Thomas More Utopia—Humanism in the Renaissance

Thomas More -portrait by Hans Holbein
Thomas More -portrait by Hans Holbein | Source

Utopia - An English Renaissance Book Written In Latin

Thomas More’s Utopia is in many respects a typical product of Renaissance humanism.

In fact, we might argue that due to its publication in the sixteenth century it provides a later example and certainly one much more likely to have been influenced by the half century of Italian and Northern European humanism which predates it.

Utopia bears all the signs of a humanist interest in the classical languages and forms and like Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly and Valla’s On the True and False Good was preoccupied with ancient philosophical views on ethical values.

It is written in Latin with numerous allusions to classical Greek as well.

Woodcut by Holbein, cover for Utopia.
Woodcut by Holbein, cover for Utopia. | Source
Aristotle | Source

Utopia, The Ideal Modern Commonwealth But With Ancient Influences

Its subject matter, the ideal commonwealth, had its origins in two classical works, Plato's’ Republic and Aristotle’s Politics.

Both Erasmus and More were admirers of the Greek satirist Lucian and in its introductory sections Utopia is loaded with the kind of satire, irony and word play one might associate with that ancient writer.

What makes the work even more typical of Renaissance humanism is its concentration on the application of classical ideas to contemporary society and particularly, politics.

In this respect More could be said to be like Bruni, who believed the application of ancient political ideas would create the ideal state.

Utopia is in many respects a hybrid of humanist thought.

It is both a pithy, satirical but ultimately serious hypothesis of an ideal commonwealth, broached in classical language and form and also a disguised critique of the social inequalities of sixteenth century Europe.

As a humanist he framed Utopia as the philosophers example of what is good for mankind but as a realist he knew that it would take more than classical ethics, humanism and for that matter, religion to change his own society.

It is no accident that Raphael Hythloday, an “angelic fool” is the narrator of Utopia and that the character More is the dubious recipient of his tales of Utopia. Perhaps both characters represented the real Thomas More, a humanist idealist and sceptical realist.

Desiderius Erasmus - friend and mentor to Thomas More
Desiderius Erasmus - friend and mentor to Thomas More | Source
Leonardo Bruni - one of Italy's most famous humanists.
Leonardo Bruni - one of Italy's most famous humanists. | Source

More's Influences - Fellow European Humanists

Desiderius Erasmus hugely influenced Thomas More. The two friends hugely admired the Greek satirist Lucian. More had introduced Erasmus to the writer and the influence of this can be seen in The Praise of Folly. In one fundamental respect More and Erasmus are very much alike. That is in their insistence that correct Christian ethics were an essential part of Renaissance society.

The Praise of Folly bears all the signs that Erasmus truly believed that Christian ethics offered the best values system for his age. Like More he begins his book with a debate on what constituted the “good for man”, and then investigates the various Greek philosophical schools on his way to suggesting that none on its own is good for man.

Behind all their work was the humanist desire for progress.

It seems clear that in his choice of Lucian’s texts to praise he has an underlying desire to address them to contemporary issues. More needed to recreate his understanding of the ancients in a modern context.

Where More diverges from this path is in his fictional account of the ideal commonwealth. Erasmus and Valla and for that matter Bruni all seem grounded in their own environment. More’s Utopia is deliberately a further remove geographically and socially from Europe, a gently fantastical fiction or wish fulfillment but always with a serious message.

It offered More the opportunity of apparently objective opinions and allowed him to suggest ways in which this “ideal” place with its society ran according to philosophical reason could be juxtaposed into sixteenth century Europe.

Canterbury Cathedral - Thomas More was Archbishop of Canterbury, then centre of the Catholic Church in England
Canterbury Cathedral - Thomas More was Archbishop of Canterbury, then centre of the Catholic Church in England | Source
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein | Source
16th century London
16th century London | Source

Was Utopia About Being A Good Christian?

More’s underlying aim, it could be argued, was a concern for public morality and the corruption by mortals of Christian ethics.

Utopia was a land where everything was done and achieved for the common good and these were Christian precepts. The main difference in Utopia is that reason is insufficient.

For all Hythloday’s idealisation of Utopia some of its social practices, such as euthanasia show exactly what happens when reason is stretched beyond its limits.

The common good was admirable and in sixteenth century Europe (particularly Italy) More saw exactly the kind of society formed when wealth, pride and envy reigned.

