Sir Thomas More was the first person to use the term “utopia,” describing an ideal, imaginary world in his most famous work of fiction. His book describes a complex community on an island, in which people share a common culture and way of life. The term he coined derives from the Greek word ou-topos meaning “nowhere,”. Ironically, it is the opposite of the similar-sounding Greek word eu-topos meaning “a good place,”. At its heart, the book poses the question of whether there could ever be such a thing as a “perfect” world and served as a platform to highlight the chaos of European politics at the time.
The book, written in 1516, is More’s attempt to suggest ways to improve European society, using “Utopia” as an example. More was a major figure of the English Renaissance who cared deeply about the moral and political responsibilities of individuals. He eventually rose to one of the highest offices in the land, and, as chancellor of England in 1529, came up against his own king with disastrous consequences. More strongly opposed Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic Church and refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy, which would give King Henry more power than the Pope. He was convicted of treason and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. They continued to urge him to sign the oath, but he refused. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, or quartered, the usual punishment for traitors, but the king commuted this to execution by decapitation. While on the scaffold, he declared that he died, “The king’s good servant, and God’s first”.
The society depicted in Utopia differs from the European society that Thomas More was living in at the time, one rife with intrigue, corruption and mired by scandal. The author’s experience with politics in his time and the Utopia that he invented demonstrates this contrasting relationship: Utopia is communal, allowing its people to easily meet their needs, while European society is described as a place where, “Idle monarchs and nobles seek to increase their own wealth and power at the expense of the people, who are left in poverty and misery”. Clearly dissatisfied with the world he was living in, More sought to create a different place altogether on the page—a world free of the hierarchies that ultimately cost the author his life.
Sir Thomas More was born to a Roman Catholic family in Dublin, Ireland in 1478. Two years after attending Oxford, More moved to England where he studied Law at Lincoln’s Inn. In addition to practicing law, he would later gain fame as a poet, satirist, composer, political propagandist, and rhetorician. He was, at one time, one of Henry VIII’s most trusted civil servants, becoming Chancellor of England in 1529. In his work, he defined systems of punishment, social hierarchy, agriculture, and education, as well as customs for marriage and death. More wrote in the 16th century, the time of the Reformation, which set out to reform the Catholic Church in Europe and resulted in the development of Protestantism. Growing up in an Irish and Roman Catholic household, he was a passionate defender of Catholic orthodoxy, so much so that he argued against King Henry and was tried for treason, ultimately leading to his execution in 1535.
Thomas More, the author who has also written himself as the primary character, runs into his old friend, Peter Giles, on a trip as an ambassador for England to Antwerp. The main plot of the story develops when Giles introduces More to a character named Raphael Hythloday, a philosopher and world traveler. These characters begin debating the roles of philosophy, politics, and how the two fields intersect in Book One.
Impressed by Hythloday’s incredible knowledge and understanding of government and philosophy, More and Giles suggest that Hythloday be an advisor to the king. Hythloday refuses and shares an anecdote of a dinner with Cardinal Morton to illustrate that he believes advising or counseling a king to be pointless and that it would constrain his ability to philosophize and learn. He believes this to be so because a king is only looking to be affirmed, not counseled; any policy proposal would sound ridiculous to someone with a different view according to Hythloday. This brings politics to the forefront of the conversation, and Hythloday expresses that he believes Utopian politics to be far superior to European politics, especially the concept of common property. More and Giles disagree with Hythloday on this concept, but ask to learn more about Utopia. This ends the first book.
In the second book, the three return from lunch to continue their discussion. Hythloday explains the origins of the Utopian society as well as the formulation based on rational thought, communal property, productivity, no class distinctions or poverty, little crime or immoral behavior, religious freedom, and little violence. Hythloday continues to express his belief that Utopia is a superior society to any in Europe. More and Giles then react to this society claiming some of it to be strange, irrational, even absurd, while other parts could be greatly beneficial to European societies.
Utopia presents many themes such as wealth, power, slavery, and causes of injustice. The overarching theme throughout the book is the ideal nature of a Utopian society. In Utopia, there is no greed, corruption, or power struggles due to the fact that there is no money or private property. There is very little hierarchy and everything is held in common where everyone’s needs are supplied.
Utopia is based upon the idea that money corrupts the government and destroys justice and happiness in society. Hythloday points out that even the wealthiest of men still are not happy because they are too worried about securing and increasing what they have. They leave the rest of humanity without the means of meeting ends, leading to injustice, misery, and ultimately, crime.
The search for justice is highlighted throughout the novel. They shine a light on the fact that they injustly punished theives by using the death penalty, up until the 19th century in England. Hythloday argues that theft is not a crime that should result in such a cruel punishment as death; a punishment should be equivalent to its crime. Hythloday also shows us the tendency of the law to protect the interests of the upper classes and, in turn, oppress the poor.