Category: Persons

Sir Thomas More

An English humanist, statesman and author (1477/78-1535). Together with his friend Erasmus (1466-1536) they are considered two of the main representatives of Northern European humanism. He introduced a new form of political discourse, the utopian genre.

Thomas More’s life and work

He was born in London. His father worked as a lawyer and later became a distinguished judge. He received a classical education at Oxford and studied jurisprudence in London. Between 1499 and 1503 he was intensely preoccupied with religion and was considering becoming a monk. A lawyer by profession, he entered the service of King Henry VIII (1491-1547) in 1517, rising to the office of Lord Chancellor in 1529. Because of his opposition to the King’s decision to separate England from the Catholic Church and establish an independent national English church he was beheaded as a traitor. The Catholic Church canonized him as a saint in 1935. His oeuvre includes biographies, poems, epistles, translations of Greek and Latin epigrams, as well as polemical pamphlets against Luther’s (1483-1546) religious Reformation.

His opus magnus and the sole philosophical work he composed, the De optimae rei publicae statu deque nova insula utopia, widely known as Utopia, was published in Latin in 1516 and has since been interpreted in a variety of ways. The Utopia proposes an alternative reality, which More employs as a touchstone and a means to criticize contemporary English society. The main axes of the socio-political system outlined in the Utopia include the institution of family, the absence of private property and a direct, quasi-democratic mode of governance. Furthermore, emphasis is placed on the all-embracing, theoretical and practical education of its inhabitants, for this is considered the key to its success – this emphasis reflects the influence of Renaissance humanism on More, especially of Erasmus. His Utopia embraces euthanasia, religious tolerance and freedom of religion. Its penal system is geared towards rehabilitating the transgressor’s conscience and his reintegration to society as productive member by imposing penalties involving forced labor. The Utopia sparked waves of social criticism that reached its zenith in the 19th century; its example paved the way for more works, which by describing utopias or dystopias, engaged in social criticism or attempted to warn of forthcoming societal and political hazards.

More’s Platonism and his values

The Utopia constitutes a conscious attempt to rewrite Plato’s Republic in contemporary terms. The similarities between the two works, however, are rather limited to a formal level, and do not extend on the level of substance. The form of its literary genre, the dialogue, imitates Plato’s style of composition. The technical details of the mathematical model employed to describe the land of the Utopia also betoken similarities to Platonic tradition. The thematic sections describing this ideal state resemble the corresponding sections in Plato's Republic. His engagement with Plato’s thought, albeit only in antagonism, is formally present although the context in which the two formulated their ideas is quite different. A vital element shared by both the Utopia and the Republic pertains to calls for the community of property, the absence of private property, and equality. This similarity occurs at a crossroads, however, as both thinkers depart from different anthropological premises, arriving at diverging conclusions. Embracing the values of altruism and solidarity of the early Christian communities, and of an authentic Christian conscience, More introduces us to a relentless critique of contemporary English society. His criticism, however, transcends its religious shell and touches on political and economic issues, describing with acuity and irony the phenomena of social pathology engendered by the feudal system, as well as by the primary accumulation of capital, the carving out of estates by the gentry and their transformation to cloth making entrepreneurs. More’s call for community of property, the abolition of private property and equality should be understood in the context of the quest for a fairer and more equitable society, as contrasted with the Platonic vision of communal ownership that pertains only to the elite class of the aristoi and aims at preventing their corruption, in order to safeguard their ability to rule.

“…these laws [placing constraints on private property], I say, might have such effects, as good diet and care might have on a sick man, whose recovery is desperate: they might allay and mitigate the disease, but it could never be quite healed, nor the body politic be brought again to a good habit, as long as property remains”. (T. More, Utopia).
Author: Anastasios Pechlivanidis
  • Kautsky, K. Thomas More and His Utopia with Historical Introduction. New York, 2003.
  • Manuel, F.P., Manuel, F.E. Utopian Thought in the Western World. Cambridge, Mass., 1979.
  • More, Th. Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More, 15 τόμοι. New Haven, London, 1963-1997.
  • Skinner, QPagden, A. ed. . The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europe. Cambridge, 1987.
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