Thomas More and Utopia


I. Biography:

1. Torn between lives of public service and religious devotion.

2. Close friendship with Desiderius Erasmus: The Praise of Folly and Utopia as intellectual games, playing on subversive, unsettling wit.
3. Influential writing of The History of King Richard III: setting the stereotype of Richard III as a deformed, murderous tyrant.

4. Struggle against Protestantism: refusing to take oath of religious loyalty to Henry VIII; beheaded as a martyr.

II. Utopia:

1. Influences: Plato’s Republic, systems of monastic community and market society, peasant revolts demanding a more just distribution of wealth, Amerigo Vespucci’s account of the New World, of formerly unknown societies organized around different principles Deliberately different from popular travel accounts of faraway lands in content and style.

2. The vision of an impossibly well-organized and rich society: as an ideal model for imitation for the real society.
3. A dialogue between the 16th-century European society with Utopia: the underside of the imaginary society suggested.

III. Discussion of the Text:

1. Debate over the advantages of public service: p. 509-10 (harking back to More’s own dilemma).
(1) Service or servitude.

(2) Honor to the friends and relatives.

(3) Welfare to the public?: power struggle within the court.

2. The Customs and Institutions of Utopia:

(Based generally on practical considerations and pure rationality; control-oriented society with state intervention; implied comparison with England, cf. p. 513).

(1) Economic system: collective farms, scientifically organized farming.

(2) Communism: dispensing with money and despising precious metals.

A virtual impossibility: as the exchange values/functions of precious metals still in Utopians’ minds.
(3) Marriage: negative principle of reasoning, aiming to reduce promiscuity.

(4) Religion: contradictions in Christian humanism.

a. Idea of religious freedom combined with wishful thinking about the superiority of Christianity: the project of missionary work.

b. Belief based on reason, discussions, against fanaticism: in fear of religious wars.

c. Definite belief in soul; belief in rewards or retribution in afterlife, against morning over deaths.
3. The dialectics between frame account and central account.

(1) Fictional More as different from real-life More: ambiguity about his true attitude to the institutions in Utopia.
(2) The imaginary country as a pure antithesis to the real world: not clear whether the latter is worse off than the former, as the contrast is too drastic to be fully appreciated about its advantages or disadvantages.
(3) Utopia serves more as an ideal to expose the corruptions of the present society, not to be realized literally.
(4) Changes or the Old Ways: Is it ever so easy to change institutions drastically as to achieve an ideal social system right away?

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