Utopia: Essay Q&A

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1. What were the literary influences for Thomas More's Utopia, and what influence, in turn, did the work have on later literature?
The major influence on Thomas More's Utopia was Plato's Republic (c. 390BC). Similarities between the two authors' imaginary states are clear. Justice was a major preoccupation of both works. The rulers of the Republic were to be a group of wise philosopher-kings, who governed for the good of the entire nation. Property is held in common, and gold and silver coinage is outlawed. Luxury and ostentation are banned, and a high moral code is prescribed for everyone. The Republic differs from Utopia in that it has an extensive and rigid hierarchy of classes, and in its abolition of the family: women and children are held in common, whereas in Thomas More's work, the family is the central social unit.
A second possible influence for Utopia was the ancient Roman orator and philosopher Cicero's De republica (written 54-52 BC). Cicero discusses different forms of government, but he does not prefer any one form. However, he does emphasize that the ideal state is founded on reason and justice, an idea that is also prominent in Utopia.
A third possible influence for Utopia is the ancient Greek historian Plutarch's (c. 46-127) Lives, specifically the Life of Lycurgus (c. 75 AD). Lycurgus was a legendary law-giver who established the military reformation of the ancient Greek city of Sparta. In Plutarch's account, Lycurgus declared equal possession among the citizens of Sparta, though the term "citizens" only applied to the ruling class. Gold and silver were not used for coinage, but iron was used. Luxuries were banned, and people were encouraged to sacrifice all personal interests for the good of the state. This last point is in contrast to Utopia, where the state exists to ensure the happiness and well being of the individual.
St. Augustine's City of God (written 413-426) is often cited as an influence for Utopia. Thomas More had given lectures on this work and so was familiar with it. It contrasts the way of life in pagan Rome with that taught by Christianity, finding the first governed by love of self and the second by the love of God. Unlike Utopia, it does not offer a practical manifesto for an ideal society.
While possible sources for Utopia are few, the works it inspired are many. The genre, utopian literature, was named after it. One factor that played into the popularity of such works after the publication of Utopia was the discovery of the 'new world' of the Americas at the end of the fifteenth century by European explorers such as Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus. Among the works partly inspired by Utopia are the French writer Francois Rabelais's Pantagruel (1532) and Gargantua (1534); the Italian writer Tommaso Campanella's The City of the Sun (1623), the German theologian Johannes Valentinus Andreae's Christianopolis (1619) and the English philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis (1624). Works of fictionalized travel with utopian themes include French writer Michel de Montaigne's essay "Of Cannibals" (1580) and English writer Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). The British writer H. G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote many novels describing possible, mostly optimistic, future developments of civilization.
Works with dystopian (anti-utopian) themes, describing hellish societies, include the following by British writers: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell's 1984. American writer Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953.
2. Did Thomas More mean what he wrote in Utopia, or was it just a piece of light-hearted fantasy that was not meant to be taken seriously?
There are two major elements in Utopia that some critics interpret as signifying that Thomas More did not mean his ideas for an ideal state to be taken seriously. The first is the derivation of the names Utopia (from the Greek meaning "no place") and Hythloday (from the Greek meaning "speaker of nonsense"). However, these names serve both to emphasize to the reader that Utopia is a work of fiction, and also to distance the author Thomas More from his radical and subversive work. Thomas More was a statesman in the service of King Henry VIII, and it is clear that many of his observations in Utopia about corrupt European rulers and governments would apply to Henry's administration. It would have been useful to Thomas More to take partial refuge behind a claim of the nonsense or whimsicality of his creation.
The second element that leads some critics to doubt Thomas More's serious intent is the character More's concluding comments after Hythloday has finished his account. More reflects that some aspects of the Utopian system are "very absurd." But this judgment should not be taken at face value as reflecting the views of the author. More's further explanation of what he sees as the chief absurdity reveals that he is referring to the absence from Utopia of nobility, splendour, and magnificence, which "according to the common opinion, are the true ornaments of a nation." This is clearly an ironic comment, as the rest of the work has nothing but damning comments on the vanity that attaches to power and wealth in corrupt European regimes.
More's final statement is surely closer to the author's intention. More says that he would like to see many aspects, though not all, of the Utopian system applied in Europe. More's slightly reluctant affirmation of Utopian ideas gives the message that even a conservative skeptic can accept some of these radical ideas, thereby lending them credibility. He adds a realistic comment when he says that he wishes, rather than hopes, that some Utopian ideas are adopted by European governments. It is easy to reconcile this statement with the author Thomas More, who had compromised his own ideals to serve Henry VIII and was under no illusions about the difficulty of reforming corrupt administrations.
A strong argument for the seriousness of Utopia is that the vast majority of the book is devoted to explaining with absolute conviction the wisdom of the Utopian system and comparing it to the greed, corruption and unpleasantness of European governments. Nowhere are these arguments cogently opposed with actual reasons rather than prejudices and self-seeking sneers.
3. What is the status of religion in Utopia? How does the Utopian form of religion imply criticism of European religious customs?
