Thomas More: The Man and his “Utopia”

From The Lecture Series: Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

The utopian genre can’t really be singularly traced back to Thomas More’s book Concerning the Highest State of the Republic and the New Island Utopia, which was published in 1516. So, why do we consider More’s work seminal in understanding utopia?

Old inkstand near scroll on canvas background.
Thomas More coined the term utopia and that has shaped the way we imagine better places. (Image: cosma/Shutterstock)

Thomas More was not the first person to talk about a better society. There were plenty of precedents in Plato’s Republic, Hesiod’s Works and Days, and even in the biblical Garden of Eden. Still, More did provide us with the elegant and compelling word utopia, and that word has done immeasurable work in shaping the ways we imagine better places.

This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Impressive Credentials of Thomas More

Known to some as Sir Thomas More, to others as Saint Thomas More, he lived from 1478 to 1535. More was, by training, a lawyer and a social philosopher. He was a devout Catholic, and as a young man he even considered taking vows, but he eventually opted for marriage and the secular life.

He occupied numerous positions in government: he was under-sheriff of London when he wrote Utopia, and at various times he held such offices as Councilor to the king, under-treasurer of the Exchequer, speaker of the House of Commons, even Lord High Chancellor.

More disapproved of Henry VIII’s divorce and he was eventually charged with high treason. He was executed on 6 July 1535. Apparently, he stated from the scaffold that he was dying in and for the Catholic faith. In 1886, More was beatified by the Church, and he was canonized in 1935.

In 2000, Pope John Paul II named him the Patron Saint of statesmen and politicians, and he is honored in the Church of England’s calendar of saints on July 6th, the date of his execution.

Learn more about utopia, the perfect nowhere.

Plato’ Republic and Thomas More

Thomas More had studied all the Greek philosophers, and his Utopia speaks back, especially to Plato’s Republic. The Republic, which was written in approximately 380 B.C., is widely considered to be the first written text to thoroughly describe what we might call a utopian society.

A statue of Plato.
Plato’s Republic is considered to be the first written text that talks about a better society. (Image: vangelis aragiannis/Shutterstock)

It’s presented as a Socratic dialogue, and treats a variety of important topics, most centrally, the definition of justice and the role of philosophy in society, using multiple speakers to show different perspectives on these issues. The Republic would never be mistaken for a novel. It’s completely abstract, talking about the possibility of a better society.

When More was 12 or 14 years old, he was a page to Cardinal Morton, a patron of English drama. Sometimes when there were plays being presented, young More would jump onto the stage and start playing a part without any practice at all, capturing the different voices, and giving extemporaneous speeches on the topic of the play.

Is Thomas More’s Utopia a Novel?

More’s book isn’t a novel, but it’s a lot closer to the modern form. It has concrete characters. It also has a concrete setting: the island of Utopia. Also, it’s reasonably accessible. Not to us, unless we read Latin, but it would have been accessible in 1516, as it’s written not in scholarly Latin, but in conversational, everyday prose of the well-educated Renaissance man.

A portrait of Thomas More.
Thomas More’s book isn’t a novel, but it’s a lot closer to the modern form. (Image: Hans Holbein/Public domain)

Utopia doesn’t have a plot exactly, but the philosophy is framed as a conversation, and we, as a reader, have a point of identification. This means that although we’re presented with a clear argument about how to get to a better society—imitate the beautiful island of Utopia—there’s enough irony throughout the text that the reader is left to wrestle with figuring out what does and doesn’t make sense in this society.

We tend to think of More’s book as containing a detailed description of a fictional island, but actually that’s only Book II. There’s a long introduction before we even get to the island, and there we see the establishment of conventions common to utopian literature.

The Characters in More’s Utopia

Book I of Utopia is written in Socratic dialogue, a common form of the day and one in which More was especially adept. The characters having the dialogue aren’t just Person A and Person B, they’re real characters with very interesting names.

In Book I, Raphael Hythloday is talking to a man named Thomas Morus. Raphael is a biblical name, the archangel Raphael is associated with healing and protection. Hythloday is a Greek compound, and it means expert at nonsense.

Raphael Hythloday simultaneously suggests earnest and nonsense, which gives us a pretty good introduction to the paradoxes of not only More’s Utopia but also of the entire genre.

Thomas Morus’s name is a Latin version of the author’s own name. Is it Thomas More the author? Not really, as Thomas Morus has some views that are in sharp contrast to those of Thomas More, author and cleric.

Thomas Morus is in some ways set up that same way as the name Raphael Hythloday. Erasmus wrote a book when he was staying at More’s house in 1509 called Moriae Encomium, which is a pun of the Latin version of More’s surname. Interestingly, Moriae Encomium is translated as The Praise of Folly.

Learn more about Samuel Butler and utopian technologies.

The Conversation in Book I of Utopia

Raphael Hythloday, purveyor of nonsense, and Thomas Morus, who is either a praiser or a doubter of folly, have a long conversation about what  we now call communism. Should resources be held by the king and distributed at will? Or should resources be equally distributed among all the people?

At first, Hythloday argues that the king can maintain a tight control of resources, a position associated with Aristotle’s Politics. But then he immediately switches, which he does all the time, and argues a different approach. This argument is that a king should fundamentally control resources, but that keeping people poor only leads to rebellion and unrest.

There’s no agreement at the end of Book I, as is typical of philosophical dialogues, and of utopias. So, in Book I, we see three major conventions for utopian literature: the use of the frame narrative; the introduction of complex ironies that make it hard, maybe impossible, to pin down the author’s real-world opinion; and the use of evocative names.

Therefore, More’s Utopia has a seminal place in the canon of world literature.

Common Questions about Thomas More and the Origin of Utopia

Q: Which is the first written text about a utopian society?

The Republic, written in approximately in 380 B.C., is considered to be the first written text to thoroughly describe what we might call a utopian society.

Q: Why was Thomas More executed?

Thomas More was executed because he disapproved of Henry VIII’s divorce.

Q: What is special about the name Raphael Hythloday?

Raphael Hythloday is a character in Utopia. The name simultaneously suggests earnest and nonsense, which gives us an introduction to the paradoxes of not only Thomas More’s Utopia but of the entire genre.

Keep Reading
Great Works of Medieval Welsh Literature
The Golden Age of Roman Literature
Oscar Wilde’s Role in Literature’s “Aesthetic Movement”