(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

The Work

More coined the word “utopia” for this book and simultaneously provided a noun to describe an ideal society and an adjective—utopian—to signify a hopelessly impractical approach to living. The word “utopia” derives from the Greek for “no place,” but it is also a pun on “good place.” With this play on words, More sowed the seeds of argument regarding his book: Was he serious? Was he a communist, a liberal, an autocrat? Was he an advocate of euthanasia and divorce?


Utopia shows many influences. More was a classical scholar of high standing—a product of the Renaissance. He also pursued a career in law with great success. Amerigo Vespucci’s writings on America inspired him with references to paradisiacal lands and the communal ownership of property. The Catholic Church was the dominant influence of his boyhood, and perhaps of his whole life. Interestingly, More wrote Utopia in a lull before the Reformation; one year after its publication, Martin Luther defied the Church by nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg.

Utopian Practices and Ethics

In book 1, More describes meeting a man called Hythloday, who first castigates European society and then proceeds in book 2 to describe Utopia with heartfelt admiration. Hythloday condemns the idle of Europe, including noblemen and their servants. He asserts that rulers wage war, not peace, and that ministers at court do not listen to arguments, but indulge in politics for their own gain. His remedies for economic ills include stopping the enclosure and monopoly of land by the rich. With strong words, he condemns the execution of thieves as unfair and ineffective, stating that it incites men to kill, since murder, carries the same penalty.

Book 2 describes More’s fictional state in detail. The Utopians live a regulated, standardized life. All the cities are beautiful and identical. All citizens wear the same simple clothes, with some modifications for gender. They live together in families of specific size and work six hours a day, spending their leisure time reading and attending lectures. Women may marry at the age of eighteen, men at twenty-two. Adultery is strongly condemned and can result in slavery or even execution. In extreme circumstances of recurrent adultery or perversion, however, divorce is permitted.

Utopia is a state founded on compassion and altruism. No one wants for material goods. Health care is universal, though few get sick. Society gently encourages euthanasia when a mortally ill person suffers from great pain. All property is owned communally. Every ten years, a family exchanges its house, which is supposed to encourage people to take proper care for the next tenant. Even their eating takes place in a large hall that holds as many as thirty households.

Ultimately, authoritarianism is a strong feature of this model state. No one has the freedom to remain idle. Everyone needs permission to travel. Any discussion of government matters outside official meeting-places is punishable by death. Utopia also has rigid hierarchies: children defer to adults, women to men, younger to older, and families to their elected representatives. Paradoxically, however, Utopia has strong democratic...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Antwerp. Flanders city (now part of Belgium) in which More’s novel opens. In 1515 More was part of a diplomatic mission sent by England’s King Henry VIII to Flanders, where he spent many months. While there, he met many of Europe’s leading intellectuals, with many of whom he had already enjoyed a lively correspondence. One of these was Peter Giles, the town clerk of Antwerp. More uses his diplomatic mission, and in particular a visit he paid to Giles, as the starting point for his story. Other than a passing reference to attending a service at a cathedral, More makes no attempt to describe Antwerp; however, it is there that he is introduced to Raphael Hythloday, a philosophical traveler who has returned from Utopia. Hythloday’s story is then told through a frame.

By anchoring his story to the events of a real embassy and real people, such as Giles, More gives his book plausibility, which is further enhanced by his making Hythloday a member of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci’s crew. Vespucci’s highly fanciful account of his voyages to the New World had been published widely only a few years earlier and contributed greatly to the European perception of the Americas as a land of strange peoples and creatures. So successful was More in making his book look like a true account that he was accused by a contemporary critic of having merely written down what someone else told him.


*London. England’s capital city figures only peripherally in Utopia; however, More—through Hythloday—makes a number of pointed references to people and places in London, in particular the head of England’s church, the archbishop of Canterbury. Although at pains to praise the intelligence and wisdom of the archbishop, Hythloday uses a debate about social and legal issues as a way of illustrating deficiencies in...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Thomas More’s Utopia, written during the turbulence of sixteenth century English political strife, presents an ideal map of the political countryside against which to measure existing states. The English word “utopia” derives its meaning from a Greek term that can be translated “nowhere.” To call a scheme “utopian” is to suggest that it cannot actually be implemented. Thomas More invented the term and applied it to a mythical community, then used his account of this community as a means of criticizing certain European social and political practices that he considered unreasonable.

More’s own life lends interest to the contents of his famous book, for More served Henry VIII, the strong-willed English king, in a number of important political capacities. In 1535, More died on the block for resistance to the monarch’s policies in a power struggle between the English nation and the Roman Papacy. In spite of his humanistic leanings, More stood firm in refusing to recognize Henry’s claim to the title that made him head of the Church in England. As an adviser to the monarch, More became a tragic figure caught between opposing institutional pressures that played a unique role in shaping modern English history.

