Different Readings of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia - from an Ideal state to the First Dystopia

Term Paper 2009 20 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. A Serious Concept of an Ideal State

3. Satire and Dystopia

4. Summary and Conclusion

5. Literature

1. Introduction

Many different interpretations of Utopia have been offered by a multitude of critics over the last five hundred years. The interpretations which have, up to now, emerged as most convincing, or at least most represented, can be summed up under four arches.1 Under the first are those by critics who see Utopia a serious blueprint for reform, a concept meant and fit to be applied in real world. The second shelters those who claim that what is represented in that text is only an abstract idea of a (semi-) perfect society and was never meant as a serious idea for reform. Others again have read Utopia as a satire in tradition of Lucian or even as a high-spirited joke. This group divides into those critics who accept the text as a joke only or as a satire aimed at More’s England, while others go further and see the satire aimed at the state of Utopia itself and consequently read it as an anti-utopia or even as a true dystopia. Some of those and other approaches which will not be considered in detail within the scope of this paper. Oencken’s reading of Utopia as an agenda of British imperialism2, e.g. will be left out, since it is mostly considered outdated3 and disproved.4 C.S. Lewis’s claim that Utopia was meant as a high-spirited joke, will be left out, too. A joke, how ever clever, does not survive five hundred years. Even in the unlikely case that More really meant it as such, this intention is irrelevant now. Utopia, as many have pointed out, and I agree, has never lost its relevancy in the tradition of political thought or its function as a mirror of one’s own time.

Many scholars read Utopia with the primary goal of finding More’s intentions in writing it. Thus the question which precedes many interpretations is whether More meant it to be taken seriously or not, whether he truly meant to represent Utopia as an ideal state or even a reform agenda to be applied to the states of the real world. Yet a work of literature should generally not be reduced to the question of what its writer meant to convey by it. A reader should be free to build his own opinion of the text’s meaning and relevance, in addition to the author’s intention, especially since this intention is sometimes rather elusive, as is the case with More’s Utopia.

The aim of this paper is to point out some of the main trends in current criticism of More’s Utopia, by presenting and discussing some of the most important theses from the most representative critical writings from each of the aforementioned arches of interpretation. Special attention will be given to the question in how far it is justifiable to read Utopia as a negative concept, albeit even partly, or even as the first dystopia. In order to analyse this, a number of aspects has to be considered first. One has to differentiate between the questions of More’s intentions and modern readers’ point of view on the Utopian commonwealth. Even if More meant his island to be ideal and a blueprint for a new and better society, which is itself already very disputable, it does not necessarily mean that it can still be seen as such. Most modern reader cannot be expected to see Utopia as society which is anywhere near perfect or desirable. Values, of societies as well as individuals, have shifted in their meaning and focus between the era of Tudor England and today. It is also rather questionable in how far the utopian society would have appeared as ideal to More’s contemporaries, especially in regard to its communism and its religious practices.

2. A Serious Concept of an Ideal State

Karl Kautsky5 has argued: “The island of Utopia is, in fact, England More designed to show how England would look, and what shape her relations with abroad would assume, if she were communistically organised.”6 He claims that More meant his fictional state to be ideal and that he wished its political, economical etc., i.e. communist, programme could be applied to England, but realised that it would have been impossible under the government of his time since the only way to realise such a concept in reality would be, as in the book itself, to get an absolute ruler to enforce it.7 Such a ruler would have not been found in More’s time, and, in my opinion, almost none of the European rulers of that time would have had sufficient power to do so. Thus, according to Kautsky, Utopia has had to stay merely fiction, one in the “plethora of directions to princes”8. It is of course very possible to read Utopia as a mirror for princes, but one can apply this concept in two ways - “to show princes how they should govern”9, as Kautsky claims it was meant, or to show them exactly how they should not govern.

Kautsky’s interpretation is strongly biased by his socialist stance and he tends to equate More completely with the Utopians. Such an approach is generally very problematic. The best evidence of this is to be found in chapter on religion in Utopia, in which Kautsky praises More for the religious regulations in Utopia:

What an advance this Utopian Church marks upon Lutheranism and even Calvinism! It agrees with both in the abolition of aural confession, of priestly celibacy, of the worship of images, and with Calvinism in providing for the election of the priests by the people. But More goes further. He abolishes, for instance, the coercive powers of the priesthood, and admits women to the priesthood. He does not shrink from recommending suicide to incurable invalids. In the common divine service of all creeds and the relegation of special services to the home, More is in advance of every Church of his age. This is in the language of the sixteenth century the same principle that modern Socialism has adopted, in declaring religion to be a private matter.”10 Kautsky does seem to think that the regulations More invented for the Utopians are in complete accordance with the author’s wishes and attitudes on the given subject.

Kautsky is also one of many critics who do not only interpret parts of Utopia from the background of More’s biography, but simultaneously try to ‘interpret’ Sir Thomas himself and his actual attitude out of the fictional world he created.11 In one of the biographical chapters on More, Kautsky claims that “[h]ow freely More thought about religious matters may be inferred from the ideal religion which he ascribed to his Utopians.”12 Still, he admits that More’s principles on that matter have changed towards the end of his life. 13. Judging the attitude of a historical personality by taking his writings at face value only is rather risky. One is left wondering how such a paragon of religious tolerance, as Kautsky makes More out to be, could have changed so extremely within a few years. Munier on the other hand claims that More’s limits of tolerance of other forms of worship than the one prescribed by the Catholic Church, were always very narrow. He argues that this is already evident in Utopia, since the citizens of that fictional state are, according to Munier, only allowed to join one of the existing religions and not allowed to establish a new one14. Munier’s claim is in so far questionable since Christianity has been accepted in Utopia, and even although it is not a newly established religion in Europe, it is a new religion to the Utopians.

