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Utopia | Context


Religious Conflict in the 1500s

The 1500s were a time of great religious upheaval, not only in England but also throughout Europe. While the pope was extraordinarily powerful, his authority was challenged in 1517 by the daring writings of the German reformer Martin Luther.

Luther's 95 Theses attacked what he thought were corrupt practices to absolve sins. Luther stated that the Bible was the ultimate authority for Christians. He said salvation was attained through faith and not deeds. Luther's writings, including the famous 95 Theses, refuted many of the practices and beliefs of the Catholic Church and led to the events of the Protestant Reformation (1517–1648). The Reformation was essentially a religious split among Europeans. Some continued to practice Catholicism and follow the pope, and others became Protestants.

Thomas More was a dedicated Catholic and was attracted to the practices and beliefs of religious monks. At the same time, however, he had a surprising willingness to consider and even espouse humanistic ideas like those of his friend Erasmus, a famous Dutch philosopher.

It is important to note Utopia was written just before Martin Luther's Theses were made public, so the book was not a reaction to that event. The ideas in Utopia, however, are directly contradictory to many of those of the Catholic Church. More died refuting the Reformation and swearing allegiance to Catholicism. Though the book is certainly a work of political satire, it's not completely clear which ideas are More's own and which are intended to be absurd. Some of the passages in Utopia seem to idealize religious life while others make fun of it.

Politics in the Time of Henry VIII

Thomas More became active in Parliament during the time of Henry VII. When Henry VII died in 1509, his only surviving son, Henry VIII, became king. Henry VIII married his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon, as a way to maintain an alliance between Spain and England. Catherine, after many years of marriage, had not had a son, though she had given birth to a daughter. Henry VIII was eager to father a male heir and determined he should marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.

As citizens of a Catholic nation, English people of that time were not legally allowed to divorce. King Henry, however, believed certain phrases from the Bible supported his argument that his marriage was not valid. In fact, Pope Clement VII had granted a similar divorce to other members of European royalty. Clement, however, refused this divorce because of his personal connection to Catherine's family in Spain.

Working with Thomas More, a loyal political ally and friend, King Henry petitioned the pope. The king also sought the support of other national leaders and continued to seek a divorce. More supported this effort for a time, hoping the king and the pope would reconcile.

In 1530 the possibility of reconciliation ended. An adviser suggested that King Henry name himself the religious (in addition to political) ruler of England. Despite More's opposition, Parliament supported Henry's decision, particularly as the power of the papacy was on the decline with the rise of the Reformation. King Henry was declared the religious ruler of the new Church of England. Now he had the power to declare divorce acceptable in the eyes of men and God.

Thomas More, a dedicated follower of the pope, could not in good conscience follow the king. More resigned from Parliament in 1532. Unfortunately for More, he had become a very popular and influential man. His decision to resign created problems for Henry VIII's new government, which was led by Protestant sympathizers.

A few years later Parliament acted to confirm Henry VIII's new authority. The 1534 Act of Succession declared Anne and Henry VIII's marriage legitimate and Anne's daughter Elizabeth successor to the crown. The 1534 Act of Supremacy or Oath of Supremacy named Henry VIII the Supreme Head of the Church of England. More was asked to sign both of these documents but refused to do so. This decision, which More did not regret, sealed his fate. He was executed in the Tower of London the following year.

Utopia in Historical Context

Utopia was written nearly 500 years ago, before the works of English playwright William Shakespeare and before the founding of the United States. Modern readers may find some of the ideas in the book to be surprising or even shocking. It's important, therefore, to understand the context in which the book was written.

  • Utopia is set in the "New World," meaning the Americas. It's helpful to remember that the Mayflower, on which the Pilgrims traveled to America, landed in Plymouth nearly 90 years after More wrote Utopia. Even educated Englishmen of More's time knew almost nothing about the New World, which made it a good place to set an undiscovered country.
  • Utopia describes a society in which slavery is considered normal. The slave trade from Africa to America had recently begun, and many Englishmen were benefitting financially. More's description of slavery is far more liberal and purposeful than the actual slave trade of the time.
  • In Utopia women and men are educated, and women have a clear place in society. To modern readers, though, More's descriptions of female rights and power may seem regressive. The reality, however, is that Utopian women had many more rights and freedoms than real women in More's England.
  • Utopia describes a world in which communal ownership of homes and property result in an ideal society. When More wrote Utopia, however, Europe was still led by monarchs who ruled by "divine right." German philosopher Karl Marx, one of the founders of modern Communist theory, would not be born for hundreds of years. As it came to be practiced, communism resulted in an economic governmental structure where an authoritarian leader came to control all means of production.
  • It may seem that Utopia was written as a description of an ideal society. However, it's important to remember that More was a dedicated servant of an absolute monarch and was devoted to the Catholic pope. He was also a deeply religious Christian. Utopia, therefore, should not be read as a "prescription" for a perfect world but instead as social satire and commentary.


