Utopia (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay

Thomas More


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Sir Thomas More

Latin prose dialogue and treatise on political philosophy.

When Thomas More published The Best State of a Commonwealth and the New Island of Utopia (1516), he coined the word utopia, which has since become a common term in English. More's Utopia finds its origins in the "best commonwealth" dialogue, a rhetorical exercise practiced by ancient Greek philosophers in which the writer attempts to define an ideal society. The best-known examples of such dialogues are Plato's Republic and Laws sections of Artistotle's Poetics. In Utopia, More explores a broad array of the elements that constitute any society—economic, legal, judicial, military, familial, and religious structures—all of which More envisions as closely regulated by the government. Over the years, political scientists have embraced Utopia as a work of creative political thought, ranking it with Plato's Republic and Machiavelli's The Prince. While most readers since the first publication have assumed that More advocated the social practices he ascribed to the fictional Utopia, many critics have pointed out that the author's intentions are not at all clear: the book could be either a best commonwealth exercise or a satire. In 1961, David Bevington noted that the "revered name of Thomas More has been invoked in support of the radical socialist states of the Soviet world empire, as well as in support of the anti-Communist position of the Papacy. Both interpretations purport to be founded on a critical reading of Utopia."

More was, in a time of religious upheaval, a devout Catholic; he was also an advisor to King Henry VIII, who ultimately broke England's tie to Catholicism. While More's work demonstrates an equal commitment to faith in divinity and faith in rationalism, his political allegiance to the king came into conflict with his religion when Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church and the Pope. Consequently, some critics have read the Utopia as a testament to More's efforts to negotiate between personal faith and duty to the government, although the conflict with Henry VIII occurred after More completed the book. More was executed in 1535 when he refused to comply with the king's wishes that he denounce Catholicism; the Catholic church canonized him in 1935.

Plot and Major Characters

More blended fact and fiction in the Utopia, creating characters based on real people (including himself) who encounter the purely fictional character Raphael Hythlodaeus, a traveler recently returned from the previously unknown island of Utopia. More bridged the gap from fact to fiction by prefacing the work with actual letters from friends and colleagues, all of whom endorse the book. These prefatory letters, also known as the perarga, constitute the first of three sections of the work. Book I, the second section, depicts the dialogue among Hythloday, More, and Peter Giles, which focuses on social conditions in sixteenth-century Europe, including agricultural economics and the penal system. The discussion also features a debate about the philosopher's responsibility to government: Giles encourages Hythloday to become a political advisor in order to make his unique knowledge available to rulers; Hythloday suspects that a position as a counselor would force him to compromise his principles. Book II presents Hythloday's in-depth description of Utopia, taking the reader through all aspects of its social, political, and economic structure.

Textual History

More began his writing with the section ultimately published as Book II of the Utopia while serving as an ambassador in Antwerp in 1515; he composed Book I in 1516, back in England. The first edition of the complete work appeared late in 1516 and was followed by yearly editions printed in various European cities. Scholars requiring authoritative Latin manuscripts for their work usually rely on the first edition and one produced in November of 1518. Publication continued throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (notable editions appeared in 1548, 1555, 1563, 1565-66, 1601, 1613, 1629, 1663, and 1672). While most of these editions were in Latin, translations became more common during the nineteenth century. The Yale University Press Complete Works of St. Thomas More (1965) is an authoritative English-language edition, presenting the Latin and an English translation on facing pages; Cambridge University Press issued a new edition, with Latin and English versions, in 1995.

