Thomas More’s Utopia and Society.

  By Ovidius, 14 March 2007; Revised
  Category: Early Modern Era
Contents »
In the Early Sixteenth Century Christian Humanism had become a strong force in Northern Europe; attacking the abuses in the Catholic Church, the immorality of society and other general problems with the world.[1] Thomas More was embroiled within the Christian Humanist movement through people like Erasmus and John Colet. Utopia is the foremost text of Thomas More; it represents the opinions of ‘a man fundamentally at odds with his age’[2] and his opinions on the state of society within that age. Throughout the centuries following the publication of Utopia there have been numerous opinions forwarded about the meaning, the political stance of the text and, most importantly, the true opinions of Thomas more.[3] Utopia posses many challenges when using it in an attempt to understand Thomas More’s society. The style of Utopia makes some sections of his argument vague or merely implied within the text. More also presents the reader with certain paradoxes that complicate matters even further; especially where religion and war are concerned. It is, however, there are some fundamental opinions posited by More within Utopia. We are clearly presented with More’s attitude against Crime and punishment, his issues with the developments of England’s economy, problems with politics, with law and generally with the morals and virtue of the nation and Christian society as a whole. There are also the themes of War and Religious toleration, something that forms quite a paradox within Utopia. Within this essay I hope to analyse all More’s perceived issues with comparisons to the actual state of English society in the Early Sixteenth Century and compare it to other perceptions of that society. It’s vital to initially detail who exactly Thomas More was and how he was able to create this body of opinion with Utopia. Without understanding his personal role and setting within his society we cannot make any thoughtful comments on the text. It’s also important to introduce the environment the Utopia was produced within.

As mentioned above, Thomas More was a Humanist scholar who had devoted much of his life to learning. He was sent to Oxford University and continued his Law education in London, owing ‘everything to parental ambition’.[4] His father was a successful lawyer and wanted More to move forward into a career to create a large family fortune. It was during his time in London that he was influenced by Humanists and was even tempted into the Cathusian monastic life, something he gave up on later. Thomas More continued to teach law and was eventually, in 1509, made Under-sheriff in London, a role that made him an ‘adviser, lecturer and orator’ and allowed him to view many different parts of London life.[5] In 1516 he was appointed, by Henry VIII and Wolsey, to take part in a mission to improve links with Flanders where he started to write Utopia in the masses of free time available to him. More’s family life was also quite active in the period running up to writing Utopia. He had four children and put a lot of emphasis onto the education of his children, including the female members. More was influenced by his many Humanist friends but most importantly by his longtime friend Erasmus (who needs no introduction). It was at More’s Bucklesbury house that Erasmus wrote ‘In Praise of Folly’, apparently encouraged by More.[6] Within the dedication Erasmus expresses ‘my More, whose memory, though absent yourself, gives me such delight in my absent, as when present with you’.[7] This work undoubtedly influenced More directly, especially in his opinions against ‘social evils’ and it is quite clear that More agreed with Erasmus’ views.[8] 

It’s important to also just express briefly the immediate circumstances of Utopia. It was written between a periods he spent in the Netherlands as an ambassador and during his time in London following this trip after he’d been requested to join the Government of Henry VIII as a councillor. This is significant as it forms the basis of much of Utopia in the form of a conversation between ‘More’ and ‘Raphael Hythlodeaus (noname)’. The same character that allows More to form the discussions about the issues of society and express the idea society of ‘Utopia’.

