views updated Jun 08 2018





Sir Thomas More's highly influential Utopia was originally published in Latin in 1516. The work, sometimes taken as a straightforward, if radical, guide to creating an ideal society, questions the values of the imaginary land of Utopia at the same time that it apparently presents the country as a model of a good, just, and happy society. The narrative is framed by the correspondence between the character of Peter Giles and a fictionalized version of More. Despite the fictive nature of the work, it insists, through these letters, on its own factuality. One of the reasons why the text continues to fascinate scholars and the general reader is that it never resolves its own stance on what may be perceived as "good" about Utopian society and worthy of emulation, and what is despicable about the country and its customs. Rather, the text is often viewed as an open-ended dialogue that invites the reader to interact with More and with Raphael Hythloday, the philosopher and traveler who has spent a considerable amount of time with the Utopians and who offers his glowing report to More about the society, its people, its customs, and its structure. The society described is one in which all property is held in common, and all goods and services are freely given or exchanged rather than bought or sold. Utopia is a society presented as happy and safe, yet there is a degree of gender inequality, and certain individuals who have transgressed against Utopian society or

that of another country are held as slaves. Given the structure of the novel—an oral report framed by correspondence—Utopia is a work about philosophical ideas, rather than a plot- or character-driven story. Yet its unique structure allows for endless speculation regarding the intentions of the author. Its provocative themes inspire a variety of analyses.

A modern, English translation of Utopia is available through Yale University Press, translated by Clarence H. Miller and published in 2001.


Thomas More was born into a prominent London family on February 6, 1478. He was the second child of attorney John More and Agnes Graunger More. More attended primary school at St. Anthony's School in London, where he was provided with a religious education and an early training in oratory and debating skills. In 1490, More began working as a page in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Morton. It was customary during this time period for upper-middle-class families to participate in such arrangements, which provided an opportunity for English youth to receive both work experience and to continue their education. From 1492 to 1494, More attended the University of Oxford and later studied law at the New Inn in London, until 1496; he finally entered the legal profession in 1501. Deeply spiritual, More lived in a monastery, the Charterhouse of London, for several years; however, he did not take any monastic vows.

He married Jane Colt in 1505, and the couple subsequently had four children. Holding the then-unorthodox view that men and women had equal intellectual potential, More educated his daughters as well as his son. In 1510, More began working as one of two undersheriffs of London, and the next year his wife Joan died. More soon married the widow Alice Middleton. He served until 1518 as an undersheriff, despite the fact that in 1517 he was also appointed as a counselor and personal servant to King Henry VIII. During his years as an undersheriff he began writing Utopia, which was published in 1516, as well as The History of Richard III, which was completed in 1518. In the king's service, More was sent on diplomatic missions, including negotiations with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, in 1520-21. More was knighted following these negotiations. He became speaker of the House of Commons in 1523. Other posts included chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1525) and high steward of the Universities of Oxford (1524) and Cambridge (1525).

An outspoken advocate against Lutheranism, More penned a number of polemical books, published between 1529 and 1533, against this form of religion, which More considered to be heresy against the teachings of Catholicism. Gaining the powerful position of lord chancellor in 1529, a position he held until 1532, More had several Lutherans burned at the stake, and he imprisoned many others. It was during these years that the conflict between More's allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church and Henry VIII's desire to establish an independent Church of England came to the forefront. More's primary conflict with Henry VIII stemmed from Henry's desire to annul his marriage to his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope condemned the new marriage as bigamous, and More refused to sign the 1534 Act of Succession because it declared Henry and Anne's marriage lawful and their heirs successors to the throne of England. Imprisoned in 1534 in the Tower of London, More continued to write. He was convicted of treason in 1535 and beheaded on July 6th that same year. In 1886, More was canonized (recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church) by Pope Leo XIII.


Thomas More to Peter Giles

More's Utopia is framed by two letters from More to his friend, Peter Giles. In the opening letter, More presents himself as the possessor of a true account of the inhabitants of the island of Utopia. In this letter, More apologizes to Giles for taking so long to write the tale of the land of Utopia and explains certain facts of his life in his own self-defense. Namely, he discusses his professional duties as a judge, as well as his responsibilities to his household, his family, and his servants. More then entreats Giles to examine the text that follows in Books 1 and 2. More references the fact that both he and Giles, as well as More's assistant John Clement, discussed with a man named Raphael Hythloday the history, customs, laws, and religion of the Utopians. More asks Giles to verify his facts and even to contact Hythloday if necessary in order to insure the accuracy of the work. Additionally, More suggests his reluctance to publish the work at all, because "the tastes of mortals are so various." Through this letter, More establishes as reality the fictive tale that is to follow, and in doing so creates for himself a persona, a character who possesses More's name but whom critics agree should not be confused with the real author.