Critical Reception

In 1935 R. W. Chambers asserted that "few books have been more misunderstood than Utopia." The central question concerning the Utopia is the issue of authorial intent: any critic studying the Utopia must first try to determine whether the text is a sincere endorsement of the commonwealth described—truly More's "ideal" commonwealth—or a satirical commentary. The Utopia's initial critical reception is that contained within the perarga of the volume: the letters from More's own friends and contemporaries endorsing the text. By and large, these thinkers received the Utopia as a wholly sincere best commonwealth exercise, and even occasionally treat Utopia as a real place. Much of the criticism leading into the twentieth century also treats the ideal as sincerely proposed; Frederick Seebohm (1867), for example, contends that the "point of the Utopia consisted in the contrast presented by its ideal commonwealth to the condition and habits of the European commonwealths of the period." Critics' attempts to determine if More endorsed the social policies he attributed to Utopia have produced lengthy discussions and debates, the most heated of which concern the subject of Utopia's economic communism. More describes the Utopians as living harmoniously without private property, which led Karl Marx and Frederich Engels to name a specific variant of socialism for More in The Communist Manifesto, calling it "utopian socialism." Nonetheless, scholars disagree widely over More's intentions, the extremes in the debate exemplified by Karl Kautsky's painstaking demonstration of More's communism and H. W. Donner's assertion that More's portrayal of communism rejected the practice.

As the work of a religious martyr, the Utopia has also invited study by Catholic scholars concerned with the saint's principles. The book has often resisted such theologically oriented interpretation, however, because it presents the student with a society whose citizens are not Christians. Also problematic is the fact that throughout the work, the character Hythloday describes and idealizes many practices condemned by Catholic doctrine, such as divorce and suicide. Consequently, Catholic scholars were-some of the first to approach the text as a "dialogic"—one in which the presentation of the debate carries more significance than the depiction of Utopia. These scholars point out that in the debates in Book I, the character with More's name often disagrees with Hythloday, suggesting that as appealing as Hythloday's rationalism may be, it is never quite enough without Christian faith. Other scholars have interpreted the same details, however, as an indictment of contemporary European Christianity, which was outstripped in virtue by a pagan society. Chambers exemplifies this view in his argument that the "underlying thought of Utopia always is, With nothing save Reason to guide them, the Utopians do this; and yet we Christian Englishmen, we Christian Europeans … /" Recently, this dialogic approach has also figured in the interpretations of scholars with more secular concerns, as later-twentieth-century scholars have tended to emphasize More's endorsement of specific problem-solving or intellectual mind-sets, rather than a particular social practice. David Bevington and Lee Khanna Cullen, for example, have focused on More's apparently positive portrayal of the intersection of different and often opposing viewpoints in openminded discussion. Twentieth-century critics in general, however, have tended to perceive Utopia as a negative commentary—possibly a satiric figuration of contemporary Europe. This trend appears to be inspired by a critical focus on passages that seem contradictory: depictions of the Utopian practices of slavery and imperialism and political practices that amount to totalitarianism. Ironically, these same portions, as Schlomo Avineri has demonstrated, allowed some German critics sympathetic to Nazism in 1920s and 1930s to embrace the Utopia.

Principle Translations

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Utopia (translated by Gilbert Burnet) 1685

Utopia (translated by V. S. Ogden) 1949

Utopia (translated by Robert M. Adams) 1975

The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Vol. IV (translated by G. C. Richards) 1965

Frederic Seebohm (essay date 1867)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "More's Utopia" in The Oxford Reformers, 1867. Reprint by AMS Press Inc., 1971, pp. 346-65.

[In the following excerpt from his critical study, The Oxford Reformers, Seebohm places Utopia in its political and historical context, contrasting what he believes to be More's ideal commonwealth with "the condition and habits of the European commonwealths of the period."]

The point of the Utopia consisted in the contrast presented by its ideal commonwealth to the condition and habits of the European commonwealths of the period. This contrast is most often left to be drawn by the reader from his own knowledge of contemporary politics, and hence the...

(The entire section is 2817 words.)

T. E. Bridgett (essay date 1891)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Treatment of Heretics," in Life and Writings

of Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England and Martyr Under Henry VIII, Burns & Oates, Ltd., 1891, pp. 253-72.

[In the following essay, Bridgett discusses More's views on the subject of heresy and addresses accusations that More hypocritcally abandoned the principles of religious tolerance advocated in his Utopia.]

In his epitaph More had designed and emphatically stated that he had been "troublesome to thieves, murderers, and heretics …."

We have seen Erasmus's commentary on these words. It is necessary, however, to study their force, not as apologists, but as...

(The entire section is 6448 words.)

