Sir Thomas More Invents Utopia
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) wrote at the beginning of the Tudor period, a time when England was in political, cultural, and intellectual turmoil. Tudor England is often viewed in terms of its flourishing Renaissance culture and the transformative effect of the Reformation. It was also a period marked by more or less open plunder.
When Henry VII took the throne in 1485, ending the 30-year War of the Roses between the Tudors and the Yorks, he used the financial weapons of attainder and forfeiture to restore the power of the English crown and subdue the aristocracy.
Fifty years later, his son, Henry VIII, seized land from Catholic monasteries and distributed it to his supporters. In the years between, their subjects competed for patronage from the Crown in the form of jobs, lands, pensions, and annuities.
The son of a prominent lawyer and judge, More studied classical languages and literature at Oxford for two years under the patronage of John Morton, then Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1494, his father called him back to London to study common law.
By 1515, when he began to write his most famous work, Utopia, he was a successful lawyer, served as one of the undersheriffs of London, and held a seat in Parliament. He devoted his leisure time to scholarship, becoming part of the international fraternity of northern humanists led by the radical Catholic theologian Desiderius Erasmus.
Humanist philosophers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries turned to the classical texts of Greece and Rome as a way of understanding man's life on earth. Northern humanists also used their Greek to study the New Testament and Church Fathers as part of a campaign to reform the Catholic Church from within.
In 1515, More traveled to Bruges as part of a delegation to negotiate a commercial treaty with the Flemish. His discussions with Erasmus and other humanists scholars while in Flanders inspired him to write the political tract that earned him a permanent place in the history of thought: A Pamphlet truly Golden no less beneficial than enjoyable concerning the republic's best state and concerning the new Island Utopia, better known simply as Utopia.
Published in Leuven in 1516, the book was an immediate success with its intended audience: More's fellow humanists and the elite circle of public officials whom he soon joined. The book went quickly into several editions and was soon translated from Latin into most European languages.
More's other claim to fame was his refusal to support Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. More saw both acts as an assault on the church; Henry saw More's refusal as treason. More was tried and executed on July 7, 1535. He was canonized by Pope Pius XI 400 years later.
The Society of Utopia
More's Utopia is divided into two parts. The first part is written in the form of a dialogue between More and an imaginary traveler who has recently returned from newly discovered lands, including the island nation of Utopia. In comparing the traveler's accounts of the imaginary countries he visited with the actual countries of sixteenth-century Europe, More criticizes the social conditions of his day, particularly what he describes as “acquisitiveness” and “retaining” on the part of the wealthy and the “terrible necessity of hunger” that drove the poor to crimes against society.
In the second half of the tract, More describes in detail the social, political, economic, and religious conditions of an imaginary society on the island of Utopia.
More created a new word to describe his ideal community, combining the Greek negative ou with topos (place) to create utopia, no-place-a pun on eu-topos, good place. Utopia is now used to describe a place too good to be real. In 1868, John Stuart Mill created its antonym, dystopia, to describe a place too bad to exist.
Like later reformers who shared his concerns about the negative effects of urbanization and industrialism, More proposed a small agrarian community as the prototype for the perfect society. His goal was an egalitarian society that did away with both idleness born of wealth and excessive labor due to poverty. In Utopia, everyone performed useful work and everyone had time for appropriate leisure.
All citizens worked in both farm and town so that all acquired skills in both a trade and in agriculture. No type of work was held in higher esteem than any other and no money was required. Each family took what they produced to one of four public markets and received what they needed in return.
There was no private property. Individual family houses were assigned every ten years by lottery. Although families were free to eat meals in their homes, most preferred to eat in the common dining halls that were shared between thirty families because eating together was more pleasant than eating alone.
The government of Utopia was a combination of republic and meritocracy, in which a select few ruled with the consent of the governed. Every citizen had a voice in government and secret ballots were used so no man could be persecuted because of his vote. Each group of 30 families elected a magistrate (philarch). The magistrates chose an archphilarch, who in turn elected a prince. (Like United States Supreme Court justices, the prince was appointed for life.)
Even though all citizens had a vote, not all citizens were eligible for office. Important officials could only be chosen from a limited group, who were selected because of their superior gifts.
More's Influence on Later Thinkers
More wrote Utopia more than 300 years before the word socialism first appeared in the language of social reform. Nonetheless, early socialists found much to emulate in his writing, including:
The abolition of private property
The universal obligation to work
The right to an equal share of society's wealth
The concept of equal rights under the law
State management and control of production