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MonkeyNotes-Utopia by Sir Thomas More
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THEMES

Major Theme

To More, a more just and humane society in matters of kingship, councilors, law, justice, property, work, war and religion is needed. Utopia reveals the ideal conditions of a society and is his solution to the many social ills that were pervasive in 16th century Europe. The book is effective because it contrasts ideal conditions of Utopia with the corruption and inequalities that existed in Europe and England. Some are specifically stated while others are alluded to.

In the first book, Hythloday talks about councilors who dare not give the king good advice. In fact, they abet the king in his tyrannical ways. They teach him how to lay claims to territories that do not belong to him; they revive old and unnecessary laws to make money and raise taxes for their own selfish purposes. In the process, they make the country poor. These councilors are very different from those in Utopia. Utopian magistrates -- the Syphogrants and Philarchs -- are chosen for their wisdom and kindness. Hythloday is full of praise for them. "Fathers they be called and like fathers they use themselves" (p.72), he reports. Added to their innate qualities is the awareness that they are chosen by the people and can be removed as easily. These men have dual responsibilities, they represent the welfare of the people in the king's council and they oversee the welfare of the state by maintaining law and order and ensuring the smooth running of their own communities. As officers, these men understand that their interest, the interest of the ruler and that of the commonwealth are all the same.


These are the philosopher-councilors whom More and his humanist friends substituted for Plato's philosopher-king. They are a far cry from the evil, selfish councilors whom Hythloday denounces in the first book.

The king is the single most important member of society. In him are vested great powers and riches, and the capacity to do great good and evil. "From the prince, from a perpetual well-spring, cometh among the people the flood of all this good or evil." To More, as to Hythloday, the responsibilities and privilege of a king are very clear. He believed firmly that the people chose their king for the good of the nation. It is a king's moral obligation to rule the people wisely and well. The king should be the shepherd of his people. This was a radical idea in More's time as present notions of political representation in democracies were unheard of in Europe at the time. Most kings were ushered in due to their rightful inheritance to the crown rather than because they represented the needs of the people.

An ideal king has both moral and secular obligations. He has to set an example to his people by being good and virtuous and by renouncing pride. In secular matters, the king should remember that he is not above the laws of the land, and he should also remember that the laws are fixed and cannot be changed to suit his purpose. Where crime is concerned, prevention is better than cure.

It is better for a king to rule over a rich population than a poor one for a number of reasons. First, it is more dignified and second, rich people would tend to maintain the status and avoid rebellion. An ideal king, therefore, should not amass a personal fortune at the cost of his subjects.

More's concept of an ideal king is very clear. He is a law abiding and just ruler who puts the welfare of his country above his own, who eschews personal glory and wealth, and is, on all occasions, like the good shepherd who feeds his flock before himself.

Aware of the corrupting influence of absolute power, More was in favor of circumscribing royal power. So he makes his fantasy country, Utopia elect a king. This king can be deposed by the people who have elected him if he becomes a tyrant.

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