The Different Aspects Of Thomas Mores Utopia English Literature Essay
One of the most perplexing aspects of Utopia is the lack of overt clarity as to what changes Thomas More is advocating for European society, and what the message of the book really is. Utopia ends with Hythloday’s claim that Utopia is the perfect society, and with More's judgment that - with some exceptions perhaps worthy of European implementation - Utopian policies are foolish. The book gives little indication of which view it most supports. Many of the ideas expressed within the text - the ease of divorce, legality of euthanasia and concepts of married and female priests - seem to be blatant opposites of the beliefs expected of a devout Catholic, which More certainly was. The concept of religious toleration, and criticism of lawyers in particular seem to clash with what we know of Thomas More during his tenure as Lord Chancellor; that he was a persecutor of English Protestants and one of the most influential lawyers in England. I personally think that More’s purpose in writing Utopia was to open his contemporaries’ eyes to the social and political evils of European society around them: inflation, corruption, maltreatment of the poor, pointless war and the misuse of power by absolute monarchs. More takes great care to emphasize how the issues of thievery, idleness, and private monopolies arising from land ownership burden European society. I believe More insinuates that the aforementioned societal evils afflicting Europe are a result of the Biblical notion that "…the love of money is the root of all evil” (Timothy 6:10)1. I would argue this to be the central message of Thomas More's Utopia: Utopian society is to be viewed as a superior and ideal alternative to European society as a result of it’s treatment of wealth and lack of personal property. In Utopia, Thomas More advocates moves away from property ownership and personal wealth in an attempt to dispel the evils which he felt were afflicting his society.
First of all, I will begin by demonstrating that More, through his writings in Utopia does indeed express multi-faceted fault with Europe’s fixation on acquisition of wealth and property. In the “Discourses of Raphael Hythloday”, More’s characters discuss multiple ways in which European society is afflicted with its fixation on wealth. Initially, the discourse follows the topic of thievery, and the seemingly inexhaustible supply of thieves despite harsh punishment for the act. The discussion then turns to the immense burden on the economy of Europe’s countries as a result of maintaining large standing armies, before moving on to the issue of “man-eating” sheep, land enclosure, and the “virtual monopolies” on essential parts of the economy such as wool. Essentially, More appears to be utilizing the mouth of Raphael Hythloday to express the message that a desire of wealth and land as well as the basic need of essential goods lie at the root of Europe's problems, as I have stated in my thesis above. Raphael neatly espouses this idea when he states that he, “[does not] see how you can get any real justice or prosperity, so long as there's private property, and everything's judged in terms of money"2 (45; book one). The “Discourses of Raphael Hythloday” present More’s problems with European society while the contents of the subsequent book are offered as solutions by way of example utilizing Utopian society.
A more detailed look into the issue of thievery in Utopia will now be presented. Thievery is a rife and persistent problem in More's Europe, spurred on by the necessity of wealth and personal goods to survive in a welfare-lacking society. In the “Discourses of Raphael Hylthloday”, An English Lawyer laments the nature of the issue, "We're hanging them all over the place…considering how few of them get away with it, why are we still plagued with so many robbers?"3 (22; book one). More, via Raphael, suggests that the nature of European society is responsible for the creation of its own thieves and, therefore, creates its own problems. More clearly expresses this sentiment when he writes that, "[Europe] create[s] thieves and then punish[es] them for stealing"4 (27; book one), and therefore thievery will only be stamped out if Europeans stop creating thieves. In this matter, More is clearly influenced by his historical context. Prior to the reign of the Tudor monarchs, there was a glaring absence of legislation in England to address the issue of the impoverished. To address this absence, and to compensate for Henry VIII’s earlier dissolution of the monasteries (which had theoretically filled in for any form of state welfare), new laws concerning the poor were established in 1598 and 1601, the Elizabethan Poor Laws5 (p.158 tb). More, and his fellow humanist writers such Erasmus quite possibly played a role in the changing attitudes of society towards the poor.
