Summary of Utopia

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Utopia book summary

Literary Classic

  • Utopian
  • Renaissance

What It’s About

Ideal Society and Ideal State

Can the world be a better place? Are there rules and codes of conduct that would allow a society to exist in just and harmonious balance? As far back as records reach, people have struggled to understand what is necessary for a stable and contented world. As the Renaissance spread to Northern Europe, Thomas More looked around him and keenly felt the difference between the rough and tumble of Tudor England versus the sort of society that would offer dignity and opportunity to his fellow men. Taking inspiration from the discoveries of the explorers, starting with the Portuguese navigators and Columbus, he placed his speculations of what a decent society would look like by inventing a description of a newly discovered land: Utopia. As the fictional narrator, a Portuguese seafarer, recounts how the Utopians deal with property, commerce, social relations, governance and even criminality, More explores how a constructive and humanist society might operate. While some elements of Utopia seem quite modern, others such as slavery and strict patriarchy can seem surprising. Clearly, elements of Utopia reflect More’s ideals, and he may even have thought them practical – such as the treatment of criminals. Others may be simple speculation or even satire. What is most important is that More moved beyond moralizing to envision what the utopian society might look like and thereby to start a long tradition of utopian and dystopian writing that remains as vital today as it was in 1516.

Take-Aways

  • Utopia is one of the most important political texts of the early modern era, and is responsible for shaping the genre of utopian fiction. 
  • Thomas More recounts a seafarer’s report of the island of Utopia, which reflects a distinct contrast to the prevailing social order of his times: All Utopians are equal – except for the slaves. There is no private property, need or greed. Everyone works and subordinates their interests to the common good, and no ruler can ever become too powerful. 
  • In his work, Thomas More created the idealized image of a social state, thus criticizing the monarchical systems in Europe at the time.
  • The fictional explorer puts forward early socialist, even communist ideas.
  • The extent to which the devout Catholic believed in such ideals himself remains unclear.
  • Some scholars maintain that More was merely satirizing the dream of a fair and equal social order.
  • More, a close friend of Erasmus of Rotterdam, was strongly influenced by the Renaissance and humanist movement.
  • He brought reason to Epicureanism. In this system of philosophy, pleasure means living a reasonable life in the service of the common good.
  • Utopia, which in Greek means nowhere, coined a new term and became the blueprint of utopian and dystopian fiction.
  • “For among them there is no unequal distribution, so that no man is poor, none in necessity, and though no man has anything, yet they are all rich.”
 

Summary

Preface on an Allegedly True Story from the Island of Utopia

Thomas More writes in a letter to Peter Giles, the town clerk of Antwerp, that he is sending the transcript of an oral travelogue about the state of the Utopians by Raphael Hythloday. Since Giles was also present when the explorer told his story, More asks the clerk to check the report for completeness. More regrets that he forgot to ask which sea the island of Utopia was located in, and asks Giles to add the information. More is still hesitating to publish the report. People might not like it and object to its wit, spirit and scorn. Furthermore, the philistines could find it too difficult and the learned too trivial, so he asks Giles for advice on whether to put it into print.

About the Difficulty of Just Policymaking

More speaks about his diplomatic mission to Flanders on behalf of the English king Henry VIII. There, Giles introduces him to Raphael Hythloday, a Portuguese with whom Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer of the New World, traveled to unknown territories. Hythloday tells of peoples and nations south of the equator. He is critical of the European countries’ states and social orders, and he believes that the newly discovered societies could indeed serve Europe as an example.

This leads to a discussion about why Hythloday wouldn’t enter into a king’s service in order to counsel him on reforms, thus being of use to the people. Yet the Portuguese doesn’t want to make himself a slave, and he doesn’t believe that kings care one bit about the welfare of the people. He suspects the kings’ counsels of being flatterers, relating an experience in England that underpins this belief.

“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this but that you first make thieves and then punish them?”