Karl Kautsky (essay date 1927)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Mode of Production of the Utopians: Criticism," in Thomas More and His Utopia, translated by H. J. Stenning, A. & C. Black, Ltd., 1927, pp. 204-14.

[Kautsky, as the following chapter from his book demonstrates, is known among More scholars for presenting the first significant argument that More's Utopia described and advocated a socialist state. Below, he contrasts More's "communist" Utopia with the aims of modern Socialism.]

Nobody with any knowledge of the subject would assert that More's aims are in complete agreement with the tendencies of modern scientific Socialism, which is based on two factors: the development of the proletariat as a...

(The entire section is 3490 words.)

H. W. Donner (essay date 1945)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Communism?" and "Solution," in Introduction to Utopia, Sidgwick & Jackson, Ltd., 1945, pp. 66-83.

[In the following chapters from his critical study Introduction to Utopia, Donner addresses the debate concerning More's portrayal of communism; he concludes that the Utopia indirectly rejects communism as a solution to social ills, arguing that human behavior, rather than social institutions, must change.]

So far the apparent tendency of the Utopia seems to agree tolerably well with what we know of that "righteous and holy judge" who was its author. But we are not going to escape so easily. Of all the features of the Utopian commonwealth...

(The entire section is 7247 words.)

David Bevington (essay date 1961)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Dialogue in Utopia: Two Sides of the Question," in Studies in Philology, Vol. 58, No. 1, January, 1961 pp. 496-509.

[In the following essay, Bevington suggests that the dialogue form of the Utopia provides a clue to the author's opinions: More identified with neither Hythloday nor the character named More, but used the discussion to present "a dialogue of the mind with itself. "]

Students of Utopia are divided in their interpretation of Thomas More's political and economic opinions. Is More himself for oragainst common ownership of property? Writers on the question have tended to fall into two clearly defined camps, according to...

(The entire section is 5071 words.)

J. H. Hexter (essay date 1965)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Utopia and Its Historical Milieu," in The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Vol. 4, edited by Edward Surtz and J. H. Hexter, Yale University Press, 1965, pp. xxiii-cxxiv.

[Hexter's essay, "Utopia and Its Historical Milieu" has been recognized since its publication as a groundbreaking contribution to More scholarship. The excerpt that follows presents Hexter's observations on Christian Humanism as the context for the Utopia; in the concluding section, "The Radicalism of Utopia," Hexter argues that More's vision transcended its time in its image of social equality.]

(The entire section is 18261 words.)

Lee Cullen Khanna (essay date 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Utopia: The Case for Open-Mindedness in the Commonwealth," in Moreana, No. 31-32, November, 1971, pp. 91-105.

[In the following essay, Khanna contends that More recommends open-mindedness in his text, exemplifying it both in the Utopians and in the dialogue between the characters of Hythloday, More, and Peter Giles.]

The Utopia has been read as an economic, social or political treatise, hailed as a precursor of communism, and praised for its illustration of medieval and monastic virtues. Some critics have analyzed its philosophic precepts, while others have seen it as a light-hearted jeu d'esprit. More's major work has fascinated and...

(The entire section is 7345 words.)

Alice Morgan (essay date 1973)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Philosophical Reality and Human Construction in the Utopia," in Moreana, Vol. 9/10, No. 39, September, 1973, pp. 15-23.

[In the following essay, Morgan examines More's treatment of the theme of "the natural" versus "the artificial" in Utopia, emphasizing his concern with "the distinguishing of true from false values."]

In More's imaginary commonwealth the structure of Catholic feudal Europe is overwhelmingly challenged. There is no inherited social hierarchy, no single approved religion. Economic and political equality are maintained by the institutions of communism and the election of public officials; material parity is assured by uniform...

(The entire section is 3316 words.)

Wayne A. Rebhorn (essay date 1976)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Thomas More's Enclosed Garden: Utopia and Renaissance Humanism," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 6, 1976, pp. 140-55.

[In the essay that follows, Rebhorn investigates the parallels between More's Utopia and Renaissance humanist ideals, exploring how the Utopia draws upon and extends humanist agricultural metaphors associated with education and social improvement.]

