26 February 2021
Founding an entire literary genre, ‘Utopia’ sets out a radical vision for an ideal society, reconstituting the position that religion, the state and property plays. As such a challenge to monarchical authority and to the prevailing feudal system of the 16th century, the acting of writing ‘Utopia’ alone was risky, revealing the gravity of issues More sought to change.
For any historian intrigued by the early modern period, ‘Utopia’ provides a short, accessible primary source that will provide an entrance into some of the most important themes in the history of political thought. Getting to grips with primary material will stand you in good stead for the preparatory reading at your interview and demonstrate your skills in critically analysing a text. This is especially true if you pair reading ‘Utopia’ with some further reading of secondary material:
· J.C. Davis, ‘Thomas More’s Utopia: Sources, Legacy and Interpretation’, in ‘The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature’ (G. Claeys, Cambridge University Press, 2010) – A good starting point that discusses themes of human nature, pride and the metaphor of theatre.
· A. Grafton, Chapter 1 of ‘New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery’ (Harvard University Press, 1992) – Thorough overview of the debate between scholastics and humanists.
· B.Bradshaw, ‘More on Utopia’, ‘Historical Journal’, 24 (1981), 1-27 – Incredibly important text to understand the historiography of interpretations of ‘Utopia’ (historiography is key part of any history course).
· Q. Skinner, ‘Thomas More’s Utopia and the Virtue of True Nobility’, in ‘Visions of Politics, vol. II: Renaissance Virtues’ (Cambridge University Press, 2002) – Furthers the debate on interpretations of ‘Utopia’.
At least as undergraduates, historians do not customarily read entire books and, in fact, a cover-to-cover approach of reading is strongly discouraged, so this method of reading appropriate chapters of secondary material is more realistic to a degree at Oxbridge, and a little less daunting!
Since I studied Tudors at A Level history and dystopias in A Level English Literature, reading ‘Utopia’ complemented my understanding of both these topics. Particularly for those studying the Tudors, consider how grievances of the time - for example, over religious concerns, enclosures and vagrancy - inform More’s reconstruction of society. Also, explore the further context of accounts of the New World owing to its discovery in 1492, Machiavelli’s publication of ‘The Prince’ in 1532 and More’s execution for treason for 1535.
“You wouldn't abandon ship in a storm just because you couldn't control the winds”
One of the key debates concerning ‘Utopia’ is whether it was intended as mere satire, a farce demonstrating the imperfectability of society, or as a genuine blueprint for change, as implied by the quote above. In my opinion, it is this ambiguity that makes More’s ‘Utopia’ such a fascinating read!