At the dining table of Cardinal John Morton, Chancellor of England, whom Thomas More knows as well, a lawyer wonders why so many thieves and robbers continue to engage in their nefarious deeds despite the Draconian punishments leveled upon them. Hythloday answers that teaching usually beats punishing. Many people steal out of fatal necessity, such as farmers and craftsmen who return mutilated from wars and are unable to work. Or their greedy lords squeeze the very blood out of them, so they must leave their homes and try their luck as vagabonds. Moreover, princes and abbots deprive peasants of their livelihoods by turning farmland into pasture for sheep. In order to stop making people into thieves, Hythloday advises the rebuilding of farming villages to prevent land purchases by the rich and to fight the general corruption of morals.

“The magistrates never engage the people in unnecessary labour, since the chief end of the constitution is to regulate labor by the necessities of the public and to allow the people as much time as is necessary for the improvement of their minds, in which they think the happiness of life consists.”

Moreover, he speaks out against capital punishment, for God has commanded men not to kill. He cites the punishment method of the Polylerits as an example, a people that he claims to have met in Persia. There the thief must give back stolen goods to their owners. In case there is nothing left to give back, he must serve in the public works. Every convict thus makes up for the damage he caused. The Portuguese recommends this method for England, causing considerable indignation at the dinner table. Only the cardinal proposes to give it a try, since all the existing methods have hardly yielded satisfactory results. Now the dinner party suddenly praises Hythloday’s idea. For Hythloday, it’s a perfect example of toadyism and a sign that he’s not the right sort to serve at a king’s court.

When the Philosopher Advises the Statesman

In another conversation with More, Hythloday outlines common European power politics using France as an example, in particular as regards marriage policies and bribery. He would suggest to the king of France to give up his Italian possessions, because the country is already too big to be governed well by one king alone. This is what the Achorians did, a people not far from the island of Utopia: Their king had conquered a neighboring country, but he couldn’t pacify it and lost a lot of money trying. So his people asked him to decide in favor of one or the other kingdom, and the wise king left the newly conquered kingdom to a friend, while successfully nurturing and beautifying his own.

“It is the fear of want that makes any of the whole race of animals either greedy or ravenous; but, besides fear, there is in man a pride that makes him fancy it a particular glory to excel others in pomp and excess.”

The Portuguese goes on to say that a happy and prosperous people is the pride and glory of any king, while an impoverished one turns him into a jailer who battles widespread crime and unrest. In this case, Hythloday puts forward the Macarians, a neighboring people to the Utopians: The Macarian king isn’t allowed to have more than 1,000 pounds of gold in his treasuries and must spend the rest of the money. This keeps him from excessively enriching himself and becoming greedy.

More demurs that such talk is quite edifying in intimate circles but that it would be pretty much out of place in council meetings with princes. Hythloday thus concludes that philosophers should have no business dealing with princes. More then responds that, instead of turning one’s back on politics and the state, one should try to change things step by step, tactfully and by striking the right tone.

“Yet [Utopians] do not place happiness in all sorts of pleasures but only in those that in themselves are good and honest.”

Still Hythloday disagrees. For him, conforming to those in power is equivalent to lying. Happiness, he continues, only exists in the absence of private property, the only state to which the philosopher could contribute anything at all. He considers rich people mere villains and idlers. More counters that if there were only common property, nobody would have an incentive to work and create value, since he wouldn’t be allowed to keep any of it for himself. People who know nothing but equality would never respect superiors or authorities. More’s objections don’t count for Hythloday, however. Living on Utopia for five years, he says, simply convinced him that it works.

Hythloday Reports on the Island of Utopia

The name “Utopia,” says Hythloday, goes back to the explorer Utopus, who colonized the peninsula and, together with the natives, separated it from the mainland to create an island. Its 54 cities are all equally well-built. Amaurot is the capital and seat of the island’s senate. Every city is allotted sufficient arable land for its needs, and the land is farmed by country families. Each family has at least 40 men and women, as well as two slaves. The town magistrates supply the farming groups with equipment and harvesters, and the Utopians generally produce a surplus, which they give to neighboring towns in need.

“But in Utopia, where every man has a right to everything, they all know that if care is taken to keep the public stores full, no private man can want anything; for among them there is no unequal distribution, so that no man is poor, none in necessity, and though no man has anything, yet they are all rich.”

