Karl Kautsky

Thomas More and his Utopia


Part II.


1. More’s Youth

IT is not our task to furnish a detailed biography of More. We are only concerned here with More the Communist and his mental development in the spheres wherein social life expressed itself; above all, the development of his economic, political, and religious ideas. His outward life interests us here only so far as it bears on these.

More was born on February 7, 1478, in London, which, if not yet the chief city of the world, was at least one of the most important commercial centres of Europe, in which the tendencies of the new mode of production were sharply and clearly defined.

He came of an “honest but by no means eminent” urban family, as the epitaph which he composed tells us. His father, John More, was a King’s Bench Judge, a sober, strict, almost miserly man, who gave his son every cause to reflect upon the economic conditions and to become acquainted with the material conditions of life.

In accordance with contemporary custom, Thomas had first of all to learn Latin, for which purpose he attended St. Anthony’s School in London, and later he was placed by his father in the house of Archbishop (subsequently Cardinal) Morton, an eminent statesman who had played an important part in English politics, especially in the Wars of the Roses, and who exercised a very favourable influence on young Thomas. The grateful More says of Morton in the first book of Utopia: “He spoke both gracefully and weightily; he was eminently skilled in the law, had a vast understanding, and a prodigious memory; and those excellent talents with which Nature had furnished him were improved by study and experience. When I was in England the king depended much on his counsels, and the government seemed to be chiefly supported by him; for from his youth he had been all along practised in affairs; and having passed through many traverses of fortune, he had with great cost acquired a vast stock of wisdom, which is not soon lost when it is purchased so dear.”

If through his father More became familiar with the material cares that were then weighing upon the world, the Archbishop of Canterbury taught him the nature of the forces that were then deciding the fate of the world, or at least usurping such right. Thus at an early age there came to him the desire to understand the present, above all its material problems, which the Humanists in the Northern countries generally lacked.

In spite of his youth, therefore, More was no longer a boy when he went up to Oxford University, probably in 1492 or 1493. There the new Humanistic studies had found a place alongside the old scholastic doctrines. Their chief representatives were Linacre, Grocyn, and Colet, and later Erasmus of Rotterdam, who came to Oxford as a teacher of Greek in 1498. More felt as much drawn towards the Humanists as they were towards him. Soon he was completely won over to Humanism.

More the elder seems to have become alarmed when his son applied himself to the unprofitable study of the classics. Somewhat unceremoniously, as Erasmus tells us, More was taken away from the University and placed in a school of English law, New Inn, probably about 1494 or 1495. Here, and later in Lincoln’s Inn, Thomas studied law for several years, and afterwards acquired an extensive practice as a lawyer.

2. More as Humanist Writer

But the love of his studies was not smothered by this strenuous occupation. He not only perfected his. knowledge of Latin and Greek, but before long blossomed forth as a writer.

More preferred the Greek authors to the Latin, and rightly so. The latter were mostly mere imitators of the former, and not always the happiest. In Utopia, Raphael Hythloday, who is the mouthpiece of More’s opinions, is thus described: “He has not sailed as a seaman, but as a traveller, or rather a philosopher. This Raphael, who from his family carries the name of Hythloday, is not ignorant of the Latin tongue, but is eminently learned in the Greek, having applied himself more particularly to that than to the former, because he had given himself much to philosophy, in which he knew that the Romans have left us nothing that is valuable, except what is to be found in Seneca and Cicero.”

Among the Greeks Plato was his favourite, and Plato’s influence may be discerned from several passages in Utopia of which only the following need be quoted: “Therefore when I reflect on the constitution of the Utopians, and compare with them so many other nations ... I grow more favourable to Plato, and do not wonder that he resolved not to make any laws for such as would not submit to a community of all things.”

In many ways Plato’s Republic was the model for Utopia, and so far the latter is a genuine Humanistic work. This is not, however, to say that Utopia, or at least the constructive part of it, is a purely academic performance, a literary exercise, an attempt to describe the Platonic Republic in a new way. Nothing could be more erroneous. We shall see that Utopia was the product of the conditions under which More lived, that it possesses an essentially modern character, and that the resemblance to the Platonic Republic is only in externals.

Utopia was no mere scholastic exercise; it was designed to exert an influence on the nation’s destiny. Moreover, its Humanist character is again revealed in the fact that it was not written in the vulgar tongue, but in a language which only a fraction of the nation understood – Latin.

More did not write exclusively in Latin, however. Humanism encouraged the classical Latin of Paganism, in contrast to the barbarous ecclesiastical Latin, but at the same time it was the first champion of national ideas and of national languages.

From Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, the Humanists did more than revive classical Latin; they created a national prose, equally adapted to handling scientific and artistic material.

Thus More was not only one of the most elegant Latin scholars of his time; he was also “the father of English prose,” as Sir James Mackintosh calls him. Before writing Utopia, More had composed works in English. In 1510 he translated from Latin into English a biography of the Humanist Pico of Mirandula, and in 1513 he wrote his famous History of Richard III, which remained a fragment. This work was first published in 1543, after More’s death, and at once became the classical account of the time which it described. From it is derived the unflattering portrait of Richard III which Shakespeare has made immortal.

The rest of More’s English works were composed subsequent to Utopia. They originated in the Reformation period, and are of an entirely polemical nature. In these treatises and dialogues More abandoned the Humanist standpoint, just as Hutten did in his German writings. Both employed the national language, not in the service of science and art, but of politics. They addressed themselves to the people, from whom as Humanists they had held proudly aloof.

3. More on Education and the Position of Women

Both the Humanists and the Reformers employed and fostered the national languages for their own purposes, but the Humanists were exclusively concerned with the elevation of women, the natural sciences and the fine arts.

In respect of each of these matters More was in the front rank of the Humanists.

