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A Contribution Of Thomas More In Renaissance Literature

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Thomas More: A Real Renaissance Man

The Renaissance spawned much more than new techniques to create art, but also the use of art to influence society, namely humanism. One of the most famous Renaissance humanists was Thomas More. While much of Thomas More’s living reputation was characterized by his steadfast support for the Catholic Church during the Reformation, his book, Utopia, had many more profound effects in later times, including the rise of early socialist ideas and of the dystopian novel as a mode of expression.

Utopia details a fictitious society of the same name that is the supposed apex of civilization and humanity. The society is based on rational thought, communal ownership, equality between the genders, religious toleration, and having public, rather than private lives. The main character, Hythloday, believes that Utopia is the greatest social order in the world, as there is no hunger, suffering, war, or inequity. One of Hythloday’s colleagues, More, listens to Hythloday’s description of this society and declares that the Utopian policies are absurd. The book ends on an ambiguous ending as the reader is offered a choice between pragmatism versus philosophical idealism. Thomas More’s own opinions seem to confusingly clash with those he asserts as part of Utopia, including the religious toleration (as he vehemently opposed the Reformation) and the ease of divorce. However, using his satirical, yet serious hypothesis of an ideal state that should perhaps be aimed for, many criticisms of European society are still made. More attacks lawyers (or more generally those who talk without first thinking), capital punishment, greed, slavery, and class distinctions.

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Utopia later spawned not only a sub-genre of other utopia-like books, such as The New Atlantis by Sir Francis Bacon and The City of the Sun by Tommaso Campenella, but also the opposite—the dystopian novel, a powerful new mode of expression. In books like Brave New World and 1984, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell fabricate societies that have become so corrupt that they no longer resemble humanity in order to criticize current society. These novels moved literature away from being purely for entertainment to realistic and critical portrayals of society. From fear of nuclear war to technology to progress itself, the dystopian novel has allowed for a form of protest and become a catalyst of social change throughout the ages.

Beyond literature, Thomas More’s Utopia has also impacted politics and economics through the rise of socialism and communism. During the 19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels looked towards Utopia’s society where people lived as equals and all property was shared to create their own ideology of what society should be like. Thomas More was praised as a communist hero and he is the ninth position on Moscow’s Stele of Freedom as one of the most influential thinkers “who promoted the liberation of humankind from oppression, arbitrariness, and exploitation.” Aleksandre Solzhenitsyn even called More the “great-grandfather of socialism.”

While Thomas More shaped his time as a secretary and confidant to King Henry VIII, a Reformation martyr, and the speaker of the House of Commons, his book, Utopia, transcended his untimely death. Setting the precedent for an entire subgenre of literature, a political system, and an ideology, Utopia is truly a revolutionary book.

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