Response Paper 5

“How does this exhibit source provide evidence that helps me better understand More’s critique of sixteenth century society and politics?”

Amerigo Vespucci presents a novel interpretation of Native American culture in a letter to his patron, Lorenzo Pietro di Medici. He describes in depth, from a Eurocentric perspective, some of the cultural differences which exist in the society he encountered in Brazil. Through introducing these variations, Vespucci provides readers with an understanding about how environment dictates the behaviors of individuals. Whereas Vespucci indicates that nature governs the actions of those whom he observes, More’s Utopia indicates (through discourse with Raphael Hythloday in Book 1) that government and its institutions govern the actions of individuals. By extension, More critiques not the actions taken by individuals in England, but the determinants of those actions. Vespucci provides, in effect therefore, an account of a culture unaffected by European norms in his travel report, albeit Vespucci’s interpretation is influenced by sixteenth century society and politics. Thus, readers of Vespucci’s account can better understand More’s critique of sixteenth century society and politics in England.

Vespucci explicitly states when introducing his report that, “[…] as you shall learn in the following account wherein we shall set succinctly down only capital matters and the things more worthy of comment…” (Vespucci 217). This statement serves as evidence that sixteenth century society and politics was alarmingly interested in material matters. Indeed, Vespucci is writing to his patron, who is primarily concerned about the financial prospects of this Vespucci. The voyage that Vespucci embarked on was ultimately driven by material prospects, because his culture values materialism. That contrasts with the culture he observes, which places emphasis on facets such as marital customs and clothing instead. The source, in essence, presents this contrast, which helps readers conceptualize the discontents driving More’s critique about sixteenth century society and politics.

Vespucci also details in his account how the people he is observing do not possess any need for clothing. There is no status quo to wear such garments. This aspect of their culture contrasts sixteenth century European norms. Indeed, this evidence serves to further highlight how nature determines the actions of the individuals which Vespucci is observing. For example, Vespucci takes interest in how the people he is observing cure themselves of sickness with certain roots and herbs. Nature allows them to live longer lives and creates a place for the sick Ultimately, they are dependent on nature. This characteristic is not true about sixteenth century European society, which ultimately depends on materialism. And this contrast as well helps us understand the critique that More presents about European society and politics. Namely, that Europe’s emphasis on materialism creates an imperfect society and politics.

Works Cited

More, Thomas. Utopia. Translated by Clarence H. Miller. New Haven: Yale University Press,