By Thomas More


The publication of Thomas More's Utopia in 1516 in Latin was one of the supreme achievements of the Renaissance humanist tradition. At this time, 'humanism' meant not so much a philosophical stance but a scholarly movement, linked to the revival of classical learning in the Renaissance. It propounded an ideal of full development of the individual, rejecting religious asceticism, narrow scholasticism and humble piety. It marked the ideal of rich, flourishing individual potential, enhanced by the study of the classics. The term 'humanist' derives from the Ciceronian phrase studia humanitas, which signified the disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy. More's work conforms to these strictures as grammarian (Renaissance understanding of the term was wider than that which we associate it with now) he translated Greek poems, and four short works by the Greek ironist Lucian. As rhetorician he wrote a declamation in reply to Lucian's Tyrannicide. As poet he wrote a number of Latin epigrams. As historian he wrote the biography in Latin and English of the unfinished History of King Richard III (which Shakespeare based his play on). As moral and political philosopher he wrote Utopia following a tradition of thoughtful men who drew pictures of a state governed by ideal laws and institutions. One of the most famous examples of this exercise would be Plato's Republic.

The title identifies the book as belonging to one of the oldest genres of political writing, the discourse on the ideal commonwealth initiated by Plato's Republic and continued in Aristotle's Politics. Their discussions of ideal states are purely argumentative where Hythloday relates Utopia in fictional travelogue format. The decision to present his imaginary society in the mouth of an obviously fictional person is accountable for much of the book's enigmatic quality. Therefore, the overtly fictional nature of the book allows meanings to be left ambiguous and irresolvable and also makes it more accessible to a wider audience who would normally be put off by a political or philosophical discourse; fiction proves to be the sugar coating on the pill of morality: "like medicine smeared with honey, might enter the mind a little more pleasantly".


is written in the form of a dialogue between the author and an imaginary traveller and consists of two books. The first presents a criticism of the social conditions of More's time, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, on the eve of the Reformation. Tyranny and corruption abound and More sees the fundamental evil as the misuse of private property: the concentration of riches in the hands of the few e.g. the Church, which had led to the dispossession of the poor. This had in turn led to unemployment, starvation and resultant crime and savage punitive laws. In the second book we are shown the opposite picture of harmony and 'ideal' society. Private property has been abolished, manual labour is treated with dignity, and there nobody starves and nobody is homeless. This exemplar has led readers to hail him as a forerunner of Karl Marx on the strength of his advocacy of communal property.

More coined the word 'Utopia' from the Greek outopia 'no place' and eutopia 'good place'. This mixture of meanings typifies the complexly ironic treatment of the imaginary society, ostensibly a perfect society. Confusingly, "utopian" in a modern sense assumes the latter meaning; More's view on the imaginary island is less clear-cut. The title page sets itself up as a 'Golden handbook' for political, ethical and public life. This preposition is followed by the subtitle "No Less beneficial than Entertaining". This beginning typifies the duality of purposes throughout the book; it is both to delight and to instruct, ironic and sincere. It follows a tradition of humanist writing of the likes of Erasmus, (a close friend of More). In his Praise of Folly there is a mixture of "seriousness and jest": the reader is not blessed with absolute good and evil but a quandary, as it were, to consider in a fictional framework. Authors at this time approached a changing world with tentative and ambivalent thought so their writing became infused with complex use of ironic and fictive modes. The reader of Utopia must bear in mind that the work is a social satire. "More hovers so perpetually on the confines of jest and earnest, passes so naturally from one to the other, that the reader is in constant suspense whether his jest be in serious or his seriousness a jest".

The explorer whose account of the island we are given is named "Hythloday" a Greek compound meaning 'expert in nonsense' but we should consider this to mean 'expert in the improbable' rather than 'expert in what is wrong' (in keeping with the name Utopia itself). The commonwealth he narrates turns out to be attractive in some ways and not in others. There is no hunger or homelessness. The commonwealth is egalitarian. However, personal freedom appears restricted as each citizen's hours, games and work are regulated and controlled. Discussing political issues outside senate is a capital offence and a citizen must get permission to travel.