Every two years, half of each country family moves back into town, and 20 city dwellers move to the countryside. Every Utopian thus acquires expertise in both farming and a trade, and the cleverest are designated to become scientists. The Utopians are advanced in crop cultivation, animal husbandry and technology and their research is state of the art. In the towns, you never come upon shut doors; everyone is welcome everywhere. Thirty families choose a magistrate, the Philarch, and the Philarchs in turn elect the Archphilarch as their representative. The people name some candidates for the position of Prince, whom the Archphilarchs elect. The Prince holds office for life, unless he strives towards establishing a dictatorship, in which case he is deposed. Princes and Archphilarchs meet every three days in the senate and decide the island’s policy matters. Nothing is ever debated on the day it is first proposed. Utopians prefer to sleep on issues to avoid ill-considered actions and decisions.

An Entirely Reasonable State Structure

Utopians all wear the same kind of plain and practical, yet gracious clothing, which isn’t meant for representation and is easy to make. The buildings, too, are simple, which reduces the amount of labor spent on them. These factors and the fact that everybody works explains why the inhabitants of Utopia only work for six hours a day and still generate a surplus: There are no idle priests or noblemen with entourages – and also no beggars. There is only useful work. Fruitless labor that caters to luxury and hedonistic vices is nonexistent, as are lawyers, whom the Utopians consider to be manipulators of the truth. And since there are hardly any laws within this reasonable state structure, lawyers are superfluous anyway.

“Therefore I must say that, as I hope for mercy, I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretense of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out.” (Hythloday)

Pleasure and diversion consist of sitting and being jolly together, or of partaking in popular entertainments such as exercising one’s mind and extending one’s knowledge by, for example, attending public lectures. Utopians eat together in big halls; there’s no drinking, loose behavior or gambling. The nucleus of the state is the patriarchal family, and when a family gets too big, its members give away their children to smaller families, in order to maintain a proper balance. Overpopulation in a city is handled in the same manner: People move to a less populated city on the island or found a colony on the mainland. They only go to war when they need land to provide for their living, claiming unused territories and uncultivated soil from the natives. When the population of Utopia falls below a reasonable number, they abandon their colonies and return to their island.

Contempt for Wealth

The towns distribute all that they produce to dedicated depots, where people can take whatever they need. There is no money economy. Nobody takes more than he or she needs, because nobody lives in fear of deprivation. The sick receive care in well-furnished hospitals that keep exemplary hygienic standards. The Utopians excel in medical care and are much renowned for their skills. They suggest euthanasia to the terminally ill, yet don’t force them into it. If they aren’t needed at home, Utopians may travel upon obtaining leave from the Archphilarch. But if they are caught rambling around the country without a passport, they are treated as fugitives and punished with slavery.

There are no slaughterhouses within the city walls – for hygienic reasons, but also so the act of killing remains foreign to the citizenry. This is why the slaughtering of animals is entirely left to slaves. The Utopians export everything they don’t need themselves and give the seventh part of these goods to the poor of the countries receiving them. Utopians have earned a vast gold treasure with their exports, knowing that they can bribe all their enemies and thereby prevent wars. When there’s no way to dodge a fight, they enlist foreign mercenaries with the money to protect their own people from the danger of military service. Utopians value iron more than gold, having such an abundance and no good use for gold that they think of the shiny metal as tacky. When they see a stranger adorned with gold, they take him for a poor wretch. They hold gold in such low esteem that they make fetters and chains for their slaves out of it, as well as chamber pots.

Utopian Ethics

The Utopians live by the pleasure principle – that is, the pleasure to live naturally, reasonably, sensibly and in harmony with the community. It’s generally considered better to enjoy doing good than to chase arbitrary amusements. Such pleasures may guarantee short-term happiness but result in the compulsive need to seek the fulfillment of sensual desires over and over again. According to Utopian ethics, this deprives men of freedom. They don’t know aristocratic indulgences like hunting. In their view, it is plain wrong to kill animals for pleasure and flaunt elegance at the same time; they leave the killing to the butchers, who are all slaves. Utopians punish adultery severely, because they believe that disorderly mating undermines the institution of marriage in the long run. The most common sentence for severe crimes tends to be enslavement, because forced labor brings more to the commonwealth than capital punishment. The Utopians are tolerant in religious matters, believing that each person should pursue his personal way of achieving happiness. This is why they resist excessive missionary work and sectarianism. They believe in immortality and therefore feel sorry for the sick but not for the dying.

