Thomas More (1478 – 1535), utopias, humanism etc (pp5)


                                                                                                                                                                                                Links:   Thomas More - Extracts

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Luther, Calvin, Thomas More: Summary

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Imagining Other Index Page

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Political Philosophy Contents Page

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Luther, Calvin, The Reformation (pp6)


Main Sources:


Ackroyd, P.: The Life of Thomas More, Chatto and Windus 1998

Berneri, M.L.: Journey Through Utopia, Freedom Press 1982

Kenny, A.: Thomas More, Oxford (Past Masters) 1983

Kumar, K.: Utopianism, Open University 1991

Mackenney, R.: Sixteenth Century Europe, Macmillan 1993


Also referred to:


Cole, K. et al: Why Economists Disagree, Longman 1983

Kautsky, Karl: Thomas More and his Utopia, Lawrence and Wishart 1979 (first published 1927)


Additional reference: Terry Eagleton in Observer Oct 17th 2015: Utopias, past and present.




1. Notes on ‘utopias’:

1.1 notes on the definition of the word ‘utopia’

            1.2 types of utopias in different writings

            1.3 why read or write utopias – especially in studying

                        political philosophy?

1.4 what common features can be found in utopian


1.5 another way of ‘classifying’ utopias: authoritarian

            vs. libertarian

            1.6 other (later) utopias.


2. The Context of More’s Utopia:

2.1 the context of the times

2.2 More’s life and character


3. Utopia:

            3.1 overview of main points

3.2 specific topics debated in Utopia.


1. Notes on ‘utopias’:


1.1 notes on the definition of the word ‘utopia’.


The word utopia was coined by Thomas More (1478 – 1535).


Right from when it was first used it is an ambiguous word:

Since it is a transcription into English letters from Greek, it could mean either "no place" [outopia] or "beautiful place" [eutopia].


Incidentally, the book was written in Latin and has many such puns… Some cannot easily be translated (belluinam beastly, is translated as subhuman, when there is a pun on bellum meaning war).


Definition: (Kumar) “a world that cannot be, but where one fervently wishes to be… tantalizingly existing on the edge of possibility…”



H.G. Wells: [our aim was] “to make vivid and credible if we can... an imaginary whole and happy world. Our deliberate intention is to be not, indeed impossible, but most distinctly impracticable, by every scale that reaches only between today and tomorrow…”  (Concerning: A Modern Utopia, 1905, cited in Kumar p 3)


1.2 there are several broad types of utopias in different writings:


1.2.1 (Scruton) account of an ideal society, which also sets out to help explain things about politics, human nature etc i.e. Plato's republic, some of Aristotle, perhaps Zeno (Stoic, 300 BC)


1.2.2 recommendations for an ideal society - and only that (no stating how arrive etc) e.g. More, and most others


1.2.3 "dystopias" – ‘nasty’ places! e.g. 1984, Brave new world


            But even 2 and 3 may contain pointers to philosophy through assumptions about: human nature, change, order, values etc


1.2.4 utopias may also be reactions against an unacceptable or troubling, disturbed,  or changing present i.e. critique/satire (and note that satire is often affectionate...)


1.3 Why read or write utopias – especially in studying political philosophy?


1.3.1 ‘For’:


(i) they represent dreams, ideals, hopes, the imagination  (Berneri) - what might be possible?! (Kumar:) the visionary " and impracticable" quality of utopia is its strength


(ii) they may be useful critiques - raising questions about society, human nature and behaviour etc.


1.3.2 ‘Against’: (and especially, reasons against taking them seriously or trying to implement what they describe) :


(i) they ignore the 'proven realities of human nature' (Scruton)


(ii) my utopia isn't yours – it is impossible to realize all social etc goods simultaneously and continuously (Nozick)


(iii) they may be unrealistic because backward-looking


(iv) they produce uniformity, and make change impossible


(v) they lead to force/oppression in practice, either: because they ignore the real (Scruton), because any ‘blueprint’ leads to forcing reality to fit it (Popper)


            [do ‘utopias’ then serve a useful purpose in thinking about politics?


1.4 What common features can be found in utopian writing? (what Kumar calls "boundaries"):


- memories of a Golden Age (Plato, Virgil et al) + Australian     Dreamtime, and in Hinduism, Taoism.. and the Christian Paradise Lost,


- dreams of a future dramatic change e.g. the Christian Millenium...


- an ideal city (Plato and Augustine) - More's Utopia is most like this in its planning, and its echoes of Plato


1.5 Another way of ‘classifying’ utopias: authoritarian vs. libertarian (from Berneri, an anarchist writer):


1.5.1 authoritarian/nationalist

            - for the greatness of the state

            - the individual is sacrificed, and no one is strong enough to threaten or change the existing order (e.g. artists for Plato were a danger to the state)

            - the code of laws and morality is made for (not by) the citizens (a ‘freedom’ which is given ceases to be freedom)

            - note also how many creators of utopias imagine themselves as the rulers!