Religion in Utopia is independent of the state, unlike in Europe, where the official religion of a state was proclaimed by its ruler. In the sixteenth century, the start of the Protestant movement marked a period of unrest as rulers allied themselves with the new religion or the Catholicism of tradition. The people had to follow or face varying degrees of punishment. In the England of King Henry VIII, in common with other European countries, Lutheran Protestant "heretics" were burned at the stake. Then later, when Henry himself broke from Rome, Catholics like Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher were beheaded for opposing the king. Harsh treatment of dissenters was not only prompted by religious intolerance. Religious dissent was often accompanied by political unrest as one sect acted violently against another or plotted to remove a monarch of different religion. Thus in executing religious dissenters, rulers were trying to preserve political unity and their own safety on the throne.
In Utopia, in contrast, freedom of religion is enshrined in law, making it independent of the state. The exception is atheism, which is banned on the basis that someone who does not fear God's justice will not hesitate to flout the laws and customs of Utopia. No one is allowed violently to force their beliefs on anyone else, though rational persuasion is allowed. As well as allowing everyone to believe according to their conscience, this meant that no one's belief affected the government of the nation and that there was no need for sects to fight each other, as no one sect could ever seize power or dictate the official religion of the state. It is noteworthy that people of different beliefs all worship together in Utopia, as the services are tailored to the basics with which they can all agree. This creates social and political unity, rather than the dissent and factionalism that defined the Europe of Thomas More's day.
In Utopia, there are few priests, but they are exceptionally holy people. No one has money or property, and the priests are no exception. There are some women priests. In the Europe of Thomas More's time, would-be reformers of the Catholic church criticized the excessive number and quality of priests, and suggested that the priesthood be pruned down to a few men of high moral and spiritual character. They also criticized the great wealth of the church, claiming that it was inconsistent with Christ's teaching to acquire such wealth at a time when many people lived in poverty, and that it laid the church open to charges of greed and corruption. Women priests were, and still are as of 2006, banned by the Catholic church. Utopian churches had no images of God to distract people from forming their own idea of him; in contrast, Catholic churches had many religious images, and one of the Protestant movement's concerns was purifying churches of such images.
While the author Thomas More was a devout Catholic, among his friends were would-be reformers of the Catholic church, including the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466-1536), with whom he may well have shared ideas.
4. In what sense is Utopia a communist state?
Many critics see Utopia as foreshadowing the communist state, as defined by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Frederick Engels (1820-1895) in their Communist Manifesto (1848) and adopted by the governments of Soviet Russia and China. It is true that Utopia is a communist society, and anyone who reads the Communist Manifesto will be struck by certain similarities with Utopia. Chief among these are the Manifesto's insistence that money and competitive capitalism have a degrading and destabilizing influence on society: "The bourgeoisie [ruling class], wherever it has got the upper hand ... has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment' ... for exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind." This echoes Hythloday's sentiments in Utopia: ". as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily; not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few . the rest being left to be absolutely miserable."
Another aspect shared between Utopia and communist states is universal education, a radical idea in Thomas More's time.
However, there are important differences between Utopia and communist states such as Soviet Russia and communist China. Utopia is a religious society, whereas Soviet Russia and communist China declared themselves atheist nations. Utopia has no money, private property, or social inequities, whereas, in spite of Marx and Engels' views, Soviet Russia and communist China never renounced money and rewarded communist party officials with the use of prestigious properties and other material benefits that were denied ordinary people. It should be noted, however, that Marx planned a classless society; the inequities that emerged in communist Russia and China were at odds with his intention. In addition, the representative democracy practiced in Utopia was not a feature of totalitarian communist states.
One important difference between Marxist communism and Utopian society is that Marx and Engels envisioned people working communally for the good of the state, whereas in Utopia, the end of all human endeavor is the happiness and fulfillment of the individual.
Rather than looking to officially communist states for modern models of Utopian societies, Utopia may have more in common other communities and movements, both from history and the present day, that are founded on communitarian principles. Examples include the Diggers of seventeenth-century England, monasteries, nunneries, and some 'new age' and alternative communities.
5. In your opinion, what relevance does Utopia have today?
Though some of the injustices and inequities criticized in Utopia have been abolished, many still exist. Society in market economies revolves around money, and only those who are successful in handling money prosper. They rise to the top of society, while those who are less successful are left behind with no security: although there is a welfare system in place in many developed countries, there is no guarantee that people's basic needs for housing, food and health care are met.
A particular inequity is the lack of security for those who are too old or too sick to work, and largely, it is the more poorly paid people who do the necessary work in society who are least secure when they can no longer work. The global pensions crisis, whereby people who have faithfully paid money into a pensions scheme for decades have been told that they will not have enough money to live on after they retire, has exacerbated this problem.
As of 2006, the evidence suggests that the difference in living standards between rich and poor in affluent nations is getting wider.
In Utopia, on the other hand, everyone has enough for his needs and no one is left to suffer if he can no longer work.
At the same time as the economies of the affluent nations are growing, however, many indicators of happiness and well-being - health, family cohesion, job satisfaction and security, and stated levels of happiness, are plummeting. Anti-social behavior and learning difficulties are increasing in the young, and depression is increasing across all age groups.
One possible contributing cause to many of these problems has been identified as long working hours. Working hours in Britain and the USA are the longest for many decades, with many people putting in a fifty-hour week, though wages, and even, surprisingly, the economy, have not increased proportionately. A side-effect of the culture of long working hours is that people have less time with their families and less time to focus on improving their minds, which Utopians believe is one of the most important aspects of life. The long working hours in our society contrast with the Utopian rule of a six-hour working