Book 1

The next section of Utopia recounts the conversation held between the More persona and his friend Peter Giles, when the two are in Antwerp, Belgium. Giles tells More of his having met the philosopher and traveler Raphael Hythloday, who had recently journeyed with the explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Giles subsequently introduces More and Hythloday. More then presents the content of the conversation he had with Hythloday about his travels. More discovers the wealth of experience Hythloday possesses in the area of the customs of a variety of newly discovered nations. The conversation then turns to More's perception of Hythoday's duty to share his knowledge. More conveys his sense that Hythloday should be employed by a king as an advisor for the betterment of that nation. Hythloday reveals his unwillingness to do so, arguing that kings are more interested in expanding their borders through warfare than they are with improving the lives of their country's inhabitants. He describes his experiences with European rulers and his exchange with Cardinal Morton, the lord chancellor of England. In recounting this conversation, Hythloday expresses his often unfavorable views regarding English society and customs. He points to the inequities in the distribution of wealth that lead the impoverished citizens to steal, which results in their being unfairly punished. Hythloday goes on to discuss the way the Polylerites (a fictional people Hythloday describes as having been encountered in his travels through Persia) deal with crime and punishment, and to laud the overall fairness of societies in which thieves are not put to death but forced into hard labor. In this regard the Polylerites resemble the Utopians. More continues to insist that Hythloday could serve the "common good" by advising rulers. Yet Hythloday explains that his advice would be such that typical rulers would not listen anyway, for he would implore them to establish a society like that of the Utopians, and many of their customs would prove intolerable to a great many people, Hythloday contends. The notion of the potential evil of private property is then debated by More and Hythloday. When More and Giles express their desire to learn every detail about the island from Hythloday, the trio adjourns for lunch before taking up the story of the Utopians again.

Book 2

Book 2 opens with a discussion of the geography of the island of Utopia. (Scholars have noted that the geographic measures of the island are self-contradictory; the island is a physical impossibility.) Hythloday, who lived among the Utopians for five years, describes a variety of the physical aspects of the island before moving on to the structure of the society and the customs of its inhabitants. His account is filled with detailed assessments as well as a general defense of and praise for the society. The key features he expounds upon include: the lack of private property, the equality of education among males and females, the uniformity of clothing, the regimented nature of daily living, the treatment of the sick, the treatment of prisoners and slaves, the justification for warfare, the notion of virtuous pleasure, and the nature of their religious beliefs and their tolerance for different forms and habits of worship.

In conclusion, Hythloday observes that Utopia is the only true commonwealth, as it is the only place on earth where virtually nothing is private, and the citizens' concerns are directed toward the public good. Book 2 finishes with More's observations that several of the customs of the Utopians are "quite absurd." These include their notions of commonly held property, their acceptance of a variety of religious practices, and their lack of a monetary system. Yet More concedes that there are in Utopia "very many features which in our societies I would wish rather than expect to see." He does not expound upon which elements of Utopian society he finds praiseworthy or what Europeans might find unacceptable about them.

Thomas More to Peter Giles

In this final section of the novel, More once again addresses Peter Giles, referencing one critic's view that "if the story is being presented as true, I find some things in it rather absurd; if it is a fiction, then I think that More's usual good judgement is lacking on some points." More critiques this assessment, asserting the truth and accuracy of his work. He suggests that if he were writing a fictive account of Utopia, he would have included "some pointed hints which would have let the more learned discover what I was about." His next sentence, while incomplete in the Latin original and therefore left incomplete in translation, includes some suggestions that he has in fact included some such hints within the text of Utopia. More goes on to state that if cautious and suspicious people cannot believe his tale is true, they should simply visit Hythloday himself. The caveat More inserts at this point is that he is responsible only for his own writing, rather than for the trustworthiness of other people. He then bids farewell to his friend Peter.