            - so-called ‘laws of nature’ are also drawn up or invented by an authority, they are not based on observation or 'how people are'- they are mechanical rather than organic

- they may abolish inequality (and so seem ideal from an anarchist or socialist point of view) but they are likely to suggest further measures e.g. the abolition of private property or the family, not

            because this will free people, but because property, the family etc are seen as a threat to the state and to social order...

            - conversely, if the family etc are kept, this is because this helps support public order

            - symmetry, and planning is artificial, it misrepresents how human communities have developed organically – a point made by both Berneri and Scruton, i.e. from an anarchist and a conservative point

                        of view respectively!)   

- they often have two sets of law, one for the city or nation, another for 'barbarians' and what does this show?


1.5.2 libertarian

            allow the free expression of personality

            contain diversity and differentiation

                                    [note the situationists in Paris '68, calling for fluid urban "situations" in which people could "do their own thing" (Kumar)


1.6 Other (later) Utopias:


- Rabelais: Gargantua etc 1533 libertarian (fay ce que vouldras)

- Campanella - early 17th c - a platonic republic (The City of the Sun)

- Andreae – 17th c - emphasis on education and social reform, cf Robert Owen, and Calvin’s Geneva

- Bacon – 17th c - science, i.e. scientific control (also a rigid division of labour, science for the state, involving secrecy, colonial plunder  etc.) - authoritarian

- de Foigny - late 17th c. (from Geneva..) - "Australia" – anti-authoritarian

- Diderot - 1700 "Bougainville" (Tahiti)  - also anti-authoritarian


- Saint Simon and Fourier: 18th c - planned and technocratic socialism

- Robert Owen: New Lanark: ideal living conditions for his workers


            [Recently: Ursula Le Guin, Aleister Crowley – others?


2. The Context of More's Utopia:


2.1 The Context of the Times: (Mackenney)


More (1478 – 1535) wrote "Utopia" in 1516.


Humanism and The Renaissance - spread from Italy – a ‘rebirth’ of classical learning, which meant a return to the “sources” – The Ancients, The Bible - and which explored the relationship between the ancient world and ‘now’; the Renaissance also went with a decline in religion, so "things human" were more central: hence ‘humanism’…


During this period, there was a preoccupation with:

- the power of language (esp. More who had experienced diplomacy...), i.e. both grammar (with its rules that made it an "external" authority, as Ackroyd puts it), and rhetoric… More wrote powerful pamphlets where sometimes the language was pushed to extremes. Accurate translations were sought, but there was a reaction against the technical logical and philosophical studies of "scholasticism"; also, this was a period in which countries became more aware of, and proud of, their own distinct languages.


[What is the relationship between nationality and language?


- the nature of time (in the Middle Ages time belonged to God; hence the banning of usury)


- exploration (e.g. Amerigo Vespucci - though note (Kumar and Ackroyd) that many of the tales allegedly told about the ‘New World’ were false…


- an interest (from this?) in alternative cultures and societies


- humanism was in some ways closer to Plato than Aristotle, in its quest for the sublime, the elevation of man (ct. Middle Ages, which were Aristotelean, scholastic…)


- the beginnings of science - Que sais-je? (Montaigne) – Francis Bacon…


- a "man"-centred universe - Michelangelo, Da Vinci et al.


- cf. Shakespeare: the infinite diversity of man, as a consolation for a finite life... (“gather ye rosebuds while ye may”)


- expanding knowledge:

            printing presses in 200 towns in 1500

            Universities set up:

                        St Andrews 1411, Glasgow 1451, Edinburgh 1582

in 1600, at Cambridge there were 3,000 students, at Salamanca (Spain) there were 7,000.


BUT: (as in Utopia) there were still aspects which were typical of the "middle ages": a desire for a stable, ordered society - "earthy" (cf. Ackroyd)


ALSO: it was an age of religious conflict and barbaric practices:


- More, as a child, passed a place of execution on the way to school (Ackroyd),


- an individual could earn £50,000 a year, while thousands starved or were hanged for stealing food (Paul Turner, Intro to "Utopia")


- both da Vinci and Durer were melancholic about the human condition (Mackenney p 121)


- More himself was executed for not expressing public support for Henry VIII because he refused to consent to Acts of Parliament which negated Papal supremacy (Kenny).  As one writer puts it: “for private opinions - his very silence was a political crime" (Turner). Political power was ruthless.


            [are people more likely to explore ideas of alternative societies during a period of rapid change or upheaval?


2.2 More’s Life and Character (Kenny, Ackroyd)


1. The dispute with Henry VIII:


More refused to sign an oath attached to the Act of Succession i.e. a declaration supporting Henry's divorce - which would make Catherine of Aragon's daughter illegitimate – but why did he refuse?