His own society reflected this. He was a wealthy man himself but at heart his conscience led him to desire a life of simple Christianity. Utopia is free from the effects of More’s society and its “commonwealth” is arguably its most attractive feature. We need to ask whether this idea was typical of all Renaissance humanism by closer readings of Italian humanism.

Italian humanists were steeped in a reverence for the ancient classical past and the Roman era particularly was obviously of huge interest due to its geography.

In his book On the Inconstancy of Fortune, Gian Francesco Poggio searching among the debris of ancient Rome and refers to his and his friends concern to rediscover “the art of right living”.

Four years before this Leonardo Bruni had inferred in his preface to his book The History of the Florentine People that Roman laws, customs and politics provided an example which was being emulated by the Florentines of his own time.

Bruni and Poggio had different concerns but the classical influence was essential for both to understand not only their own age but also the influence of their own work on the future.

Lorenzo Valla, writing at about the same time as both these men took his interest in the ancient texts to more practical lengths and used the ancient forms to deliver stinging rebukes on what he saw as the corrupt elements of his own society.

In this respect Valla is arguably a link between Italian and northern humanism. His influence on Erasmus was in its turn possibly accountable for More’s work.

The Courtier, An English Version of advice to become the perfect courtier.
The Courtier, An English Version of advice to become the perfect courtier. | Source
Statue of Niccolo Macchiavelli
Statue of Niccolo Macchiavelli | Source

Self Fashioning-The Courtier and The Prince

Humanists in Italy also held powerful positions in political life and at court.

Castiglione’s The Courtier emphasises the needs of courtiers to be useful to their masters and respected for their usefulness by others. Machiavelli would take an opposing position with his novel The Prince; these books tell us that life at court was gaining importance, whether you were a courtier or master of your subjects. Castiglione's book in particular emphasises the life of the ambitious man at court.

It seems to emphasise a “code of practice” for the aspiring “upwardly mobile” man at court.

More’s own position remains enigmatic. He was on the one hand a pious, devout Catholic and Utopia is arguably an exercise in criticising a society without a correct Christian standard by which to live. On the other hand he was an ambitious statesman but unlike Castiglione’s model he was a reluctant courtier, his conscience tested by human and spiritual tensions.

The call to public office also placed huge pressures on a person, sometimes spiritually and morally.

More is an example of such an individual. His writing, his religion, his work as both a lawyer and politician and his rise to high office must have created tensions which were peculiar to the era in which he existed. Of course his later stance over the succession to the English throne saw all these tensions seemingly implode in events beyond his control.

More's Utopia remains an enigmatic text because of these tensions and because it was written before his rise to power. It could be argued that all humanists began by looking to the past with a sense of awe and a belief that they could emulate the ancients because their own culture and society was receptive to change. They translated ancient philosophy and tried to transplant it in their own society.

Jacob Burckhardt - Renaissance historian
Jacob Burckhardt - Renaissance historian | Source
Marsilio Ficini - Renaissance philosopher
Marsilio Ficini - Renaissance philosopher | Source

The End of the Middle Ages - The Importance of Moral Philosophy

Moral philosophy was an obvious concern among humanists from Valla in the fifteenth to More in the sixteenth century.

One cannot help but admire Valla’s work for its style and its incisive debate.

Yet arguably, the chief historian of the Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt reflects little on this type of text in his own book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.

It is intriguing to find that he is more interested in Castiglione’s The Courtier because of what it offers on the social and cultural details of the Italian courts.

Whilst this work is of interest, it could be argued that it is one dimensional in its subject matter and that Burckhardt would have been better served by other texts which displayed something of the humanist interest in ancient philosophy and its application to the Renaissance.

He seems reluctant to offer philosophy any kind of influence and reflects that whilst Aristotle was considerably influential on the educated Italians, the ancient philosophies in general had a “slight” influence.

As for the Florentine philosophers like Ficino he suggests a minor influence only aroused by the “special growth and development of the Italian mind” . Which leads us back to northern humanism, which Burckhardt suggested, owed its influences to Italy alone.

It seems clear from works like Utopia and Erasmus' The Praise of Folly that northern humanists held their own agenda though they exist within a tradition of humanist interest in ethics and morals. Their work can and should be seen in context to their own concerns though they share many Italian humanist concerns.

Burckhardt’s concentration on form rather than content helps to disguise the considerable work done by humanists in the north and south during the Renaissance. Works like Utopia have “stood the test of time”, a prerequisite of Burckhardt’s sign of greatness.

