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.
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.
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.