Sir Thomas More (1478-1535)

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 numerous 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 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. 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. Several 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 struggle with Henry is the subject of the 1960 play A Man for All Seasons, which was made into an Academy Award winning film in 1965.

Background on Utopia

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.

Utopia 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 several 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 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 work 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.

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