Donner15 shares Kautsky’s opinion that Utopia was meant as a mirror for princes but he disagrees in that it was ever meant as a blueprint for a reform. He argues that the fictional state of Utopia has negative as well as positive aspects, and that the negative aspects were meant as warnings while the positive ones were meant as an example to be followed. In summary he states that the second book of Utopiadoes not describe the ultimate ideal, but one that is practicable enough, which we are asked not slavishly to copy, but to surpass and excel. The Utopia does not attempt a final solution of the problems of human society—for More was too wise to attempt the impossible—but it contains an appeal addressed to all of us, which allows us no refusal, that we should try and do each one his share to mend our own selves and ease the burden of our fellow-men, to improve mankind and prepare for the life to come.” And to surpass and excel “[r] eligion must reinforce the arguments of reason and Christian society surpass the pagan. It is not our institutions that we must destroy, but those evil passions which are at the root of the abuses. “16 Thus, it is human behaviour that has to change before an attempt for an ideal state can be made and it is to be expected that reason combined with Christian ethics shall succeed in making a better state than pagan Utopia, which relies on reason only.

A similar argument is to be found in Sturtz’ “The Defense of Pleasure in More's Utopia17. According to him, the change needed in human behaviour is, as implicitly hinted at in Utopia, for “careless Christians” to recognise that hoarding wealth and glory are not the important things in life, since even Utopians, who do not even have the blessing of the revelation, know that the final object of happiness “is delight in the presence of God in the next life”18.

Like Kautsky, Hexter is sure that More was propagating Utopian communism as the solution, but for different reasons than those cited by Kautsky. Hexter also sees More’s stance on the relation between an ideal state and its inhabitants differently than Sturtz and Donner. He claims that: “Utopia is the best of commonwealths, and Utopians are the best of men; but it is not because they are of a better stuff and nature than other men, it is because their laws, ordinances, rearing, and rules of living are such as to make effective man’s natural capacity for good, while suppressing his natural propensity for evil.”19 It seems that men do not have to perfect in order to live in an ideal state, but the ideal state has to make them good by providing them with appropriate rules of conduct. More, according to Hexter, wanted to show that human pride is the ultimate flaw of human behaviour and eventually the “root of all evil”.2021 Recognising that root, he decided that the only way to suppress it, if not yank it out, is to abolish money and private property.22 Marius points out the fallibility of such a plan, if indeed More ever meant it seriously. “I suspect that we see as clearly as anywhere in Utopia just why communism did not work. The weight of human depravity was simply too much to be balanced by eliminating private property.”23


1 c. Wenzel, Peter: 'Utopian Pluralism': A Systematic Approach to the Analysis of Pluralism in the Debate about Thomas More's Utopia. At: Erfurt Electronic Studies in English. 1996. http://www.uni- erfurt.de/eestudies/eese/artic96/wenzel/10_96.html (Download 1.5.2008)

2 Oencken, Hermann: "Einleitung".In:Morus, Thomas: Utopia. Übersetzt von Gerhard Ritter. Berlin.1922.pp5-45.

3 c. a.o. Wenzel. p. 2.

4 c. pp. 134-141. of Munier, Gerald: Thomas Morus. Urvater des Kommunismus und katholischer Heiliger. Hamburg. 2008.

5 Kautsky , Karl: Thomas More and his Utopia. 1888. (Translated by Henry James Stenning) Digital text at: Marxist Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1888/more/index.htm (25.06.2008)

6 Kautsky. Part III. Chapter V: The Aim of Utopia.

7 ibid.

8 ibid.

9 ibid.

10 Kautsky. Part IV. Chapter I,3. Emphases in bold added.

11 Another interesting approach to „read“ More himself from the background of Utopia is to be found John Freeman’s highly curious metaphorical reading of Utopia as Mor’s autobiography. Freeman, John: More's Place in 'No Place': The Self-Fashioning Transaction in Utopia. In: Texas Studies in Literature and Language. Vol. XXXIV, No. 2.1992, pp. 197-217.

12 Kautsky. Part II . Chapter III, 3.

13 ibid. Emphasis in the original.

14 Munier, Gerald: Thomas Morus. Urvater des Kommunismus und katholischer Heiliger. Hamburg. 2008. pp.193-194.

15 Donner, H.W.: Introduction to Utopia. London. 1945.

16 ibid. p.83.

17 Surtz, Edward L. S. J.: The Defense of Pleasure in More's Utopia. In: Studies in Philology. 46. 1949 pp.99-112.

18 ibid. p.122.

19 s. Hexter, J.H.: More’s Utopia. The Biography of an Idea. Princeton. 1976. p. 59.

20 c. esp. Hexter pp. 71-81.

21 Marius too emphasises that the sin of pride, “superbia”, must have played a key role in More’s concept of Utopia. c. Marius, Richard: „Utopia as Mirror for a Life and Times”. Conference Material: Papers and Proceedings. http://www.humanities.ualberta.ca/emls/iemls/conf/texts/marius.html (20.04.08)

22 c. Hexter. esp. ibid. p. 57-59 and pp. 71-81.

23 s. Marius.


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Thomas More Utopia Utopie Topic_Dystopien




Title: Different Readings of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia - from an Ideal state to the First Dystopia