Thomas More: Utopia and the Vision of Ideal Life

Intermediate Diploma Thesis, 2004

21 Pages, Grade: Good



I. Introduction
I.1 The real and the ideal world
I.2. The life of Thomas More

II. Thomas More’s Utopia
II.1 Short synopsis of Utopia
II.2 Description of the place
II.3Political and social order
II.4 Philosophical and Moral views and values
II.5 Religion
II.6 Laws and customs

III. Conclusion

IV. Bibliography

“Civilization is a movement and not a condition,

a voyage and not a harbor.”

Arnold J. Toynbee

I. Introduction

I.1. The real and the ideal world

From the earliest times, classical thinkers had recognized that law is rooted in an innate tendency of human beings towards social life and societal development. Morality and law are related, as positive laws are founded on moral values and principles that are universal. Platonism coined Christian ethics, because it was the first philosophy that convincingly established a dualism of body and spirit. The demiurge created the universe after the divine idea, but as it was only a copy, it was removed from the ideal realm and was thereby expelled from perfection. This Platonist spirit is mirrored in the fundamental Christian belief of man’s imperfection.

The medieval world picture complicated this whole system by adhering to an idea developed first by Aristotle, who suggested the arrangement of all animals in a hierarchy according to their degree of perfection. In Neoplatonism the organization of all beings into a coherent general scheme appears as completely organized for the first time and all creation is deduced from the presupposed existence of the “immovable-mover”. This deity is a completely self-sufficient absolute from which all things follow in a great chain of being and in continuous succession. A fine account of this chain of being is given by Sir John Fortescue in his Latin work on the law of nature:

In this order hot things are in harmony with cold, dry with moist, heavy with light, great with little, high with low […] so that there is no worm that crawls upon the ground, no bird that flies on high, no fish that swims in the depths, which the chain of this order does not bind in most harmonious concord […] God created as many different kinds of things as he did creatures, so that there is no creature which does not differ in some respect from all other creatures and by which it is in some respect superior or inferior to all the rest.[1]

Man is a link, in this chain, between the vegetative and rational realm, between beast and angel. Like everything else in the universe, he is the blend of the four elements: earth, water, fire and air. These elements can be described according to their qualities as: cold, moist, hot and dry. Man’s temperament varies on account of the physical qualities of these elements, thus men composed of mainly air and fire were sanguine by nature (as both elements have the quality to rise), while those composed of mainly earth and water were naturally phlegmatic (as both elements have the quality to fall).

Below the sphere of the moon there is constant interchange of the elements, above it there is the ether, the realm of God and the angels, where the four elements are perfectly balanced.

The great chain of being is also a ladder in which everything is placed according to its qualities. From the lowest and most impure grades of being to the highest grades of the angels and archangels, everything strives towards God.

Why do we mention the medieval world picture, though Thomas More was deeply rooted in Christian faith? The middle ages faded out towards the end of the fifteenth century. But the medieval world picture had not been superseded by a catholic view of the world, as we know e.g. from Shakespeare’s tragedies, where people look up to the sky for signs in nature that might announce evil to come.

It should be kept in mind what the political circumstances were like when More wrote Utopia. Wars had shaken the political order in Europe for much of the fifteenth century. In England the houses of York and Lancaster had fought against each other for political supremacy in the Wars of the Roses and the young Tudor regime had ruthlessly silenced its critics.[2]

Of course, in his final political career as Lord Chancellor, More was second in rank to the king, but considering he only held this office for barely two and a half years the despotism of political rulership in those days is somewhat perceptible. In this situation More, following the principle that the jester never gets punished for his remarks, wisely kept to irony as his most powerful rhetoric device in writing Utopia.

Knowing that an ideal kingdom can only exist in Christian Heaven, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia could serve no other purpose than to make man give up paganism and heresy and concentrate on Christian ideals and thus keep man from committing worldly sins, meanwhile preparing him for the coming afterlife.[3] The state supplies the basic structure for happiness in terms of Thomas More’s understanding of the word. Happiness, to Utopians, means, to lead a natural life, which signifies a life according to God’s will.[4]

The author of this thesis sets forth the argument that this state of happiness is maintained by oppression and erasure of the seven mortal sins. There are strong indications that Utopia is not meant to be an alternative to existing states. More, almost certainly, never intended to write a political program for when he learned that Utopia was used by revolutionary reformist groups as a prescription he declared that, if he had known, he would have “never written the book at all, or, if the manuscript already existed, he would have had it burned”[5] Literary critics have even seen Utopia mainly as a ‘jeu d’esprit’ of an intellectual.

However from the contrast of a state, which has banished all the mortal sins and exists on the premises of Christian moral grounds and of intelligence, rather than on passion and ecstasy, a form can be derived on which other states can be judged.

I.2. The life of Thomas More

Sir Thomas More, son of Sir John More, a judge, was born in 1478 in the city of London. After his earlier education at St. Anthony’s School, in Threadneedle Street, London, he was placed in the household of John Morton, archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor of England who sent him to Oxford to learn Latin and Greek.

In 1499, More left Oxford to study law in London, at Lincoln’s Inn. More was more interested in the Holy Scripture and priesthood, though he did very well in the study of common law.

