Thomas More, executed by Henry VIII (one of his best friends) for treason, led an illustrious career of politics and letters. Under his friend the King, he served in many capacities - Speaker of the House of Commons, Master of Requests, Privy Councillor, etc. - culminating with the trust of the position of Lord Chancellor, a position in those days matching the prominence (if not the definition) of Prime Minister in these days. More's strong integrity and resolute mind caught the attention of scholars, political and church leaders internationally; it was this same integrity that most likely was his undoing, refusing to assent to the King's divorce and severance of ties binding the English Church with the Roman overlordship of the Pope. Indeed, More was, if not the actual ghostwriter, then certainly an inspiration and editorial aide to the document produced by King Henry VIII against the continental protestants, earning for Henry (and his heirs ever after) the title of Defender of the Faith (historical irony is that this title, most likely not intended to be hereditary, now declares the defense of a faith separated from the one for which the title was bestowed).
While an Ambassador to Flanders, More spent spare time writing this book, 'Utopia'. The very title is a still a by-word in the English language (as well as others) of a state of bliss and peace; it is often used with the context of being unrealistic. 'Utopia' is More's response to and development from Plato's 'Republic', in that it is a framework for a perfect society, or at least perfect according to More's ideas of the time. Penned originally in Latin, 'Utopia' has been translated widely; one of the better translations is by H.V.S. Ogden, in 1949, still reprinted in various editions to this day. Originally published in Latin in 1516, the first English version appeared in 1551, some 16 years after More's death.
Thomas More writes this as if he were traveling, and meets his friend Peter Giles, who introduces him to Raphael Hythloday, a scholar/traveler with tales to tell.
Hythloday made friends with a prince who outfitted him for a journey. He traveled through deserts and fertile lands. He proceeds to give an account to Giles and More. In an ironic twist, given More's own attachment to Henry VIII, Hythloday states that he doesn't give his information in advice of kings or princes, for to be beholden to them is not a wise thing. He quotes Plato, in saying that unless kings were themselves philosophers, they should never appreciate philosophers.
More argues for public service, which Hythloday rejects as something that other place-seekers will use to bolster their own positions. Then Hythloday makes the startling pronouncement with regard to how a society should be constituted: 'As long as there is property, and while money is the standard of all things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily; not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to the absolutely miserable.'
Hythloday proceeds to give an account of the life of Utopia, where, he says, there are so few laws and so much liberty and equality that virtue is always rewarded, and each person has what he or she needs. He talks about this under the following headings:
Of Their Towns, Particularly of Amaurot
Of Their Magistrates
Of Their Trades, and Manner of Life
Of Their Traffic
Of the Travelling of the Utopians
Of Their Slaves, and of Their Marriages
Of Their Military Discipline
Of the Religions of the Utopians
'Utopia' is a radical document. It anticipates the modern idea of communism, with private property at a minimum; it is generations ahead in the idea of equality of the sexes and freedom of religion. This may seem a remarkable statement from someone who will go to his death supporting the Roman hierarchy, but in historical irony, had religious freedom been respected in England at the time, More would have had nothing to fear.
'Utopia' was a place of education and free inquiry. Again, More's own life models this - travelers from as far away as Constantinople and Venice, visiting More's home in Chelsea, remarked on the incredible sense of knowledge and respect for reason and learning, not just for the men, but also for the women of the household (More's own daughter once impressed Henry VIII with her Latin training so much he was at pains to find something at which he excelled that he could best her at).
At different points throughout the text, More (speaking through Hythloday) jabs in witty and insightful manner the habits of the day - that kings are often more concerned to fill their own coffers than increasing the general wealth of the nation; that courts are designed to be self-serving and self-perpetuating; that liberties are curtailed not for just and reasonable causes, but often for petty personal reasons.
Some of the ideas, however, are not as modern or enlightened as they might seem at first glance. Utopians' freedom of religion exists only in very narrow bounds of reason - they are all monotheists, and while they might identify this deity with the sun or moon or a good person who died long ago, they are not permitted to speak or attempt to convert others to this idea, without risking bondage or death. Not too Utopian after all...
More was beatified by Leo XIII in 1886 and canonised by Pius XI in 1935 (it is significant to note that Anglican-Roman relations were at a strained point during these times, and the raising of an English saint who rejected the Anglican construct served at least minor political points, something More would have been able to appreciate, if not approve). The official feast day is July 9.