The father of Thomas More was a successful lawyer and prominent judge. Thomas received his education at St. Anthony’s School in London; was farmed out as a page to Archbishop Morton, and was by him confirmed in orthodoxy, integrity, and a cheerful piety. Morton predicted, we are told, that “this child here waiting at table .... will prove a marvelous man.”25 At fifteen the youth went to Oxford, and was soon so fascinated with classical literature that his father, to save the youth from becoming an impecunious scholar, pulled him out of the university and sent him to study law in London. Oxford and Cambridge still aimed at preparing students for an ecclesiastical career; New Inn and Lincoln’s Inn trained the men who were now taking over from the clergy the government of England. Only eight members of the House of Commons in the Reform Parliament of 1529–37 had received a university education, while a rising proportion were lawyers and businessmen.
In 1499, aged twenty-one, More met Erasmus, and was charmed into humanism. Their friendship is one of the fragrant essences of the time. They were both given to a measured merriment, and salted their studies with laughing satire. They shared a distaste for Scholastic philosophy, whose subtleties, said More, were as profitable as milking a he-goat into a sieve.26 They both hoped for a reform of the Church from within, avoiding a violent disruption of religious unity and historical continuity. More was not the peer of Erasmus in learning or tolerance; indeed, his customary gentleness and generosity were sometimes interrupted by strong passions, even by bigotry; in controversy he stooped now and then, like nearly all his contemporaries, to fierce invective and bitter vituperation.27 But he was the superior of Erasmus in courage, sense of honor, and devotion to a cause. The letters that they exchanged are a precious testimony to the graces of an ungracious age. “Farewell,” ends one of More’s, “sweetest Erasmus, dearer to me than my eyes!” 28
He was one of the most religious men of the century, shaming with his laic piety the wordliness of ecclesiastics like Wolsey. At twenty-three, when he was already advanced in the study of law, he thought of becoming a priest. He gave public lectures (1501) on Augustine’s City of God, and such older pundits as Grocyn sat in his audience. Though he criticized the monks for shirking their rule, he fervently admired the sincere monastic state, and sometimes regretted that he had not chosen it. For a long time he wore a horsehair shirt next to his skin; now and then it drew enough blood to visibly stain his clothing. He believed in miracles and saintly legends, therapeutic relics, religious images, and pilgrimages,29 and wrote devotional works to the medieval tune that life is a prison, and that the aim of religion and philosophy should be to prepare us for death. He married twice, and brought up several children in a Christian discipline at once sober and cheerful, with frequent prayer, mutual love, and complete trust in Providence. The “Manor House” in Chelsea, to which he moved in 1523, was famous for its library and gallery, and its gardens extending for a hundred yards down to the Thames.
At twenty-six (1504) he was chosen a burgess delegate to Parliament. There he argued so successfully against a measure proposed by Henry VII that the King briefly imprisoned and heavily fined the senior More as a devious means of teaching the young orator the comforts of conformity. At the close of that Parliament More returned to private life, and prospered in the practice of law. In 1509 he was persuaded to take the office of under-sheriff in the City—i.e., ancient London north of the Thames. His functions, suiting his temperament, were judicial rather than adventurous. His judgments earned him wide renown for wisdom and impartiality, and his polite refusal of presents from litigants violated time-dishonored precedents that were still vigorous in Francis Bacon’s day. Soon he was back in Parliament; and by 1515 he was Speaker of the House of Commons.
