English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3    




Link Library




Syllabus & Schedule





1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam




 **** 14. Utopia ****



Medieval Man in an Early Modern State
Vol. 1B, pages 714-785 from Longman 3rd ed.
"Sir Thomas More" and "Utopia"


The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at  SUNY Learning Network.  


Write for an hour (or more if you have time). Summarize the readings. Some additional  journaling ideas for today include:

What is new in More, compared to the medieval literature we have been reading?

What actually happens nowhere?

Is Utopia an endorsement of communism? How do you think its early readers would have reacted to the call to abolish private property?

Could Hythlodaeus have worked for George W. Bush? For Barak Obama? Would he have joined the Tea Party? or would he "Occupy"?  Are philosophy and politics irreconcilable?

General instructions on Journaling for this course. For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.
These notes are adapted by Dr. G from David Damrosch, et al.,
Teaching British Literature
(New York: Longman, 2003).


Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) often is viewed as a model of constancy in a fickle world of change. During Roman Catholic times, More rose to the highest appointed political office in England as Lord Chancellor, but eventually (long after writing Utopia), when Catholic times were ending, More opposed the decision of his king, Henry VIII, to divorce a Catholic wife without the pope's indulgence. More's refusal to back Henry's divorce cost him his job, but his subsequent refusal to recognize Henry as head of the reorganized Church of England cost him his head.

Robert Bolt's screenplay A Man for All Seasons captures well the principled side of the man who was executed as "the king's good servant, but first the servant of God." On these principles, however, More could take a head as well as lose one. As Lord Chancellor he dealt cruelly with "heretics." He was no humanist, if we mean by that term secular humanist or one who does without God--or even if we mean one who separates church and state. In a time when many faiths were developing, when Utopians may have believed in freedom of religion (776), Catholic More was a fierce "defender of the faith." 



Left: a portrait of More wearing the badge of the Chancellor of England, by Hans Holbein the Younger.



Early in his career More wrote political propaganda for the Tudors, but his later  masterpiece
Utopia (1516) rImage:Holbein-erasmus.jpgeflects ambivalence if not cynicism toward public service. The piece is written in a typically humanist style known as “serious play” or serio ludere. This stimulating technique was established by More's friend Erasmus in The Praise of Folly which, like Utopia, broadly criticizes aspects of society—the monarchy, the church, the professions—and yet makes its criticisms through a fictive narrator, or persona. Using the license of the court jester to speak freely, this literary device enabled dissent and speculation in an age of severe censorship, when offensive words often were punished as treason. The meaning of Utopia is debatable enough that in the 20th century both communists and anti-communists often cited it as support for their causes.

Utopia is essentially a dialogue between More, who takes the part of a practical statesman, and Raphael Hythlodaeus, an uncompromising philosopher. Their names are significant. Hythlodaeus means “Dr. Nonsense.” And More, as Erasmus pointed out in The Praise of Folly, stands for folly (folly is moria in Greek). The two characters seem not to agree on any subject, especially as to the value of money, and in the end More puts off their debate until another day because Hythlodaeus seems tired and unwilling to accept any opposition to his views (784).






Left: Han Holbein the Younger's Erasmus.




As in Homer's Odyssey, the Platonic dialogues, the tragedies of Euripides and other ancient Greek literature, the reader of this dialogue is put in the position of skeptic. This is not a position that readers in the Middle Ages generally were encouraged to take. Hythlodaeus' story can be questioned; the story exists to pose questions. This approach has made it an enduring world classic.

A bridge to nowhere
Utopia Book I is Hythlodaeus' biting critique of England (a misruled land of thieves, beggars and war mongers), but Book II is his fantastic account of Utopia, a proto-Communist commonwealth where work and goods are distributed as equally as possible. Readers who know Greek will know better than to ask for directions to the place. Utopia means “nowhere.”

Book II goes nowhere. Nowhere is inhabited by rational people who have no use for money or fine clothes or private property or pride. Nowhere there is a rational government, lacking inherited offices (a monarchy or nobility, for example). Is it foolish to describe nowhere? Is it wisdom in the fool who does so? Book II poses the so-called Greek liar paradox—“All Greeks lie; a Greek tells you this.” More is a fool; More tells you this.


