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Political and Religious Satire in Thomas More ’s " Utopia "

Thomas More produced his fictional Utopia as a satire on his contemporaries’ religious and political thoughts. The positive light given to religious, political and philosophical ideas diametrically opposed to those of the author, the presence of ridiculous wordplay in the names, titles and locations within the piece, and the pseudo Renaissance-humanist air given by setting the work in Latin, all reveal More’s satiric intent. Over time the piece has become something more than its author’s original use of satire, giving birth to a new genre of fiction, but More’s initial purposes seem to have been something less than literary innovation.
While the Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines “satire” as a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule, satirical writing or drama often scorns such folly by pretending to approve of values which are the diametric opposite of what the satirist actually wishes to promote. The implied benefits of divorce, euthanasia, married priests, and women priests, expressed in his Utopia, disagreed with More's celebrated dedication to devout Catholicism. More was a persecutor of heretics (Protestants) yet the book extolled the virtues of embracing varied religions, and even under the same roof. The piece engaged in political criticism, but More himself was Lord Chancellor, an influential English lawyer. Communism and the idea of communal living expressed as an ideal in Utopia could be seen as the opposite view expected from a rich landowner such as More.
More uses the Renaissance pilgrim-guide to describe the idyllic country of Utopia and named this guide Raphael Hythlodaeus. Raphael was the name of an Archangel mentioned in the Book of Tobit, who guides Tobias and later cures his father of his blindness. The angel Raphael was seen as an angel-physician who cured both the bodies and the souls of men. Angels have elsewhere been considered messengers of illumination, as was the angel Gabriel who told Mary she would give birth to the Son of the Most High God. But in giving his pilgrim character the surname Hythlodaeus, which means “nonsense”, More inverted the character’s role as a bringer of profitable illumination. The name Raphael Hythlodaeus could be interpreted as “angel of nonsense”. More’s satiric intent was further underscored when he used this character to describe a country whose name literally means "noplace”, and its river of no water and its ruler with no people.
One central feature of Renaissance humanism was the commitment to study the primary sources of the best writing from ancient Greece and Rome. This commitment was shown in the Renaissance humanists' motto "ad fontes”, which means "to the sources". Renaissance humanists glorified the ancient civilizations, and in a similar way some popular and glorified tales of New World civilizations were emerging from cross-Atlantic exploration. It seems possible More could have been tipping his hat to humanists by setting his work in Latin, and telling of an ancient idyllic civilization built on “superior” ideals. If this was More’s intent, and if the tale of a perfect communal society was a reference to New World legend (although in reality Amerigo Vespucci’s Incas practiced cannibalism), then this would be further proof that More viewed his "Utopia" as satire.
It's not uncommon for authors to never realize the stretch their works will ultimately reach, and a piece can inadvertently morph into a new invention without the author's conscious effort. More used literary tools of his time such as wordplay, referred to current events such as tales of New World civilizations, and spoofed a contemporary movement by playing upon the Renaissance humanists' love of Latin texts, to create a work of satire. But in the 500 years since it was introduced, "Utopia" has given birth to a genre which has been used to explore and improve the same religious, social and political shortcomings More had previously satired in his work.

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