Thomas More (1478–1535)
Themes, Arguments, and Ideas
The Limitations of Principles
Because of his Humanist studies of classical philosophy, More had an ideal vision of morality that contrasted with the realities of his world, and one of the major goals of the Humanist movement was to integrate those ideals into real life. However, More knew that principles alone don’t get anyone very far in politics. More’s father was a notable judge and raised him amid politics and politicians, so he had seen how corrupt political life could be. A major theme of an early work, The History of King Richard III, was the deception and ruthlessness of rulers. The bloody War of the Roses, a vicious power struggle over the English throne that had thrown the country into chaos for much of the previous century, remained potent in English memory. In book I of Utopia, More accuses Hythloday of being too “academic” in his attitude toward advising rulers. More seems to be saying that one cannot simply represent ideal principles and then despair that corrupt leaders will never heed them. Instead, to gain influence, a conscientious political advisor must learn to play the game and to accept the realities of a world dominated by power and greed.
The Importance of Social Critique
In Utopia, More contends that thorough scrutiny of institutions is valuable and that conceiving of ideal or imaginary alternatives to reality may yield important insights into how institutions can improve. While some scholars have been tempted to read More’s Utopia as a set of recommendations for the conduct of real-world affairs, an outright critique of contemporary rulers and laws would not have been possible for More, who was a respected statesmen and close advisor to Henry VIII. The narrator More criticizes the fantastical accounts of the Utopians, effectively distancing the author More from Hythloday’s provocative recommendations, which include the abolition of private property. However, the extent to which the author More favors Utopian practices is unclear. In Utopia, More contrasts the problems of the real world, such as poverty, crime, and political corruption, with the harmony, equality, and prosperity of Utopian society, which suggests that More believes that at least some of the principles underlying Utopian practices are noble, even if the practices themselves are far fetched. In any case, in describing and critiquing Utopian society, More gives new perspectives on the problems and strengths of his own society.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!