Utopia - An English Renaissance Book Written In Latin

Thomas More’s Utopia is in many respects a typical product of Renaissance humanism.

In fact, we might argue that due to its publication in the sixteenth century it provides a later example and certainly one much more likely to have been influenced by the half century of Italian and Northern European humanism which predates it.

Utopia bears all the signs of a humanist interest in the classical languages and forms and like Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly and Valla’s On the True and False Good was preoccupied with ancient philosophical views on ethical values.

It is written in Latin with numerous allusions to classical Greek as well.

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Utopia, The Ideal Modern Commonwealth But With Ancient Influences

Its subject matter, the ideal commonwealth, had its origins in two classical works, Plato's’ Republic and Aristotle’s Politics.

Both Erasmus and More were admirers of the Greek satirist Lucian and in its introductory sections Utopia is loaded with the kind of satire, irony and word play one might associate with that ancient writer.

What makes the work even more typical of Renaissance humanism is its concentration on the application of classical ideas to contemporary society and particularly, politics.

In this respect More could be said to be like Bruni, who believed the application of ancient political ideas would create the ideal state.

Utopia is in many respects a hybrid of humanist thought.

It is both a pithy, satirical but ultimately serious hypothesis of an ideal commonwealth, broached in classical language and form and also a disguised critique of the social inequalities of sixteenth century Europe.

As a humanist he framed Utopia as the philosophers example of what is good for mankind but as a realist he knew that it would take more than classical ethics, humanism and for that matter, religion to change his own society.

It is no accident that Raphael Hythloday, an “angelic fool” is the narrator of Utopia and that the character More is the dubious recipient of his tales of Utopia. Perhaps both characters represented the real Thomas More, a humanist idealist and sceptical realist.

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Desiderius Erasmus - friend and mentor to Thomas More

Leonardo Bruni - one of Italy's most famous humanists.

More's Influences - Fellow European Humanists

Desiderius Erasmus hugely influenced Thomas More. The two friends hugely admired the Greek satirist Lucian. More had introduced Erasmus to the writer and the influence of this can be seen in The Praise of Folly. In one fundamental respect More and Erasmus are very much alike. That is in their insistence that correct Christian ethics were an essential part of Renaissance society.

The Praise of Folly bears all the signs that Erasmus truly believed that Christian ethics offered the best values system for his age. Like More he begins his book with a debate on what constituted the “good for man”, and then investigates the various Greek philosophical schools on his way to suggesting that none on its own is good for man.

Behind all their work was the humanist desire for progress.

It seems clear that in his choice of Lucian’s texts to praise he has an underlying desire to address them to contemporary issues. More needed to recreate his understanding of the ancients in a modern context.

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Where More diverges from this path is in his fictional account of the ideal commonwealth. Erasmus and Valla and for that matter Bruni all seem grounded in their own environment. More’s Utopia is deliberately a further remove geographically and socially from Europe, a gently fantastical fiction or wish fulfillment but always with a serious message.