The United Republic of Utopia

The 500th anniversary of the publication of Utopia is a chance to appreciate Thomas More in all his complexity.

Map of Utopia by Ortelius, ca. 1595Last year the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, with its presentation of Thomas More as a zealous heretic-hunter, coincided with the release of a video of a Jordanian pilot burned to death by members of ISIS. The connections between the two were not missed, reviving the long-standing question of whether to see More as hero or a villain, including an illuminating contribution from Hilary Mantel herself in History Today

Mantel’s More (or rather Mantel’s More via Thomas Cromwell) is a reflection of the historical scholarship of the 1970s and 1980s, which questioned More’s saintly place in Tudor history. This approach is clear in John Guy’s article, Sir Thomas More and the Heretics, which details the case against More. 

Heresy hunting is central to this account and, as Guy suggests, no historian could deny that More as Lord Chancellor was involved in the deaths of three Protestants between 1531 and 1532. Nor can one ignore the many texts More wrote against the ‘threat’ of heresy and the vehement language he used, although there might be reason to consider it within the context of 16th-century debates. More was not the only writer at this time with a bit of a potty mouth and a penchant for hyperbole. 

It may be time, however, to reassess the place of More’s Utopia in this litany of his shortcomings. This year we have an opportunity to do so, as it marks the quincentenary of the publication of Utopia in Louvain in December 1516. 

Guy suggests that More’s imaginary country is ‘totalitarian par excellence’, citing its lack of pubs, brothels and ‘secret meeting place[s]’, as well as the mandate against discussion of public policy outside of the popular assembly. This totalitarianism, Guy suggests, lies at the heart of More’s later attitude towards heretics and suggests that his ‘repressive discipline’ against them was similar to the ‘totalitarianism of Utopia’.

Describing Utopia as totalitarian (a 20th-century term) paves over what More was attempting to do in his text, which was to remind his readers of the importance of community. For More, the prioritisation of self-interest had the effect of tearing apart the bonds that ought to unite people. To use examples from Utopia: land-owners who enclosed common land for sheep-grazing, or greedy kings who overstretched themselves in their conquest of new lands both tore apart the unity of the commonwealth. The island of Utopia becomes the inverse of such tendencies. Homes are allocated to families for only a decade at a time, there are no locked doors and no personal possessions. 

Rather than totalitarian, Utopia is fundamentally republican. Like property, political power is shared, reflecting More’s belief that authority resides in the body of the people. Within Utopia’s cities, households elect representatives who, in turn, elect both the councillors and their prince. Council and prince together make decisions in regular consultat- ion with the people. The country as a whole is ruled by a general council, the members of which are, once again, elected directly by the people. Thus, although discussing public matters outside the public forum is punishable by death, for fear of the division and distortion of public opinion, the people are directly involved in every political decision made on the island. 

This is not to say that there isn’t a dark side to Utopia, just as there remains a dark side to More himself. Nevertheless, both in Utopia and in his efforts against heretics, More’s interests went far beyond either political discipline or religious doctrine alone. Throughout his life More was terrified of the effects of division. The common property of Utopia, More’s persecution of heretics and, indeed, his resignation from the Chancellorship in 1532 and execution in 1535, can all be connected to this concern. In a world that values pluralism and diversity, it is not a concern we share. In a world of individualism and self-interest, however, we need to be reminded of the importance of community. Even complex and controversial historical figures can have something to teach us. After all, are there any other kind?

Joanne Paul is Lecturer in the History of Political Thought at the New College of the Humanities.