George Wither and Sir Thomas More
During the sixties, people divided into opposing camps, with conservative and liberal social views. Like the sixties, Renaissance England was a place and a time of severe social upheaval. A social revolution eroding the lines between social classes threatened the upper classes' monopoly on government, religion, land ownership, and trade. George Wither in an emblem and Sir Thomas More in Utopia express the contrasting conservative and liberal social views. Wither's emblem, "When each man keepes unto his Trade, then all things better will be made" (http://emblem.libraries.psu.edu/withe148.htm), displays a message of humility and acceptance. The picture is of an honest carpenter who, the poem below tells us, does not seek to meddle in affairs beyond his means and performs only the tasks of his trade. Recalling that George Wither is an artisan in the employ of nobility, the emblem reflects the conservative apprehension toward the social revolution. In contrast, Sir Thomas More ridicules the indignation of the aristocracy and artisans in Utopia. Gentlemen and noblemen and their retainers, More says, contribute absolutely nothing to the good of society through labor (719). The views contrasted in More's work and in the emblem reflect a controversy of the period between the progressive ideas of the humanists and the conservative ideas of noble gentlemen who wished to preserve the old society and their own exemption from a day's hard work.
Sir Thomas More and the Wither express diametrically opposite ideas about man's desire for knowledge and improvement. Is it strange for a man to dream of a better life for himself or his children? There was once a time when it was unheard of for a son to do anything but follow in his father's footsteps. Knowledge and religion, previously the provender of the upper classes, was used to keep peasants under their control. Social revolution, such as the housewife teaching her teacher how to pray and clerks knowing more than their masters, is Wither's fear. He rightly sees that the disruptions and eventual destruction of the old order are due to this humanist renaissance of information and ideas. More, on the other hand, sees this social revolution as a great improvement upon the old system and fully supports not only the dissemination of information to the workers but also the ambitions of the workers to learn more and to involve themselves in powers that govern them.
Wither's emblem and poem council a message contrary to the Utopians' curiosity. Wither underestimates the Utopians' capacity for learning and for mastery of concepts. In Utopia, More posits the idea that by hard work and diligence toward a task, it should not only be socially acceptable but also common for a man to master one occupation and move on to another. The author of the emblem on the other hand, demands that this would corrupt the quality of work done by a craftsman or a statesman. If...