Utopia by Thomas More.

Map by Ortelius, (1595).
Utopia (or to give it its full title Libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, de optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia; which translates as 'A truly golden little book, no less beneficial than entertaining, of a republic's best state and of the new island Utopia') is a work of both fiction and philosophy written by the English saint Sir Thomas More, a Lord High Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, and also an author whose work History of King Richard III for example was the source of information for William Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of Richard III (1592). Utopia was first published in 1516, 501 years ago, when Henry VIII had been on the throne just seven years, and it was written and first published in Latin. 

Utopia is a very short work, my edition was about 100 pages, and it's divided into two books.

Portrait of Sir Thomas More 
by Hans Holbein the Younger (1527)
Book I

Utopia begins,
There was recently a rather serious difference of opinion between that great expert in the art of government, His Invincible Majesty, King Henry the Eighth of England, and His Serene Highness, Prince Charles of Castile. His Majesty sent me to Flanders to discuss and settle the matter, along with my friend Cuthbert Tunstall, an excellent person who has since been appointed Master of the Rolls, much to everyone's satisfaction. Of his learning and moral character I shall say nothing - not because I am afraid of seeming prejudiced in his favour, but because they are too remarkable for me to describe adequately, and too well known to need describing at all. I have no wish to labour the obvious.
More goes on to write of how they were met at Bruges by the envoys of Castile, that negotiations were largely unsuccessful, and how he travelled to Antwerp afterwards to meet his friend Peter Giles, and Raphael Hythloday, a traveller and philosopher. Together they talk about Raphael's travelling and his observations on the customs and practices of other cultures, one such place being the island of Utopia.

The word utopia comes from the Greek and there are two variations.
  1. Eutopia: "εὖ" meaning "good" and "τόπος" meaning "place", so literally "good place".
  2. Utopia: "οὐ" meaning "not" and again "τόπος" meaning "place", so "no place" or "not place", as in William Morris' utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890).
The word "utopia" was in fact coined by More. But, rather than get straight into describing the island Utopia, the group continue their discussions, turning to how Raphael's knowledge can be put to good use, perhaps being (in a sense) 'endorsed' or employed by a monarch. Raphael rejects this argument, believing that royal families are more interested in war and invasions than peace. He goes on to describe an incident at a dinner with Cardinal Morton (like More he too was a Lord Chancellor, but to Henry VII). They talked of capital punishment and theft, and Raphael put forward the idea that instead of stopping theft by killing criminals, one should simply make sure that everyone is well-provided for, going on to claim that for many people, society and indeed politics does not benefit certain sectors of society, in fact it hinders them. The current system, he adds, simply produces thieves then kills them, blaming them for being thieves in the first place. Hard labour, Raphael concludes, would be more appropriate, along with being kept well-fed and treated with respect.

This sparks a discussion on the conditions in England for the elderly. A man present at this dinner suggests that old men should join the monasteries and the old women the nunneries, and a disagreement breaks out between the man and a friar, the man jokingly suggesting the friar ought to be arrested for begging. The only point at which anything Raphael has to say is taken seriously is when the Cardinal takes an interest in the conversation. More again interjects, believing Raphael would make an excellent counsellor to a king, but Raphael again argues against this. They go on to talk of how Jesus and his teachings are often against the grain so to speak, and those in power within a society would not find them beneficial, another reason why Raphael would not be taken seriously in a position of power.

From here the talk turns to private property - a fascinating discussion, almost Marxist (though proceeding Marx's Das Kapital by 351 years). Raphael argues that, in accordance with Plato, a type of communal property makes for a ideal state (as with Marx this refers to 'productive property', that which involves collective effort to produce social wealth as opposed to individual, not in fact personal property). More disagrees at this point, arguing that communal property reduces the incentive to work hard and produce capital, as well as potentially increasing conflict. Raphael however continues to make his point, suggesting people fear this path less travelled. He tells More he has seen this done already, and seen it work. And from here, we go into the description of the island of Utopia.

Map of Utopia (1516).
Book II

In this More writes about on certain 'social concerns' (for the want of a better phrase), first writing on the history and geography of the place, and then straight on to agriculture, cities, and governing bodies. More describes how cities are surrounded by farmland, and the cities cannot expand and encroach upon the farmland (which brought to mind the "Green Belts" we have in the UK which is essentially as More describes). He goes on to write on how men from the cities will help during harvest period, and how no one may capitalise on produce when there is a surplus. On the subject of cities, More writes (I should say Raphael describes) how they are almost indistinguishable, but all buildings are looked after, and there is no 'private' space so doors remain unlocked. Each district is headed by a "phylarch" or administrator and the subject of the state and politics is regimented so that no one may discuss matters outside a committee, thus limiting the dangers of a government being overthrown. From here we turn to the subject of work. Raphael describes how on the island of Utopia people work six hour days (as in Sweden today) leaving people rested, happy, and free to pursue other interests as well as staying on top of maintenance.

From here to education: free education is a right for all, producing an intellectual and able society, as well as a moral one and God-fearing, for the pursuing of low pleasures (of which the people are well able to make the distinction) leads only to punishment in the afterlife.

Surprisingly, slaves exist in Utopia, but they are not bought and sold; they are those captured in battle, criminals, or adulterers (the latter is the only reason to permit divorce; More also writes on the subject of marriage and prohibition of premarital sex). Moving on, the infirm are universally cared for (like our NHS), but the terminal are able, if not encouraged, to die.

Yet, with all that in mind, there are few laws and no lawyers; it is almost (but not quite) a state of anarchy (one must be clear that anarchy simply means no hierarchy, not nihilism, with which it is so often confused).

Unsurprisingly the Utopians are pacifists and seek to avoid all unnecessary violence. When necessary they will fight; men and women all. Finally, the subject of religion: there is a single god in Utopia, but a variety of interpretations.

Utopia ends with a brief debate between Raphael, who believes that Utopia is a perfect society, and More who likes some aspects but not all. Whatever the case, More is not hopeful any of it will be implemented.

I put Utopia on my "classic set in a place you'd like to visit" section of Karen's Back to the Classics Challenge because I would very much like to visit Utopia (who wouldn't want to at least see it?). The question the book raises though is would I stay? In short, the answer is no. Like More, I agree there are a great many benefits and policies on the island of Utopia that would make the world a much better place working hours, free health care, and education spring immediately in mind. But extremism in politics (and Utopia is an intensely radical work) brings very unwelcome aspects. Utopia has an excess of state control; it is a totalitarian government. Public welfare is put over the private individual, and whilst I am a firm believer in altruism and kindness in governments, this is, to use the word again, too extreme. Even so, reading Utopia is a great experience because of the questions it raises: which aspects are appealing, which are not, which are possible and which are not: some questions are very uncomfortable indeed. I do think there are elements that could and even should be put in place, but certainly not all: God forbid all. The island of Utopia is not my utopia, but More has done an outstanding job with this work, and in no way do I think Utopia was his manifesto.

Further Reading


  1. i think i can see how modern polemics derived from that era; pretty much the same issues have been fought over for eons... with the too frequent result: decapitation...

    1. I wouldn't go as far as decapitation! But yes, Utopia had a remarkably modern feel with the same concerns we share. If I think about it it's like a cross between News From Nowhere and 1984...


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