More, Sir Thomas

Tagged: Author

(1478-1535) UK amateur actor, translator (of Lucian and others), lawyer, diplomat, politician and author. The son of a barrister, he was first educated for the Church, but soon decided upon a secular career. His legal training involved arguing both sides of any issue, a technique that would reappear in much of his writing, especially in the first part of Utopia. He advanced rapidly in public office, becoming both a Member of Parliament and Under-Sherriff of London in 1510, being knighted in 1521 and occupying several posts under Henry VIII – he was Lord Chancellor 1529-1532 – until that king's proposed divorce from Catherine of Aragon; More's subsequent refusal to swear to the Act of Supremacy led complicatedly to his execution. Throughout his career he was intellectually involved with the kind of humanism best exemplified by his friend Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), whom he first met in 1499 in London, and the work by which More is popularly remembered, Utopia (1516 The Netherlands; trans Ralph Robinson 1551; trans rev 1556) [for full title and revisions see Checklist]; on the title page of this edition, though not technically part of the title, appear the words Libellus Vere Aureus ["Truly Golden Little Book"]. Written in fluent Latin (the lingua franca for lettered Europeans of the sixteenth century), it is generally recognized as the first substantial humanistic work composed by an Englishman.

In Part 1, which is set in Antwerp, More, lightly fictionalized, is introduced to Raphael Hythloday (the surname is Greek for "expert in nonsense"), a fictional Portuguese seaman who has, a Portuguese seaman who traveled with Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) to the New World. Having later discovered the Island of Utopia during an adventurous Fantastic Voyage south of the equator, Hythloday compares the corrupt state of European society with the ideal world of Utopia. Part 2 consists of his detailed description of Utopia, beginning with its founding by Utopus – More gives him the title of "princeps", a term often mistranslated as "king" rather than "governor", illicitly importing monarchy into the utopian Republic. Utopia is a humanistic reversal of English society (it has been claimed by some commentators that the geography of Utopia is a reversal of the geography of England), though with a monastic tint: all goods are held in common; the island's fifty-four shires are constructed and run rationally by citizens who participate fully in the government, though there are also slaves (see Slavery); arms are borne in self-defence only; gold is held in contempt and used only for items such as chamber pots; Sex is controlled but evident (women are displayed naked to their potential husbands, a practice satirized by Francis Bacon in his own utopia, New Atlantis [bound in with Sylva Sylvarum 1626; 1627 chap]); there is religious tolerance, though not for atheists. Most of the rational ingredients of the hundreds of Utopias (a word which, in More's usage, is a pun on ou-topos, nowhere, and eu-topos, good place, though this is only made explicit in one of the verses appended to the book by Pieter Gillis, which have been omitted from most translations) that followed More's initiative can be found in Utopia; what many of its successors lacked, however, was More's insistence that his humanistic, rationally governed world was amenable to change, and that his picture of Utopia had caught only a moment in its evolution towards a more perfect constitution for the life of men on Earth.

The status of Utopia has been ambiguous from the moment it was written. More saw the book as a work of political philosophy clearly modelled on Morias Enkomion or Stultitiae Laus [Greek and Latin respectively for "In Praise of Folly"] (written 1509; 1511) by his friend Erasmus, which similarly consists of a colloquy followed by a more overtly political lecture, but he also referred to the book as a comedy. He went to great lengths to establish the verisimilitude of his work: in May 1515 More did indeed embark on an embassy to Bruges, a mission which still allowed sufficient time for him to visit Pieter Gillis in Antwerp in July, which is when the meeting with Hythloday supposedly occurred. In his pamphlet Lettera di Amerigo Vespucci delle isole nuovamente trovate in quattro suoi viaggi ["Letter of Amerigo Vespucci concerning the isles newly discovered on his four voyages"] (1504 or 1505; trans into Latin as Quattuor Americi Vespuccij navigationes ["Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci"] 1507), widely read at the time, Amerigo Vespucci reported leaving 24 men at Cape Frio, and More placed Hythloday among that group. Central to Part 1 of the book, known as the Dialogue of Counsel, is Hythloday's account of a dinner with the then Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, John Morton, which also suggests a real person at a real time. Yet for every effort towards verisimilitude, More consciously undermines the reality of his text: the name Hythloday can be translated as "dispenser of nonsense"; place names in Utopia translate as "river without water", "phantom city" and so forth; and during the dialogue with Morton there are sufficient textual clues to show that it would have been obvious to a contemporary audience that Hythloday was being cast as a fool. This ambiguity extends outside the text. Among the practical aspects of Utopia were an efficient sewage system (among his other appointments, More had been made Commissioner of Sewers in 1511) and a hospital system that would not be matched in England for another 100 years. Yet within a couple of years of the publication of Utopia, and against the advice of many of his humanist friends, More had accepted high enough office for him to implement many of the ideas and reforms laid out in Utopia, and signally failed to do so. It remains unclear whether More simply disagreed with the ideas he put in the mouth of Hythloday, or whether the advent of Protestantism (Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg Castle just a year after Utopia was first published) changed the game sufficiently for the utopian ideas to become irrelevant.