Arguably, his concern for art far outweighs his concern for political and social change. Utopia reveals to a twenty-first century readership the possible concerns of a sixteenth century statesman and leads us to wonder about what prompted More to write such a complex and thought provoking book.

Utopia has been read by later generations with a sense of perplexity. In its own age it was understood by men like Erasmus and Peter Giles because of its relevance to contemporary religious and social issues. There’s a strong argument that one needed to be “in the know” to truly understand it.

However, if looked at in the same light as On the True and False Good, The Courtier, The Prince and The Praise of Folly it represents a tradition among Renaissance humanists to understand ancient ethics in the context of their own societies.

These texts represent an influential body of work, which offers insights into the moral issues of the Renaissance and as such can’t be ignored. The Renaissance was not just about art and sculpture - it was about people too.

The Renaissance is more well known for its art. Should its literature also be studied more closely?

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Comments 12 comments

Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 5 months ago from Northeast Ohio

You're welcome Jools. It was real good.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 5 months ago from North-East UK Author

Kristen, many thanks for your comment - this began life as an essay for uni but I really enjoyed researching it and it turned into a hub!

Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 5 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Jools, this is a well researched and thought out article about Thomas More and his book Utopia. Very interesting to learn about him and how he wrote the back. Congrats on Editor's Choice back in 2013.

TrixieShi profile image

TrixieShi 11 months ago from North Carolina

I love this article. Thomas More - such a captivating figure. Humanist, but burned people at the stake. The contrast!

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Audrey, thanks so much. It began a long time ago as an essay which I thought might make an interesting article - it's amazing that literature took second place to art in the Renaissance, Thomas More had such an amazing (and fatefully sad) life, Utopia is his literary gift to the English literature tradition and he deserves recognition for it, it was ahead of its time.

AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 3 years ago from California

Jools this is an amazing article! So well done!

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Nell, many thanks for your comment - I love the sound of Stravaganzi - why can't we all do it! And having considered teaching history, I can tell you the best way to engage people in it is through artefacts - artefacts bring an era to life so well and I think doing this for children is an amazing way to get them to engage with history. A history teacher at my old school used to do a lesson about a Greek soldier at the battle of Marathon, bring out his spear, his shield, show maps of the area, old monuments and then talk about his letters home to his mother in Athens, taken home by those returning home from battle - how bad things were at war and then as she dug in the chest, she said "what's this - it looks like a letter", the kids were completely in thrall by then and wanted to read his letter that did not get home to his mother - all with a bit of trickery and artefacts!

Incidentally, in a similar vein is a really funny short story by Woody Allen where he discovers the ability to become a character in any book he chooses - he goes into Madame Bovary (cos he fancies her) but something goes wrong and she ends up in Manhattan with him in his own time - it is very clever and very funny - I must try to remember the title :o(

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

Hi Jools, this was a fascinating read. in a nutshell really it goes to show that even though people back then had to live within a certain society, i.e. the Christian faith above all else, others had the mind to change it as they knew best, through art and writing etc. I am actually reading a great series of books, meant for children believe it or not! but its about a time travel idea called Stravaganzi, its main story is that kids go to an antique shop and by accident pick up a statue, or book, and when they sleep they 'go' to 16th century italy. Even though the names of the towns have changed its obviously about the main cities and towns, Florence, Venice, etc. and its really interesting because it incorporates all the ideas and philosophy of the time, why they do things, how they get in trouble with the church and so on, so this was perfect reading for me! voted up and shared, nell

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Paula - don't be fooled :o) I left school with very few qualifications - just messed about the last two years. I went to Uni as an adult learner when I was 35 years old - just goes to show you though; I was an ordinary girl from a council estate ('the projects') who done ok :o)

fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

I are one of those High Honors, Genius Students!!! Of course, I've always sensed that about you Joolsy-Woolsy.....but you blend well with us class clowns!! :) LOL.....miss you guys.

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Paula, great to hear from you :o) This hub was inspired by an essay I wrote in my honours year at Uni but I'm going to tweak it I think - too many words, it needs to be a bit more upbeat. I found it on my computer and got interested in it again after seeing something about More on TV. Thanks so much for reading it and being so encouraging!

fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Jools.....This hub is amazing. You are the ultimate scholar, girl. I am so very impressed with how beautifully you have created this presentation. Tell me, is this merely a personal interest for you, or was it part of your education, in terms of your major?

I thoroughly drank every word of this, with interest and enthusiasm.....which is directly due to your incredible writing talent...because I never thought of myself of having interest in this before reading this fabulous hub. BRAVO!! ..UP++++

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