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Utopia Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

How to make a better world in which to live has fascinated the minds of thinkers in every age. From Plato to the present, people have been thinking and writing about what the world would be like if people could create an earthly paradise. One of the most famous pieces of such thought and writing is Thomas More’s Utopia, a work so famous that its title has come to mean an ideal state. Originally written in Latin, the international language of medieval and Renaissance Europe, the book was widely read, and as early as 1551 a translation into English was made by Ralph Robinson, a London goldsmith.

The book is in two parts, with the second part (curiously enough) written first, in 1515, and the introductory half written in the following year. The book begins with a fictional frame story in which More tells how he traveled to Antwerp on a royal mission and there met Peter Giles, a worthy citizen of Antwerp, who in turn introduced him to Raphael Hythloday, whose name means in Greek “a talker of nonsense.”

Hythloday proves to be more than a mariner, for in his conversation he appears to More to be a man of ripe wisdom and rare experience. Hythloday was supposedly a companion of Amerigo Vespucci when that worthy was supposed to have made his voyages to America. It was on one of his voyages with Vespucci that Hythloday, according to his own account, discovered the fabled land of Utopia, somewhere in the oceans near the Western Hemisphere.

The first part of Utopia does not deal with the legendary island; rather, Hythloday visits England, converses with Cardinal Morton, and suggests to that churchman (who was Henry VII’s chancellor) some reforms that might benefit England. Among the reforms the fictional Hythloday suggests are the abolition of the death penalty for theft, the prevention of gambling, less dependence upon the raising of sheep for wool, discontinuance of use of mercenary soldiers, cheaper prices for all commodities, and an end to the enclosure of the common lands for the benefit of great and wealthy landlords. Although Cardinal Morton listens intently to Hythloday’s suggestions, a lawyer objects that Hythloday’s reforms cannot be undertaken and that they would not be deemed desirable by anyone who knows the history and customs of England.

In this first part of Utopia, More is pointing out some of the social and economic evils of sixteenth century European life. More than that, he is suggesting that only an outsider can see the faults with an objective eye. The introduction of the lawyer’s objections, which are cut short by Cardinal Morton, suggests also that More discerned in sixteenth century society persons who opposed reform and who had reasons—not necessarily edifying ones—for doing so. Part 1 of Utopia is More’s way of preparing the reader, through contrast, for the section in which his ideal realm is delineated.

In the second part, Hythloday expounds at length about the culture of the land of Utopia (Latin for “nowhere”), which he visited during his travels. Hythloday describes Utopia as an island kingdom that is crescent shaped and about five hundred miles in perimeter, separated from other lands by a channel constructed by its founder, the fabulous King Utopus, who saw that the Utopian experiment, if it were to succeed, must be isolated and protected from the encroachments of warlike and predatory neighbors. The island is divided into fifty-four shires, or counties, each with its own town, no town more than a day’s walking journey from its neighbors. The central city, Amaurote, is the capital, the seat of the prince who is the island’s nominal ruler.

The government of Utopia is relatively simple and largely vested in older men, in patriarchal fashion. Each unit of thirty families is ruled by one man chosen by election every year. Each ten groups of families elects a member of the island council. This council in turn elects the prince, who serves throughout his lifetime unless deposed because of tyranny....

(The entire section is 1,387 words.)