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A Review of Sir Thomas More's Book the Ideal World in Utopia

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Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia during the beginnings of the Reformation as a way of affronting the feudal English society in which he lived. In his book, More represents a society that his main character, Raphael Hythloday, describes as the ideal world. Whether or not More really felt this way is unclear but it remains obvious that More used both Hythloday and a character with his own name to expressing his dislike towards the community in which he lived while, at the same time, presenting two sides of a story. As Critic Robert C. Elliott puts it,

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Here are the two sides of Utopia: the negative, which exposes in a humorous way the evils affecting the body politic; the positive, which provides a normative model to be imitated.

The satirical qualities of the story are evident as early as the title page. Utopia means “in no place” and More chose this name to describe a place that obviously can not exist. Further using this method, More gives the character who most significantly describes this impossible land the name Hythloday, which means “expert in nonsense.”

More lays out his plan for this Utopia through Hythloday’s description in the second half of the book. He presents the nation as being one not influenced by the church or other religious organizations but still containing Christian morality. His society is that of a commonwealth in which the people live and breathe by the notions of justice, fairness, and equality, much like the communal societies in which the Christian Monks resided. Families are composed of multiple generations all living under one roof with the eldest man in charge, as was the case in Britain, and the women being married off as soon as their age permits. The number of people living in a household is limited to between 10 and 16, not counting those that are underage. Hytohlday says,

This rule is easily observed, by removing some of the children of a more fruitful couple to any other family that does not so much abound in them.

This statement clearly represents a society in which people are not individuals; rather they are mere numbers, part of a larger whole. At this point, Hythloday explains that a man and woman who shall be married are presented to each other completely nude so as they can see what it is they will be marrying as divorce is forbidden. The rituals of Utopian weddings is intended to show that as perfect as this society seems, it, in fact, is not and the degree to which divorce is forbidden mirrors the intense prohibition placed on the act by the Catholic Church. The lack of freedom and space of the individual in the household is sarcastically supported by the idea that it will allow more friendships to develop.

This presentation of both sides of “Utopia” continue through More’s discussion with Hythloday and covers the Utopian methods of slave keeping, traveling, and working, presenting suggestions in how to create the ideal society while maintaining the main point which is to say that it is an impossible goal to reach because no society can be perfected. He does this not only in order to bring idealists back to reality but to disclose what he feels to be England’s weaknesses in the hopes that it will invoke change.

Through the use of satire, Sir Thomas More is able to create a text that centers on the differences between European culture and the “Utopia” discovered by Hythloday. In his emphasis on the faultlessness found in Utopia, More is able to express his aggravation with the imperfections of his own world. Drawing on Plato’s Republic, as well as Aristotle’s reaction to it, he creates two characters that are polar opposites of each other but both represent his own contradictory points of view: the belief that a society must be purely philosophical versus the conviction that such a society would inevitable fail.

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