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More, Sir Thomas

Entry updated 10 April 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(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 Part 1 of Utopia. He advanced rapidly in public office, becoming both a Member of Parliament and Under-Sherriff of London in 1510, 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, as dramatically rendered in Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall (2009). 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 as eloquently articulated in the work by which More is popularly remembered, Utopia (1516; 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.

Utopia is a term which, as More conceives it, puns on ou-topos, nowhere, and eu-topos, good place, though this is only made explicit in one of the verses appended to the text by his Dutch friend Pieter Gillis (1486-1532), who supervised the book's first publication; Gillis's verses have been omitted, inexplicably, from most translations. Most of the rational ingredients of the hundreds of Utopias that followed More's initiative can be found in Utopia; what many of its successors lack, however, is 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 Moriae Encomion or Stultitiae Laus (written 1509; 1511; trans Sir Thomas Chaloner as The Praise of Folly 1549) 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. In Part 1, which is set in Antwerp, a lightly fictionalized More and his friend Gillis are introduced to Raphael Hythloday (the surname is Greek for "dispenser of nonsense"), a fictional Portuguese seaman who had traveled to the New World with Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512); this journey is described in 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), widely read at the time, and in which Vespucci reports leaving 24 men at Cape Frio. More places Hythloday among that group, and also describes his subsequent discovery of the Island of Utopia during an adventurous Fantastic Voyage south of the equator. The verisimilitude of Part 1 is intensified by the fact that in 1515 More had indeed embarked on an embassy to Bruges, a mission which allowed sufficient time for him actually to visit Gillis in Antwerp in July, when the meeting with Hythloday supposedly occurs. Central to the "Dialogue of Counsel", that ensues is Hythloday's account of a prior dinner with the then Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, John Morton, adding further verisimilitude. During this Dialogue or colloquium, Hythloday goes on to compare the corrupt state of European society with the ideal world of Utopia in language that may have seemed dangerously Satirical: Part 1 was not translated until after More's execution [see Checklist for details].

Part 2 consists of his detailed oral description of Utopia, as adumbrated and encompassed by the context established in Part 1; Hythloday begins with its founding by Utopus, here called "princeps", a term often mistranslated as "king" rather than "governor", illicitly importing monarchy into the utopian Republic. Utopia is in fact a humanistic reversal of English society (it has been claimed by some commentators that its geography is a reversal of the geography of England), though with a monastic tint: as Hythloday goes on to describe, 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 solely for items such as chamber pots; Sex is controlled but conspicuous (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.

Despite this copious detailing of the life of Utopia, and the narrative convincingness of Part 1, which seems to sanction Hythloday's exposition, More consciously undermines the reality of this ideal land: place names in Utopia translate as "river without water", "phantom city" and so forth; the name Hythloday is a mockery (see above), and during his dialogue with Morton there are sufficient textual clues to show that it would have been obvious to a contemporary audience that he was being cast as a fool, a teller of tall tales. 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 century. 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 other ideas and reforms laid out in Utopia, and signally failed to do so. It remains unclear whether More 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.

As noted, a full translation of Utopia appeared only posthumously, and later translations have often omitted parts of the complex text, a practice which muffles the fact that the entire description of Utopia is presented within the rhetorical frame of the colloquium in Antwerp. 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 in this context almost certainly being the freeing of Hythloday's narrative from any definitive reading. 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: as witness to its telling but not as warranter of its truth. The majority of readers of Utopia – certainly those only familiar with one of the many flattish, unidiomatic, information-resource-flat translations of strangulated sections of the text – may 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 should be broad enough to alarm even scholars. Truth within the narrative framing here described cannot easily be fixed down. To use a term usefully applicable to much current sf, Utopia is a Thought Experiment.

Few translators of the book, however, have seemed to pay sufficient attention to the inherent dodginess of the text. Samuel Hartlib's translation of 1639 positions Utopia 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. Fortunately, the past decades have seen 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 a reductionist simplistic that treats context and story as obstacles to the proper extraction of thematic gist 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 knighted in 1521 and 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.

about the author (highly selected)


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