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The Life of Sir Thomas More.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

THE accompanying intimate account of the life of Sir Thomas More by his son-in-law, William Roper, renders a biographical sketch unnecessary.

While More was a young law student in Lincoln’s Inn, he is known to have delivered in the church of St. Lawrence a course of lectures on Saint Augustine’s “City of God”; and some have supposed that it was this that suggested to him the composition of the “Utopia.” The book itself was begun in Antwerp in 1515, when More was in Flanders engaged in negotiations on behalf of the English wool merchants, and results of his observations among the towns of the Low Countries are evident in some of the details of his imaginary state. The framework seems to have been suggested by an incident related in the narrative of the fourth voyage of Amerigo Vespucci, in whose company Raphael Hythloday is represented as having sailed.

In the elaborating of his model society, More drew on Plato’s “Republic” and on Saint Augustine for a number of important features. But the work as a whole is the outcome of the author’s own political thinking and observation; though it is not to be supposed that he believed in all the institutions and customs which he describes. In ordinary intercourse, More was fond of a jest, and many, we are told, found it hard to know when he spoke seriously. Much of this whimsical humor is implicit in the “Utopia”; and while it contains elements in which he had a firm belief, it is more than probable that much of it was in the highest degree tentative, and some of it consciously paradoxical.

In spite of this uncertainty as to More’s attitude, the influence of the book, both in imaginative literature and in social theory, has been considerable; and it is the ancestor of a long line of ideal commonwealths. Modern reformers are still finding in its pages suggestions for the society of the future.