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One of the most influential books in the Western philosophical and literary tradition, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia appeared in 1516. The formidable Henry VIII had recently assumed the throne in England, and conflicting ideas about religion were fueling the Reformation throughout Europe. A scathing satire, Utopia was hugely successful and vaulted More to the forefront of the growing humanist movement.
The story of Utopia is told by a mysterious sailor named Raphael Hythloday, who travels to the New World with the Italian explorer Vespucci and remains at a fort built at the farthest point reached. From there, he discovers a strange island kingdom named Utopia, a pagan and communist city-state in which language, social customs, dress, architecture, and education are identical throughout the country’s fifty-four cities. The Utopians have eliminated wealth, the nobility, and currency. Labor and goods are distributed equally and property is held in common. And there are no monasteries, alehouses, or academies to tempt a person to withdraw from society.
Given More’s satiric leanings and eventual execution, is Utopia simply an attack on Europe’s wickedness? Or is it a philosophical tract extolling the ideal way to live? Ultimately, Utopia navigates a course between the desire to create perfection and the pragmatic understanding that perfection, given the fallibility of mankind, is impossible.
Wayne A. Rebhorn is Celanese Centennial Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written extensively on Renaissance literature in English, Italian, French, Spanish, and Latin, on authors from Boccaccio through More and Shakespeare down to Milton.
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From Wayne A. Rebhorn’s Introduction to Utopia
Omnium horarum homo: a “man for all hours.” That’s what Desiderius Erasmus calls his friend Thomas More. The phrase appears in the letter that serves as the preface for Erasmus’s masterpiece, The Praise of Folly, and is also the source of Robert Bolt’s title for his play and movie about More, A Man for All Seasons. Bolt’s title transforms More into a secular saint, a model of individual integrity, a man “for all seasons”—that is, for all of history. Indeed, the French translated the title of Bolt’s film as Un Homme pour l’éternité, making More into “A Man for Eternity.” This is not, however, what Erasmus meant by the words he penned in 1511, long before More achieved martyrdom, suffering death rather than accept Henry VIII as the head of the Church. Erasmus is actually praising More for being able “to play the man for all hours with everyone.” More is an ideal figure, in other words, because he is adaptable, able to get along with all sorts of people in all sorts of situations and as circumstances change from hour to hour, what Erasmus means by “folly”—that is, a supreme versatility in living life in this world. The historical More certainly possessed such versatility, so that when Erasmus decided to praise “Folly,” or Moria in Greek, it is not surprising that the name of More, Morus in Latin, should have popped into his head not just as an appropriate dedicatee, but as someone who epitomized all the best meanings he attributed to folly in his work.
Erasmus’s compliment to More makes More into a player, someone who knows how “to play—or act—the man” (hominem agere) in every situation. Indeed, in his biography of More, almost the very first thing his son-in-law William Roper does is to praise More’s success at improvisational acting when he was still a young page in the household of the learned John Cardinal Morton: “Though he was young of years, yet would he at Christmastide suddenly sometimes step in among the players, and never studying for the matter, make a part of his own there presently among them, which made the lookers-on more sport than all the players beside.” Even a cursory review of More’s life and works reveals his ability to play many incredibly varied roles, some of which were even opposed to one another. For example, More was a faithful husband and devoted father, but also an ascetic who seriously considered entering a monastery. He was a learned humanist scholar and translator of the classics, but also a propagandist for the Tudor regime and a mud-slinging critic of Luther. More won cases as a clever lawyer and fought to preserve his economic, social, and political status, but he was also a deeply religious devotional writer who looked down on attachments to this world. An impartial and fair-minded negotiator, civil servant, and magistrate, he became an implacable opponent and persecutor of heretics; best known for his role as a lord chancellor who willingly implemented Henry’s policies and paid his royal master almost servile deference, he was also, at the end, a defender of his own conscience against monarchical tyranny. Finally, More stands on the world stage as an unfettered genius capable of imagining brave new worlds in his greatest literary and philosophical achievement, even though he was also an uncompromising defender of received traditions and of an ancient, long-established institution that was deeply opposed to change. Luther once said of Erasmus, complaining of the Dutch humanist’s mutability and contradictoriness, “Erasmus of Rotterdam, where will you stand fast?” He could almost have said the same thing about Thomas More.
More’s complexities and contradictions go to the heart of the Renaissance and the Reformation, the two great cultural upheavals England, like the rest of Europe, experienced in the early decades of the sixteenth century—and would continue to experience for many years after More’s death in 1535. In these two social transformations More played a key role both in what he did and in what he said or wrote. Nor was More merely an important English figure; he was also well known on the European continent, respected everywhere as a humanist writer and political thinker, and, finally, either admired as a martyr for the true faith or disparaged as a fool for not seeing the insufficiency of the Catholic Church.
More’s reputation in the last century has been equally complex and contradictory. The Catholic Church finally beatified him in 1886 and made him a saint in 1935, and many scholars and historians, some Catholic and some not, have admired his deep commitment to his religious faith. His Utopia has been celebrated by others for its relatively egalitarian social structure, its religious tolerance, and its economic system—a system in which all things are held in common and which thus seems to anticipate the ideals of socialism and communism. Indeed, Utopia was one of the first books authorized for translation into Russian after the Communist Revolution in 1917. By contrast, in Bolt’s 1960 A Man for All Seasons, More has turned into a secular saint who defends his “self,” not his “soul,” against tyrannical political authority. Finally, More has been attacked by others as a mediocre statesman and condemned for his servile relationship to Henry, a servility best seen in the exaggerated expressions of deference he made to the King, as recorded in Roper’s Life, while Protestant polemicists have objected to the largely popular press he has enjoyed and have stressed his persecution of heretics, instead.