Utopia

Thomas More, England 1515

Due to the recent success of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies, there has been a recent re-evaluation of Thomas More. Recent interpretations of More were coloured by Robert Bolt’s play and film A Man For All Seasons, where More is portrayed as the definitive man of conscience. More in refusing to endorse Henry VIII’s divorce of his wife, remains true to himself and unwavering in his beliefs and in doing so condemns himself to death. Mantel, on the other hand, portrays More as an intransigent ideologue, sanctimonious and ruthless, willing to torture and kill those who disagree with his version of Christianity.

As with many notable people in history, the reality is probably somewhere between the two. While he is remembered for his principled stand against the Tudor king and his noble death, he was clearly a man of his era, which was an age or religious intolerance and violence on both sides of the reformation.

For the Great Books List, Sir Thomas More is also remembered for his work Utopia, a book that describes an imaginary island state where the perfect political system is in place. Perfect in More’s eyes at least.

More was born in 1478 and studied the law. He began his political career in Wales in 1510 as an under-sheriff.

Between 1513 and 1518, More worked on a History of King Richard III, essentially a piece of Tudor propaganda, that along with Shakespeare’s play Richard the Third did much to demonize the ruler who had been toppled by the Tudors. Whatever its motivation, the history is recognized as a remarkable piece of writing.

In 1515 the young civil servant penned Utopia, his most famous work, which cemented his reputation and an important thinker and brought him to the attention of the Royal Court. By 1517, had become an advisor to the young Henry VIII. After a successful diplomatic mission the Holy Roman Emperor, More was knighted and joined the treasury department.

By 1520, More was not only one of Henry’s most trusted advisors but also a friend of the monarch. His opinion was extremely influential and he became a key figure in the labyrinthine political machinations that existed in the Tudor court.

More became Speaker of the House of Commons and high steward for the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in 1823. Two years later he became chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, effectively giving More administrative and judicial control of much of northern England.

By 1530, More was one of the most powerful men in England. King Henry VIII was a devoted Catholic and More helped him write discourses rejecting the ideas of Martin Luther and invoked many of the ideas contained in Utopia.

More’s fall from power would be public, principled and one of the most famous disputes in English history.

King Henry became increasingly desperate as he and his wife Catherine of Aragon were unable produce a male heir. Henry demanded his Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, obtain an annulment from the Pope that would allow Henry to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. Wolsey failed and was forced out of his position. More replaced him. In 1529, More began a campaign against Protestantism in England and wrote a number of treatise denouncing what he saw as heresy. But Henry began to clash with More’s anti-Protestantism. More refused to accept Henry’s claim to be supreme head of the English church and was forced to resign. He refused to sign a divorce proclamation and declined to attend the royal wedding of Henry and Anne. Henry’s new closest advisor, Thomas Cromwell, saw More as a dangerous dissident and skillfully engineered More’s fall by forcing More to sign a declaration that Anne was the Queen of England. More refused to sign and was arrested for treason. After a very public but perjured trial, More was found guilty and beheaded.

The steadfastness and courage with which More held on to his convictions in the face of ruin and death and the dignity with which he conducted himself during his imprisonment, trial, and execution, made him a hero of Catholics. In 1886 he was made a saint by Pope Leo XIII.

Utopia

More wrote Utopia in 1515 prior to his famous career as an advisor and politician. The novel follows a fictional traveler, Raphael, who details the political set up of an imaginary island nation called Utopia.

More contrasts the social upheavals of European states with the ordered and tranquil organization of Utopia and its surrounding lands (Tallstoria, Nolandia, and Aircastle). In Utopia, private property does not exist and almost complete religious toleration is practiced. Atheism it should be noted is not tolerated. More emphasizes that the perfect society is achieved with order and discipline, not liberty. To the modern sensibility More’s Utopia is almost totalitarian, with no free speech and few freedoms. Many modern scholars have linked More’s Utopia to Karl Marx’s world view. For More, social harmony and a strict political order were the keys to the perfect society and dissention, challenges to social uniformity and religious heresy were regarded as treasonous.

More describes an imaginary perfect nation in order to contrast it with the nations he sees around him and score satirical points at the expense of the political world around him. It is also part of a Renaissance movement that revived classical concepts of perfect earlier described by Plato and Aristotle.

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