More’s piousness caused him while studying law to aim at the subduing of the flesh, by wearing a hair shirt, taking a log for a pillow, and whipping himself on Fridays.[6]

He was called to the bar, where he was doing exceptionally well.

In 1503 More counteracted in the House of Commons Henry VII’s proposal for a payment on expenses of the marriage portion of his daughter Margaret and the House refused to grant it. One went and told the king that a beardless boy had disappointed all his expectations.[7] Therefore, during the last years of Henry VII More was under the displeasure of the king, and had thoughts of leaving the country.[8]

He entered parliament at the age of twenty-one in 1504 and before long was appointed Under-Sheriff of London.

Henry VII died in April 1509, when More’s age was a little over thirty. His son, Henry VIII not only consolidated the Tudor reign by dynastic and other treaties and by ruthless suppression of critics, but he also embarked on a number of foreign wars that severely strained the English Exchequer. The result was not only uncontrolled inflation and extensive social unrest, but also periodic requests for additional taxation to be levied by Parliament.

In May 1515 Thomas More was, among others, appointed to a delegation to the Low Countries to confer with the ambassadors of Charles V, upon a renewal of alliance.[9]

On that embassy More, aged about thirty-seven, began writing Utopia and while at Antwerp established friendship with Peter Giles, a learned and polite young man, who was secretary to the city of Antwerp. More completed Utopia after his return to London and published his ‘golden little book’ at Louvain (Leuven), which was – and still is – a centre of learning.[10]

Since 1499,when Erasmus of Rotterdam had come to England, More had built up a friendship with this unique scholar of classics from the Low Countries (today Belgium and the Netherlands), who was the first to edit a Greek version of the New Testament.

In 1516 he was sent again to the Low Countries and went to Brussels, where he was in close companionship with Erasmus.[11]

In 1518 he became Master of Requests and Privy Councillor and in 1521 More was knighted and became Treasurer of the Exchequer. In 1523 he was elected Speaker of the House of Commons. It is said that on appointment he told Wolsey that he could not and would not do anything simply to please himself for he had “neither eyes to see nor ears to hear but as this House [of Commons] shall direct me whose servant I am.”[12]

Political honors were showered upon him. He was subsequently voted High Steward of Oxford University, High Steward of Cambridge University and made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1525. And in 1529 he succeeded Wolsey as the King’s most senior and respected adviser when he was appointed Lord High Chancellor. Sir Thomas More was the first layman to hold this great office of State and in human terms this was the pinnacle of his career.

In 1531 Henry VIII insisted on being proclaimed Supreme Head of the Church in England. This happened, because Pope Clement VII could not grant him the divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon, who had not given birth to a male heir. More didn’t share the king’s opinion that his marriage to Catherine was void.

Thomas More’s reluctance against Henry’s plan arose only secondly out of the divorce per se. It was primarily motivated because he saw this as a direct challenge to papacy. His position was that Christ was Head of the Church and that Henry was taking possession of the place of Christ’s vicar on earth, the Pope.

More had to resign from office in 1532 and had hoped for a quiet life among his family and books, but after a brief period of peace, he had to find out that his opinion mattered too much, and was sought by too many.

On April the twelfth 1534, More was summoned to Lambeth to swear an Oath of Allegiance to the Act of Supremacy, which offended against the Pope’s authority and upheld Henry VIII’s divorce. More twice refused on legal grounds. He was committed to the Tower of London on the seventeenth of April and was attainted for ‘misprision of Treason’ on July the first 1535.

More kept true to his belief that the Parliament could not make Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church, but history proved him wrong. Saint Thomas More died on the scaffold on the sixth of July 1535, professing loyalty to the King, but acknowledging a greater loyalty to the King of Heaven.[13]


1 Tillyard, E.M.W., The Elizabethan World Picture (Middlesex: Pelican Books Ltd, 1976)

[2] The Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) were so called, because the emblem of the house of Lancester was a red rose and that of the house of York a white rose.

3 More, Thomas, Utopia (London: Penguin Books, 2003), P. 73

4 Ibid. P. 72

[5] Nisbet, Robert, History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1980), P. 111

[6] Vaughan Hitchcock, Elsie, Hallet, P. E. Rev., The Lyfe of Syr Thomas More, sometymes Lord Chancellor of England (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), P.50

[7] Ibid. P.27

[8] Roper, William, The Lyfe of Sir Thomas Moore, knighte (London: Oxford University Press, 1935), P. 199 f

[9] Charles V. was Archduke of Austria then. He was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1519

[10] Hemingway Benton, Hellen (ed.), The New Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago, 1982), XII, P. 438

[11] It is during this stay in the Low Countries that Thomas More wrote the second part of Utopia.

[12] Roper, William, The Lyfe of Sir Thomas Moore, knighte (London: Oxford University Press, 1935), P. 35

[13] At his execution More said: „I die loyal to God and the King, but to God first of all.“

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Thomas More: Utopia and the Vision of Ideal Life
University of Hamburg  (Institute for Anglistics/American Studies)
Thomas More and his Utopia
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Thomas, More, Utopia, Vision, Ideal, Life, Thomas, More, Utopia
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Martin Bodden (Author), 2004, Thomas More: Utopia and the Vision of Ideal Life, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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