Explain why Thomas More wrote Utopia.


Thomas More was a scholar of classics, law, and theology. He was also an accomplished statesman, whom Henry VIII named Chancellor of England. During his lifetime, and leading to his execution, the Catholic Church was challenged by the Protestant Reformation. The debates about politics and religion that More included in Utopia (which was published soon before Martin Luther’s theses called for radical reform) were well underway in England when More was writing. In regard to moral philosophy, More tells us, the people of Utopia “have the same disputes among them as we have here.”

Because More was crucially aware of the schisms in religious institutions in his country, he set about creating an imaginary world that would seem ideal because it did not have the same problems. However, his goal was always to shed light on the very real problems that England, and more broadly Europe, was experiencing. More wrote Utopia in Latin, and it was published in that language throughout Europe until the first English translation appeared in 1551, sixteen years after he was killed.

One clear example of More’s intended focus on English law is seen in Book I. The alleged sailor to America, Raphael Hythloday, tells a story about Cardinal Morton: the Archbishop of Canterbury and, formerly, one of More’s early mentors. The story concerns the harshness of the death penalty, which in British law could be applied even for vagrancy. Criticizing penalties for not providing solutions, Raphael stresses the importance of social inquiry to learn why people commit crimes in the first place.

Vagrancy, it seems, was connected with a practice called “enclosure,” in which aristocrats become entitled to lands that were once held in common, and the people kicked off often became vagrants. The Enclosure Acts passed by the English Parliament were often opposed by the Crown, and by the 1510s, a fierce struggle between Henry VIII and the aristocracy centered on this practice, especially in regard to who was the rightful recipient of taxes on the enclosed land. Throughout Utopia are countless similar places where More’s critique is pegged to very specific controversies of his day.

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