Peter Giles

Like the Thomas More character in Utopia, Peter Giles is a persona based upon an historical personage. The real Peter Giles was a friend of More's and a fellow humanist. (Renaissance humanism was a cultural movement that began in the fourteenth century and drew on ancient Greek and Roman literary and philosophical sources. It focused on the notion that humans are all born with the potential for good and evil, and that access to the liberal arts, such as music, art, oratory, and poetry, should be available to all members of society. Humanists advocated individual worth and dignity.) The historical Giles was a native of Antwerp, Belgium, and served as a clerk there beginning in 1512. In Utopia, Giles is designated as the recipient of Thomas More's letter and is asked to peruse More's book and verify its accuracy. In Book 1, Giles introduces More and Hythloday and plays a role in the initial conversation about whether or not Hythloday should serve as an advisor to a king. He first proposes the idea, and presses Hythloday on the topic when Hythloday rejects the notion.

Raphael Hythloday

Raphael Hythloday is described as a traveler and philosopher. Scholars have noted that Raphael means "God's healer" and Hythloday means "the peddler of nonsense," a combination that suggests the ambiguous nature of his assertions. He may be attempting to heal the ailments of European society by sharing his knowledge of Utopia with More, or his statements may be complete nonsense. When More initially sees Hythloday, he believes the man to be a ship's captain. More observes that Hythloday is sunburned, his beard untrimmed. Giles describes Hythloday as proficient in Greek, learned in philosophy, and hailing from Portugal. Through Giles's introduction of Hythloday to More, the reader learns that Hythloday sailed with the explorer Amerigo Vespucci for three voyages, but on Vespucci's last voyage, Hythloday did not return. Rather, he and a number of others were left at a remote fort. He traveled with five companions from the fort through various lands before he was finally able to return home.

Following this portion of the conversation, Giles, Hythloday, and More retreat to More's house to continue their discussion. Hythloday begins to relate the details of the lands to which he has traveled, including Utopia. Hythloday is enthusiastic in his descriptions of the Utopians and possesses an air of superiority stemming from his association with them and his approval of their customs. He expresses his understanding that much of what he is revealing about the Utopians must appear strange to More and Giles. His manner in conversing about Utopia is straightforward and has been described as tactless in its flat rejection of many European societies and customs. He adamantly defends his position regarding the impossibility of his serving as an advisor to a European king, whereas More urges him to consider the common good and take up such a task. In explicating the habits, laws, and customs of the Utopians, Hythloday is often vague. Critics have noted that he makes mention of only one Utopian by name (the architect of their society, Utopus) despite the fact that Hythloday lived among the Utopians for several years. He stresses their common identity, their homogeneity, and even their interchangeability. If a child, for example, has interest in learning a vocation that his own father cannot teach him, he is simply sent to live with another family and placed under the tutelage of another father. At the same time, many of his criticisms of European society, such as the ways in which inequitable social structures favor the rich and oppress the poor, are not inaccurate. Readers may find him as compelling as he is off-putting, and his character is at the core of many critical debates regarding More's ultimate aims in writing Utopia.

Thomas More

In Utopia, the reader is presented with a Thomas More whose status is initially ambiguous. While the first glimpse of More, in the opening letter to Peter Giles, seems intended to represent the "real" Thomas More, this supposedly authentic individual nonetheless presents as factual the fictional story of Utopia, thereby calling into question his own reliability. Within the first book of Utopia, More converses with Giles, who introduces him to Hythloday. The three engage in a discussion regarding Hythloday's duty to serve a king for the good of the people, thereby opening the conversation up for Hythloday to extol the virtues of the Utopians, whom he claims are primarily interested in the good of the society as a whole. The dialogue throughout Book 1 is heavily dominated by Hythloday (Book 2 is comprised almost entirely of Hythloday's report on Utopia to More), but More's prompts guide Hythloday's commentary. More's voice is the last heard at the close of the second book of Utopia. In this section, More simultaneously disparages and praises the society Hythloday has described. Some of their practices he finds outlandish. These include their religious practices, their commonly held property and lack of private wealth, and their absence of a monetary system.