Hythloday ends his report by praising this ideal state and social system. More implies that he doesn’t endorse all the Utopian institutions. But he leaves it at that, refraining from criticizing it in detail.

About the Text

Structure and Style

Thomas More divided his work into two books. In the first, he establishes the fiction that the text is a factual report, pretending to be the chronicler of a story told by another. He describes how he meets his real-life friend Peter Giles and the fictitious Portuguese seafarer Raphael Hythloday in Flanders. They engage in a lively discussion with the sharp-tongued Portuguese, who serves as a mouthpiece for fierce and forthright criticism of the European ruling systems. While showing great interest, More objects to some of Hythloday’s ideas about the nature of a just state and questions whether it is even possible to achieve. Those same questions inspire the second book, which contains a lively travelogue about the Island of Utopia – where Hythloday believes to have found the ideal state – and addresses the questions raised in the first book. More’s writing style is clear, witty and always to the point, and he plays artfully with the fictitious names: Utopia’s capital Amaurot is modeled after London and contains the Greek word for “fog,” while the name Hythloday could mean both “buffoon” and “enemy to buffoonery.”

Interpretation

  • According to More’s friend Erasmus of Rotterdam, More wrote Utopia in order to describe why England was in such bad shape. The text contains veiled advice to the English king Henry VIII.
  • More voices criticism without risking a direct confrontation with the powerful, because he purports to be nothing but a reporter of events. His dialogue with the fictitious Hythloday gives him the chance to take a radical stance while distancing himself from it at the same time. The text form of a fictitious travelogue allows him to portray a theory of the state in a lively and imaginative way.
  • As a Renaissance philosopher, More takes up the ancient philosophical movement of Epicureanism. The Greek philosopher Epicurus had elevated the pleasure principle to being the ultimate goal in life. More expanded this concept to the “pleasure to perform one’s duties,” that is, the pleasure of a reasonable life and the willing submission to the common good.
  • More doesn’t advocate the return to an idealized early human condition (“back to nature” a la Rousseau) but presents a highly developed society with an advanced understanding of technology and science.
  • More has Hythloday express early socialist ideas. Much like Karl Marx more than 300 years later, the voyager assumes that beingness determines consciousness: Once everyone has what they need, greed, envy and the race for profit come to an end. Comprehensive provision would be achieved through renouncing private property, making everybody work and providing free access to education and knowledge for every member of that society.
  • There is no privacy or individual freedom on Utopia. Individualism, which many regard as the foundation and engine of modern societies, is considered unnecessary and possibly even harmful.
  • More may have intended all or part of his descriptions of Utopia as satire, with the expectation that readers would have seen many of the Utopians’ “ideal” solutions as laughable. While the tone of Utopia seems earnest, many of More’s actions and policies as a statesman seem more in keeping with Tudor brutality and cynicism than Utopian common sense.

Historical Background

The Age of Renaissance and Discovery

Thomas More was born into a period of upheaval. In 1478, the year of his birth, the first book was printed in England, ideas were increasingly reproduced and spread, and the Church lost its monopoly on interpreting the meaning of life. More was part of the successful and distinguished middle classes, who started to participate in state affairs and asserted their opinions. He became familiar with the ideals of the Renaissance and humanism, which, embraced by the bourgeoisie, had traveled from Italy via the Netherlands to England: a re-embrace of the values of the classical world, the liberation of humanity from medieval constraints, the search for human freedom and the abandonment of the sterile doctrine of Scholasticism, all of which led to a distancing from the status quo and a possibility for alternative thinking. The Reformation then shook the people’s faith in the institutions of the Church yet again. More rejected a separation from Rome and held with those seeking renewal within the Catholic Church.

As novelties began to enliven the world of ideas, exploration of the New World changed the physical world of Europeans. News of faraway islands, inhabited by “good natives” or “evil heathens,” depending on one’s point of view, sparked people’s imagination. This was fertile ground in which to search out an alternative, reasonable social structure beyond the existing one.

