This is a first-rate biography of the sainted Thomas More. Ackroyd's goals in this biography are to present a non-anachronistic depiction of More, and through his portrait of More, to give readers a sense of the late Medieval world destroyed by the Reformation and the emergence of nation-states. Ackroyd presents More as a man exemplifying the late Medieval ethos. Deeply religous, highly intelligent, and well educated, More existed with a profound sense of human fallibility and saw all aspects of his world as manifestations of a divine order. The world as the body of Christ, a metaphor to which Ackroyd returns repeatedly, is a recurring theme. The temporal world is transient and a necessary preparation for the eternal and in a crucial sense, less real than the eternal world of Christian teachings. This world is bound by custom and inherited legal and religous traditions, hierarchial and paternalistic in its structure of authority, and deeply enmeshed in rituals that mirror the structure of divine authority. More was not, however, a reactionary except when the radicalism of the Lutherans pushed him to stringent and violent acts needed to defend the integrity of his perception of the Christian world. A prominent member of the Northern European Humanist movement, More was dedicated to the recovery of a renovated faith based on a new reading of the Patristic fathers, attention to classical, particularly Greek neoplatonic authors, and disdain for complex scholastic theology. He and his fellow Humanists hoped for reformation of the Church without abandoning the unity of Christendom, the apparatus of ritual and hierarchy that defined so much of their lives, and the primacy of papal authority.
Ackroyd's efforts to present More and the late medieval ethos are very successful. Readers will be introduced to a foreign world, but one which is an ancestor of our contemporary society. Ackroyd's efforts at depicting the lost of world of More include not only the content but the structure of the book. Some prior reviewers commented adversely on Ackroyd's use of unmodified quotations from More's English writings. While interpreting these lines requires a little effort, that effort helps to appreciate More's style. As Ackroyd points out, for More and his contemporaries, style was not simply a matter of presentation but had a significant moral dimension. While chronologically arranged, this biography is not strictly a narrative of More's life. Each chapter is presented as an almost self contained vignette or episode from More's life. I believe this is a deliberate effort on Ackroyd's part to mimic aspects of medieval ritual and theater. This is another and I think successful effort on the part of Ackroyd to present the late Medieval world. Ackroyd argues that not only that More was dedicated to the importance of ritual and theater but that it formed a very important part of More's character and perhaps self-image. Ackroyd's construction of this book is then a doubly artful device to mirror both the world of late medieval England and More himself.
This book has been on my reading list for a while, and I finally grabbed a copy to read when I got my Kindle. Thomas More, as well as many other famous men, put to writing a vision of the ideal society. As with most visions of the ideal society, he had some good ideas that were eventually put in place, but he also had many impractical ideas that won't work just due to the nature of man. It was also interesting to see that he came from an era that accepted several social mores such as slavery that today we find unacceptable and were deemed good institutions in his ideal society.
I think my favorite part was the method the Utopians used to minimize the importance of gold, fine apparel, and money. Gold and jewelry were considered baubles only interesting to children. They marked their slaves by bedecking them with gold. He related a story of a foreign ambassador coming to visit the Utopians. They mistook the gold bedecked ambassador as the slave and the plainly clothed slave as the ambassador and treated each as such.
I highly recommend this relatively short book as a glance into how people in the Middle Ages viewed the ideal society and also as a legitimate look at ongoing social problems. More highlights pride as one of the biggest problems facing society. It appears to be a continuing issue.
on July 6, 2001
I purchased the Penguin edition intially, so to have a compact copy of this essential work. However, I was thoroughly unimpressed with the edition. The translator, Turner, assumes very little of his reader and therefore "translates" some of More's most witty and erudite comments into bland, lifeless remarks. The most irriating example is that rather than keep the main character's name as Rafael Hythloday he has "translated" the name as "Rafael Nonsenso." Turner justifies this choice by saying that not many modern readers know classic Greek... true. But, it would have been better to footnote the original name and explain it's origin and meaning rather than translate the name into an obvious joke. By doing this Turner steals the very essence and beauty from the work. There are many other examples of Turner's tweaking that are maddening. However, I will say that the Introduction to the Penguin Utopia by Tucker is very nice. I especially enjoyed Tucker's discussion of "Utopian Literature." However, I recommend that you find the book in a library, photocopy the intro... and instead purchase the Hackett Publishing version (now available in paperback, I believe) which offers thorough and accessible footnotes to the text as well as a wonderful introduction.
