Thomas More – One Of The Most Influential Rebels In European History
We often think of rebels as the troublemakers, the outcasts and the ones that break the rules for the sake of breaking rules. But an effective rebel is the one who challenges the status quo creating positive change in the process. One of the most influential rebels in European history is Thomas More whose acts and writings challenged Tudor England’s society, religion and the notion of rules and standards. His most notable work, Utopia, was written in 1516 and had a dramatic impact on political philosophy. Arguably, this little book has shaped the world we live in today since it can be seen as the seed of the political and economic theory of Socialism that inspired many revolutions throughout the world. In Utopia, More blends reality and fiction by incorporating himself as a leading character and creating fictional characters like Raphael Hythloday, whose trip to the new world lead to the discovery of the ideal state-island of “Utopia”.
To understand why Thomas More was such a rebellious individual, we need to analyze England’s political background in the early 16th Century. In 1509, there was a big celebration in England as the new king, Henry the VIII, married the Spanish princess Kathryn of Aragon. But as the years went by, the king was not happy with his marriage since Kathryn “failed” to provide him a true son and heir. Having fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, the king was looking for a way out of the marriage. To achieve a divorce he needed the approval of the Pope, an approval that he never got. So he decided that England would break bonds with Rome and will become an autonomous church with the king as its head. This allowed the king to achieve the divorce that he desperately wanted. Conceivably, a lot of people disliked this decision since it questioned their faith. But, the king was determined to make everyone accept the change to the church and his divorce from Kathryn. He came down hard to the ones who openly disagreed, arresting them and punishing them to death. During the time, Thomas More was Henry the VIII’s chancellor and his trusted friend. He was a very intelligent man and helped the king with the running of the country. Since he studied law, he was a great legal advisor and had a very quick mind to making laws. Despite their friendship with the king, Thomas More never agreed with the divorce and the changes to the church.
All this back story is necessary to understand why Thomas More chose to state his political opinions through Raphael Hythloday and not through his fictional self in Utopia. By doing so, he distances himself from the presumed dangerous thoughts he was aspiring in the book under the protection of an assumed character, a covert product of his imagination. This allowed More to express views that were highly punishable at the time and gave room to the fictional Thomas More to function as a reliable narrator who supported England’s Tudor hierarchy and criticized Raphael Hythloday’s beliefs and observations.
Through Utopia, More shares some of his most influential political and religious propositions. One of them is the Utopian system of justice and punishment. The utopians rule from the bottom up in a pyramid-like shape, where families select their own representatives. Instead of the power residing in the hands of the Church, the monarchs and the nobility, More shifts the power to the common people, a polar opposite of what he would’ve experienced in his everyday life. Moreover, the utopian system insists on communication and debate. No decision is made on the same day the matter is debated. Every decision must be debated for 3 days. This rule makes certain that no rush or snap judgements are made; a custom that was also observed in the American indigenous people. Another interesting argument that is raised is whether or not execution is the wrong punishment for a thief. More argues that killing a man for stealing teaches him nothing and deprives him of the opportunity to change his ways.
In the commonwealth of Utopia, there is total uniformity. Houses and buildings look alike and every Utopian wears the same gender-neutral simple clothing. All people work for six hours a day and they are assigned the same hours working the land and working their individual trade. Interestingly, More explores the role of women in society and engages them in the work place, showing the world that this will have significant benefits. Contrasting England, there are no idle rich and beggars and a high level of productivity is achieved through organized labor and the use of both sexes.
The most revolutionary idea that More proposes in Utopia, is the lack of any physical private property. The state owns everything and distributes an equal amount of food, clothes and supplies to the people. In Utopia, precious metals cease to have value and there is no need for a currency since there isn’t any commerce. Surprisingly, Utopians even leave their front doors unlocked because theft is practically unnecessary and non-existent. By having shared communal property, materialistic greed is eliminated and this leads to a surplus of goods. Consequently, Utopians find happiness in love and reason and value the pleasures provided through physical health and the sharpening of the mind. This directly opposes England’s monarchy of the time, whose pleasures were a result of their power over others.
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