Thomas More, Utopia


Forum Staff
May 2008

“It was no ill simile by which Plato set forth the unreasonableness of a philosopher’s meddling with government. ‘If a man,’ says he, ‘were to see a great company run out every day into the rain and take delight in being wet—if he knew that it would be to no purpose for him to go and persuade them to return to their houses in order to avoid the storm, and that all that could be expected by his going to speak to them would be that he himself should be as wet as they, it would be best for him to keep within doors, and, since he had not influence enough to correct other people’s folly, to take care to preserve himself.’

Thomas More, Utopia, 1516.

At project Gutenberg:

Or, at bookyards:

And at World Wide School – must be read on line but it can be cut and pasted.

Open for discussion on Sunday, 21 March, 2010.

Happy reading.
Last edited:


Forum Staff
Mar 2008
On a mountain top in Costa Rica. yeah...I win!!

Welcome Historum lovers of good reading,

Our selection for discussion this month is Thomas More’s Utopia.
Instead of going chapter by chapter as we did with Candide, you are invited to jump in with comments anywhere, anytime, either specific or general.
We are fortunate More’s Utopia was selected for it is rich in ideas and should provoke many interesting responses; it even has the potential to be the longest thread in the history of Historum. (Hint, Hint.)

The fascinating facts of More’s life and the people around him are readily available and don’t need to be recounted in an introduction. I hope and pray that relevant biographical details will emerge as the thread progresses. Since Thomas More is recognized as a saint I’ll even throw a prayer to that effect in his direction. So! What could it hurt? I wager Pascal would do the same. (I understand he was a betting man.)

If you haven’t read Utopia it is not too late to get in on the fun.
The preceding post has the links.

The Candide thread is still open and available for the addition of comments, corrections or kudos, whatever. I hope you didn’t miss Cicero’s brilliant wrap up.

The following intro is more by way of a ramble than exposition, an attempt to lull the mind into an old fashioned mood; an attempt to capture a bit of the spirit of the man. I beg your indulgence for this flight of fancy.

Enough of the old business.

On to the new business.

A little bit about Thomas More’s frame of mind

At the age of thirty three, (an auspicious age for a practicing Christian) Thomas More, a young lawyer of the Temple was very much concerned that the life he saw around him did not correspond with the interior life for which he had long yearned and had practiced with sincere devotion.

What he saw was an English landscape being transformed by the new Tudor aristocracy and the seeds of a new capitalist era being sown. To express it in the rhythmic idiom of that time: He not only saw, but listened, and what he heard was the voice of the sailor that scorned the sea and the voice of the warrior who was weary of war; there was the troubled voice of the farmer with his constant complaint of winters lack of rain for fertilizing seed and the ever present threat of a late spring thaw. Added to this were the early signs of fallow fields that a later age would note, only too obviously, as the sign of the farmer forsaking his fields for the impious city. Everywhere More heard complaints against correctness in commerce, complaints of the laws deafness to the cry for justice. More’s own voice was nearly alone in speaking for fidelity in friendship, skill in the arts, and where, the scholar in him would have asked, ‘where is the discipline in our habits?’

At a much later era, when thinking of the best and worst of times, the Victorian writer Charles Dickens would point out that the times were so similar that we can receive it “in the superlative degree of comparison only”.
We can concede that Thomas More was born into an ‘epoch of belief’ but it would be a disservice to call it an ‘epoch of incredulity’. It is us moderns who are the incredulous ones. And this is our stumbling block to understanding.
More summed up this uneasy era as one in which, “sheep were eating men”.
His focus, his calling, his vocation was to follow the biblical injunction of “feed my sheep”.

