Tomorrow is the first of our group presentations, and I don’t want to scoop the gang, but I’m going to tell you a little about Thomas More, and make a point that I hope will lead to discussion. Thomas More was a lawyer, a humanist, and the Chancellor of England. He wrote Utopia in 1516, as a satiric text, perhaps in response to Desiderius Erasmus’ 1511 satire, In Praise of Folly. Utopia was published in 1516, before he became one of England’s most prominent statesmen in 1529. If you’re interested in exploring Utopia a little more, I suggest looking at the British Library’s webpage – but you can’t use it in your essays. In 1534, Henry VIII, eagerly seeking to invalidate his marriage to Catherine of Aaragon, passed the Act of Supremacy, which recognized the Tudor monarch as the head of the Church of England, enabling him to control ecclesiastical England, and enrich himself with the wealth of the monasteries. More was a devout Catholic, who repeatedly refused to sign the act, unlike many hight-standing clerics of England. His defiance infuriated Henry, causing a rift between the two men, and eventually, Henry was pushed to assert his power, and had More executed for high treason, and on 6th July, 1535, he went to the scaffold, where he lost his head.
The place of religion in Utopia is then perhaps what we might then expect from such a principled and devout Catholic, even if it may seem contradictory to much of what we read, especially as we put on our little, grey, uniform, Marxist hats. More suggests repeatedly that religious worship is a natural state of humanity, that is something that More suggests the wisest of Utopians naturally incline towards. In particular, they gravitate towards one diety, telling us that “the greater and wiser sort of them worship none of these, but adore one eternal, invisible, infinite, and incomprehensible Deity; as a being that is far above all our apprehensions, that is spread over the whole universe” (More). Conveniently enough, when Hythloday and his men arrive at Utopia, bearing the gospel, this is the exact interpretation that the Utopians were looking for, and they hopped on board. Clearly, given the personal history of More, we would be foolish not to take his attitude towards “natural” religion at face value, even as we recognize how this might complicate our desire to run full-tilt into a Marxist analysis. The passionate Christian, More goes on to tell us, was rightly arrested, not for practicing his faith, but for inflaming the people. As you proceed through Utopia, I hope you will notice such irregularities in Hythloday’s narrative, and think carefully about why they exist. It’s tempting to move through Utopia at speed, because it is an easy, and terrific read, but More wants you to trip up on the details, and to stop and think them through carefully.