Thomas More’s book Utopia, while notoriously hard to characterize, is nonetheless a product of its time. It addresses the concerns of More and his humanist contemporaries in both style and content, and is also in part a critique of European government and politics. This is most clear in book one, in which Raphael Hythloday describes a debate he had with a lawyer, and sets forth ideals of justice and communism. I will focus on this first book of Utopia in this analysis, but will also refer to the second book and to writings about Utopia by various scholars.
Utopia was written in the form of a dialogue, a return to classical style. This is one of several traits that exhibit its foundations in humanism. Like other humanists, More rejected the logical, carefully structured Latin of much of academia and wrote in a manner more reminiscent of classical Roman writers. Peter Giles described the work as “preserving a pure Latin style,” but the resulting feel is also one that can be described by Robert M. Adams as “simple, conversational, and everyday.”
The dialogue form of Utopia also shows the particular influence of the works of Plato on More’s book. Plato is mentioned no fewer than six times in book one alone, and More seems to regard Plato’s Republic as the prototypical predecessor to his own work. Giles described Utopia as “going far beyond Plato’s Republic,” so he too must have seen a connection between the two. The Republic had only recently been translated into Latin when More wrote Utopia, so it was a novel source of ideas for late medieval thinkers.
The humanist endeavor that led to the translation of the Republic also led to new trends in intellectualism. There is evidence of this change in intellectual paths in the text itself in the form of More’s central character, Raphael Hythloday. Raphael, a philosopher and intellectual, “knows a good deal of Latin, and is particularly learned in Greek,” the latter a language little studied in Western Europe before the humanist movement. Raphael seems to be strongly attracted to this humanist enterprise, and is particularly interested in ancient Greek philosophy. Indeed, Raphael seems to represent an ideal of humanism: a scholar and explorer, not only studying the knowledge of the ancients, but traveling and discovering new things for himself. Raphael also resembles many great real-life scholars of his time in that he abandoned an inherited position of nobility in favor of his quest for knowledge.
At this point in Raphael’s life, though, another distinctly 16th century influence came into play. Raphael travelled with Amerigo Vespucci on three of his four voyages. Tales of Vespucci’s voyages were very widely read at this time, and More’s references to the New World within his own story take advantage of it being a subject of much interest. The basic narrative construction of Utopia, particularly in book two, relies on there being places in the world about which very little is known, and in which explorers are constantly finding new and unusual things. “Nowadays we find all sorts of lands turning up which the old geographers never mentioned,” wrote Giles, in a letter which treats the work as a genuine account. The genre of traveler’s tales, of which Vespucci’s writings were part, was a popular one, but More’s work took the genre in a different direction, mildly mocking it at the same time. “We made no inquiries, however, about monsters, which are the routine of traveler’s tales,” he wrote. “Governments solidly established and sensibly ruled are not so common.” This fantastic quality of traveler’s tales, and Vespucci’s stories in particular, allowed More to write in a very imaginative way without departing from the established genre.
At the same time, More’s story deals with issues of practical importance during a period of great exploration. One of the most essential of these is religious conversion. The voyages of Christopher Columbus and other Europeans were greatly influenced by a desire to spread Christianity, and to either convert or kill those not of what they believed to be the one true faith. More’s fictional explorers behave somewhat differently from this, teaching Christianity to some of their hosts but not publicly preaching. Indeed, one of the Utopians who converted to Christianity “took on himself to preach the Christian religion publicly” and was exiled for “creating a public disorder.” Had these events happened to real European explorers, they probably would have responded violently, but Raphael and his comrades accepted the sovereignty of the Utopian government and took their coreligionist’s exile as the end of the matter.
It seems from this text that More was opposed to the religious violence that took place in the New World in the name of Christianity; while against heresy and by no means religiously tolerant at home, he imagined things functioning differently in this new, unexplored territory. More even goes so far as to state that the founder of Utopia, Utopus, “suspected that God perhaps likes various forms of worship and has therefore deliberately inspired different people with different views.” Though it does not seem that More lived his life according to these principles, they still reflect in an interesting way the time in which he lived. In some earlier periods in history, Europeans had little contact with non-Christians. In these times, it would have been difficult to even imagine people having different views, let alone God liking and respecting their worship.
Raphael also talks about domestic politics, addressing issues such as the proper punishment for theft. He argues strongly that thieves should not be executed, as they were in England in More’s day. Here More again uses to his advantage the fact that much of the world was little known by Europeans of his time, and describes the Polylerites, a people near Persia who have a very different and more humane way of punishing thieves.
Both the Polylerites and the Utopians serve to make the point that it is possible for a society to be more just than that of Christian Europe. Indeed, More’s depiction of Utopia emphasizes the similarities between Christian ideals and Utopian life, and thus implies that Europe is not living up to the ideals set for it by Christ. When Utopians convert to Christianity, he suggests that “they were also much influenced by the fact that Christ had encouraged his disciples to practice community of goods,” an ideal which the Utopians themselves had already realized.
The communism More describes in Utopia was actually much related to the ideals of Protestants whom he despised, and was thus fitting to its time, though not necessarily to its author. It seems that, though More later condemned communism as a heresy, he argues for greater equality of wealth too well not to believe in it at all. He has Raphael say that “as long as you have private property, and as long as cash money is the measure of all things, it is not really possible for a nation to be governed justly or happily.” Throughout this conversation, though, More uses the dialogue form to leave it unclear what view he himself agrees with.
In C.S. Lewis’ writing on the subject, he concludes that More’s later enmity toward communism (and to some degree toward his own book) was a reaction to outside threats to More’s ideals. He compares this to how “any of us might now make criticisms of democracy which we would not repeat in the hour of its danger.” Lewis’ words are reprinted from a book published in 1954, and it is notable that in the 50 years since Western democracy has twice reached what might be regarded as an “hour of its danger,” and both times has reacted as More did.
Americans have recently become less tolerant of skepticism about government policy, as we did during the Cold War. Those who would normally question authority freely and openly now restrain themselves or are restrained by others. Similarly, More was in favor of the intellectual discourse his book generated when it was not threatening to Catholicism, but eventually defended his religion when it was truly threatened, and did so at the expense of his other intellectual values. In the light of the Western response, and particularly the American response, to the threats given the reductionist terms communism and terrorism, More’s reaction to Protestantism becomes more clear.
The essence of Utopia, then, is that it is a place where people can live without the political and religious struggles of More’s day, or indeed any such substantive troubles. There are two ironies to this. One is that More was more engaged in these struggles than nearly anyone else of his time, and probably would not have wanted to live in Utopia, detached from conflict. The other is that Utopia, an impossible, idealized “nowhere,” is actually a reflection of the very real problems of its time.
Thomas More, Utopia, translated and edited by Robert M. Adams (New York: Norton, 1991).
The above-listed edition of Utopia includes all referenced essays and commentary.