More’s Utopia is made up of two books. Book 2 (which contains an elaborate description of the Utopians) was written first, in 1515, a year before the completion of book 1 (which discusses several general political questions, including whether philosophers ought to advise princes). The latter portion of Utopia introduces the primary figures in the work, who include More himself, presented as having heard the ensuing account of social affairs while serving his monarch on state business in Antwerp (Belgium); a gentleman named Peter Giles, who is said to have introduced More to the leading participant in the written work; and a stranger named Raphael Hythloday, a world traveler widely acquainted with political matters who shows impatience with several customs then little questioned in European social and political life. Hythloday is a spokesperson for what must have been More’s own critical opinions about contemporary practices.

Advising Princes

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The early discussion centers on whether philosophers ought to advise rulers—a question provoked by Giles’s and More’s suggestion that Hythloday’s extensive knowledge could be put to such use. Hythloday shows little interest in attempting to advise rulers. At the same time, he argues that the social arrangements of the Utopians (whom he discovered somewhere below the equator) would serve well as a basis for “correcting the errors of our own cities and kingdoms.” He is nonetheless convinced that to serve a king in an advisory capacity would make him miserable. “Now I live as I will,” Hythloday argues—illustrating the tension existing between private and public demands on a person—”and I believe very few courtiers can say that.” Hythloday insists that princes do not want advice from philosophers, that what they seek is agreement with their fixed policies of waging constant, aggressive warfare. Princes ignore sound advice and refuse to tolerate any posture except that of absolute agreement among their counselors. “They are generally more set on acquiring new kingdoms rightly or wrongly, than on governing well those that they already have.” Hythloday illustrates his viewpoint by recounting an episode that had occurred at a dinner given by a famous Cardinal. At this affair, Hythloday became entangled in a discussion when another person present praised some judicial practices that Hythloday thought foolish.

What Hythloday advocates during the discussion resembles a reformist rather than a retributionist theory of punishment for wrongdoing. He also seeks a general theory that will explain why so many people (Englishmen, in this case) risk the death penalty by stealing. Hythloday wants to understand the causes of thieving. He presents a crude yet clear economic thesis, arguing that the land enclosures in sixteenth century England create economic conditions that increase the compulsion to steal. The existing practice of hanging culprits who steal deals only with the symptoms and not with the causes of that unfortunate practice. Unable to gain a fair hearing for their economic situation, the poor are finally driven from the land. “They would willingly work,” Hythloday insists, “but can find no one who will hire them.” Glaring social extremes tend to develop, such as...

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Private Property

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Hythloday returns to his economic thesis—that the chief cause of evil customs is the existence of private property. Only among the Utopians has he found a social system that makes virtue the primary goal of living. Other nations seeking to create sane institutional arrangements undermine their own efforts by maintaining private property and a money economy. Their laws hopelessly try to protect for the individual what, by the nature of private property, must always stand under threat. Hythloday advocates the total abolition of money and privately held property.

More objects to this view, although he shows interest in a fuller description of the Utopians while insisting that absolute equality of possessions means that many will cease working. People need the incentive of the hope of gain, according to More. From a policy enforcing equal possessions in cases when all people experience extreme want, only warfare and constant factionalism can ensue. People require authority over themselves based on some distinction in abilities and worth. To More’s objections, Giles adds his own view that other people are not better governed than the English. His reason for so thinking is that the abilities of English and European rulers are equal to those of other persons. European governmental practices also rest on long historical experience. Hythloday replies that the Utopians also possess a long history—that their peculiar success in managing their affairs results from their willingness to learn. His associates in the discussion ask Hythloday to provide more information about the Utopians.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In book 2, three aspects of Utopian civilization receive consideration under a number of separate headings. Hythloday describes first the island where Utopia exists and the number, distribution, and geographical arrangements of its cities; second, the social and political institutions of Utopia; and third, the ideas and moral norms by which the Utopians live.

Each city in Utopia is divided in a manner as to require several magistrates. From the body of the magistrates, three representatives are chosen to meet in the capital city once a year. Individual cities contain households fixed in number and built on a planned model, thirty households requiring one magistrate in a given district. Agricultural pursuits aiming at...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Ackroyd, Peter. The Life of Thomas More. London: Chatto and Windus, 1998. A helpful biographical study of Sir Thomas More’s life and times, which explores the ideas he developed and the difficult personal decisions that he faced.

Baker-Smith, Dominic. More’s “Utopia.” New York: HarperCollins, 1991. A complete study of Utopia that balances analysis of its contents as a literary work and as a treatise on political theory. Includes information about the history of Utopia’s composition, the Renaissance humanism that permeates More’s thought, and the sources that...

(The entire section is 444 words.)