More observes that Hythloday appears exhausted by the extended description of Utopia, and he opts to refrain from presenting counterarguments to Hythloday because he is uncertain that Hythloday is strong enough at this point to hear such an attack. He then admits that there are aspects of the Utopian commonwealth that would be beneficial for European societies but that are highly unlikely to be adopted. More concludes the novel with another letter to Peter Giles, in which he examines the criticisms of reviewers. In response to those who suggest that his account of Utopia is not a truthful one, More argues that he would provide hints for intelligent readers to understand his true aims if in fact he were attempting to dupe readers into believing Utopia was a real place. More then suggests that he has in fact sprinkled some such hints throughout the text. In the same way that he criticizes Utopian society as well as praises it, More asserts that the text is based in reality at the same time that he also implies that his account is a fictional one. His multilayered duplicity as an author makes it impossible to know his true aims and opinions regarding the social, political, economic, and religious structures described in Utopia.


Social Class and Economics

Hythloday, in his conversation with More and Giles in Book 1 and in his lengthy account of the Utopians in Book 2, provides a two-pronged analysis of such issues as social class structures, economics, religion, and government. In discussing each theme, Hythloday finds something to criticize in European society and then goes on to praise the superior methods of the Utopians. As a society with no central governing body or figure, in which all property and resources are held in common, in which there exist no social classes, and in which a variety of religious viewpoints is accepted, Utopia differs markedly from the European governments to which Hythloday generally, and occasionally specifically, refers. Regarding the issue of social class, Hythloday, in his condemnation of typical English methods for punishing criminals, speaks about the wealth discrepancies among the classes. These inequities, he explains, lead to thievery. Stealing becomes a necessity for some individuals, and therefore it is both unjust and contrary to the public interest to punish thieving with hanging, as the English do.

In the course of this conversation, which takes place in Book 1, Hythloday observes that "a multitude of noblemen … live like drones on the labor of others." Tenant farmers work for "miserable wages and scanty keep." Additionally, the servants a nobleman hires are dismissed if their master takes ill or dies, leaving them with no ability to provide an income for themselves. Likewise, farmers are displaced when fine wool becomes so greatly prized among the noble classes that available farmland is designated as pasture. Hythloday advises that the rich be prevented from establishing monopolies, that agriculture be restructured, that businesses that promote idleness (such as taverns and brothels) be eliminated, and that the idle poor be given such useful employment as cloth working. In this discussion, Hythloday ties in economic issues, which are closely related to the class discrepancies he has already explored, pointing out that as the price of wool has risen so dramatically, impoverished individuals who would make cloth from wool can no longer afford to do so and are thereby deprived of their livelihood.

In Book 2, Hythloday details the apparently superior social and economic structures of Utopia, which he has already alluded to in Book 1. Having already expressed that in Utopia, "everything is equalized, everyone has plenty of everything," Hythloday discusses the way in which labor and goods are distributed equitably. There is no need for money, because the necessities of all citizens are met. Utopians eat together in dining halls and all wear the same types of clothing. There is nothing among the Utopians to denote class, for all are required to do the same amount of work and all receive the same benefits from their labor. At one point, Hythloday returns to the topic of Book 1, that is, the relationship between crime, class, and economics. He concedes that despite the Utopians' attempts to eliminate the need for wrongdoing on the part of their citizens, there are still some transgressors. The most severe crimes "are punished with servitude," which Utopians do not consider to be "grievous to the criminal." In fact, such service benefits the commonwealth. These criminals become slaves and are treated worse than any other category of slave in Utopian society. This is due to the fact that, unlike the criminals from other countries who have been sent to Utopia to become slaves, Utopians who choose to do wrong do so having received a thorough and superior moral upbringing.