At the age of thirty three, when a man like Thomas More is neither young nor old, he thinks upon the inevitable downward trend of life, notes the signs that age does not preserve ones prime; that it is inevitable that our end must decrease in strength like the setting sun and the waning moon and dying tree. It was all part of the cosmic belief of his age; part of the unquestioned belief in the Great Chain of Being whose links would not be shattered until the Enlightenment. This is the worldly and other-worldly core of Thomas More; these thoughts are what must be kept in mind when reading ‘Utopia’. To state it as a caution: one must guard against imposing the trivialities of the present age on the past. Not the easiest of tasks. To truly appreciate and understand More one must put aside their ‘unbelief’ and try to believe as he did, even if only for a moment. The real trick of course is not to get inside his mind but to let him get inside yours.

More believed in a higher judge that had passed a sentence on the world, he believed that all that has risen should fall and that all that has grown wax old, and the strong things should become weak and great things should become small, and that when they have been weakened and diminished that they should pass beyond remembrance. It is easy for us, living in such an enlightened age, to easily dismiss his faith. And that is our problem... ‘it is easy’. We live in times of easy desires and poor remembrances.

Personal aside: I shudder to think of the day when a University is endowed with an ‘easy chair’.
Can you imagine how mentally dull one must be to sit in a chair called a ‘Lazy Boy’?
There is an old spiritual that has the line, “You can’t get to heaven in a rocking chair, ‘cause the Lord don’t want no lazy folks there.’ I think More would have gotten a chuckle out of all that. Excuse my impertinent digression.]

It was in the year 1510 that More turned Thirty-three and his fame as a lawyer was well known. That same year he became under-sheriff of London.

[Sidebar: This was the same year a 25 year old German monk by the name of Martin Luther was in Rome as a delegate for his order. In another part of Italy 58 year old Leonardo da Vinci was sketching studies of the Trivulzio monument. And if there had been a Tudor Times newspaper, it might have included in their foreign intelligence column the birth announcement of Giorgio Varsi, who was destined to take his place in the Great Chain of Being as a great art historian. These men never crossed each others path, but their thoughts were cross pollinating the whole of Christendom. It was a mentally busy time.]

Four years later Cardinal Wolsey chose More as one of a group of emissaries to Flanders to protect the interests of English merchants. During this six month absence from England, Thomas spent his free time making the first draft of Utopia, which would be published the following year.

came off the press in 1515 and not to soon for it missed any trouble with the newly announced decree of the Lateran Council’s De impressione librorum which forbade the printing of books without permission of Roman Catholic authorities. (I don’t think More’s book would have had a problem, but you never know.)

[Sidebar: That same year(1515)saw the birth of Anne of Cleves destined to become the fourth queen of Henry the Eight who this year celebrates his 24th birthday.
Wolsey (who is only three years older than More) receives the red hat from Rome and becomes Lord Chancellor of England.
In the printing trades the sad gossip is that Aldus Manutis, Italian printer and publisher has died. To maintain cosmic balance The Great Chain of Being replaces the link with the birth of future Spanish mystical poet, Teresa de Jesus.
In Germany artist Albrecht Durer is being a petty annoyance to Emperor Maximilian I by drawing in the margins of the emperor’s prayer book.
Humanism has arrived and the Renaissance is busily turning the noun flower into a verb.]

In 1516 King Henry VIII asked More to become his counselor. More presented the king with a copy of his fanciful tract Utopia by way of a memorandum. Utopia was a sharp satire of the current times. The king, who was not lacking in cleverness, (after all he supposedly composed Greensleves) was not led astray. Both the king and Wolsey were eager to have this clever lawyer’s services at court. More was granted a pension of 100 pounds a year for life and was made a member of the embassy to Calais the next year and about the same time became privy councilor.

It was with some reluctance that More was drawn into a career in the ‘fast lane’. His talents for administration where well rewarded with many promotions, for awhile he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and after Woolsey’s downfall he became Lord Chancellor of the Realm. Then the king ‘got a wild hair up his royal arse’. He wanted to marry Anne Boleyn. The Church said no. The king would not be moved. Rather than endorse the king’s marriage More retired from office and gave up being one of the highest paid men of the realm and returned to the country to live in comparative poverty. He reappeared in Westminster Hall only when summoned by the king to tender the Oath of Supremacy in which his signature would acknowledge the king as the final religious authority in England. More refused to sign the oath. The details of the king’s break with the Church of Rome are too well known to Historum readers to be repeated here. A modern sound bite will suffice: King Henry figuratively lost his head and Thomas More literally lost his.