The initial weakness I want to move into is property and extravagance, as this basically opens the door to many of the other issues formulated within Utopia

To tell you the truth, my dear More, I don’t see how you can ever get any real justice or prosperity, so long as there private property, and everything’s judged in terms of money – unless you consider it just for the worst sort of people to have the best living conditions, or unless you’re properared to call a country prosperous, in which all the wealth is owned by a tiny minority – who aren’t entirely happy even so, while everyone else is simply miserable.[9]

It is quite easy to take this for face value and argue that Private property is something that More was against, we know, for instance, that he kept his home open to vistors and was generous with friends.[10] However, More was merely arguing that private property is something that opens the door to the problems within society, many of which will be discussed later. Although Marxist’s, such as Karl Kautsky, attempt to argue that More’s emphasis private property suggests support for communism, it is clear through later works that communism wasn’t his answer, merely that property corrupts men. He clearly sets this out in In Lutherum (1523) and Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer (1532-3). In my mind More’s main point about property was merely the use and spread of wealth and the excessive lust for property of the aristocrats. For instance in London in 1522 (similar to the period Utopia was written) 80.9% of the total wealth was in the hands of 5% of the population of London.[11] This was during a period when much of London was becoming increasingly subdivided into slums and the town was experiencing many problems with vagabonds and beggars. By 1537 Henry VIII saw it as such a problem that poor migrants into London that he decided that all migrants should either go back to their place of origin or face imprisonment.[12] Seven Years later John Bayker also observed that ‘the multitude of them [vagabonds] doth daily increase more and more’[13] So its clear that this extravagance and greed amongst the increasingly wealthy nobility, merchants and other rich gentry was the main issue for More; the spread and use of property and not necessarily the concept.

Extravagance is a poignant weakness for More; it is something he remarks upon in the early stages of Book 1 and during many stages of Book 2. He argues that ‘all classes of society are recklessly extravagant about clothes and food.’ (page27) He also contemplates the issue through an anecdotal expression during his description of Utopia and grasping the idea that gold and stones are only precious because of how they are regarded by people. He also remarks that ‘those fine clothes were once worn by a sheep, and they never turned in into anything better than a sheep’ (page 69), a satirical comment taken from Lucian. We can compare this extravagance to the popular fashions at the time, the expression of wealth at court as a symbol of prestige and power. In the society of Utopia they restrict the working day to only produce enough for what is required, but at the same time everyone is working. He hits on a key issue of the true nature of idleness in his society; the people who feel they are outside of the workforce. He believes that everyone should work and therefore lessen the burden on those who do work. (page 57)

Greed is also part of his reflection on the social and economic problems of the lower orders. During this period, as remarked previously, there was a lot of vagabondage and poverty. More’s book appears to predate many of the social problems that arose, if you look at material on Tudor Economic, which certainly intensified quite a long period after Utopia’s publication.[14] There are many observations which are vitally expressed by More in Utopia that allow us to understand that the problems were clearly developing before the data suggests. He certainly had experience of the problems as Under Sheriff of London. “Sheep” as Raphael iterates are apparently causing major social problems due to ‘the nobles and gentlemen...enclosing all the land they can for pasture, and leaving none for cultivation’.(page 25). Enclosures had been, in the society of Thomas More, a major topic of debate for decades and were a hot topic during Henry VII’s reign. The argument of enclosure and it’s effect has also caused much of a historiographical stir as well. Enclosures were seen as an issue because they pushed the most economically insecure members of society off the land to enclose land for pasture and due to the smaller amounts of labour required for sheep farming. It was believed by More that this was a major cause of vagrancy, something that is still argued by many historians.[15] The problem with this thesis is the fact that enclosure of land was something that clear occurred more exclusively before the reign of Henry VII. Derek Wilson, for instance, explains that ‘of the 1200 or so square miles enclosed between 1455 and 1637 the greater part had been enclosed before 1485’.[16] However, it is clear that enclosures were having an effect on society, as was the increasing population that was also causing changes in society. The idea that enclosures were the root cause of vagabondage and other social ills is perhaps also due to the moral stance placed on them. Many felt that enclosures were a break from the old traditions of land, labour and lord. It is clear that this period was already the changing period from feudalism to capitalism and obviously had effects on opinions of the state of society.[17]

