ABSTRACT

In the discussion in Book 1 of Utopia as to whether an enlightened philosopher should enter politics, Hythloday concludes that participation would be a waste of time, while Morus, acknowledging the unlikelihood of radical change, nevertheless insists that the philosopher ought to engage in political action so that at least things might be made ‘as little bad as possible’ (U: 35). From both perspectives, the possibility of imminent radical change is dismissed, a verdict reiterated by Morus in the final sentence of Book 2, when he states that there are many aspects of Utopia that he would wish to see in our own societies but nevertheless does not expect to see (U: 107). Yet however much this judgement might appear to acquiesce to the status quo, the political and social ideas expressed in Utopia are so startling that they challenge all preconceptions of what is possible or not. Through the impassioned eloquence of Hythloday, a denunciation of autocratic government and social injustice is delivered, and an alternative of elected government and social ownership is offered for inspection. It is a provocative and radical text, delivered to the European intellectual elite from a scion of the English establishment. In 1516, More was a published author, a propertied family man with four children,

a distinguished lawyer and holder of an important administrative post, undersheriff of London. Already working on government business in conducting trade talks in Bruges, he awaited an invitation to join the King’s Council. It seems so unlikely that a text replete with radical ideas could flow from a person of social privilege, but it is possible to achieve a better understanding of how these ideas emerged by examining More’s place in the intellectual firmament of the period and by surveying some of the social and political issues that confronted him. The first part of

this chapter will look at the intellectual context, first by locating More as part of the movement that has come to be known as humanism, and then by looking more particularly at Christian humanism in order to understand the religious underpinning of his thought. The second part will focus on the major political and social issues of the day that form the subject matter of Utopia. Some of these issues are applicable across European societies and others are particular to England; one of the notable features of Utopia is the breadth of these concerns.