[Now for something entirely different]

We are fortunate that Franz Holbein painted Sir Thomas portrait; not only did Holbein capture what we must regard as a true physical likeness but also captured a psychological likeness. Holbein’s rendering shows More to have a sensitive face with restless eyes, “grey and speckled, which kind of eyes do commonly betoken a very good and sharp wit.”
The Holbein portrait is so well known that I selected one less well known to head this discussion, yet it too contains the same kind and alert expression; an excellent example of the art of portraiture at its best. This site this image came from gives no information about the painting, only labels it ‘Thomas More as a Young Man’.

More’s intimate friend Erasmus has left us a wonderful word portrait in a letter to Ulrich von Hutten dated 23 July, 1519. It is too lengthy to quote in full, but here are extracts describing More.

“To begin then with what is least known to you, in stature he is not tall, though not remarkably short. His limbs are formed with such perfect symmetry as to leave nothing to be desired. His complexion is white, his face rather than pale and though by no means ruddy, a faint flush of pink appears beneath the whiteness of his skin. His hair is dark brown or brownish black. The eyes are grayish blue, with some spots, a kind which betokens singular talent, and among the English is considered attractive, whereas Germans generally prefer black. It is said that none are so free of vice. His countenance is in harmony with his character, being always expressive of an amiable joyousness, and even an incipient laughter and, to speak candidly, it is better framed for gladness than for gravity or dignity, though without any approach to folly or buffoonery. The right shoulder is a little higher than the left, especially when he walks. This is not a defect of birth, but the result of habit such as we often contract. In the rest of his person there is nothing to offend . . .

He seems born and framed for friendship, and is a most faithful and enduring friend . . .

When he finds anyone sincere and according to his heart, he so delights in their society and conversation as to place in it the principal charm of life . . .

In a word, if you want a perfect model of friendship, you will find it in no one better than in More . . .

In human affairs there is nothing from which he does not extract enjoyment, even from things that are most serious. If he converses with the learned and judicious, he delights in their talent, if with the ignorant and foolish, he enjoys their stupidity. He is not even offended by professional jesters. With a wonderful dexterity he accommodates himself to every disposition. As a rule, in talking with women, even with his own wife, he is full of jokes and banter.
No one is less led by the opinions of the crowd, yet no one departs less from common sense . . .”

In 1536, one year after Thomas More is beheaded for treason, Erasmus, his friend and mentor, dies. More was 57, Erasmus 68.
That year Henry the Eighth took Jane Seymour as his 3rd wife.
That year Anne Boleyn was sent to the tower of London and executed.
That year William Tyndale, the reformer, is burned at the stake.
That year 376 religious houses were dissolved by Royal decree and an act of parliament declares the authority of the Pope void in England.
That year Michelangelo begins to paint the Last Judgment.
The Epoch of Belief was undergoing unbelievable change.

In 1935 Thomas More was canonized (elevated to sainthood) by the Roman Catholic Church; partly as an example of piety and courage for the faithful and also to remind the world that it could use More of the same.

Aug 2009
I'm game for this.

Anyone else find Utopia rather an amusing book? There is a kind of Socratic irony at work here, where claims are made and then consistently undercut. Take freedom - everyone is supposedly free to move around, but they are discouraged and all their time is spent doing productive things, plus there are slaves. More's "Morus" (could mean "fool", I think at any rate it would be a big mistake to equate More with the character in Utopia) offers us tantalising claims of a perfect place and then undermines these claims.

More's use of Socratic irony makes sense, since he name-checks him, openly declares his preference for Greek before Latin (following Erasmus' lead in many ways) and his book can be seen as a response to Plato's "Laws" (I know that the Republic is a more obvious touchstone, but I think that the Laws has many more similarities).

So, More: Funny Guy?