I will now discuss how More relates the issue of thievery with that of societal idleness. More argues that a prominent cause of thievery in European society is the large portion of the population that is permitted to remain idle. This portion of the population, not possessing a useful trade or skill, is therefore unable to make contributions to the overall welfare of society. More claims that noblemen in particular are lacking in societal contributions and "live like drones on the labour of other people"6 (23; book one). Even worse, the nobility often have an even more detrimental effect on society by their enclosing of common land for sheep, and subsequent monopolizing of the wool market. Furthermore, the Church, while providing spiritual services and access to God, does not adequately provide the day-to-day welfare services - such as food and clothing - essential for survival. More’s apparent disregard of the Church’s effectiveness to combat poverty is interesting given the historical context. Prominent contemporary figures of the Church, such as Cardinal Wolsey, commonly practiced plurality, resulting in frequent absenteeism of some of their less important parishes. Finally, More points to the beggars of European society. More argues that some of these individuals are undoubtedly capable of work, yet are lacking initiative or have not been trained how to do so. The character Raphael summates that, "When you've counted them up, you'll be surprised to find how few people actually produce what the human race consumes"7 (57; book two). European society, More seems to think, clearly is not fulfilling the potential of its available labour force. The portion who do work towards full-filling societies needs are over-burdened, and when they cannot work anymore, they are forced either to starve or to steal. Moreover, the portion of society who are either untrained, or lack practical skills must thieve to survive, for lack of employability. This is not the case in More’s ideal Utopian society.
More, expressing his views once again through Raphael’s dialogue, proclaims that "it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody's under the frightful necessity of becoming first a thief and then a corpse"8 (22; book one). In Utopia, idleness is extremely rare. All able-bodied men and women work at an essential trades, as idleness is simply not tolerated. Only a select group of people, such as the Stywards, are exempted from the ordinary work of population, who themselves continue to work to ensure that the society is functioning smoothly and set an example. In addition, those who show an aptitude for learning and study are permitted to pursue higher education, rather than their regular societal duties. In Utopia, there are no non-essential trades, all trades preformed communally contribute to strength of society as a whole. All Utopians learn agriculture, so that everyone will be capable of providing food, one of the most base human needs. Other trades include carpentry, stonemasonry, the processing of wool and flax, and the arts of the blacksmith. With the whole of Utopian society engaged in essential trades, Utopians only need work six hours a day, and there are always surplus goods produced. Unlike Europeans, Utopians have no need for personal wealth and do not have personal property. This is because Utopians do not need to pay for anything - more than enough essentials are produced though the combined work of society, Since everyone has a hand in the production of the necessities of life, all are entitled to what they need and, therefore, have no need for thievery.
The matter of land-owning and private property shall now be discussed. In Utopia More details how the land-owning class of European society become dissatisfied with their current state financial wealth from tenant-based agriculture, and decide to enclose large tracts of land to pasture sheep, due to the greater return garnered by wool. More contends that this action has definite negative results on society. Land previously devoted to cultivation becomes pastures and, as a result, the price of other livestock and corn goes up, as less and less of these things are being produced. Therefore, the price of food rises, and people who cannot afford it steal to survive. The farmers, their families and their staff are then left homeless, jobless and hungry. They are unable to find a job because farms are disappearing, and their little money soon runs out. They must, therefore, steal to survive, while the nobles watch the money flow in. Clearly, if such value was not placed on money, the nobles would have no motive to send farmers and farm hands into poverty, becoming plagues on society. If money and personal goods did not exist in Europe and everyone worked together to produce what society needs, there would be no theft and everyone would have enough of everything. In other words, if Europe followed Utopia's example, Europe would be a better place, for "[w]hy should anyone want to start hoarding, when he knows that he'll never have to go short of anything?" (61; book two).
In conclusion, Thomas More advocates a move to adopt Utopian societal values, which would do away with Europe’s fixation on acquisition of wealth and property. Property ownership and personal wealth have been demonstrated to be at the root of the evils which More felt were afflicting his society, namely those of thievery, idleness, and enclosure of common pasture land. More has clearly demonstrated in Utopia how thievery is intimately linked to European society, essentially being a product of the state of European society. It has also been shown that More believes private property promotes the implementation of enclosure that that is damaging to the poor. Therefore, I believe that in Utopia, Thomas More is seeking to open the eyes of his historical contemporaries to the societal harm with springs from the pursuit of money and land, and offers the fictional values of the ideal Utopian society guide for an improved European society.
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