Thomas Mores, Utopia is one of the most politically and socially influential texts to date. His audience, which ranges from academic and social scholars to college students, all can gain a different understanding of the work and its meaning. In order to fully comprehend Mores message, one must have an appreciation for the time and culture in which he lived.After grasping historical concepts, one reads Utopia, not as just a volume recounting a fictitious island society, but rather as a critique on a time of corruption and reformation.
Throughout the entire text, Mores personal views on the religion, politics, and economy of this turbulent time seep through the carefully plotted thread of this critical work.More is seen in history through many different lights. It is difficult to historically describe the sixteenth century without mentioning Mores individual involvement as a key religious and political figure of the time. In his early life, he focuses mainly on his desire for priesthood. More lived in a monastery for years and pursued the pious life of the Carthusians only to abandon it for a political career. Many speculate that Mores reasons for leaving had to do with the corruption he witnessed in his time there and desire to engage in matrimony. The corruption and greed forming among the clergy is what triggered the Protestant Reformation, led by Martin Luther.
Next, More entered into the political spotlight through parliament and as a Speaker of the House of Commons, where he spent his energy encouraging the idea of freedom of speech. His next duty was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancester, followed by the Lord Chancellor. Both of these came towards the end of his political and judicial career when his views began to split from those of Henry VIII. Mores disagreement with the ideas of Henry VIII and the conversion to Lutheranism was eventually the end of him, when he was beheaded for refusing to swear to the Oath of Supremacy and Act of Succession. He believed in the way of the Catholic Church till the end and paid the ultimate sacrifice of his life.
Evidence of Mores religious views is found throughout the text. He cleverly disguises his true opinions by inventing a fictitious traveler by the name of Raphael Hythloday, who the reader believes to be the originator of the radical ideas. More also sprinkles real names throughout the introduction, which adds credibility to the entire idea of Utopia as a real place. He goes one step further to make himself a character as the voice of reason. In the time that More wrote the novel, these views were so radical that, had they not had some sort of a disclaimer provided, he could have been punished. Raphael describes the Utopians in detail. More spends an exceptionally large amount of time discussing the Utopians religious beliefs. He describes them as monotheists, stating, they believe in a single power, unknown, eternal, infinite, inexplicable, far beyond the grasp of the human mind(73).
More stresses this notion of civility in a heathen culture where Christianity had not touched until Hythlodays arrival. The only religious law that must be followed, which was created by Utopias founder, Utopus, claims that any religion is permissible if it includes the notion of an afterlife.He writes this to an audience who he believes has lost all sense of what Christianity truly is.
R.W. Chamber states, The Four Cardinal VirtuesWisdom, Fortitude, Temperance and Justicewere taken into the medieval systemand were sufficient to ensure that a man or a State might be a model of conduct in secular matters(138).
He says that heathen cultures, like Utopia, are based on these Virtues that are subsidiary to, not a substitute for, the Christian virtues(138). Chambers idea suggests that More uses the concept of the Utopians, as heathens, working in a successful and yet Non-Christian society, as proof that just because one says one is a Christian it does not mean that he/she lives a better life than a heathen. It should be mentioned that heathen was a derogatory term in the sixteenth century that conjures up images of barbarians and uncivilized chaos. This play on Heathenism is Mores attempt to critique English Christians who