The full text of Utopia, including epistolary parerga and discursive appendices, has often not been translated in full, muffling the fact that the whole of the book – including the central description of Utopia in Part 2 – is told within the frame of the colloquium in Antwerp (see above) involving More, his Dutch friend Pieter Gillis (1486-1532) – who supervised the book's first publication, and seems to have created the term "eutopia" in a verse appended to the first edition – and the imaginary Raphael Hythloday. The colloquium itself is a form whose roots in Western literature extend back to Plato, and frames any story told within its compass in a fashion that prefigures the nineteenth-century Club Story [see in particular Part 2 of that entry]: its most important club-story-like function for More himself almost certainly being the freeing of Hythloday's narrative from any definitive reading. To repeat: Part 2 of Utopia is a told tale, and the nature of More's advocacy of the meaning of this narrative must be understood through his presentation of himself as auditor. The majority of readers of Utopia – certainly those only familiar with one of the many flattish, non-conversational, information-resource translations of strangulated sections of the text – have understandably assumed that Utopia is a straightforward presentation of excerptible concepts of a sort dear to theme critics, and that More is (more or less straightforwardly) recommending a kind of society he would have liked to live in himself, even though at times the Satire is broad enough to alarm scholars. For instance, More himself produced an English translation of Part 2 of Utopia in 1518, but it seems that Part 1 was considered too satirical for him to translate the whole book. It would have to wait for 15 years after More's death before a complete translation was made available in English, and then the translator, Ralph Robinson, had to append a lengthy explanation why, in newly Protestant England, the views of such a notorious persecutor of Protestants should be read. Since then, few, if any, translations of the book have been free of some sort of political overtone. Samuel Hartlib's translation of 1639 positions the text as part of the republican argument being advanced by radical Puritans, and even in 1965 Paul Turner's translation for Penguin Classics presents the book as a form of proto-communism. The past decades have seen, however, an increasing awareness of the narrative complexity of More's slippery, subtly layered text; and of the pitfalls for interpreters inherent in his fluently colloquial Latin, an idiom difficult for modern readers to get to grips with. Certainly some aspects of Utopia may seem, in any translation, rigid and even cruel, but to impute similar emotions to More himself, despite his habitual burning of Protestants during his years as Lord Chancellor, is a simplistic response to a text so cleverly hedged; and scholars who still apply that reductionist simplistic must be read with caution.

The degree to which Utopia and utopias in general can be thought of as relevant to sf, particularly Genre SF of the twentieth century, is not easily determined, and a critical consensus may never be reached; it can be argued that the utopian tradition has contributed only minimally to the fundamentally Romance nature of modern sf (but see Proto SF). The amount of available reading on More and on utopias is huge; some relevant works are listed below and under Utopias. More was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1935. [JC/PKi/PN]

see also: Economics; Futures Studies.

Sir Thomas More

born London: 6 February 1478

died executed, Tower of London: 6 July 1535


The publishing history of Utopia is immensely complex, and no attempt is made here to present that history; there have been many translations, most of them truncated without acknowledgement; they are not listed.

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