In a famous letter to Hutten (July 23, 1517) Erasmus described More as of medium height, pale complexion, auburn hair, careless of dress or formality, abstemious in food and drink, cheerful with quick humor and ready smile, inclined to jokes and pranks, and keeping in his house a jester, a monkey, and many minor animal pets; “all the birds in Chelsea came to him to be fed.” A faithful husband, a loving and idolized father, a persuasive orator, a judicious counselor, a man alert with charity and friendly offices—“in short,” concluded this fond sketch, “what did Nature ever create milder, sweeter, and happier than the genius of Thomas More?”30
He found time to write books. He began a History of Richard III, but as its tenor was sharply against autocracy, and autocracy was on the throne, he thought it discreet to avoid the fatality of print. It was published after his death; Shakespeare based a play on it; and the biography, broadcast by the drama, may bear some responsibility for the character that Richard bears. In 1516, as if in a playful aside, More tossed off, in Latin, one of the most famous of all books, creating a word, setting a precedent and pace for modern utopias, anticipating half of socialism, and voicing such criticism of English economy, society, and government that again he put valor behind discretion, and had the volume published abroad in six Latin editions before allowing it to be printed, still in Latin, in England. He professed to have written it for amusement, with no intention to make it public; but he thanked Erasmus for seeing it through the press at Louvain.31 It was translated into German, Italian, and French before the first English version appeared (1551), sixteen years after the author’s death. By 1520 it was the talk of the Continent.
More had called it Nusquama, Nowhere; we do not know who had the happy thought of changing this, amid the printing, to the Greek equivalent Utopia?32 The mise-en-scène of the tale was so ingenious that many readers took it as authentic history, and a missionary was said to have planned to go and convert the Utopians to Christianity.33 More had been sent by Henry VIII on an embassy to Bruges (1515); thence he had passed to Antwerp with a letter of introduction from Erasmus to Peter Giles, the city clerk. The prelude pretended that Giles had introduced More to a bearded, weather-worn Portuguese mariner, Raphael Hythlodaye (Greek for “skilled in nonsense”), who had sailed with Amerigo Vespucci in 1504, had made his way round the globe (six years before Magellan’s voyage), and had visited, in the New World, a happy island whose inhabitants had solved most of the problems plaguing Europe at that time. The Louvain edition made the hoax more plausible by prefixing a woodcut of the isle, and a specimen of the Utopian language. Only one slip gave the plot away: Hythlodaye digresses to praise Archbishop Morton,34 in terms more natural to More’s gratitude than to the mariner’s experience.
The imaginary Magellan describes the communism of the islanders:
Among the Utopians... all things being common, every man hath abundance of everything.... I compare with them so many nations .... where every man calleth that, which he hath gotten, his own proper and private goods .... I hold well with Plato .... that all men should have and enjoy equal portions of wealth and commodities. ., k For where every man, under certain titles and pretenses, draweth and plucketh to himself as much as he can, so that a few divide among themselves all the whole riches... there to the residue is left lack and poverty.35
In Utopia each man takes his product to the common store, and receives from it according to his needs. None asks more than enough, for security from want forestalls greed. Meals are eaten in common, but if a man wishes he may eat at home. There is no money in Utopia, no buying cheap and selling dear; the evils of cheating, stealing, and quarreling over property are unknown. Gold is used not as currency but to make useful things, like chamber pots. No famines or lean years come, for the communal storehouses maintain a reserve against emergencies. Every family engages in both agriculture and industry, men and women alike. In order to ensure adequate production, six hours of work per day are required of each adult, and choice of occupation is limited by collective needs. The Utopians are free in the sense of freedom from hunger and fear, but they are not free to live on the labor of others. There are laws in Utopia, but they are simple and few; therefore every man is expected to plead his own case, and no lawyers are allowed. Those who violate the laws are condemned for a time to serve the community as bondmen; they do the more disagreeable tasks; but after finishing their turn they are restored to full equality with their fellow men. Those who repeatedly and seriously offend are put to death. The supply of bondmen is raised by ransoming prisoners condemned to death in other lands.
The unit of society in Utopia is the patriarchal family. “The wives be ministers to their husbands, the children to their parents.” 36 Monogamy is the only form of sexual union permitted. Before marriage the betrothed are advised to view each other naked, so that physical defects may be revealed in time; and if they are serious the contract may be annulled. The wife after marriage goes to live with her husband in his father’s household. Divorce is allowed for adultery and by free mutual consent, conditional on the consent of the communal council. Annually every thirty families choose a phylarch to govern them; every ten phylarchs choose a chief phylarch to administer a district of 300 households. The 200 phylarchs serve as a national council, which elects for life the prince or king.