A letter which he wrote to Gunnell, his children’s tutor, is particularly important for the light it throws on his views regarding the position of women. It contains the following passages: “ In my view, learning united with virtue well deserves the preference to all the treasures of kings, but literary fame without virtue is nothing but a brilliant scandal. This applies specially to the learning of a courtesan. For in the case of the latter, any degree of knowledge is so rare and a secret reproach to men’s idleness, that many love to attack her and to impute to literature what in reality is a defect of nature, believing that the faults of scholars stamp their own ignorance on virtue. If, however, a female person combines only a little knowledge with many laudable virtues, I esteem this above the wealth of Croesus and the beauty of Helen ... The difference between the sexes has nothing to do with the matter, for in the time of harvest it is all one whether the hand which sowed the seed belongs to a man or a woman. Both possess the same reason which distinguishes men from animals. Both are therefore capable of those studies by which reason is perfected and fertilised, like a field over which the seed of good instruction has been sown. If, however, as many contend who would debar women from study, the heritage of the female sex is infertile or brings forth weeds, this, in my opinion, is a reason to correct the faults of nature by diligent application and instruction in knowledge.”

These principles were applied by More in the education of his three daughters and his foster-daughter, Margaret Giggs, whom he caused to receive a thorough instruction in the Humanist sciences. Margaret, the eldest daughter, most resembled her father in spirit and disposition. She acquired so much knowledge as to enjoy a notable reputation among the scholars of her time. Her literary performances attracted widespread attention; Erasmus always wrote to her with the greatest deference, and once called her “Britannia’s Jewel.” She spoke Greek and Latin, fluently, translated Eusebius from Greek into Latin, and restored a mutilated passage in Cyprianus, performances which seem to us to-day as mere school exercises, but which at the beginning of the sixteenth century were regarded as prodigious and aroused general interest. More was uncommonly fond of his daughter Margaret, and a letter from him to her is still preserved, in which he wished her, as the wife of his later biographer Roper, a happy issue to her impending confinement: may she bear a daughter like herself, which he would prefer to three youths.

Unfortunately she died in 1544, nine years after her father’s execution, and in the lifetime of Henry VIII, when her father’s memory was still under a cloud. Had she survived to the days of the Catholic reaction, she would probably have given us a better biography of More than her husband was able to do.

In the excellent education which he gave his children, More displayed the pedagogic talent common to all the great Utopists. The first socialists were primarily Utopists because they found that the human material of which the commonwealth was to be composed was too degraded and too undeveloped to permit of emancipation by their own efforts. The education of the people, not by prosecuting the class struggle, but by pedagogic methods, was thus a chief requirement of Utopian Socialists. Like Robert Owen, More was far in advance of his time as an educational reformer. As the former in his factory, so the latter in his family showed what brilliant results could be obtained by his methods. The means by which both obtained these results were benevolence, clemency, consistency, and mental superiority.

One of the educational principles which More followed is still honoured amongst us. In the above-quoted letter to Gunnell we read: “You say that to steer clear of vanity, which even men of great learning cannot conquer, is too great a task for children. But the harder it is to pull up this weed, the earlier we should nip it in the bud. The reason why this evil is so deeply rooted is that nurses, parents and teachers develop and foster it among children of tenderest years, for a child hardly does anything good but what it expects to be praised, and for this praise seeks to please most, even the worst.”

More’s amiable benevolence is extremely attractive even to-day. It is to be rated all the higher when we remember that the sixteenth century was one of the most cruel and bloodthirsty in the history of mankind. The age of Humanism was anything but the age of humanity.

In the educational sphere it ushered in the age of the birch and of rote-learning. Erasmus relates that often after the common meal a schoolmaster would pick out a boy and hand him over for punishment to a rough bircher, who would never let a weak boy go until the sweat streamed down his face and the boy lay half dead at his feet. But the teacher would turn calmly to the scholars and say: “True he has done nothing, but he must be humiliated.”

Contrast this with More’s educational principles.

4. More’s Relation to Art and Science

In human things More was more than a Humanist. Interest in art he shared with all Humanists, and he was devoted to music. The plastic arts also received a full meed of his attention. In this respect his relations with Hans Holbein the younger are of special interest. The latter came to England in 1526 with a letter of recommendation from Erasmus to More, who welcomed him with open arms. More kept Holbein in his house for a long time, in return for which Holbein decorated it with his paintings and painted More and his family. More later introduced Holbein at Court, and called Henry VIII’s attention to the gifted painter.

Next to More’s interest in art his predilection for the natural sciences is noteworthy.

Thomas More was one of the few who at the beginning of the sixteenth century were interested in investigating the laws of nature, and assigned a wider aim to the young natural sciences than the satisfaction of limited momentary needs. This is apparent from the part which he assigns to the natural sciences in his Utopian commonwealth.

We learn from More’s biographers that he studied astronomy in addition to geometry, and he must have studied it to some purpose, as during the early part of his sojourn at Henry VIII’s Court he was employed more as astronomer than as statesman. That his sole object was scientific investigation and not astrological predictions is obvious from his outbursts against the astrologers, whom he attacked not with moral indignation, but with his favourite weapon – ridicule. A number of his Latin epigrams were directed against the astrologers, the cleverest of which is one in which he mocks a stargazer who divines everything from the stars except that his wife has provided him with horns.

More was not only sceptical about astrologers; he also ridiculed the credulity of the pious and their taste for ghost stories. Next to Plato, his favourite writer was Lucian, the Heine of the expiring Roman world, to whom “nothing was holy,” and who poured the stream of his wit over nascent Christianity and fashionable philosophers as well as over the old faiths. He read the writings of this sceptic, despite the warnings of pious friends, and defended him against them.


Last updated on 22.11.2003