on February 7, 1478, in the historical setting of European expansion and subsequent enlightenment. At the age of six he traveled to London to attend St. Anthony's -- a grammar school in which he studied Latin. In 1492 he was nominated by Archbishop John Morton to study at Canterbury College and was exposed for the first time to the writings of Aristotle and Plato. The following year More left college to study law at New Inn, London, and he proved quite adept at the subject. "At Lincoln's Inn More's study of law involves the belief that judicial decisions are ultimately grounded in divine authority and as such foundational to human society." This constitutes the foundation for More's premise that law holds an essential position concerning the governance of man in that it is handed down from authority, and therefore, supersedes private or personal judgments regarding individuals' actions. More eventually became associated with the Carthusian Church in 1501, where he lectured on Augustine's City of God. Four years later he decided to enter the public arena and married his first wife, Jane, who died at the age of twenty-two; More married again only one month following her death.

By 1515 More had began his work on Utopia. It was originally conceived during his travels to Bruges and Antwerp, as he was working to negotiate a number of commercial and diplomatic treaties. The setting for Utopia very much mirrors the historical setting, and its social consequences, that More found himself in. Obviously, the New World had only recently been discovered, and Europeans were coming to recognize the fact that their knowledge of the world was far more limited than they had originally perceived. Additionally, Martin Luther was seeding the protestant reformation in western Europe, which would partially justify King Henry VIII's decision to break with the Catholic Church, and illustrate More's clear moral and religious difficulties in accepting the movement. Essentially, this accounts for More's theoretical notion that a utopian civilization could exist somewhere in the unknown regions of the world. "In it a traveler, Raphael Hythloday, gives an account of the people of Utopia, which he claims he encountered while journeying through the new world with Amerigo Vespucci." In many respects, the society envisioned in the work is analogous to English society; however, it is free of the corruptions, vices, and greed that More saw in his homeland. It is placed within a recognizable historical context in an effort to grant additional credence to More's notions. The book was competed in 1516, just as the protestant reformation officially began.

Notably, Martin Luther recognized many of the same corruptions of power that More did, however, his solution to the problem was far more practical than the critical assessment of society that More presented in Utopia. Just a year later, Luther would post his Ninety-Five Theses, which would reveal his position that ultimate sin can only be avoided by individual faith in the gospel, and that the Catholic Church had fundamentally lost its way. Luther's concepts identify a number of the same injustices that More relates, however, Luther offers a clearer avenue to rectification than More. Utopia is, in many ways, a satirical work that does little to assert the capability of any European nations to actually achieve the levels of peace and prosperity that Hythloday recalls.

In 1518 More first entered the service of King Henry VIII when he became the under-sheriff of London. From this point, his political career truly takes flight: he is eventually elected to the House of Commons, and then appointed to the position of Lord Chancellor. In his new position, More finds substantial responsibility and forever becomes linked to the political turmoil that would associate itself with the regime of Henry VIII. When the Pope formally declines the King's appeal to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, Henry declares himself the supreme head of the Church of England. This typifies More's incongruity with Henry's political policies: "At the same time that More is vigorously pursuing heretics and even signing their death warrants, Henry is listening to Protestant arguments against the hierarchical structure of the Roman Church."

On May 16, 1533 Thomas More formally resigned as Lord Chancellor, and only a week later, "Archbishop Cranmer annulled Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon; his marriage to Anne Boleyn was declared valid on 28 May, and on 1 June she became Queen." However, he was unable to escape Henry's authority so easily; his resignation and clerical associations made him a focal point of Henry's attention, and his refusal to sign allegiance to the King was deemed nothing short of treason. "On April 17 [1534] More is imprisoned, along with his friend Fisher, in the tower of London. Over the last fourteen months of his life, he writes Treatise on the Passion, a Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, and the Sadness of Christ." These works represent both his philosophical objections to the actions of the King, and his faith in the healing capacity of Christ.

On July 1 [1535] More is tried for treason, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged, cut down while still living, his bowels pulled from his body and burned in his sight, his genitals cut off, his head as well, and his body to be quartered and put on view to the public." However, prior to the declared date of execution, fearing a possible riot from More's compatriots, Henry forestalled his subsequent torture, and limited his punishment to a mere beheading. On the date of the execution he was lead to the scaffold, and is reported as requesting that his beard not be severed -- a final token of his supreme ironic humor. "More knelt down and the executioner offered to blind his eyes; but he refused and covered his face with a linen cloth he had carried with him.... He was killed with one stroke of the axe and, when the head had fallen into the straw, the executioner picked it up and displayed it to the crowds with the shout 'Behold the head of a traitor.'" Thus, the life of a man who would later become canonized and revered by the church and public ended.

Importantly, Utopia illustrates More's fundamental principles regarding religion, the Church, the ordering of society, and the human condition. Since the book was completed nearly twenty years before his death, it is an interesting peak into the notions that led him to choose the path of principle over that demanded by his king. However, the book offers more than insight into the events of his life; it can be analyzed for its critical assessment of sixteenth century European politics and practices, as well as for its quasi-communistic notions. "Whatever ideals are expressed in More's book, or lie behind it, a central paradox or contradiction is in the compromise its author has to describe between ideal and reality.... The circumstances of the book's conception and composition illustrate very well More's own situation, and, beyond the particular poignancy of some aspects of his life, the un-utopian condition of human nature in general." Overall, it is a noteworthy piece of literature for the setting out of which it arose, and the fundamental problems with society that More identifies.

The elemental structure of Utopia also reveals an aspect of Thomas More's mentality, and his position in history. More deliberately approaches the ideas he wishes to convey through fictional methods. Although "More" is a character in the book, and his friend, "Peter Giles," are actual historic figures, Hythloday is a decidedly fictitious character. This is necessary from a practical standpoint for Thomas More, because if he were to present his arguments in any direct manner he would run the risk of being condemned as a heretic or a traitor. Consequently, "More"… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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