Left: Socrates visits Dublin. His influence and the influence of Greek writing on the early humanists stimulated the questioning of tradition.


figures going nowhere

Was nowhere visited long ago by ancient astronauts? Most scholars believe so.

Hythlodaeus saw that nowhere people are free from greed.  Nowhere people bother with pleasure only if, in the future, it will not cause them pain. Nowhere people read literature because it gives pleasure that is lasting and harmless (as compared, say, to pleasures of the body). Nowhere are all activities designed to produce the greatest happiness.

More’s nowhere land implicates in its irony and extravagance the whole genre of travel tales that in the years after Columbus stirred the imagination and ambition of Europeans. Piqued by stories of great wealth, armchair explorers wondered how they might enrich themselves by traveling to the New World. According to the world traveler Dr. Nonsense, there was gold to be had for the taking nowhere.  

King Henry VIII of England

left: Henry VIII, creator of the Royal Navy and the Church of England


Social and political criticism?
The Utopians are prototypes of modern science fiction characters. They pull us into an alternate reality that makes us think "what if," yet Utopia is not pure fantasy. Book I critically describes enclosure, eviction of tenant farmers, post-military unemployment, the sale of political offices, price inflation, the hanging of thieves, and other real social problems that plagued More’s England. Hythlodaeus' explanation for those ills would have unsettled English readers about the society in which they lived. For this reason, one imagines, More's book was published originally in Latin on the Continent. A free press was yet to arise in Britain.

In Hythlodaeus' view, the policies of the English government (not original sin or vice) are responsible for creating criminals and poverty. The outlawing of private armies in 1506 had ended the war-making power of the English barons, but it also had released large numbers of unskilled fighting men on the streets. Henry VIII's policies of foreign aggression had not successfully reemployed these men; instead, they swelled the ranks of dangerous unemployed and disabled veterans as soon as the wars were lost and Henry's treasury was empty.  Here's a problem arising only because of Tudor social engineering.

That undesirable conditions are caused more by state policy than by human nature or individual flaws, is a distinctly modern view, a characteristic view of modern liberalism which began in early modern humanism. Nobody had thought to explain to Beowulf or Guinevere or Margery Kempe that they were simply products of their societies. This notion may appear in modern liberal interpretations of  their behaviors, but it does not seem to have occurred to British writers in the Middle Ages. Utopia seems very novel in this regard.


Left: woodcut by Ambrosius Holbein for Utopia (1518). Early printed books contain woodcuts and later engravings meant to compete with the illumination of manuscripts. 


If government policy really matters, then kings ought to be advised by the wisest and most experienced counselors. Hythlodaeus, however, imagines that no king would welcome his advice. Because kings and their counselors use the state for personal advantage; they have little interest in the things that Hythlodaeus advocates: public welfare, peace, limited spending, and small government. There is no place at court for the uncompromising philosopher of the public good.  The character More eventually agrees with Hythlodaeus on this unhappy point.

Renaissance treatises on the conduct of courtiers, such as Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (Lesson 13), presume that kings will appreciate advice on policies. On entering public life the real Thomas More must have presumed this also. Tudor-Stuart sovereigns, however, promoted the notion that monarchs can do no wrong (compare Utopia 735). As a servant to such a ruler who claims absolute power, how effective could an advisor hope to be?  Henry executed all but one of his chief advisors, Thomas Howard, who was sentenced on death row but happened to be spared only because of Henry's death on the night before the scheduled execution.


Ambrosius Holbein hid a skull within the overall design of his woodcut map of Sir Thomas More's Utopia. In this scheme, Utopia is in the mind, and we get there through the mouth (the ship).  


Erasmus, The Praise of Folly from Oxford University.

The Praise of Folly at Fordham

Thomas More, Utopia at Bartleby

Thomas More at Luminarium: http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/tmore.htm

Sir Thomas More at The History Guide (includes Erasmus' description of More): "he has a great hatred of constraint (tyrannis) and loves equality. Not without much trouble he was drawn into the court of Henry VIII . . ."

William Roper, A Life of Sir Thomas More at Bartleby

An Empire Nowhere: England, America, and Literature from Utopia to The Tempest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), by Jeffrey Knapp (HTML at UC Press)

Temple of Mithras, Londinium, cir. 200 AD.


If you know of an excellent website that would wonderfully  complement this lesson, please send it to Dr. G.

 Copyright 2008 by Gary Homer Gutchess.