Development

Thomas More was a highly respected, well-established man within his social circles. Yet he dissociated himself internally from this position, searching for the ideal of a better society. He was strongly influenced by his close friendship with the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam: In 1509 Erasmus stayed in London with More and his wife. During this period, More encouraged him to write his famous book, The Praise of Folly, and Erasmus dedicated it to his friend. In his masterpiece, the humanist satirized the contemporary governing and power structures – advocating peace, tolerance and humanity. Utopia owes a great deal to More’s conversations with Erasmus. More wrote the second book of Utopia in Flanders in 1515, while in close exchange with Erasmus, and the first in 1516. Hence, he invented the story of Utopia and its constitution before embedding it into the background story of his visit to Flanders and the meeting of Hythloday. In 1516, the Latin text was published under the title Libellus vere aureus nec minus salutaris quam festivus de optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia (A truly golden little book, no less beneficial than entertaining, of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia). In 1551, the text appeared in English.

Reviews and Legacy

More coined the neologism “Utopia” using the Greek terms ou (not) and tópos (place) – therefore “Utopia” literally means no place or nowhere – and gave many languages a new word for an imaginary place where everything is perfect. More’s classic work also put a name to modern utopian thinking and the literary genre of the utopian novel.

However, the blueprint of a utopian state is considered to be Plato’s Politeia (The Republic), which More references in his Utopia. More’s innovation inspired other thinkers to explore utopian socialism, including The City of the Sun by Tommaso Campanella (1602), which features communist ideas similar to the English model, and New Atlantis by Francis Bacon (1626), which focuses on the exploration of nature. All those works were inspired by the critique of the prevailing social order and the search for a better one, often involving the return to a natural state. Many more followed, for example, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, which combines scathing political satire with utopian ideas. In the 19th century, the genre made the leap toward science-fiction by Jules Verne and toward dystopian fiction such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in the 20th century. Utopian elements can also be found in 18th-century French social philosophy, historical materialism and even anarchism.

Each of these utopias draws from the tension between the ideal and reality: How is the world, and how could it be? In his work, More touches on the basics: happiness and providing for the individual, harmony in society, sensible rule, and private versus communal property. Utopia, in particular, reveals the disparate goals a writer can pursue with a utopian text: Does More simply dream of a better society, or is he trying to make fun of it? Is he intent on rousing the people to revolutionary action or giving advice to the rulers – similar to his contemporary Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince? These different possibilities unite all aspects of utopian fiction.

About the Author

Sir Thomas More (venerated in the Catholic Church as Saint Thomas More) was born in 1478, the son of a distinguished London judge. He embarked on an impressive legal career that would take him as far as the court of King Henry the VIII. As a child, he was educated at the court of Archbishop John Morton of Canterbury. More studied in Oxford and became a member of the House of Commons in 1504. In 1518, the king appointed him his personal adviser. In 1523, he moved on to the position of Speaker of the House of Commons and in 1529 that of Lord Chancellor. Henry the VIII sent the gifted lawyer on sensitive diplomatic missions abroad, which More mastered successfully. Much to his father’s chagrin, he showed an early interest in literature, writing epigrams (short satirical poems). He was well-versed in the Latin and Greek classics and, inspired by his close friendship with Erasmus of Rotterdam, engaged in the philosophical discourse of the Renaissance and humanism. Erasmus honored More as an exceptional human being who did everything for his friends. More was a devout Catholic, and in his youth, he sincerely contemplated priesthood. Yet he opted for a secular life, married and had children. He remained loyal to his faith and the Catholic Church, considering himself a servant of God and the Pope. This in turn resulted in a conflict with Henry VIII, who in 1534 demanded the submission of the clergy to the crown and claimed the supreme right to decide on matters of faith, thus usurping the privileges of the Pope. More refused allegiance to his king and resigned. Henry VIII tried him for treason and had him beheaded in 1535 at age 57. The Catholic Church beatified More in 1886 and canonized him in 1935. In its view, he was someone who fought against the unlawful interference of the state in church affairs and died for his beliefs. In 2000, Pope John Paul II declared More “the heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians.”


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