Thomas More has generally been paired with Erasmus as one of the leading representatives of Renaissance humanism, and his Utopia has been widely read as a provocative expression of humanist ideals. With the works of fifteenth-century humanist educators like Vittorino da...

(The entire section is 5395 words.)

George M. Logan (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Utopia" in The Meaning of More's "Utopia," Princeton University Press, 1983, pp. 131-253.

[In the following excerpt, Logan describes Utopia as a "best commonwealth exercise" in the classical tradition, pointing to the echoes of Plato and Aristotle in the work.]

To examine the theoretical questions advanced at the end of Book I of Utopia, More employed the original and central exercise of Greek political philosophy, the determination of the best form of the commonwealth. [In a footnote, the author adds: "To preclude misunderstanding, let me say at once that this statement does not imply that Utopia must be More's ideal commonwealth. The...

(The entire section is 3245 words.)

Ann W. Astell (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Rhetorical Strategy and the Fiction of Audience in More's Utopia," in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. 302-19.

[In the essay that follows, Astell focuses on the letters, or parerga, that introduce More's text, using them to study how the fiction constructs its audience and, specifically, how the dialogues achieve their purpose through "indirection. "]

St. Thomas More's Utopia, whether considered as dialogue or discourse, is a self-consciously rhetorical work, and critics tend to approach it accordingly. Scholars primarily interested in logos as a means of persuasion typically characterize Utopia...

(The entire section is 5903 words.)

Peter Iver Kaufman (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Humanist Spirituality and Ecclesial Reaction: Thomas More's Monstra," in Church History, Vol. 56, No. 1, March, 1987, pp. 25-38.

[In the following essay, Kaufman takes issue with the traditional reading of Utopia as a direct embodiment of humanist ideals, calling it instead "a gentle ecclesial remonstrance " to the principles of More's humanist colleagues.]

"Do you want to see new marvels (monstra)? Do want to seestrange ways of life, to find the sources of virtue or the causes of all evil; to sense the vast emptiness that commonly goes unnoticed?"

Cornelius Grapheus was responsible for this sales promotion. Along with...

(The entire section is 5206 words.)

Quentin Skinner (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Sir Thomas More's Utopia and the Language of Renaissance Humanism," in The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europe, edited by Anthony Pagden, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 123-57.

[In the essay below, Skinner examines the values and conventions that characterized Renaissance discussions of political theory in order to determine the Utopia's place in that discussion and to argue that the work is More's vision of a "best commonwealth".]

Almost everything about More's Utopia is debatable, but at least the general subject-matter of the book is not in doubt. More announces his theme on the title page, which reads: De...

(The entire section is 11421 words.)

James Romm (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "More's Strategy of Naming in the Utopia," in Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. XXII, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 173-83.

[In the following essay, Romm examines the significance of naming in the Utopia, arguing that More used irony and ambiguity in an effort to demonstrate the unreliability of language.]

Like his fellow humanists, Thomas More was deeply interested in both philology and semiology, and in particular in the ways these two disciplines overlapped. For him Greek and Latin, or language in general, could at times become a kind of code, the meanings ofwhich could be extracted only imperfectly or not at all. Concerns over the relationship...

(The entire section is 3727 words.)

John Freeman (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "More's Place in 'No Place': The Self-Fashioning Transaction in Utopia," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 197-217.

[Freeman interprets the Utopia as an autobiographical text in the essay that follows, finding in it an expression of More's "desire to strike a proper balance between what is private and what is public."]

(The entire section is 8940 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Gibson, R. W. St. Thomas More: A Preliminary Bibliography of His Works and of Moreana to the Year 1750. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961, 499 p.

A descriptive bibliography of early editions of More's works and Moreana, with a bibliography of Utopiana by Gibson and J. Max Patrick.


Allen, Peter R. " Utopia and European Humanism: The Function of the Prefatory Letters and Verses." Studies in the Renaissance X (1963): 91-107.

Discusses the letters and poems written for early editions of Utopia by More and his...

(The entire section is 878 words.)