Born in 1478, the son of a prominent lawyer, Thomas More became one of the most interesting and influential figures of the early Renaissance. As a child he attracted the interest of Cardinal John Morton, then the Chancellor of England; through Morton's influence More received a magnificent education at Oxford. More followed the desires of his father and became a lawyer, quickly proving himself excellent at the trade, though never giving up his studies or other interests. While working as a lawyer and as the Undersheriff of London, More still had time to become a widely respected writer, historian, and philosopher. He wrote innumerable works, including the History of King Richard III (to which Shakespeare's Richard III was deeply indebted) in 1513, Utopia in 1516, many polemics against the heresies of Protestantism, and a two volume meditation on the Church in 1532 and 1533 entitled The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer.
More also cultivated friendships with the most important thinkers of England and the continent, including a friendship with perhaps the greatest Humanist thinker of the time, Desiderius Erasmus. In 1518, More entered the service of King Henry VIII, soon becoming a trusted advisor; he gained the office of Chancellor in 1529. Through all of his success, More remained a profoundly religious Catholic. Though he had decided he could better serve his God as a lay Christian, More still followed many of the ascetic practices of monks: rising early, fasting, engaging in prolonged prayer, and wearing a hair shirt. He also was famous for his immense poverty.
More lived during the early years of the ##Protestant Reformation##, and was a leader of the Counter-Reformation. In England, More was a tireless persecutor of Protestants, though, paradoxically, one of the tenets of his Utopian society was religious toleration. In 1532, the political and religious landscape of England changed dramatically. Henry VIII, like More, had long been a staunch defender of Catholicism. However, Henry's loyalties were more political than heartfelt. In order to obtain a divorce, Henry broke relations with the Vatican; in short order he declared himself head of a new Anglican church, divorced his wife, and married Anne Boleyn. More, in protest, refused to attend the coronation of Boleyn and was marked for vengeance. A number of false charges were soon brought against More, and though More disproved them, he was convicted and sentenced to be drawn and quartered, the death given to a traitor. Henry commuted the punishment to a simple beheading; More was executed in 1535, a martyr for his religion. More was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935.
More's life spanned a tumultuous era in European history. Europe and England were still founded on the economic models of feudalism, in which virtually all power resided with rich nobles while the peasants endured a backbreaking existence that supported the lavish lifestyles of their rulers but provided little more than a subsistence level of existence for themselves. The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were formative years in the Renaissance, a flowering of art and thought that began in Italy and flooded through Europe and England. Aspects of this revolution included a renewed interest in classical Greece and Rome, an emphasis on reason and science, and an intellectual movement known as humanism that, remarkably for the time, was dominated by secular men of letters rather than religious monks or priests. Humanists emphasized the dignity of man and the power of reason while remaining deeply committed to Christianity. Their thought and writings helped to break the hold of the strict religious orthodoxy that had constrained thought through the Middle Ages. Humanists often argued against feudalism, seeing it as a society dominated by the rich and exploitative of everyone else. Further, they saw feudal society as irrational, and, in many ways, as paying only lip service to Christian ideals. While humanism allowed for a new understanding of society, it had effects far beyond what its foremost practitioners--including More and Erasmus--anticipated or supported. In 1517 Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, marking the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. With the Reformation, the face of Europe was warped by intense religious and political conflict. England was no exception; protestants continuously cropped up throughout the country only to be persecuted. Then Henry VIII broke with the Pope and England itself became Protestant, leaving the staunch English Catholics in the lurch.
More wrote Utopia in 1516, just before the outbreak of the Reformation, but certainly during the time when the stresses and corruption that led to the Reformation were swelling toward conflict. Utopia, originally written in Latin and later translated into many languages, depicts what its narrator, Raphael Hythloday, claimed to be an ideal human society, the island of Utopia. The book was a huge success, vaulting More into renown, and not only founding a literary tradition but lending that tradition its name, the utopian novel. This tradition involves the attempt by an author to describe a perfect, ideal human society. However, the tradition founded by Utopia is so powerful that it seems to have obscured Utopia itself. Few critics would today agree that More considered the island of Utopia to be a perfect society. Through the book's fictional frame and the dialogue of its characters, the book gains a certain ambiguity about the convictions of Utopia's standard bearer, Raphael Hythloday. It is clear that the author does not necessarily support the ideas presented by Hythloday. However, while More might not have envisioned Utopia as a perfect society, it is inarguable that he forwarded utilitarian, rational Utopia as a criticism of the European world he saw around him. It is vital, then, to understand that the book is a response to a specific historical time.
There are many ways to analyze the society of Utopia. It can be thought of as the culmination of rational thought or Humanist beliefs, as an alternative to feudalism, a statement in favor of communal society, or an effort to promote reform according to Christian values. These different critical approaches are not mutually exclusive, and Sir Thomas More was certainly aware of the complexity of meanings embedded in his book.
The book is composed of two parts; paradoxically, the first written last and the second written first. It is the second book that depicts Utopian society and which most closely resembles the Humanist thinking of Erasmus. The first book serves as an introduction to the second, but also as a commentary on it. In fact, the first book was itself likely written in two parts. Initially, it was simply a short introduction, a way to introduce the fictional More to the character of Hythloday. The second part of the first book involves an extended speech by Hythloday on a number of issues, some that were of vital and personal interest to More the author, others that provide a certain insight into Hythloday and perhaps reveal him to be not quite as knowledgeable as one might first believe. Utopia is, then, a depiction of a semi-ideal society and all of the criticism of European society that ideal represents, and it is a commentary on itself and its themes. Often, Utopia, the product of a profound thinker who was still developing his thought, seems to question itself. The book can at times be paradoxical, just as More himself could: a man who preached religious toleration and methodically persecuted Protestants, who decided to remain a lay Christian rather than enter the priesthood but ultimately died a martyr for his faith. Ultimately, Utopia is a book that, like More, attempted to navigate a course through the ideal and the real, between a desire to create perfection and the pragmatic understanding that perfection, given the fallibility of mankind, is impossible.