There were utopias before this book that Thomas More wrote in the early 1500s, including Plato's Republic. This, however, is the book that gives us the word 'Utopia.' The book is brief, barely over 100 pages, and only 60-some describe the place itself. That is enough, and makes me nostalgic for the habit of writing briefly and to the point.
It's easy to sum up More's heaven-on-earth in a few words. It portrays a communal, democratic society. It is paradoxically unregulated and tightly regulated - overwhelmingly, More's citizens just want to do what is best for their society, and that covers a remarkably narrow range of possibilities. There are, of course, some who break the laws of the land, and More deals with them harshly. "Harsh" is a relative term, though, and his punishments were hardly harsh in a day when it was a hanging offense to steal a loaf of bread for your starving family. (That's actually the introductory topic, the one that leads up to the description of Utopia.)
It's also a strongly religious society. Religious tolerance is a matter of law, a novelty by the standards of More's day and the standard of his own behavior. 'Tolerance', however, meant tolerance of any monotheism that wasn't too animistic, and certainly didn't tolerate the unreligious.
This translation from More's original Latin is modern and smoothly readable. Even so, I wonder how another translator would have handled some of More's neologistic names, like the unpleasant 'Venalians' who are the Utopians' neighbors. No answer is right, but other renderings may convey more and grate less. Those are quibbles, though. It's a good book as well as being a Great Book, and casts an interesting shadow into modern communism, theocracy, and ideas of the good life. I recommend it highly.
on April 20, 2005
Gosh, golly gee, crikey - the superlatives could go on all day. This is a superb, densely textured biography. Ackroyd revels in the complex psychology and sociology of his subject, e.g., his devotion to duty, his father fixation, etc. He also places Thomas More firmly in the London of his time and in his historical moment - the Reformation - especially through More's own writings.
It has been remarked that the chapters amount to a series of vignettes. That's true, and the amount of knowledge retailed in each glimpse of More and his world is staggering.
To give but a few examples:
Chap. 3 - St. Anthony's Pigs: we follow young More through the streets of Tudor London to his school and get insight into the Renaissance education system.
Ch 4 - Cough Not, Nor Spit: Thomas' early career as a page to Archbishop (of Canterbury) Morton, Henry VII's notorious "enforcer". This relationship illuminates More's later dealings with Cardinal Wolsey.
Ch 8 - We Talk Of Letters: sketches of Grocyn, Linacre, Lily, Colet, More - the "London humanists", or More's intellectual circle.
And so on. The book continues in the same fascinating vein. It is a hard slog to read, and I'm sorry that Peter Ackroyd did not give a glossary of A) Latin and Greek expressions, and B) even some of his more obscure English words. I also regret that there's no map to illustrate Ackroyd's loving depiction of the London where More learned, lived, worked and suffered.
More's story is well known and often told. Ackroyd has given a fully-rounded portrayal of the man, his background, career, family and friends.
What a pleasure to read.
on June 16, 2004
"Utopia", written in 1516 by Thomas More, is probably one of the most important books ever written. Why?. Simply because it influenced many people, and motivated many events: it made a difference...
"Utopia" means, literally, "no place". The word didn't exist until More coined it in this book. He wanted to make a critic regarding the English society of his time, but needed to cloak it under a "fictional" mantle due to censure. Displeasing the king was very dangerous in More's time...
What is this short novel about?. Well, More introduces us to an imaginary character, Raphael Hythloday, a traveler that has visited a distant country: Utopia. After meeting More, Raphael tells him about the country he visited, and afterwards More writes a book about what he was told.
To begin with, in that country community is more important that private aims, and that fact permeates all social and political life. There is no private propriety of the means of production, and everything belongs to everybody. Work is obligatory to all healthy men and women, and those who want to do nothing are punished with forced labor. There is no money, but everybody has what is needed to live well, although frugally. Thanks to the fact labor is well distributed, leisure time is available to all. As a result, men and women (equals in this society) can dedicate time to cultivate their minds...
Other important points that should be highlighted regarding Utopia, especially because they contrast strongly with the situation of More's England, are that in this country all religions are allowed, and that there isn't an autocratic rule (a democratically elected assembly and different local governments are elected). All in all, equality prevails, and thanks to the above mentioned arrangements harmony is achieved.
