Critical Essays The Composition of Utopia


Scholars believe it is possible to reconstruct with considerable certainty the history of the writing of Utopia, and that history throws some valuable light on the understanding of the work.

In May, 1515, More went to Bruges in the Netherlands as a member of an English governmental commission to negotiate for trade agreements with representatives of Prince Charles, Viceroy of the Netherlands for the emperor. About mid-July a recess was called while the Dutch representatives returned to court to confer with their government. During the succeeding weeks of enforced leisure (possibly as much as three months), More took the opportunity to visit Antwerp, where he became acquainted with Peter Giles, a scholarly gentleman who was a friend of Erasmus. It was the hope of Erasmus that these two should meet because he was sure they would find much in common. Evidently they found a great deal of pleasure in one another's company, and there is good reason to believe that in the course of their frequent conversations they talked seriously on such subjects as the recent discoveries of new lands and strange peoples and governments, good and bad. Utopia appears to have grown, directly or indirectly, from ideas that were generated in those meetings. It is known that before More left the Netherlands that autumn he visited Peter Giles again and showed him a manuscript which described a commonwealth called Utopia.

That manuscript, however, was not the complete version of the book as we know it. It contained only two sections of the complete book — one, the Introduction to Book I, telling of More's meeting Giles and being introduced to Hythloday; and two, almost the entire text of Book II, the section called "The Discourse on Utopia."

More promised to send Giles a copy of the manuscript soon after he returned to England but did not fulfill his promise for almost a year. The reason for the delay was that he was caught up in some new ideas which he decided to incorporate in the book. It happened that soon after his return to England he was offered a post in the government by Henry VIII and the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, a proposal that caused him to engage in some serious deliberation — to re-examine his aims in life, his duty to his country, and his evaluation of politicians and a political career. The substance of that deliberation appears in the newer section of Utopia, the section that makes up the main portion of Book I and is called "The Dialogue of Counsel." In that section More represents himself as a party in the dialogue and argues with Hythloday about the duties of a person of exceptional intellect and experience toward society, about the inner workings of governments, and about the character of officials who direct government policies. The fact is that More is arguing with himself, using Hythloday to voice one side of the dilemma while he was voicing the other side. Hythloday's position is presented more forcefully and eloquently than More's, but More seems to have won the decision, since he did enter the government.

It is often stated that Book II was written before Book I, and that is basically true, but it is an over-simplification. A more precise pattern of the development reads as follows:

Netherlands, 1515

Bk I, Introduction (approximately 5 pp.)

Bk II, Discourse on Utopia (approximately 70 pp.)

England, 1516

Bk I, Dialogue of Counsel (approximately 30 pp.)

Bk II, Peroration and Conclusion (approximately 5 pp.)

(A more detailed account of the above developments is to be found in the Yale Edition of the Complete Works of Sir Thomas More, vol. IV, pp. xxvii–xli.)

Back to Top