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Sir Thomas More

Study Questions



Discuss the status of women in Utopia.

Utopia is based on egalitarian principles, and these principles extend to issues of gender. Utopian women are allowed to work, vote, become priests, fight, and generally have just as much influence over Utopian affairs as do men. True, some pragmatic constraints are placed on women. For example, they are not expected or allowed to engage in heavy labor since in general they are not as strong as men. But these pragmatic constraints do little to alter the staggering degree of freedom that Utopian women are afforded in contrast to European women. However, while Utopian women hold a basically equal secular standard as the men, Utopian religion, with its demand that women prostrate themselves before their husbands, is formulated in such a way that it implicitly holds men as more religiously pure. There does not seem to be any way to reconcile these differences in the status of Utopian women as secularly equal but religiously inferior. Rather, the differences seem to betray the underlying influence of sixteenth century Europe; Thomas More creates a society in which women are given more rights and power than any in existence, and yet even he cannot completely escape the European conviction that women were inferior.

What is the nature of Utopian society? Is it an ideal society? If so, is it a society made up of ideal people?

Utopia is the most perfect embodiment of humanist rational ideas. But because it has not received the direct revelation of Jesus Christ, and, furthermore, simply because it exists in the kingdom of Earth rather than the kingdom of Heaven, it cannot be ideal. Utopia, then, is not ideal, but quasi-ideal. It demonstrates that Christian tenets can only truly be the basis of an egalitarian society, and it simultaneously shows that supposedly Christian Europe drastically fails to follow these tenets in the formulation of its own political processes.

It would be incorrect to assume, however, that Utopia is as close to ideal as it is because its inhabitants are ideal. In fact, the opposite is true: Utopia is close to ideal because it assumes that its population is not ideal. Utopia has built its laws to make acting immorally irrational, and then uses its schools to teach its inhabitants how to think rationally. In other words, Utopia operates with the understanding that people act in their own best interests, and then formulates its laws and institutions so that an individual's best interest is also the best interest of the community.

There are many aspects of Utopian life and policy that More describes as absurd. There are some, even, that Hythloday sees as absurd. Discuss the meaning of the absurd in Utopia. Are absurd practices always absurd in the same way? Are some absurd practices simply absurd while others betray deeper significance? Is the sometimes absurdity of Utopia meant to imply that Utopia is ideal or less than ideal? How do the absurdities of Utopia play into Erasmus's notion of Christian Folly? Identify the moments of absurdity in Utopia and analyze them separately and in contrast.

Unlike Plato's Republic, Utopia is not presented to the reader as a blueprint for an ideal state. It is presented as a fiction rather than as a possibility. How does the fictional frame change the way a reader understands the book? How does the fictional frame in Utopia function? What are the consequences of making Utopia fictional? How does it offer protection to Thomas More the author?

Discuss the ways in which the ideal Utopian society resembles some dystopian societies, such as those in ##Brave New World## and ##1984##. What are the differences between Utopia and these dystopias? Consider the different times in which Utopia and the worlds of Brave New World and 1984 were conceived. How do the conceptions and beliefs of a particular time affect their understanding of what is ideal?

Discuss the relationship between the two books of Utopia. Is there a seamless argument between the two, or do Thomas More's sense of things change? Utopia has often been described as a society based entirely on Humanist thought. Does Thomas More stray from Humanism? Are there tensions evident in the text between the humanist Utopia and the commentary in Book 1? Hythloday himself might be described as a Humanist. Is Thomas More in perfect agreement with Hythloday?

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