Vagabondage and poverty is also linked to another main theme of Utopia; Crime and punishment. The initial argument is about punishing theft through hanging. More is quite clearly against the ‘horrible punishments’ that were inflicted upon thieves in the period. He quite clearly grabs onto an attitude that was further developed during the Enlightenment; ‘Petty larceny isn’t bad enough to deserve the death penalty, and not penalty on earth will stop the people from stealing, if it’s their only way of getting food.’ (Page 22) More continues the Criminal debate within second book where ‘the normal penalty for any major crime is slavery’. This forms More’s general opinion against capital punishment, which seems to be formed through the idea that property is not more important than human life and that capital punishment can lead onto more serious crimes if a criminal believes that he is going to be already condemned to death. This would certainly have come across to Early Tudor readers of the text, the idea that lessening punishment for crime would be more effective than harsh punishments. However the observation comes from an experienced lawyer and someone who had dealt with many issues such as these as Under Sheriff of London. It was also thought this that, as Wilson argues, made More believe that the courts were fundamentally biased against the poor.[18]

The courts were biased against the poor in many ways, especially due to the power invested in landlords. However, the major problem was the law that institutionalised this inequality. More clearly had major problems with the law and, more significantly, with Lawyers. He states, quite firmly, that ‘the only purpose of a law is to remind people what they ought to do, so the more ingenious the interpretation, the less effective the law.’ (page 87) It is quite clear that More believed in Justice and felt that this was being breached by manoeuvring and the complexity of the law. He argues that ‘if nobody’s telling the sort of lies that one learns from lawyers, the judge can apply all his shrewdness to weighing the facts of the case, and protected simple –minded characters against the unscrupulous attacks of clever ones’ (page 87). It’s quite clear that More, who had spent many years studying the complex law of England, had problems with the way the legal system worked.

Finally I want to move onto two areas of great paradox within Utopia and Thomas More’s life. This comes to the fundamental question posed by J. H. Hextor: ‘Did More really believe what he wrong in Utopia?’[19] The first paradox concerns More’s opinions on war. The basic problem is that More, in reality, was fundamentally against War and argues fundamentally against wars of conquest (Pages 36-40) and generally argues against war, unless it is justified by human suffering or physical issue between lands (the killing of a diplomat for instance – page 91). He seems to find the use of Mercenaries as justified and argues that the death of the Venalian people(who are clearly supposed to represent the Swiss) is less significant to that of the Utopian’s. This doesn’t infer a total conflict in his opinions against war, but it seems strange that he argues Utopia has a dark side when it comes to war, by using assassination and mercenaries. This also goes against his general beliefs as a Christian Humanist and his attacks on Wars using mercenaries prior to this. J. L. Davies picks this up and explains that ‘it contrasts oddly with More’s membership of a group opposed to wars of territorial expansion militarism and the employment of mercenaries’[20]

The other issue is Religion, which seems to be the fundamental issue with Utopia. This is the most blatant oddity within the piece. ‘one of the most ancient principles of their [the Utopians] constitution is Religions toleration’ (page100). In the anecdotal expression he also explains that a certain Utopian citizen was punished because ‘he was not allowed to make bitter attacks on other religions, nor to employ  violence of personal abuse’.(page 100). Now this follows the similar ideas of toleration and less oppressive social structures as a whole. This appears to be the main tenet of Utopia and More’s beliefs. However this must obviously be compared to More’s later life and most importantly his attacks on Heresy. J. A Guy explains tthat More had an ‘utter conviction that it [Heresy] must bee rooted out of the realm’.[21] More attacked Tyndale and his beliefs in The Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer in 1532 and generally attacked Heresy throughout his career in service to the King. Wilson explains that ‘the only cause he pursued with enthusiasm during his years in office was the persecution of heretics’[22] This goes to the fundamental issue of whether Utopia is mean to uncover ideas of what the Weaknesses of society are if many of those are suppositions based on his ideas in Utopia that he doesn’t himself support.

