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Humanism in Thomas More's Utopia

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Submitted By ChuckHarris3
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Thomas More’s Utopia is a work of ambiguous dualities that forces the reader to question More’s real view on the concept of a utopian society. However, evidence throughout the novel suggests that More did intend Utopia to be the “best state of the commonwealth.” The detailed description of Utopia acts as Mores mode of expressing his humanistic views, commenting on the fundamentals of human nature and the importance of reason and natural law, while gracefully combining the two seemingly conflicting ideals of communism and liberalism. The presence of satirical irony and contradiction clearly defines Utopia as an unobtainable goal, though goal that all societies must pursue nonetheless.
In essence, Utopia is a written manifestation of More’s humanist beliefs. Many of these views are vicariously present in the character of Raphael Hythloday. For example, Hythloday comments on the unwillingness of Kings to take advice from others, claiming they are “drenched as they are and infected with false values from boyhood and on” (More, 2011, p. 28). The idea of “infection” implies that a man is not naturally corrupt or sinful, but rather pure at heart and simply influenced by the environment an individual is exposed to. This is a key humanist concept, which suggests that human nature is malleable and inconstant, and therefore can be positively influenced to do good. Raphael later states, “Pride is too deeply fixed in human nature to be easily plucked out” (More, 2011, p. 98) Though this may seem contradictory to his previous statement, Hythloday still suggests that human nature can be changed, though he candidly admits that it is difficult. More is attempting to illustrate his own hesitations of serving the King through the conversation between the fictional More and Hythloday, which serves as a representation of More’s conflict between his beliefs as a humanist and a servant of the King.
Another facet of the Renaissance humanist values includes the importance of reason and intellectual exploration. More seems to specifically highlight this when describing his Utopian society. For example, More describes Utopians spending idle time participating in scholarly activities, such as attending public lectures and their natural enjoyment of learning. However, More clearly asserts the significance of reason when describing the religions of Utopia. In Utopia, each religion is fundamentally the same, each guided of nature and what is natural. Doing what nature intends, which is established through reason, is the true way of worshipping God, according to the Utopians (More, 2011, p. 2011). This is consistent with the humanist theory of a higher, absolute natural law created by God and thus must be followed by man. In order discover this natural law, one must use reason. With this in consideration, it apparent that More intentionally created Utopia to represent a society of humanists, one that is adheres to all aspects of Renaissance humanism without fault.
However, one may argue that More’s pious Christian background seems to oppose the pagan ideas found in Utopia and the humanistic view of natural law in general. Yet More addresses this concern by implicitly stating that a religion guided by reason is essentially identical to Christianity: “after they had heard from us the name of Christ…you would not believe how eagerly the assented to it…because Christianity seemed very like the religion prevailing among them” (More, 2011, p. 85). More attempts to combine the ideas of Christianity and humanism, thus lending to his association as a Christian Humanist.
More again tries to unite two apparently incompatible principles – liberalism and communism. Though history has shown that these doctrines are opposed and antithesis to one another, More manages to cleverly craft a hybrid that successfully utilized the advantages in each. The perception that communism inhibits any personal freedom and requires complete government involvement. However, Utopia displays otherwise. Despite the communal living environment, each Utopian ultimately has the freedom of choice. For example, the passage that describes that every Utopian has an obligation to do agricultural work (More, 2011, p. 44). Though this seems to be rather limiting, we are later told that each individual is able to choose his or her specialty and trade. There are also freedoms in choosing one’s religion and leisure time is up to their own discretion. Furthermore, Utopians are free to choose whether they fight in wars, a freedom given by the use of mercenaries. With this in mind, we can see that More is able to translate liberalist freedoms into a communist society. This well articulated and meticulously structured society More creates seems to suggests that Utopia serves a purpose that goes beyond critical satire. Rather, Utopia is a well thought examination of More’s humanist theories and belief, which consequently allows him to mix liberalism and communism, humanism and Christianity.
As a result, More creates a society that acts as benchmark for all others. Raphael remarks on the inequality caused by the greed of noblemen, which only further undermines the poor laborers (More, 2011, p. 19). He also mentions the injustices in punishing thieves, who steal because they are driven by the deprivation caused by the rich and elite (More, 2011, p. 23). Through Raphael’s criticism of English society in Book I, More is in effect comparing and contrasting Utopian society and England, implying that England is in dire need of change, from the very basics of societal foundation. What More suggests as a solution is Utopia, which does not have problems with greed, poverty, or corruption.
Yet how do we explain the presence of the fictional More, who seems to question, doubt, and criticize Hythloday’s theory throughout the novel? For instance, when told the Utopians had no form of currency, More responds with, “How can there be plenty of commodities where every man stops working? The hope of gain will not spur the on; he will rely on others and become lazy” (More, 2011, p. 37). What fictional More brings to mind here is the aspect of profit motive, a primary counter-argument to communism. Including opposing views within the text allows More to play the devil’s advocate, forcing himself to more deeply analyze the radical theories and practices presented in Utopia. There is a notable pattern of discourse between Hythloday and More, consisting of a series of questions and challenging statements and an explanation of reasoning as a response. By creating this type of dialog, More seems to be anticipating the reaction of his audience, since he is fully aware that many of the ideas he is presenting are radical and unorthodox. This allows him to strengthen his argument that Utopia is indeed the state of the best commonwealth.
Though More attempts to address an average readers concerns through this dialog, in some instances, it is apparent the More simply cannot explain or answer. Returning to the argument More makes about profit motive, we find that Raphael seems to have an unclear and indefinite response: “If you had seen them, you would frankly confess that you had never seen a people well governed anywhere but there” (More, 2011, p. 37). Here we receive the impression that More is perhaps unsure of hesitant about the logical reasoning of Utopia. However, this is not case. More presents Utopia to us, suggesting that this is the model for the best society. Though this is easy to describe the perfect state in theory, applying Utopia to practice is extremely difficult, if not all together impossible. More seems to be conscious of this fact, concluding the novel with: “Yet I freely confess there are very many things in the Utopian commonwealth that in our own societies I would wish rather than expect to see” (More, 2011, p. 97). More closes the novel by stating that though Utopia should be a role model for society, to reach the standards displayed by the Utopian commonwealth is not to be expected. Nevertheless, pursuing a society like that of Utopia could only improve the state of the commonwealth.
Thomas More’s detailed and thoughtful creation of Utopia truly serves as an example of the perfect state. The presence of his own humanist ideas, including the variability of human nature and the importance of reason suggest that Utopia is a translation of his own beliefs, while inclusion of satire and contradiction distinctly marks Utopia as unattainable, yet noble and beneficial goal that society should strive to work towards.

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