It is clear that he put his conscience uppermost but was this

(i) a religious dispute i.e. vs. subordination of church to state?  - but it is unlikely that he was defending the power of the Pope, as by 1534/5 he had accepted a significant amount of Henry's Reformation

(ii) out of attachment to medieval idea of law? (see John Kenyon's review of the biography by Richard Marius, cited below *)


2. the different sides of Thomas More, (Kenny), and how to reconcile them:

- the gentle martyr with the persecuting Lord Chancellor;

- the utopian reformer with his occupying a high state role?       


(i) More was a believer in Christian restraint, conciliation and the application of reason to politics – a humanist - (friends with Erasmus, and defended him); wanted to reform the church without a schism


- he attacked the tyranny of both clergy and monarchy; man should give up selfishness and pride


- this is shown in his attitude to imprisonment - when his daughter reminded him that he had said that others might have signed in good conscience, and they might be right: "I never intend to pin my soul to another man's back" (I am not proud enough to say that I am right and others wrong…)


[but can conscience be relative, differing from individual to individual, and yet binding?


- when reproached by his wife for not trying to get out of prison by giving in, he said he ‘would have chosen such a small room’ (as the prison cell) - i.e. he had a monastic spirit, (which is reflected in Utopia (p 14 P))


(ii)        but he also published 'obscene guttersnipe pamphlets against Protestantism, and relentlessly sent them [Protestants] to be burnt...' (Kenyon)


was he 'hard, self-seeking, vindictive... a domestic tyrant.. a hypocrite and someone who sought attention in public life?' 


(iii) *Marius: a complex, haunted and not altogether admirable man... may not have had a peaceful family life - more a medieval schoolman than a renaissance statesman - had a vocation for contemplative life which was overborne by sexual needs, which he tried to fulfil in marriage - all this set up tensions in his private and public life, e.g. his instinctive revulsion against Henry's affair with Anne Boleyn


- maybe martyrdom 'made sense of' his life (i.e. the fact of it was more important than the reasons for it)


- More was beatified in 1886, and canonised in 1935 “as a saint of the Church of Rome”. But his appeal goes beyond Catholicism: because “he died opposing the imposition of a novel ideology by fear and force” (Kenny p 104).


3. The Main Themes in Utopia.


Edition used: More, T.: Utopia (1516), Penguin Classics 1965 - Translated and Introduced by Paul Turner


3.1 general points:


- there is no oppression, crime, violence, or  inequality, because there is no private property (etc); gold and other riches are not taken seriously…


            [this seems attractive, BUT is it impossible? Is it a precursor of Marx’s communism?


- although there are authoritarian aspects, in the rigid, planned and rule-bound society portrayed, still More has a sense of humour and of the ridiculous, shown in mock-Greek names – “Tallstoria” etc. But this does not mean that More’s intent was just to amuse: he was also mocking life as it was in his time (Kenny)


- the people in Utopia don't have a Christian religion, yet they are clearly good… this is a demonstration of an ethical state, in contrast to the “power-politics” view of Machiavelli… BUT is the aim to show up the inadequacies of Christianity (to show readers how to improve their lives) OR is it simply a discourse, in the traditional medieval manner… (an academic exercise in debate)? After all, we know that More was a devoted Christian…


            [are humanism and theology irreconcilable?


3.2 specific topics debated in Utopia:  see Extracts


NB there are two parts: the second, with the descriptions of Utopia, was written first; the first part has criticisms of English politics and society...


Issues raised in the first part:


Quote 1. The role of philosophers vis a vis kings p 42 (all page references are to Penguin Classics edition, unless otherwise stated): Raphael argues that it is pointless for philosophers to try to advise the court. At the same time, he expresses surprise (sarcastically) that even in England such things happen!


Quote 2. Crime and punishment:

The case is put against harsh punishment, on several grounds: it is undesirable, and it doesn’t work as a deterrent (he is replying to an “Englishman” who says that he is pleased to see so many people being hanged for theft, but wonders why there are still so many thieves!)


But there is also a discussion of the origin of crime – when the nobles’ retainers are dismissed they become a problem because they have no other skills than service, so they turn to crime, as will soldiers, when not at war. More draws attention to the similarity between soldiers and thieves! There is even a comment on the growing tendency to enclose land for sheep, thus evicting tenants who are likely to turn to crime in desperation. (p 47) This is surely quite a modern attitude – that society creates thieves.


In a passage with modern echoes, non-violent offenders are set to work on public works – some even have to wear clothes of a special colour so people know they are offenders!!


These criminals, together with soldiers captured in war, are described as “slaves” – and we might note that St Augustine explained the origin of slavery in similar terms. (See also p 101) So the question of what to do with “enemy combatants” is also far from new!


Book 2.


