Sir Thomas More's "Utopia": A discussion of its reasons and reception

Term Paper, 2005

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Origins
2.1 Tudor England
2.2 Humanism
2.3 The Life of Sir Thomas More

3. On the Reception and Themes of Utopia
3.1 The Perception of Utopia ’s Authenticity in the 16th Century
3.2 On Government and Social Structure
3.3 The Root of All Evil: Money and Private Property
3.4 The Striving for Happiness, Knowledge and ‘Good’ Pleasures
3.5 On Religion

4. Conclusion: Utopia offers an Intelligent Criticism on the Then State of Europe and Proposals for Reforms



1. Introduction

“No two commentators, it seems, are agreed as to which passages in Utopia are to be taken seriously and which are to be dismissed as fantasy or jest, and their interpretations vary according to their choice”[1]. This is probably because Utopia was written a long time ago by a scholarly man with a complex biography including contradicting events. As Niklas claims, “Utopia is a classical text in political philosophy, which means that our understanding of it moves within the intellectual tradition it has shaped and our readings of it become attempts at self-understanding”[2]. Furthermore, Sir Thomas More does not directly present his thoughts, but creates a fictional travel report with a fictional storyteller. In addition, he integrates fictional characters of himself and other well-known people of that time. All this seems to make a complete interpretation of Utopia impossible. Thus, I will concentrate, in connection with his biography, on More’s possible reasons for writing Utopia and on its reception in More’s lifetime.

In my term paper, I will first discuss the circumstances under which More lived in order to be able to suggest reasons for writing his Utopia afterwards. I will first give an overview of the political period he was born into, and then shortly describe the humanist movement and how More got involved in it. Subsequently, I will give a short study of More’s life, but concentrate on the events and characters that cast light on Utopia, which includes events that followed his writing. I will then examine the reception of Utopia when it was published. After all, More added introductory letters to the first editions of his book which has to be taken into consideration for the analysis. Subsequently, I will look at different topics discussed in Utopia and their possible origins. To conclude, I will suggest that More produced an intelligent indirect critique of England and Europe in his lifetime, as he creates the fictional character Raphael Hythloday, a companion to Amerigo Vespucci, who tells the story of the island of Utopia. More might have done this to stimulate the reader’s vision as well as to escape censorship. However, More’s life is a contradictory one and I will infer that every reader has to make up his own thoughts on this book which contains a revolutionary body of thought.

2. Origins

2.1 Tudor England

Thomas More lived in the Tudor Period, or the Absolutist Period, and was even Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII. After thirty years of civil war between two Royal families Henry Tudor VII became King of England in 1485. In More’s lifetime the Tudors could rule more and more absolutely: the nobility had lost their military power, the kings appropriated land from the church, and, after Henry VIII’s dispute with the Pope[3], he established the Church of England with himself as the head.[4]

2.2 Humanism

Humanism is an ethical approach to life focusing on human solutions to human issues through rational arguments without seeking refuge in one or multiple gods, sacred texts or religious beliefs[5]. If the term Renaissance stands for the socio-cultural transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern world, then humanism marks the movement that furthered education in that period from the 14th to the 16th century.

The humanist Thomas Linacre was tutor to Prince Arthur of Wales, Henry VIII’s older brother, and physician to Henry VIII. He was interested in the humanistic revival and counted the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus who sympathized with the main points in Martin Luther’s criticism of the church among his pupils.[6] Erasmus also knew the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger from his studies in Basel. Holbein, one of the first Renaissance painters, illustrated Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible and also portrayed Thomas More[7]. More was impressed by humanist ideas already early in his studies, when he read works of the Italian humanist Pico della Mirandola. Because of his social rank he got to know many intellectuals of that time.[8]

2.3 The Life of Sir Thomas More

Thomas More was born the eldest son of a prominent judge in London in 1478. He was well-educated and, in his adolescence, served as a page in the home of Archbishop John Morton who also plays the role of the fictional character Cardinal Morton in Utopia. More studied Latin and logic, the science of ‘the word’, at Oxford under Linacre, and law in London with his father. It was probably in these privileged circles where he became an interested humanist scholar, but also learned the conventions of English law[9].