A basic obligation of the phylarchs is to preserve the health of the community by providing clean water, public sanitation, medical and hospital care; for health is the chief of all earthly boons. The rulers organize education for children and for adults; they stress vocational training, support science, and discourage astrology, fortunetelling, and superstition. They may make war on other peoples if they judge that the good of the community so requires. “They count this the most just cause of war, when any people holdeth a piece of ground void and vacant to no good nor profitable use, keeping other from the use or possession of it, who... by the law of nature ought thereby to be nourished and relieved.” 37 (Was this a defense of the colonization of America?) But the Utopians do not glorify war; “they hate it as plainly brutal.... and, contrary to the sentiment of nearly every other nation, they regard nothing more inglorious than glory derived from war.”38
Religion in Utopia is almost, not quite, free. Tolerance is given to any creed except atheism and the denial of human immortality. The Utopian may, if he wishes, worship the sun or the moon. But those who use violence of action or speech against any recognized religion are arrested and punished, for the laws seek to prevent religious strife.39 Deniers of immortality are not punished, but they are excluded from office, and are forbidden to voice their views to any but priests and “men of gravity.” Otherwise “it should be lawful for every man to favor and follow what religion he would... and might do his best to bring other to his opinion, so that he did it peaceably... and soberly, without haste and contentious rebuking and inveighing against other.” 40 So in Utopia there are various religions, but “the most and wisest part.... believe that there is a certain godly power unknown, everlasting, incomprehensible, inexplicable, far above the reach and capacity of man’s wit, dispersed through the world.”41 Monasticism is permitted, provided the monks will busy themselves with works of charity and communal utility, such as repairing roads and bridges, cleaning ditches, cutting timber, and acting as servants, even as bondmen; and they may marry if they so desire. There are priests, but they too marry. The state keeps as religious feasts the first and last of every month and year, but in the religious exercises of these holydays “no image of any god is seen in the church,” and “no prayers be used but such as every man may boldly pronounce without the offending of any sect.” 42 On each of these holydays wives and children prostrate themselves before their husbands or parents, and ask forgiveness for any offense committed, or any duty omitted; and no one is to come to church until he has made peace with his enemy.—It is a Christian touch, but More’s youthful humanism appears in his partial acceptance of the Greek view of suicide: if a man suffers from a painful and incurable disease he is permitted and encouraged to end his life. In other cases, More believes, suicide is cowardice, and the corpse is to be “cast unburied into some stinking marsh.”43
We do not know how much of this represented More’s considered conclusions, how much was Erasmus, how much was half-playful imagination. However, the young statesman carefully dissociated himself from the socialism of his Utopians: “I am of opinion,” he represents himself as saying to Hythlodaye, “... that men shall never live wealthily where all things are in common. For how can there be abundance of goods .... where the regard of his own gains driveth not to work, but the hope that he hath in other men’s travails maketh him slothful.... It is not possible for all things to be well unless all men were good—which I think will not be yet these good many years.” 44 Yet some sympathy with radical yearnings must have inspired so extensive a picture of the communist ideal. Other pages of the Utopia criticize with angry severity the exploitation of the poor by the rich. Enclosures of once common lands by English lords are condemned with such detail and spirit as seem unlikely in a foreigner. Says Hythlodaye to More:
The unreasonable covetousness of a few hath turned to the utter undoing of your island.... Suffer not these rich men to buy up all, to engross and forestall, and with their monopoly to keep the market alone as pleases them.45 .. . When I consider and weigh in my mind all these commonwealths which now anywhere flourish, I can perceive nothing—so God help me—but a certain conspiracy of rich men promoting their own commodities under the name and title of the commonwealth. They invent and devise all means and crafts... how to hire and abuse... the labor of the poor for as little money as may be.... These devices be then made laws.46
It is almost the voice of Karl Marx moving the world from a foot of space in the British Museum. Certainly Utopia is one of the most powerful, as well as one of the first, indictments of the economic system that continued in modern Europe until the twentieth century; and it remains as contemporary as a planned economy and the welfare state.