Utopia is a massively important text that was written by one of the foremost scholars in England society. An essay of this size clearly doesn’t do the text the full justice it deserves and certainly doesn’t detail all the weaknesses that More observes. During my own research of the text I detailed over 40 different moments of criticism of different things within society or inferred through ideas of Utopian society. It is quite clear that More observes that two most significant weaknesses in society are Property and Law. It is my belief, contrary to quite a few commentators, that this is the fundamental message. Now it’s also clear that More does not believe that this can be overhauled he shows his scepticism for even moderate change and this is shown and by the lack of action he took following Utopia’s creation. The reason that he highlights Property and Law is, in my opinion, not to make some fundamental changes but merely to highlight that many of the other weaknesses in society are formed through the problems within these two areas. Now this is not to downplay the many serious attacks he makes on the moral problems of society, especially with social structure and wealth distribution, or the fundamental issues he had with economic developments. More’s Utopia is an interesting document to use as a tool for looking at early Sixteenth Century issues because More is a sceptical and analytical observer of the period.


Davies, J. L. – Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing 1516-1700 (1981)

Erasmus Praise of Folly (1509)

Guy, J.A  - The Public Career of Sir Thomas More (1980)

Hoskins W.G The Age of Plunder (1976)

Kautsky, K Thomas More and His Utopia (1979)

Outhwaite R,B Inflation in Tudor and Early Stuart England (1969)

P.H Ramsey Tudor Economic Problems (1965)

Richardson R.C and James T.B (eds) The Urban experience A sourcebook: English, Scottish and Welsh towns, 1450-1700 (1983)

Roger’s, E.R (ed) St Thomas More Selected Letters (1961)

Routh E.M.G Sir Thomas More and his Friends: 1477 – 1535  (1934)

Slack, P Poverty and policy in Tudor and Stuart England  (1988)

Surtz E and Hextor, J.H The Complete Works of Thomas More (1965) Vol 4

Swanson R.N Religion and Devotion in Europe 1215-1515 (1997)

Tawney R.H.  and Power E(ed) Tudor economic documents (1924)

Wilson, D - England in the Age of Thomas More (1978)



[1] Swanson Religion and Devotion in Europe 1215-1515 (1997)  p 174-5

[2] Wilson, D - England in the Age of Thomas More (1978) page 235

[3] Fox, A, - Thomas More (1982) page 50 – for more information about the historiographical debate on Utopia.

[4] Guy, J.A  - The Public Career of Sir Thomas More (1980) page 1

[5] Davies, J. L. – Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing 1516-1700 (1981) page 44

[6] Wilson the Age of Thomas More (1978) page 10

[7] Erasmus Praise of Folly (1509) - taken from translated by John Wilson.

[8] For more information on More’s Support for In Praise of Folly see his letter to Martin Dorp in E.R Roger’s (ed) St Thomas More Selected Letters (1961) page 6-61

[9] More, T Utopia (1965) page 44 – All page numbers will be placed in Brackets from here onwards.

[10] see Routh E.M.G Sir Thomas More and his Friends: 1477 – 1535  (1934) page 38-50

[11] Hoskins W.G The Age of Plunder (1976) page 38

[12] ‘a royal proclamation attempts to stem the tide of poor entering London, 1531’ in R.C Richardson and T.B James (eds) The Urban experience A sourcebook: English, Scottish and Welsh towns, 1450-1700 (1983) page 159

[13] Bayker, J. ‘John Bayker to Henry VIII on one cause of Poverty 1538’ in Tawney R.H.  and Power E(ed) Tudor economic documents (1924) page 302

[14] see P. Slack Poverty and policy in Tudor and Stuart England  (1988), R.B Outhwaite Inflation in Tudor and Early Stuart England (1969), P.H Ramsey Tudor Economic Problems (1965) For more information.

[15] see P, Slack Poverty and policy in Tudor and Stuart England  (1988) page 43-48 for more information.

[16] Wilson, D Thomas More page 138

[17] Kautsky, K Thomas More and His Utopia (1979) Part 1 – Follows a very Marxist line, but the underlining idea is quite clear – Thomas More was influenced by these changes.

[18] Wilson page 5

[19]Hextor, J.H  ‘Utopia and its Historical Milieu’ in  Surtz E and Hextor, J.H The Complete Works of Thomas More (1965) Vol 4 page XXIV

[20] Davies, J. L. – Utopia and the Ideal Society page 55

[22] Wilson page 14