Torn between his father’s wish to follow in his footsteps and a monastic calling, he became a monk after working as a barrister in London. Although the prayer, fasting, and penance habits, for instance wearing a hair shirt and flagellation, stayed with him for the rest of his life, he decided to engage in politics and entered Parliament in 1504 where he urged a decrease in a proposed appropriation for Henry VII. In exchange, his father was imprisoned and not released until More paid a fine and withdrew from public life.

In 1509 More’s friend Erasmus wrote The Praise of Folly [10], also translated as The Praise of More since its Latin title permits both variants. After the king’s death in 1509, More became one of the two undersherrifs of London, well-known for honesty, independence and being a patron to the poor. In 1515 he helped a delegation in Bruges, Flanders, to settle a dispute about the wool trade. In the Netherlands he exchanged ideas with Peter Giles, a friend of Erasmus, who also appears as the homonymous fictional character in Utopia. It is supposed this laid the foundation for Book II of Utopia, and that he wrote Book I after his return to England[11]. After he also aided in ending an uprising against foreigners in London, Henry VIII got aware of him. He became a member of the Privy Council in 1518 and was knighted in 1521. Sir Thomas More gained the king’s favor as his advisor and secretary when he helped him to write the Defence of the Seven Sacramants, an anti-Protestant polemic paper against Martin Luther’s then new Protestantism that only accepts baptism and the lord’s supper as holy signs. Thus, he became speaker of the House of Commons, where he helped to establish the privilege of free speech, and afterwards, he was chosen Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Henry VIII was married to the Spanish king’s daughter Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his brother Arthur, as a means of preserving the alliance with Spain. This marriage could only happen because Pope Julius II allowed an exception of the biblical objection against such a marriage. However, in 1527, Henry wanted to divorce his assigned wife because he fell in love with Anne Boleyn, a lady of the court and future mother of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I[12]. To pursue this aim, he claimed that the Pope had not the right to defy God’s word. More agreed with his opinion, became Lord Chancellor in 1529 and supported the view of the theologians at Oxford and Cambridge that the marriage had been unlawful.

But Henry went even further: he began to deny the Pope’s authority in general and declared himself head of the new Church of England. At this point More distanced himself from Henry. He wrote several books against Protestantism and enforced anti-heresy laws to persecute Protestants. However, only few people suffered the extreme punishment for heresy during his Chancellorship. More refused some more tasks imposed on him by Henry, such as validating the Act of Succession because he would have had to recognize Parliament's authority to decide on religious matters by denying the authority of the Pope. Therefore, he was beheaded in 1535. But even in the days between his conviction and his death he claimed that “no temporal man may be head of the spirituality”[13] and that he died “the king's good servant and God's first”[14]. Regarded as a martyr, he was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1935, on the 400th anniversary of his death and is, since then, also known as Saint Thomas More.


[1] Dorsch 1967: 345

[2] Niklas 2001: 223

[3] Please see 2.3

[4] cf. Fleischmann 1999: 11-12

[5] cf. Wikipedia 2005: Humanism

[6] cf. ibid.: Thomas Linacre and Erasmus

[7] cf. ibid.: Hans Holbein the Younger

[8] cf. Wikipedia 2005: Thomas More

[9] cf. ibid.

[10] cf. ibid.: The Praise of Folly

[11] cf. Cliffsnotes 2005: Utopia

[12] cf. Wikipedia 2005: Anne Boleyn

[13] qtd. in ibid.: Thomas More

[14] ibid.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Sir Thomas More's "Utopia": A discussion of its reasons and reception
Bielefeld University
British Utopian Literature
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In this term paper, it is concluded that More produced an intelligent indirect critique of England and Europe in his lifetime. More might have done this to stimulate the reader's vision as well as to escape censorship. However, More's life is a contradictory one and I will infer that every reader has to make up his own thoughts on this book which contains a revolutionary body of thought.
Thomas, More, Utopia, British, Utopian, Literature, Reasons, Reception
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Tobias Nahrwold (Author), 2005, Sir Thomas More's "Utopia": A discussion of its reasons and reception, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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