Sir Thomas More Publishes

Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, which describes a mythical egalitarian society, launched a new literary genre popular through the late nineteenth century.

Summary of Event

was unknown until 1516 when Sir Thomas More, a prominent London lawyer and Humanist, published Utopia in Latin. Destined to become one of the great works of political theory, it was printed in the Netherlands because the English printing industry was still in its infancy. It was quickly exported to England, however, where it was widely read. No less a scholar than Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, More’s good friend and proponent of Humanism, oversaw the book’s printing. Utopia (More)
More, Thomas
Erasmus, Desiderius
Columbus, Christopher
Henry VIII
More, Sir Thomas
Erasmus, Desiderius
Columbus, Christopher
Henry VIII (king of England)
More, Sir Thomas

Utopia (Greek for “no place”) was written in two parts. Book 1 is a discussion involving prominent public figures, including More himself, and Raphael (Ralph) Hythloday, a fictitious sailor whom More claims to have met while on diplomatic business in the Netherlands and whose name means “disseminator of nonsense.”

The burden of the discussion in the first book concerns the social and economic state of western Europe, which Hythloday constantly compares unfavorably to the mythical land of Utopia, which he is supposed to have visited recently. In particular, he criticizes the warmongering of princes and the greed of the wealthy, who close off common land and tear down peasant villages to facilitate sheep raising.

Hythloday also laments the low state of political life in Europe. Kings are beset by flatterers and do not receive good advice. They do not perceive that the welfare of their subjects lies in prosperity and peace.

Near the end of the first book, Raphael suggests that private property and the drive to accumulate it are at the root of all these abuses and should be abolished. When More questions this idea, Hythloday embarks on a lengthy description of the system existing in Utopia. This material composes book 2.

The ideal state of Utopia is situated on an island no broader than two hundred miles at any point. It comprises fifty-four fair cities and numerous prosperous farms, with the citizens alternating between urban and rural life. The government of the whole island is republican. Each family may cast a vote for the lowest magistrates (the philarchs), who in turn nominate and elect the higher officials. All men are eligible for office. All members of the community are required to work regularly at useful occupations, and they spend much of their leisure time in educational and cultural pursuits. The best-educated people are generally given the more important posts. Private property is totally nonexistent. Each family receives what it needs for an adequate but frugal existence. Cities readily share with one another what they have in abundance.

The Utopians go to war only to defend their country, to aid its citizens abroad, or to protect weak nations in distress. They colonize only unoccupied territories. They prefer to use mercenary soldiers to spare their own citizens. They never permit war to break out in their own land, and they pride themselves on using rational, human skills such as diplomacy and trickery to overcome their enemies, rather than using force, which is bestial. They are a strongly religious people and tolerate all religions that do not disturb the commonwealth. Although atheists are not molested, they are excluded from public life because Utopians consider them to be without moral sense.

Much attention is given to philosophy, especially the study of ethics, and the Utopians believe that pleasure, both spiritual and sensual, is the aim of human existence. Only the “higher” pleasures fall into this category, however. Utopians reject low-grade, “apparent” pleasures.

The death penalty is never inflicted. Hardened criminals are enslaved and made to work for the commonwealth, but no one else undergoes such punishment. Suicide is permitted to the chronically ill but to no one else. Adultery and other forms of sexual laxity are severely punished.

The rulers of the state are high-minded and self-sacrificing. They are forbidden to discuss public business outside the council chamber, to avoid attracting popular followings and fomenting rebellion. Magistrates can be removed from office on mere suspicion of tyranny.

Hythloday concludes his narration by saying that in contrast to Utopia, all commonwealths with which he is familiar seem like “conspiracies of rich men.” More admits that he cannot accept all the practices of the Utopians, but wishes that many of them would be adopted into English society.

More’s account of Utopia owed as much to published reports of the New World as it did to his observations of the Old World. When More wrote Utopia in 1515 and 1516, the voyages of discovery of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus were still within living memory, as were the accounts of Amerigo Vespucci and Pietro Martire d’Anghiera. More was familiar with these travel narratives when he wrote his own tale of meeting the sailor-philosopher Hythloday, and he fashioned his novel to mimic the form of such narratives. It was partly for this reason that Renaissance scholar Bruce Burton described Utopia as “the first explicit literary example, rooted in the New World, of a political alternative to Europe’s tyrannies.”

