The picture of Europe and England in book I of Thomas More's "Utopia"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006
20 Pages, Grade: 1


List of Contents:

1) Preface

2) The composition of Book I

3) Social and Political Injustices in England and Europe as described in Book I
3.1 The role of European monarchs
3.2 The appropriateness of punishment
3.3 The enclosures in Europe as cause for human poverty
3.4 Europe and the question of Private Property

4) Conclusion

6) Bibliography

1) Preface

The humanist and philosopher Thomas More wrote his famous Utopia in 1516. It became immensely influential for forthcoming literature.[1] As language More chose the 16th century lingua franca Latin which was the standard - especially in humanist circles. Hence the original title of the work was “De optimo reipublicae statu deque nova insula Utopia”. Later the book was translated into English by Ralph Robinson who published his translation in 1551. Utopia, which can not be seen as a novel since there is no continuous plot or storytelling, describes an ideal society on the isle of Utopia which is situated far away from old Europe in the New World. The work contains two books. Book II describes in detail the life of the Utopians and the condition of their commonwealth. Book I on the other hand focuses on injustices in England (Thomas More’s home country) and old Europe. Book II will to a certain extend be neglected in this paper since its focus will be laid on Book I.

This paper is supposed to analyse the picture of England and Europe as it is drawn in Book I. The question that rises is, what major points of life in Europe in the beginning of the 16th century are being criticised. It is not possible to do so without taking into account the time of publication. It needs to be answered, what role the transition time of early 16th century played for the author to write such a book which founded a new genre of literature: The Utopia.[2] From that point on literary works which described an invented, positive society where named Utopias.

Chapter two is giving a short overview of the composition of Book I. It is followed by the main chapter (No. 3) of this paper. It deals with the political and social injustices in England and Europe as they are being characterized in the first Book of More’s Utopia. It focuses on the following major points of criticism: European monarchs, an adequate from of punishment (especially for theft), the important enclosure movement and the role of private property in a society.

These different images – I would like to call them pieces of a puzzle – form a general impression (a puzzle so to say) which the reader gets about the contemporary state of Europe if he puts the pieces together.

2) The composition of Book I

Book I of Thomas More’s Utopia was written after the author had already completed Book II[3]. It is quasi a preface written after the main part of the work and building a contrast of contemporary European society with its social ills on the one hand and the ideal world of Utopia on the other hand. It is based on two major dialogues, one framing dialogue and another within this framework. In the comprehensive dialogue Thomas More, Raphael Hythloday[4] and Peter Giles retire to Gile’s house in Antwerp for supper and conversation. There they speak about Hythloday’s travels which he had undertook with the noted explorer Amerigo Vespucci. [5] The dialogue often becomes a monologue with Hythloday speaking and More and Giles listening. In some points the conversation becomes controversial, especially when talking about contemporary illnesses affecting Europe. Those illnesses are the major topic of Book I. Very concrete descriptions of the isle of Utopia on the other hand are found in Book II. Book I ends with the three men having discussed contemporary problems and agreeing to break for lunch before starting to talk about the “ideal” society of Utopia in more detail.

Within the first dialogue between More, Giles and Hythloday is set a second one – a reported dialogue – Raphael’s description of a debate which takes place at Cardinal Morton ’s[6] table after dinner. Cardinal Morton needs to be understood as a fictional person in Thomas More’s book but also as a real person and in that functioned as the mentor of the young Thomas More. As early as in 1490 – at the age of thirteen – More was send to the Cardinal’s court for reasons of education.[7] The dialogue within a dialogue shows an important contrast. It opposes Raphael Hythloday’s philosophical and ideal descriptions with the pragmatic stance of the political and clerical Cardinal Morton. With that it emphasises the more realistic (and criticising) conditions in England and Europe of the 16th century and already slightly starts opposing them with the imaginative and ideal states on Utopia when Hythloday every ones in a while gives short examples of how he had experienced life there.

Another function of the dialogue – structure is that it conveys a realistic impression which is still supported by the choice of real existing protagonists. It seems much more reasonable to let groups of people talk about the philosophical and social topics of Book I than simply stating them through a description by the author (as it was done in numerous pamphlets at that time). Many of the topics addressed in Book I were in public debate. Thomas More probably also chose the literary from of dialogue in order to set apart from the numerous articles that were written and distributed among the English and European citizens.

3) Social and Political Injustices in England and Europe as described in Book I

3.1 The role of European monarchs

A big philosophical dispute arises in Book I between Thomas More and Raphael Hythloday about whether it makes sense to counsel a king or not. More and Giles are so impressed with the political experience of Hythloday, that they suggest he should advice a king in order to apply his great knowledge and to put himself into public use:

“I wonder, Raphael, how it comes that you enter into no king's service, for I am sure there are none to whom you would not be very acceptable: for your learning and knowledge both of men and things, are such that you would not only entertain them very pleasantly, but be of great use to them, by the examples you could set before them and the advices you could give them; and by this means you would both serve your own interest and be of great use to all your friends.”[8]

Hythloday refuses because he denies that he could have any such effect as a counsellor because his advice would not be heard and kings were led by a desire for war and expansion rather than by one for improving the situation in their own countries.[9] Moreover there are many other selfish counsellors who have no common interest and are not at all afraid of flattering the king which would please him very much, since humans liked to be surrounded by flattering people:

“ … it is only those for whom the prince has much personal favour, whom by their fawnings and flatteries they endeavour to fix to their own interests: and indeed Nature has so made us that we all love to be flattered, and to please ourselves with our own notions.”[10]


[1] According to George Sanderlin Thomas More’s Utopia was recognized in its literary quality to a greater extend in his own century than it has ever been since. Cf. George Sanderlin: The Meaning of Thomas More’s “Utopia”, in: College English, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Nov. 1950), p. 75

[2] Following important works of that genre are for instance A Modern Utopia by H. G. Wells, Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach, Dinotopia by James Gurney but also The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon.

[3] Johnson therefore talks about Utopias “second phase“ when referring to book I. Cf. Robbin S. Johnson: More’s Utopia: Ideal and Illusion, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1969, p. 30

[4] Hythloday is deduced from Greek and means “dispenser or talker of nonsense“.

[5] Amerigo Vespucci (1451 – 1512) was an Italian merchant, explorer and cartographer. Martin Waldseemüller, a German cartographer, produced a world map on which he named the new continent "America" after Vespucci's first name, Amerigo.

[6] Cardinal John Morton (1420 – 1500) was Bishop of Ely and then Archbishop of Canterbury (1486-1500) during the reign of Henry VII. He was appointed Lord Chancellor of England in 1487.

[7] Cf. Uwe Baumann, Hans Peter Heinrich: Thomas Morus. Humanistische Schriften, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt, Darmstadt 1986, p. 1

[8] Thomas More: Utopia, Classic, Stilwell 2005, p. 11

[9] Cf. Ibid., p. 12

[10] Ibid., p. 12

Excerpt out of 20 pages


The picture of Europe and England in book I of Thomas More's "Utopia"
University of Hannover  (Philosophische Fakultät - Englisches Seminar)
Seminar: Early Modern Utopias
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Europe, England, Thomas, More, Utopia, Seminar, Early, Modern, Utopias
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Joachim von Meien (Author), 2006, The picture of Europe and England in book I of Thomas More's "Utopia", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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