In Thomas More’s Utopia, the society described is so far from the Europe More lived in, that it could be considered an ironic critique of European culture. The idea that More is actually criticizing his own culture becomes even more evident when other pieces of More’s portfolio are brought in for comparison. One such work is Two Swords: Heresy and Just War, in which More writes primarily about how other European countries and his own, England, dealt with opponents of the Christian faith known as heretics. By comparing the problems More identifies in Two Swords with what he praises about the society of Utopia, it is easy to see that some start to correspond. By obtaining historical context through Two Swords, More’s words offer me better understanding of why he chose to depict religion in Utopia the way he did.
In 16th century England, Catholicism reigned as the supreme religion. Those who practiced it believed it was the most righteous form of prayer, and worked to convert others to follow Christ in the same way they did. Heretics, however, were not only non-christians, but they were openly against the religion, and translated this into violence against everyday Christians; “[English Christians] yet never in fact would have resorted so heavily to force and violence against heretics if the violent and cruelty first used by the heretics themselves against good Catholic folk had not driven good princes to it” (Swords 282). More believed that violence between the religious groups was unnecessary and barbaric. He claims that the only reason the fighting began and has lasted is because one side lashed out irrationally. Ideally, More would have liked to see freedom of religion, “…in the event that the Turks, Saracens, and pagans were to allow the Christian faith to be peacefully preached among them, and that we Christians were therefore to allow all their religions to be preached among us, and violence taken away by assent on both sides, I doubt not at all that the Christian faith would much more increase than decline” (Swords 283). It is clear that even while biased toward one religion, More still values the ability to practice religion freely and openly. Not only that, but he proposes that people should be able to preach their religion onto others, and let each citizen decide what they want to practice. Allowing individuals to try to draw others to their own religion isn’t a new idea, but the concept of multiple religious groups doing this openly in 16th century England, and only through dialogue, would have been unheard of.
When More wrote Utopia, he ended the book speaking to the way the Utopians dealt with religion. He was very thorough in the logistics of how various religions could co-exist, not even separately in the same society, but side by side, and even in the same house of worship. He claims that the concept of respecting other religions and praying in harmony is something central to the Utopian values. Referencing the story of how the society was created, More outlines how Utopus (founder of Utopia), “made a law that every man might be of what religion he pleased, and might endeavour to draw others to it by the force of argument and by amicable and modest ways, but without bitterness against those of other opinions,” (Utopia 158). More has created a perfect world with values in line with what he wanted to see in England. Through reading about how More’s society dealt with other religions in Two Swords, it becomes clear why More might have been motivated to create Utopia as he did. According to More, not only is the Utopian approach to religion more ethical, but it’s more practical as well. In the story of Utopia, Utopus is able to conquer the people who previously lived on the island because he, “understood that before his coming among them the old inhabitants had been engaged in great quarrels concerning religion, by which they were so divided among themselves, that he found it an easy thing to conquer them, since, instead of uniting their forces against him every different party in religion fought by themselves” (Utopia 158). More demonstrates how weak internal strife can make a group of people, the exact kind of internal fighting going on during his lifetime, in England.
More responds to the closed-minded nature of 16th century England by making his Utopians as open-minded and logical as possible. By doing this, he explores how much better society could be if differences, like the ones plaguing his home, were set aside and treated with a solely logical approach. This is apparent when More mentions why the Utopians consider all religions valid, “[Utopus] seemed to doubt whether…different forms of religion might not all come from God, who might inspire man in a different manner, and be pleased with this variety; he therefore thought it indecent and foolish for any man to threaten and terrify another to make him believe what did not appear to him to be true” (Utopia 159). The fact that Utopians approach ideas different from their own in a way that contradicts More’s society so directly makes it clear that More had strong feelings about his own world, and, for example, the way it dealt with heretics’ different beliefs. By providing historical context and background knowledge on the world More lived in, Two Swords makes it much easier to understand the underpinnings of More’s critique on European culture through the story of Utopia.
I have neither received nor given unauthorized assistance in the completion of this work
More, Thomas, “Two Swords: Heresy and Just War” in A Thomas
More Source Book. Edited by Gerard B. Wegemer and Stephen W. Smith. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2004, pp. 281-290.
More, Thomas. Utopia. Translated by Clarence H. Miller. New
Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.