THESIS: In this essay, we will analyze Utopia’s role in the common laws, the religious freedoms, and dystopia/utopia similarities throughout More’s literature.
- Imagine you are a sailor, sailing the vast emptiness of the ocean.
- To your dismay, the storm thrashes waves against your boat.
- You find yourself on the island of Thomas More’s Utopia
- Some facts about Thomas More
- Common Law / Commonplace / Customs
- The commons in Thomas More’s Utopia are drastically different from the society in which he lived.
- Thus, More spent most of his lifetime scrutinizing and paying considerable amounts of attention to the England’s common place and common law.
- Utopia and England have a few additional odd similarities worth mentioning.
- Religious Freedoms
- More wanted to unite his Catholic church.
- He based Utopia solely on rational principle.
- More designed Utopian religious freedom as a model for Europe.
- Dystopia or utopia
- Each member of More’s Utopia is cared for; however, today’s generation finds the uniformity unappealing.
- Ralphael contradicts extreme punishments in Utopia
- Clear class system on the island
A. To conclude, Utopia explores ideas of common law, religious freedom, and has similarities to a dystopian society rather than Utopian.
Thomas More’s Utopia
Imagine you are a sailor, sailing the vast emptiness of the ocean. During your travels, you come across a storm on the horizon that at first poses no threat to you. To your dismay, the storm thrashes waves against your boat and you struggle to hold your bearings. The storm grows stronger; suddenly, you drift off into unconsciousness. When you awake, you are on an island. There are people on this island and they graciously take you in. Shockingly, they are incredibly hospitable. The people begin to tell you where you are and how their society functions. All the people are dressed almost identical and they all have a purpose and a function in their society. This island is Thomas More’s ideal fictional society, Utopia.
Thomas More was not the first person to write about a Utopian society, but he did coin the term utopia which means “not place” in Greek. Utopia was written in Latin and published in 1516. It is said to be Thomas More’s most influential work. More’s utopian society had complete employment, the citizens are not fixated on money, and are tolerant towards others in the community (Forward). In this essay, we will analyze Utopia’s role in the common laws, the religious freedoms, and dystopia/utopia similarities throughout More’s literature.
First, Thomas more claims that the commons (a shared system or political space whose authority is constituted by its actual commonality) in his imagined society is fundamentally diverse from the society that he lived in and the tradition in which he wrote. More copes with the established notions of commonality in his book, Utopia. Common law was on the rise and was England’s dominant legal form during the 1500s. Thus, More spent most of his lifetime scrutinizing and paying considerable amounts of attention to England’s common law. The Utopian “customs” include: a system of housing and city planning, a method of senatorial deliberation, a mode of dress, a manner of dining, travel practices, pre-marital courtships, garden growing, and chicken hatching. Evoking the peculiarity of the English legal system, Utopia accepts customs importance in shaping human behavior and Utopian commonwealth. (Elsky)
Furthermore, More makes it clear that Utopia is meant to be his ideal vision for England. Both societies are governed by a binding “force of law.” Every member of these societies is required to obey the laws and face punishment if they contravene. Utopia and England have a few additional odd similarities worth mentioning as well. For instance, England and Utopia are both islands. The capital of Utopia is Amaurotum, which has a river that passes through it. This river has identical tides and bridges to the Thames river in England. England and Utopia are governed by custom. In England, common law is that custom. Unlike common law, Utopian custom offers a means of dominating other nations. Utopia is outside the realm of commonplace; thus it exports its customs carelessly. (Elsky)
Secondly, Thomas More wanted to unify his Catholic church. He promoted civic peace by supporting religious freedom in his literature. More developed a plan that would manage church-state relations. This plan became a predecessor to liberal methods. As presented in Utopia, religious freedom today has Catholic, Renaissance roots. Rational principles were the foundation of Utopia. Religious freedom for Christians was favored by More when he was writing Utopia. Utopian religious freedom was designed to serve as a model for Europe. Utopus, the founder of Utopia, was doubtful of claims made to religious orthodoxy. After he seized power, he banned all religious-political conflict. He banned politically dangerous forms of religion. He required all Utopians to follow religions that promoted virtue. This limited religious freedom made Utopia a morally united society that was also spiritually diverse. Utopus’s efforts made Utopia a society completely free of religiously inspired violence. Utopia stands in the shadow of communism causing most scholars to fail in appreciating Utopian religious freedom. (Kesser)
To continue, More’s Utopia is meant to be a perfect civilization and yet there are countless contradictions and unjust rules on the island. Each member of More’s Utopia is cared for; however, today’s generation finds the uniformity unappealing. An average day in Utopia is set up on a ridged schedule with bedtime at 8 p.m. Community members are given one article of clothing every 2 years; consequently, Fashion does not exist and eliminates a major form of self-expression. Atheists are despised on the island yet there is allegedly religious tolerance. Furthermore, Utopians are obligated to obtain a special passport to travel within their own country, but do not have complete freedom to travel. (Forward) On occasion, there is an alarming, somewhat unsettling note:
“There are also no wine-taverns, no ale-houses, no brothels, no opportunities for seduction, no secret meeting places. Everyone has his eye on you, so you’re practically forced to get on with your job, and make some proper use of your spare time” (More 65).
The main character in Utopia is a man named Raphael. He believes the treatment of thieves in England is harsh; On the other hand, he was accepting of the extreme punishments Utopia had for adultery. Society in Utopia is dominated by males, and it is a husband’s responsibility to insure proper discipline of his wife. Every month wives must confess to their husbands. Taking a rather regimented approach, the state interferes in courtship and marriage. Boys cannot marry until they are 22, while girls can marry as early as 18. Every member of the society must view their chosen partner nude before making the decision to marry. Utopians are a monogamous people and thus uphold the idea that it is necessary to choose an appropriate spouse. According to the Utopians, there is equality in Utopia. Reading Utopia one can see that this is not the case. There is a clear class system on the island with a hierarchy of priest, mayors, and diplomats all from a specific class. The Utopians use slaves to perform lowly task and must work in chain gangs. Slavery is usually used as punishment for serious crimes. Utopians pay mercenaries to fight for them during times of war. Often, they hire foreign armies called Venalians and sadly, the Utopians send many Venalians to their deaths without a care. They rationalize by saying,
“If only they could wipe the filthy scum off the face of the earth completely, they’d be doing the human race a very good turn” (More 113).
They disapprove of war, except in self-defense or when helping to end oppression. (Forward)
To close, Utopia explores ideas of common law, religious freedom, and has similarities to a dystopian society rather than Utopian. Common law in More’s work is comparable to England’s customs. Religious freedom is present, but suppressed as well. Some may say the utopian society did become a dystopian society with further analysis. It is important to note that the issues discussed in More’s text are still relevant to modern-day readers and he addressed some extremely complex topics in a constructive manner.
Elsky, Stephanie. “Common Law And The Commonplace In Thomas More’s “Utopia..” English Literary Renaissance 43.2 (2013): 181-210. Academic Search Premier. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.
Forward, Stephanie. “A taste of paradise: Thomas More’s Utopia.” The English Review, vol. 11, no. 4, 2001, p. 24. General OneFile, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GPS&sw=w&u=avl_nsho&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA79981415&it=r&asid=1738af1f731801e1f0d51de4e455e0cc. Accessed 25 Jan. 2017.
Kessler, Sanford. “Religious Freedom In Thomas More’s Utopia.” Review Of Politics 64.2 (2002): 207. Academic Search Premier. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.
More, Thomas, and Paul Turner. Utopia. London: Penguin Books, 1965. Print.