Essay on Thomas More’s Utopia and His Context

Utopia is Sir Thomas More’s seminal work, depicting a fictitious island and its religious, social, and political customs. Working as an advisor to King Henry VIII, More was aware of the issues of his time such as ridiculous inflation, corruption, wars for little or no purpose, courtly ostentation, the abuse of power by the absolute monarchs, and the maltreatment of the poor. Consequently, More used Utopia to contrast some unique and refreshing political ideas with the chaotic politics of his own country. It is important to note that More did not intend to provide an exact blueprint for a perfect society, rather he merely presents his ideas in the form of a political satire, revealing the evils of his time.

More wrote his novel in 1516, a time when the first phase of the Renaissance was over, and the Reformation was about to break. The pioneer architects, Brunelleschi, Alberti and Bramante were dead, Michelangelo had just completed the Sistine Chapel and as working on the completion of St Peter’s, Leonardo da Vinci had only three years to live and Raphael, four. Machiavelli had completed The Prince in 1513 and the Medicis had just returned to Florence after 20 years’ exile following the reign of Savonarola. More was directly linked to the Italian humanist tradition through his teacher at Oxford University, Grocyn, who had studied at Florence and Rome. But he was also a close friend of Erasmus, whose outspoken criticism of the church had been described as the ‘egg that Luther hatched when he launched the Reformation’. In 1517, one year after the completion of Utopia, Luther published his 95 theses, and the subsequent movement put an end to the hopes of men such as More and Erasmus that reform in the church might be achieved …

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… under his rule, and he was a scathing critic of Luther, behaviour which would have led to his expulsion from Utopia. This is covered for, by Hythloday’s comment “for human nature is subject to change.”

Thomas More’s Utopia depicts his thoughts on the quality of leadership of royalty and government, social justice through the institution of family, health care and slavery, as well as religion, during a time that was both oppressive and tyrannical. Governments controlled how people lead their lives, and Utopia reflects his passion for his ideas, morals, values and ethics. His passion for the art of writing is shown through More’s encouragement of Raphael’s service to the King. More combines letters, a critique of society, and a portrayal of his ideal society, to give the audience challenges, and then solutions to what he believed were society’s shortcomings.

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