THE LITERARY GENIUS OF SIR THOMAS MORE'S 'UTOPIA'
By Ryan Ratnam
You may not have heard of Sir Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’, but the term itself you would have more likely heard. The etymology of the word gives it a meaning of a ‘non-existent society described in considerable detail’. The word literally means ‘No place’, an obscured joke made by the author himself. However, the word’s meaning has gradually changed and narrowed throughout time to the present where it is ‘a non-existent society which is viewed as considerably better than the contemporary one’, an almost faultless civilization. Although this book is extremely old, celebrating its 501st birthday this year, it has managed to survive the ages, taking its place as a veteran in the library of political literature. But what is so momentous about this book, is its use of ingenious literary techniques and shrewd ideas to ensure its existence.
‘Utopia’ was published in 1516, a year before the Reformation. This was just before a period spanning more than a century, which contained the upheaval of convention and of the powerful Catholic Church, changing Europe forever. Sir Thomas More was Lord High Chancellor of England (1529-1532) and a very close councillor to King Henry VIII. He was extremely devout to Catholicism, partaking in acts of self-flagellation (flogging) and was even canonised (1935) and declared as a Martyr after he was beheaded for treason. He was beheaded for various reasons, after opposing the crown’s split from the Catholic Church and not supporting King Henry’s annulment to Catherine of Aragon. His refusal to sign the Oath of Succession (which confirmed Anne Boleyn’s role as Queen and the rights of their children to succession) was the final nail in the coffin and thereafter he was imprisoned and later executed in 1535.
‘Utopia’ describes a society on an imaginary island, aptly called ‘Utopia’ in the New World. It is not ruled by a monarchy, but by a complex body of people in different positions elected by the people. It is almost an Autarky as everybody is said to have to work, meaning that productivity is extremely high and therefore only minimal trade is needed. It does not seek expansion of land, unlike most European countries in the Medieval-Early modern era. It also expresses a view of religious sectarianism as it is optional with people carrying out specific customs in their own homes very much privately, heavily contrasting the Catholicism smothered Europe before the Reformation. It discards intrinsic attainment, for one benefiting the whole of the community. It even presents hunting and butchering in distasteful natures, deeming it unnecessary and rather frivolous, ideas which are only surfacing again today. This Utopian society is not all perfect, containing a system of slavery, but it raises ideas extremely ahead of its time, such as the allowance of female priests, something which is still not even present in the Catholic Church today.
As you can see ‘Utopia’ is an immensely different society to one of the early 1500s. But in this imaginary society manifests a challenge to the monarchy, the church and the whole European political system as a whole. If something this controversial were to even spread in this bare state at that time, it would be immediately destroyed with the authors. Treason laws were rife and the monarchy had always been swift in crushing anything which might threaten its position (such as the 1534 Treasons Act that More was actually executed under). More is extremely clever in his writing of this book, portraying it through a fictional character called Raphael Hythloday. Raphael has recently arrived in England from travelling the world in which he spent five years living in the island of ‘Utopia’. It is through Raphael that More presents all his ideas, portraying ‘Utopia’ as a real island. The whole book is a conversation between Raphael, More himself and More’s friend called Peter Gilles. More even disagrees with Raphael at points in the book, “Saying that the laws and customs of that country seemed to me in many cases perfectly ridiculous.” But he goes on to say that, “But I freely admit that there are many features…which I should like…to see adopted in Europe,” which would have been acceptable. By doing this More saves himself from accusations of treason and by writing the book as more of a factual piece, he is able to get his ideas published and spread. When reading into the miniature of the text it is obvious that ‘Utopia’ cannot be a real state, as it solves many problems in Medieval European societies without experiencing them before, such as using Gold and Silver in everyday objects and on slaves in order to make sure that people do not become fixated on them. The piece is divided into two books, the first outlining problems in real life societies, and the second describing ‘Utopia’ which seems to have solutions to all these problems. This is another genius technique by More as it brings the problems clearly to the forefront and offers apt solutions for them, making one who is reading it more likely to adopt some of the beliefs on show.
But why did More write Utopia? He was a politician and an advocator of Catholicism but the work undermines everything that he is supposed to believe in. His motive is still a relative mystery today. The religious secularism directly contradicts the nation-wide belief that everyone had to be devout to Catholicism and the almost Communist views stipulated. However, some theorise that he called this, island ‘Utopia’, ‘no place’, in order to present how a place like this could not have worked, it being a naïve dream of sorts with no practicality in order to prove how the contemporaneous society was the only feasible option; people had to be constantly regulated and policed to avoid an almost devolution into a state of never ending war. On the other hand, like many others, I prefer to believe that More was actually opposed to the current status quo and produced this veiled political masterpiece in order to spread the word. Both sides could be correct, both wrong, we might never know.
‘Utopia’ is an extremely fascinating and thought-provoking read and I recommend anyone interested in History, Politics or just literature itself to read it.