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Utopia Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Sir Thomas More's Utopia. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Sir Thomas More
Born to Sir John More, an eminent lawyer, and his wife Agnes, Thomas More was raised in London. As a young boy, Thomas received one of the best educations his time offered, at St. Anthony’s School, and between 1490 and 1492 he served as a household page for the Archbishop of Canterbury. At the age of nineteen More enrolled at Oxford, where he learned Greek, only to leave in 1499 to study law in London. It was also around this time that, as a deeply serious Catholic, he took up the practices of self-mortification: wearing a hair shirt, using a log for his pillow, whipping himself, etc. At twenty-one More entered Parliament, and soon after was named the Under-Sherriff of London. In 1503, he successfully argued in the House of Commons against King Henry VII’s proposal that he receive a subsidy for his daughter Margaret’s dowry. This action incurred the King’s displeasure, so much so that More considered leaving England and becoming a monk—but instead he stayed in London to advance his political and legal career, and King Henry VII died a few years later. More is reputed to have pleaded only cases he thought just, and to have worked for free on behalf of widows, orphans, and the poor. In 1515, More began composing, in Latin, his Utopia, which was not his first literary work but certainly that on which his reputation as a writer is founded. During the reign of Henry VIII, More was knighted in 1521 and became the Lord Chancellor of England in 1529. He used this position to ruthlessly oppose the Protestant Reformation in England, going so far as to torture Protestants and burn them at the stake as heretics. However, around this time Henry VIII himself, in an attempt to produce an heir to the throne, resolved to annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which was a direct challenge to Catholic doctrine. In 1531, the King required that the English clergy swear allegiance to him, and not the Pope, as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. More, however, remained loyal to the Pope, and opposed the King’s divorce from Catherine. He resigned his Chancellorship in 1532, but not before incurring the displeasure of yet another king. In 1535, More was tried for high treason and found guilty. He was executed by decapitation on July 6 of that year, and he died, in his own words, “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Both the Catholic Church and the Church of England now honor More as a saint.
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Historical Context of Utopia
More wrote Utopia during the Age of Discovery, when European voyages of exploration were bringing a newfound sense of possibility to Europe and a renewed belief in human progress. The work is playfully reflective of this context, though we might wonder to what extent its ambiguous presentation of Utopia is also a suggestion of the limitations of progress. To give a more specific historical context, More began writing Utopia while he was sent as part of an English commission under King Henry VIII to the Netherlands; their mission was to negotiate on behalf of the English wool trade, which had suffered losses after the King of Castile, the future Charles V, imposed high import taxes on English wool. It was during this mission that More met Peter Giles, whom he befriended and includes as a character in Utopia. It was also around this time that More was debating with himself whether he should go into the service of Henry VIII as a counselor, and this debate is externalized in Book I of Utopia. It is a dark irony that, shortly after the publication of Utopia, Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation in 1517, which threw Europe and England in particular into a frenzy of bitter conflict, violence, and warfare.
Other Books Related to Utopia
More’s central model for his Utopia is Plato’s Republic, an extended philosophical dialogue of Greek antiquity in which Plato’s character Socrates deduces the structure of the human soul and envisions an ideal republic where society is perfectly organized and the philosopher is king. More borrows conventions and ideas from Plato’s work—both Plato’s republic and Utopia are centered on collective ownership, for example—while also calling into question the justness and practicality of utopia-building in general. He does this, in part, by framing his account of Utopia within a parody of the travel narrative, a popular Renaissance genre (see our theme on Travel, Discovery, and Place to learn more). More’s work also reflects the culture of Renaissance humanism, which valued the humanities, especially the revival of classical literature and rhetoric, as a means of encouraging virtue and civic ethics in society. Many humanists are referenced in Utopia—especially More’s friend, the great Dutchman Desiderius Erasmus—for their wisdom and eloquence. Finally, Utopia has proven deeply influential in English literature, not only as a basis for other early modern utopias, like Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and Henry Neville’s The Isle of Pines, but also as a forerunner to the form of the novel itself by way of prose narratives like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. More’s most famous modern descendants include dystopian writers like Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Alasdair Gray, and Margaret Atwood.
Key Facts about Utopia
  • Full Title: Libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, de optimo rei publicae deque nova insula Utopia (A truly golden little book, no less beneficial than entertaining, of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia)
  • When Written: 1515-1516
  • Where Written: The Netherlands; England
  • When Published: 1516
  • Literary Period: Renaissance humanism
  • Genre: Early “utopian fiction”; philosophical dialogue; satire
  • Setting: Antwerp; England; the fictional island of Utopia
  • Antagonist: Bad governance, pride, and idleness
  • Point of View: First-person limited
Extra Credit for Utopia

The Utopian Genre. More’s Utopia is generally credited with establishing the utopian genre—but what characterizes the works that belong to this genre? The critic J.C. Davis advances an influential account in his Utopia and the Ideal Society (1981). He argues that, unlike other ideal world narratives, utopias idealize neither people nor nature; that is, people who appear in utopian works can be good or bad, just like in the real world, and nature can be both fruitful and hostile, just like in the real world. Utopias instead idealize “social attitude and structure,” and hold that people can devise political institutions capable of optimally organizing vice and nature in the service of human health and happiness. Whether this is the case, of course, has yet to be seen.

Utopia in the World and in Us. The critic Northrop Frye has two interrelated ideas about how a utopia manifests in the world. He thinks, for one thing, that the idea of “a limited Utopia in a restricted or enclosed space is an empty fantasy.” Rather, “Utopia must be a world-wide transformation of the whole social order or it is nothing.” How such a transformation might be effected is the subject of Frye’s second idea: “The real Utopia,” he writes, “is an individual goal, of which the disciplined society is an allegory.” It would seem that, for Frye, Utopia will be nothing more than an empty fantasy until we all build utopias in ourselves through education.