More published Utopia in 1516 in the midst of political, social, and religious upheaval in England and Europe.
In England, King Henry VIII was a powerful, even tyrannical leader who was amassing great debts and greater control over life in the realm. More was a councillor to Henry VIII and, from 1529 to 1532, Lord High Chancellor, a powerful position in the British Cabinet today in charge of the independence of the judiciary. In More’s day, it meant he was essentially the highest judge in the realm, a position he used to thwart Henry’s efforts to obtain a divorce, and head of the Royal Court, called the ‘curia regis,’ that would eventually evolve into the House of Lords in Parliament.
A year after More published Utopia, the Protestant Reformation began in earnest with Luther’s publication of the Ninety-Five Treatises, followed by Henry’s creation of the Church of England, with himself as the Head of the Church, beginning in 1529 and completed in 1537. More resisted Henry’s efforts, and in 1533, More refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, as Queen of England, and More refused to take the Oath of Supremacy of the Crown, seeing the Pope as the final authority on topics like divorce. More was arrested, charged with treason, and beheaded in 1535.
Reading Questions for Utopia:
1. Utopia is a layered pun–as our editors note, in Greek, the word ‘ou-topos‘ translates as ‘no place,’ but ‘eu-topos,’ which sounds the same, means ‘good place,’ (A side note, the NBC tv show ‘The Good Place’ is FULL of puns, philosophical discussions, and very much in the vein of More’s work–it’s a great show, highly recommended), and More’s critique of contemporary English and European society comes from the great differences between the no/good island he imagines here. So, let’s start with the idea of a good place that may not exist–is More’s island a place you’d like to visit? Why or why not? What details stand out either way?
2. As well as the pun on no/good place, More puns with the name of the man who tells of Utopia, Raphael Hythloday, whose name ironically connects the archangel Raphael, who is the angel of healing in Judaism, Catholicism, and Islam, with nonsense, as his last name translates from Greek as “dispenser of nonsense.” What then do we do with Hythloday’s ‘testimony?’ Is it meant to ‘heal’ England and Europe? Or just nonsense because he tells us of Utopia’s ways which include communism and no private property rights, e.g.?
3. The island’s features, which we see on our pages 395-96, tells us that there are 54 cities on the island, that they have a great council at Amaurot, and that everyone from each city must give up two years of their lives to common labor–though Utopia does have slaves, as seen on p. 396. How can a ‘good place’ have slavery, we might well ask? England of course had slaves both at home and in their colonies. The Utopians also have no money, but simply share among the cities the excesses of their harvests as needed–does this sound good to you? Many critiques of socialism and communism begin with the premise that only the promise of wealth (or threat of punishment) can induce people to do the hard labor of farm work or other difficult labor–do you buy that argument as contrasted here?
4. What about the conducting of war? The Utopians, Hythloday tells More, rarely go to war, but when they do, they generally use foreign mercenaries–what do you think that More might be getting at, especially given that the European states of his day were constantly at war with each other on land and sea? They also pay these mercenaries in gold and silver, which they have little use for–what does that suggest to us about More’s view of such in his society?
5. Finally, the last section in our excerpt concerns religion, perhaps the most contentious issue of More’s day in England and Europe. What does it mean to you that Utopians worship a Supreme Being, but were not particularly disposed to hear about Christ or the Catholic Church, and were able to worship as they please, but not able to use any force but persuasion and reason to create fellowships?
Are there any other points you want to raise? Please do so in the comments.
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