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In order to understand More's work, it is important to define what a "Utopia" is, how the term came about and what literature influenced More as well as how More's book influenced subsequent generations of Utopia writers due to this startlingly original work. The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'Utopia' as "a place, state or condition ideally perfect in respect to the politics, laws, customs and conditions" or "an impossibly ideal scheme especially for social improvement." Although More was not the first to elucidate what makes up an ideal society, he was the one to coin this word to describe it. The word 'Utopia' actually means 'no place,' a term closely associated with 'Utopia' or 'good place.
All Utopian writings are descriptions of ideal states that often act as a critique for the flawed society that the writer lives in. Their description, however, vary from writer to writer, but all Utopian writings have certain definite features in common. They rest on the assumption that all people are attracted by perfection. So, utopists crave not just a politically perfect state but one that is perfect in every way -- politically, economically, socially and spiritually. This perfection is contrasted with the less than ideal conditions at home and may take different forms depending on the importance the author gives to the various conditions. Utopias belong to fiction and philosophy as they are situated between political theory and the novel.
Plato (circa 427 - 348 B.C.) can be called the father of Utopian literature in Western philosophy. His philosophical tracts, particularly The Republic, have influenced many writers, most prominently More, who have been searching for an ideal state. His Utopia is a city-state that is Athenian in culture and Spartan in discipline. It is a self -sufficient and self-contained society whose population is divided into three major classes -- the workers or the husbandmen and craftsmen; the soldiers or auxiliaries (the protectors of the state); and the rulers. Each has its own allocated and demarcated duties and functions. His main thesis is that justice is meted out in a fair and prudent manner by its educated and highly moral rulers who look out for not just themselves, but for all of society. Although this society harbors a slave class, men and women are equal and they mate for eugenic purposes only.
Plato's influence on More cannot be overemphasized. Because of his training in Latin and Greek, he had read and admired the Greek philosopher' work. Plato's ideas of a perfect state are often echoed by More in Utopia although there are some differences between their two approaches. Utopia citizens are not as stratified as those in The Republic to specific classes or roles and the family unit acts as the basis of society whereas in The Republic, families are non- existent. Yet what is most compelling about Plato's work is the that justice is seen as ideal to be sought after and acquired.
In1308, Dante wrote a treatise on government called The Monarchia, which has a Utopia theme. The work reflects the society in which Dante lived. At this time popes and emperors were in constant dispute, trying to encroach on the powers and prerogatives of the other. Dante advocates that the emperor be the head of all temporal matters and the pope, of all spiritual ones. It is not certain whether More read this book or not or whether it had any influence on his own writing.
More's Utopia was the first major work of its kind undertaken by an Englishman. Not only does it critique the social conditions of present-day England, but it also delineates the perfection of a society where the four cardinal virtues -- justice, temperance, courage and wisdom -- reign supreme. It is a fusion of both ancient Greek and Christian philosophies that upheld that society can only be improved by good acts, moral leadership, and a sense of community and selflessness.