Utopias and Dystopias

Utopia was the foundation for two very popular types of literature: utopian and dystopian (or antiutopian) novels. More invented the word utopia and was the first to write a fictionalized version of a "perfect" world or society. Since the publication of the book, many very famous authors have used the concept to create "perfect" worlds.

Utopian literature describes societies the author sincerely believes to be ideal; dystopian literature describes societies the author believes to be the opposite of ideal (the worst possible societies). Both genres, like More's Utopia, have both literary and political purposes.

Some famous utopian works include:

  • The City of the Sun (1623) by Calabrian monk Tommaso Campanella
  • New Atlantis (1626–27) by Francis Bacon
  • Erewhon (1872) by Samuel Butler
  • A Modern Utopia (1905) by H.G. Wells
  • Walden Two (1948) by B.F. Skinner

Dystopian novels and stories are almost always intended as political works. Their purpose is to warn readers of what could happen in society if its worst elements are allowed access to leadership. Many dystopian novels focus on the question of what would happen if safety and uniformity were valued over individualism and creativity. Some famous dystopian novels include:

  • The Time Machine (1895) by H.G. Wells
  • When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) by H.G. Wells
  • Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley
  • Anthem (1938) by Ayn Rand
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell
  • Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury
  • Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding
  • The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood
  • The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry

Utopia as Political Satire

Utopia is an example of political satire, a genre that uses comedic or ridiculous elements to poke fun at an existing political structure. While not a comedy per se, the book includes comic elements that would, if presented in a serious format, have inspired a negative response from individuals with political power. Through satire, More is able to make statements about justice, power, and property that might otherwise have been condemned by the political elite of his time.

More introduces a satirical tone almost immediately by describing the questions asked of Hythloday by the characters of More and Giles: "We made no inquiries after monsters, than which nothing is more common" because "it is not so easy to find states that are well and wisely governed." This statement, taken seriously, is a judgment on the government of England. Taken as satire, however, it is humorous.

Satire is used consistently in the description of Utopians as well. For example, Hythloday describes their attitude toward mercenary soldiers, saying they are hired with "offers of vast rewards to expose themselves to all sorts of hazards" because "the Utopians are not at all troubled how many of these happen to be killed" as "they could be a means to deliver the world from such a lewd and vicious sort of people." If expressed seriously, such a statement would cause offense—but as a satirist More could make his point without fear of giving offense.

The Political Impact of Utopia

Many of the ideas presented in Utopia were not new. Equality among classes and genders had been suggested by earlier writers, including Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428/427 BCE–c. 348/347 BCE). It's difficult to know how much impact Utopia really had on later political thinkers who may have read the book. It is certainly true, though, that many of the ideas in Utopia were later brought up in a political context and became very important.

One of the most important political thinkers whose work relates to that of More was German philosopher Karl Marx (1818–83). One of the great developers of communism, Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto (1848) in which he describes an ideal egalitarian society. Marx's ideas became the basis for the Russian Revolution (1917), where Russian Communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks (offshoot of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party) revolted and ended czarist rule in Russia. The Russian Revolution, in turn, made possible the development and rise of the Soviet Union, a collection of Socialist (referring to a transitional period between the end of capitalism, or an economic model where production is privately owned, and the rise of communism) states that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991. In China, Communist leader Mao Zedong used utopian ideas to fuel a Communist takeover of the government that took place in 1949, ending a lengthy civil war.

On a much smaller level, many groups have followed the dream of a Utopia by founding their own "perfect" societies. Examples of such utopian societies include communes founded by hippies during the 1960s. Few utopian societies have survived for more than a few decades, and many survive only a few years.

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