Quote 3. Planning:

In Book 2, “Utopia”, an island about 200 miles across, is described. It was founded by Utopos, but was originally called Sansculottia (without trousers!). One of the most striking features of “Utopia” is the way every detail is planned, and every town and building conforms to the agreed design. Most of us would balk at this, I am sure!


There are forty people in each house, but half of these are away at any one time working on the land. This they do for two years.


Quote 4. Work:

Again, there is conformity in life-styles with regard to work, and a very restricted range of activities: but this is a pre-industrial society.


Two amazing ideas stand out: that if you employ everyone, including women (and there’s no wasteful production…) no one needs to work more than six hours a day. Quite recently, economists have argued that two hours a day would be sufficient if we did away with wasteful production. Secondly, when not at work, the population voluntary attends further education classes!


Quote 5. Households and towns, warehouses: ”to each according to their needs”…

What I find striking here (apart from the prescription!) is the combination of what we would regard as reactionary and progressive ideas: on the one hand a sort of patriarchy and hierarchical arrangement in the household, and on the other the belief that houses are not our property, and people are free to come and go; most controversial though is the warehouse from which households take what they need… True communism!


More, as represented by the Utopians did not have the same notion of wealth as we do (see Quote 7). It has even been suggested, by Cole et al, that his view was similar to Marx’s much later argument: money is abolished in Utopia, as it "conceals human relationships and displaces the world of innocent natural behaviour which More primarily values".


At the time he was writing the merchants wanted to be free of the restraints of "statute and competition" – banking and commerce were expanding. Cole et al suggest that More chose against the [King], nobility, and aristocrats, because "noble patronage was not a protection for the poor, and the trappings of nobility did not conceal the fundamental brutality of feudal society"... More did see value, however, in international trade, and he is therefore a precursor of mercantilism... (Cole et al p 22, 23)


Quote 6. Local government:

These are More’s ideas on how to ensure democratic decision-making. Not bad for the sixteenth century?!


Quote 7. Wealth and happiness:

As we saw above, the secret of a happy life is to cultivate the mind.


More evidently has a dislike of gold (i.e. he portrays the Utopians as thinking this way – and his arguments seem to be sincere…) He also illustrates his point with an amusing episode when visiting dignitaries are greeted by the inhabitants: when they see some wearing gold, they assume these are the lowest status people! Iron goods are practical and therefore of much greater real value.


We see here an idea that came from Aristotle – the difference between use-value and exchange-value – but that was to become one of the bases of Marx’s economic theory.


He is also opposed to luxury, and criticises the rich for being mean. Recent studies have shown that the poor give a higher proportion of their earnings to charity than the better-off do…


But he does not go as far as asceticism, the denial of pleasure. Rather, again like Aristotle, he believes that the pursuit of true happiness is natural, and a “virtue.” Our reason and instinct together tell us that pleasure, provided it doesn’t hurt others, is the purpose of life.


Quote 8. Law:

Perhaps the point about few laws is rather trite and over-simple, but what about the idea that we should only have laws we can read and understand ourselves?! And this from a former Lord Chancellor!


Quote 9. Travel:

More seems to contradict the point just made, when he makes it a serious offence to travel outside your own district without permission. To my mind, the reason for this and similar restrictions is not clearly given. Part of it seems to be a need to keep people working, to contribute to the needs of the town. But if everyone really accepts the value of work, why punish so harshly anyone who is regarded as a “deserter”?


Quote 10. War:

As another example (I believe!) of reactionary thinking, wars of expansion are justified: when the population grows and needs more space, the inhabitants take the neighbouring land (i.e. they have a right to colonise it) "if the inhabitants have more soil than they can well cultivate".


This invites a comparison with the situation in the Middle East, where Israelis have argued that they are putting the land to better use than the Palestinians. I was amazed to find recently that even the forward-thinking Martin Buber argued for the right of the Israelis to have land if it had been neglected. (The Pacifist Conscience, p 270 ff)


However, More went even further: if the colonised people settle down to Utopian laws all well and good, but if they don't "they drive them out"… and there would be a ‘just cause’ for war if they prevent the utopians from using the land.


All this rests on another of these “laws of nature” that political philosophers are so fond of: here, that each has a right to land necessary for his subsistence.


Quote 11. Other wars.

Here is a statement which must sound very familiar to us today! The Utopians do not want wars – but have to be prepared; they also, on grounds of fellow-feeling, conduct wars to assist friendly countries, and to save others from dictatorship.


            [We call this “liberal interventionism” nowadays…


This passage goes on to describe their military tactics, which include putting up posters in the enemy country once war is declared, offering a reward for anyone who will kill their own king!


There is much more in More’s Utopia! Here is a summary of a few points:


- the integration of town and country through people changing jobs


- free medical care, health service, euthanasia


- religious toleration (p 119 – 120, but not for atheists?)