(P.S. Can we abide by a naming convention where the author is called "More" and his namesake character is called "Morus". It would make the distinction much clearer!)


Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
I just finished Utopia. My thoughts are listed randomly below:

Book one I found boring. I guess it was directed to his contemporaries. The only part that found amusing was the jester's idea of taking poor people into the clergy.

Utopia is a Utopian Socialist Republic that I wouldn't like to live in really. I am too old a dog for that new trick.

Moore ( I have seen his name as both More and Moore) is remarkably tolerant and liberal for a Catholic Saint! He doesn't have the Utopians as Catholics and indeed has them tolerating most any religion. As a lawyer, he doesn't have a place for his profession in Utopia.

I like his liberal idea of courtship prior to marriage with the couple naked in front of each other. He is exceedingly tolerant ( nonCatholic) of divorce.

I don't like his idea of Utopians moving their residences every five years or so... what a nuisance.

He has women and men training for war, a very modern concept.

Utopia is overall a true classic that I am happy to have read. It is along the mold of Plato's Republic.


Forum Staff
Jun 2009
land of Califia
Still reading. I will try to finish tonight to join the fun on Monday.:)


Forum Staff
May 2008
Nice posts, guys.

I think that the immediate problem is ‘where to start?’ Where does one start with More? Pedro’s done an excellent job of contextualizing More and Utopia within the early sixteenth-century. Lets see if we can find some direction with the text itself.

I have a number of immediate questions:

- Is Utopia the ideal commonwealth?
- Is it what the ideal commonwealth ought not to be?
- Is it, possibly, partially More’s ideal and partially not?
- And, if there is any truth in the latter question, why would More go to such lengths to create such a commonwealth that was both ideal and not ideal?

The first part of the text is clear enough in itself. It opens by arguing that the death penalty as punishment for theft is an irrational barbarity and points out that the only way to reduce cases of thievery is, instead of punitive measures, to reduce the number of people who must either steal or starve. More’s way of doing this is simply to attack the recent conversion of arable land into pasture and other practices that caused unemployment. His theory is that punitive or retributive measures ought to be replaced by more utilitarian punishments.

Morus and Hythlodaeus then engage in an exchange that questions whether a sensible person should serve as advisor to a monarch. After satirising the manner in which monarchs behave towards each other, the dialogue turns to the dishonest means by which monarchs raise funds and line their own pockets.

This brings us to the next question:

- Does Utopia depict a virtuous ideal or a contrary denunciation on European depravity and immorality?

So, how do we want to go about answering these questions?
Last edited:


Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
Having contemplated what I have read more and done a little bit of reading on commentary, I think that Utopia can't be taken at face value as a place the More thought admirable. Reasons:

He was a deeply religious Catholic and even died for his beliefs, yet in Utopia he has the Utopians sanctioning euthanasia, having unbridled religious freedom, and slavery, things that I believe an Orthodox Catholic would be against.

He was also a lawyer and had Utopians without them.

I think the whole enterprise had to be a "contrary denunciation on European depravity and immorality," especially in light of book one which I was pretty annoyed with and found tiresome.... I should probably read that again.
Nov 2009
I've always been interested in utopia and utopian ideals. Depending on one's world view, the human race has at the finish line either utopia or destruction. What further complicates the question is when we speak of utopia, are we referring to an actual place or a state of mind.

It is my understanding that 'utopia' in Greek means 'not a place', a metaphor or a state of being, not a physical place. Where Eutopia means an actual attempt to create an ideal living arrangement, like the socialist, anarchist and religious "eutopians" of the 19th Century. Such as Charles Fourier...

[ame=""]Charles Fourier - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia[/ame]

The Hindus believe paradise to be achieved within, which I agree with somewhat, though I believe my external circumstances should affect my happiness somewhat. So, is More referring to a real place or a state of mind, and could achieving that state of mind lead to a real place where paradise is externalized?

Don't know, but I find it difficult to believe you could achieve it the other direction, in the harshest of circumstances, say a prison cell or under the constant combat-level stress of modern American consumerism.