"Utopia" was written a few years later that Machiavelli's "The Prince", but the differences between the two books are incredible. In "Utopia" instead of praising the power of princes More wanted to show clearly all that was wrong in English society because it was governed by a bad ruler. He didn't tell others to face reality: he asked them to criticize it, in order to improve it later. Thus, Moro established the essential traits of what was later known as the "utopian method": to describe in other situation, with a prejudice of optimism, all that that we don't like in our society.
With "Utopia" Moro created a new way to mobilize energies, and showed options that had remained hidden from the eyes of those who weren't happy with their societies. Behind the name of "fiction", he gave politics new intruments of discussion, and opened to it novel ways of considering reality, in the light of what could/should be.
There is no politics without the idea that something better can be achieved, without the kind of imagination that allows us to think that something better is possible. Moro made that evident... I think that that is more than enough to strongly recommend this book to you :)
on September 19, 2004
The Yale edition (Miller's translation - $6.95) gives a bare list of events in More's life, but the short introduction mostly focuses on the syntax and rhetoric of the book; there's very little in it about the social and historical background. It omits the commendatory letters from various humanists, but includes both the opening letter to Giles from More, and the postscript letter to Giles from the 1517 edition (but not the Busleyden letter about Utopia as a real place that prompted it). (It also has the 1518 woodcut map of Utopia.) The sidenotes that Miller thinks are not mere section markers are placed in the footnotes.
The Hackett edition (Wooton's translation - also $6.95) has a pointed persuasively argued introduction focusing on the translator's own interpretation of the work; he relates it to More's life and the paradoxical double vision of Christian piety and ordinary social life also found in More's friend Erasmus's "The Sileni of Alicbiades," which is included. This edition puts the sidenotes in the margins, and also includes all the introductory and appended material by others, the 1516 map, the Utopian alphabet and the garden woodcut, and black and white illustrations of portraits of More, Erasmus and Gilles.
I haven't seen the other options.
on July 11, 2001
My interest in Thomas More began when I learned that he was the Patron Saint of Lawyers, when I as about to graduate from law school. This book seemed to be the most realistic and comprehensive work on the life of Thomas More. Naturally, many of the works devoted to him are much more spiritual or political in nature. Peter Ackroyd, however, covers it all. His discussion of More's childhood and family life provide insights into his political career and spirtuality.
At first glance, the contrast between More's "worldly" political career and his deep, sincere spirituality might seem jarring to contemporary eyes. Ackroyd deftly points out, though, that for More's contemporaries, there really isn't a contrast. Religion, politics, and social hierarchy were all part of the same system -- to a point. The Life of Thomas More shows that, given the right elements (e.g., Henry the Eighth on the throne, the Protestant Reformation in full swing, More's own faith), religion and politics can (and will) clash violently.
Ackroyd's writing is, quite simply, wonderful. While the material can be quite dense, Ackroyd's prose keeps you moving swiftly through the book. Although the book is certainly well-researched and up to anyone's standards of scholarship, Ackroyd's tone is not at all distant.
On a more personal note, I found Thomas More's strength and faith to be very inspiring. While few of us will become martyrs to our faith or wear a hairshirt, Thomas More's life shows that strength of character and strong faith require a lot of work, but are valuable attributes in a complicated world.
on December 19, 1999
Peter Ackroyd has written a superb biography of this great figure Renaissance England, and Catholic history. His depiction of the sheer geogprahy of More's London world is so real that it served as guide for this reviewer on a visit to London who could trace More's steps, copy in hand. Ackroyd puts the humanist scholar, statesman, and saint in his own context and avoids the all too common trap of trying to "read" More against our own post-Christian secular world, where heresy is a "virtue", rather than a threat to the stability of an entire social and spiritual order. The only complaint this reviewer has is that Ackroyd has chosen to quote More's English works in their original spelling and grammar. This at times approximates reading a foreign language. It is this reviewer's opinion that he would have done better to use a more modern English, as his translations of More's Latin works are clear and eminently readable. All in all, however, a superb book !
on February 16, 2010
The work begins with written correspondence between Thomas More and several people he had met on the continent: Peter Giles, town clerk of Antwerp, and Jerome Busleiden, counselor to Charles V. More chose these letters, which are communications between actual people, to further the plausibility of his fictional land. In the same spirit, these letters also include a specimen of the Utopian alphabet and its poetry. It is a great book that allows one to think about human nature. Utopia itself is an imaginary place that is nonexistent. Many have wondered over the years why More even wrote it. I forces one to consider that if the government of a place allows circumstances to occur that remove mans ability to take care of basic needs on a just and right way, should they be punished when they achieve it by breaking their laws?