• 1492: Christopher Columbus
discovers Cuba, Haiti, and Hispaniola
• 1502-04: Letters attributed to
Amerigo Vespucci publicize his
travels to South America
• 1516: Utopia published
• 1518-20: Hernan Cortes conquers
More wrote Utopia early in the era of European
exploration of the Americas.
In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller, a German
cartographer, drew the first world map to
show the Americas separate from Asia. He
named the new continents “America” after
the explorer Amerigo Vespucci.
In 1504, Raphael Hythloday supposedly
accompanies Vespucci to South America and
stays behind to continue his travels. Among
the places he visits is the island of Utopia
What vision of the encounter between
Europe and the new world do we get in
Utopia? Why does More locate his ideal
commonwealth in America?
“Debate and dialogue, the interplay
of contrasting viewpoints are key forms in the
repertoire of humanism, and they are basic to
More’s achievement as a writer” (xi).
Dominic Baker-Smith describes Utopia as a
“drama of ideas” (xi).
As a humanist, More studied classical
writing. Two Greek writers are particularly
important as models or reference points for
Lucian of Samosata (born c. 120 C.E.),
author of satirical essays and dialogues.
Plato(born c. 428 B.C.E.), author of The
Republic, a philosophical dialogue about an
“While humanism was intimately bound up
with the revival of classical learning and
literature, at its centre was a sense of
language as a social medium. . . .
The humanist appeal to rhetoric, the classical
art of persuasion, was based on its ambition
to link study and reflection to practical
action . . . “ (xvii).
What is the effect of opening Utopia
within the world of More’s humanist
Portrait of Sir Thomas More
Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527
Oil on oak
Thomas More was active in public life.
He served as a member of Parliament,
Undersheriff of London, an
ambassador to Flanders, privy
councilor of Henry VIII, Speaker
of the House of Commons, and Lord
Did the humanist critique of human folly have
any place at court? Could a philosopher advise
a king? Could humanistic study and reflection
transform practical life?
These were real questions for More when he
was writing Utopia in 1515-16, before he took
a permanent position as adviser to Henry VIII.
Thomas More opposed the Protestant
Reformation. When Henry VIII broke with
Rome and established the Anglican church,
More refused to take an oath acknowledging
the new church’s authority.
He was beheaded for treason on July
William Frederick Yeames, The meeting of Sir Thomas
More with his daughter after his sentence of death,