Beyond this formal resemblance, moreover, the content of More’s work owes a similar debt to early travel narratives. Indeed, many specific details of More’s invented nation are arguably derived from explorers’ accounts of the New World. It was a society without lawyers, judges, or debtors’ prisons, a place that sounds in some respects amazingly similar to the Native American societies that would be recalled by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Friedrich Engels, among others. More made of “primitive” societies a mirror of social criticism for “civilized” Europe.

Utopia was not invented wholly of American observation, of course. More’s citizens read books and attended lectures, used cattle and horses, and required passports for travel outside their home cities. Utopians also practiced a form of slavery reserved for criminals who worked off their sentences at menial tasks, wrapped in gold chains, a badge of dishonor.

The Latin text was read by the learned throughout Europe until an English translation appeared in 1551. Although it was greatly admired, there is no evidence that it had any profound impact on either contemporary politics or intellectual life. Its meaning was considered somewhat obscure, as it still is.

Shortly after publication of the book, More entered the service of King Henry VIII and rose to the highest post in the realm, that of lord chancellor. In 1532, he resigned rather than support Henry’s decision to divorce Divorce;Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon through a breach with Rome. In 1535, he was beheaded for treason for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy recognizing Henry as “Supreme Head” of the Church in England Catholicism;England . He is regarded as the greatest intellectual figure of the early English Renaissance, and has been declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.


Columbus’s discovery of America was followed closely by the flowering of a literary genre to which Thomas More’s Utopia gave its name. More’s work was only one of many books that used the discovery of vast unmapped regions of the globe to provide readers with imaginative settings for egalitarian fantasies. It was one of the most widely read and discussed examples of the genre, however. Utopian fiction continued to be written for four centuries, until the last frontiers closed on a fully mapped world around 1900. Amid the social and political upheavals of the twentieth century, the genre was pessimistically revived in the form of dystopian novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Further Reading

  • Ames, Russell. Citizen Thomas More and His “Utopia.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1949. Utopia in the context of More’s life and times.
  • Baker, David Weil. Divulging “Utopia”: Radical Humanism in Sixteenth-Century England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999. Close study of the contemporary reception of Utopia and its relationship to the Humanist movement. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Baker-Smith, Dominic. More’s “Utopia.” Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Places More’s Utopia in its cultural context, explaining its connections to Humanism and Christian political theory. Argues for its treatment as a literary reflection on the nature of political idealism, rather than as an example of such idealism. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Chambers, Raymond Wilson. Thomas More. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935. Reprint. London: J. Cape, 1962. Wide-ranging biography which is largely sympathetic to More.
  • Grinde, Donald A., Jr., and Bruce E. Johansen. Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy. Los Angeles: UCLA American Indian Studies Center, 1991. Treats Utopia as an example of an early travel narrative.
  • Guy, John. Thomas More. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Both a biography of More and a survey of the various other biographical portrayals that have emerged over the centuries. Attempts to adjudicate between the different versions of More, and uses newly discovered evidence to explain what he really believed and the real reasons for his execution. Includes genealogical table, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Logan, George M., and Robert M. Adams. Thomas More: “Utopia” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Critical biography of More.
  • More, Sir Thomas. Utopia: A Revised Translation, Backgrounds, Criticism. Translated and edited by Robert M. Adams. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 1992. An authoritative translation of More’s novel. Includes background texts by Saint Benedict and Tasso and the set of letters written by major Humanists, among them Erasmus, as well as modern day critical essays, a bibliography, and illustrations.
  • Olin, John C., ed. Interpreting Thomas More’s “Utopia.” New York: Fordham University Press, 1989. Brief collection of five essays expressing divergent perspectives on More, originally presented at a conference on the author. Includes illustrations and bibliographic references.

1456: Publication of Gutenberg’s Mazarin Bible

Beginning 1485: The Tudors Rule England

1490’s: Aldus Manutius Founds the Aldine Press

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

1499-1517: Erasmus Advances Humanism in England

July-Dec., 1513: Machiavelli Writes The Prince