  • While many critics debate whether or not More seriously intended the society depicted in Utopia to be an ideal one, or whether or not he even thought such a commonwealth were possible, it seems fairly certain More intended a discussion to arise following the publication of his book—a discussion regarding what aspects of the work were in fact intended to depict ideal institutions, and what a truly fair and equitable society might look like. Write an essay describing how you would structure such a society, addressing some of the same points that More does: How will work be accomplished? Will there be a class system or a monetary system? Will individuals be allowed personal wealth and property? Will people elect their officials? How will people who break laws be dealt with?
  • Book 1 of Utopia is structured like a debate, or dialogue, between More, Giles, and Hythloday (in comparison with Book 2, which is a one-sided report by Hythloday rather than an exchange of ideas). Select several topics that Hythloday presents in either Book 1 or Book 2, such as the communal approach to work, or the communist approach to providing for the needs of Utopian citizens, or the way in which Utopians deal with crime and punishment. With another student, stage a debate for the class in which one person presents the benefits to society of such systems and the other person makes a case as to why such systems would be detrimental to society. Depending on which side you argue, you will have to consider the question of whether or not ensuring the "common good" provides more actual benefit to a society than the practice of each individual providing for his or her own needs.
  • More addresses the religious beliefs and practices of the Utopians in several areas of Utopia. Study these ideas, as well as Hythloday's claims of religious tolerance, and compare them to the state of religious affairs in More's England. Which society, the fictitious or the real, is more tolerant of a variety of religious beliefs? How are individuals who question commonly held views about the nature of the soul, or free will versus determination, for example, treated? How do both societies compare to the state of religious tolerance in the United States today? Write a report on your findings.
  • More's Utopia opens with a letter from More to Peter Giles, but just prior to this prefatory letter is a short poem ascribed to the poet laureate of Utopia, who happens to be Hythloday's nephew. Write an analysis of the six lines of this poem and explore the reference in it to Plato. Be sure to discuss the ways in which Plato's views on ideal social structures and government as described in his Republic compare with Utopian society.

Proper and Improper Government

In the first book of Utopia, Hythloday speaks of European governments with some disdain, frowning on monarchies because kings typically seek to make themselves wealthier with little regard for the well-being of their citizens. European monarchs are held in contempt by Hythloday for seeking to expand their borders while many of their people languish in poverty. The government established by the Utopians, as described by Hythloday, is far more democratic and far less centralized than its European counterparts and is comprised of a number of elected officials who report to an elected ruler of a region. In Utopia, each group of thirty families is represented by a magistrate, or syphogrant, who is elected every year. The syphogrants, and the families they represent, are presided over by another official, the tranibor. All the syphogrants, numbering two hundred, elect a ruler through a secret ballot. This ruler is selected from four candidates whom the people have identified. Hythloday explains that this official rules for life unless he is suspected of aspiring to tyranny. Tranibors are elected every year but are not changed frequently. The other magistrates all serve tenures of one year. Tranibors advise the ruler about public affairs and meet with the ruler every third day. The primary duty of syphogrants is to ensure that everyone works when they are required to and to ensure that "no one lounges around in idleness." Thus, Utopia is divided into a number of independent but homogenous regions, each of which is ruled by an elected governor. Hythloday briefly mentions a "council of the whole island" to which matters will occasionally be referred, but there appears to be no central body with governance powers over all Utopians. The suggestion appears to be that such a body is not necessary in a society in which the sameness of citizens, social structures, and cities is ensured.

Religious Tolerance

Religion is one of the few areas of thought where Hythloday specifically refers to the differences among individuals in Utopia rather than to their sameness. He cites worshipers of various celestial bodies, or of "some ancient paragon of either virtue or glory," in which a person is viewed to be not only one of many gods but also the supreme deity. Hythloday goes on to note, however, that "the vast majority, and those by far the wiser ones," believe in only one god, who is infinite and infused in every aspect of the universe. Additionally, even those individuals who believe in many gods agree that there is one supreme god who created the universe. Emphasizing that many Utopians are beginning to abandon their more superstitious beliefs, Hythloday returns to the notion of Utopian unity in all matters: while differing religious beliefs are tolerated, he seems to be saying, Utopians nonetheless all believe the same essential facts about God.

Here Hythloday turns to a discussion of Christianity, stating that he and his fellow travelers shared with the Utopians information about the Christian religion. Many of them, he informs, converted to Christianity. Hythloday

enumerates several reasons for their affinity with Christianity, including the "secret inspiration of God"; the fact that Christianity resembled closely the beliefs they already held; and the fact that they were pleased to be told that their communal way of living was approved of by God. Stressing that nonbelievers in Christianity did not attempt to sway the newly converted and that those who embraced the faith were not shunned, Hythloday relates the story of one of his fellow travelers who denounced Utopians who had not accepted Christianity. This man, after extensive preaching and verbal attacks, was arrested and exiled for "exciting riots among the people." From the founding of Utopia, Hythloday states, individuals who attack another's religion or try to use force to coerce a conversion are exiled or enslaved. This is done to protect the peace of the island and because the country's founder, Utopus, believed that one could not know whether or not God wanted to be worshiped in a variety of ways. Utopus suspected that God inspired different individuals in different ways. Utopus, however, did forbid the belief in certain notions: that the soul is mortal and dies when one's body dies, and that the world is not ruled by divine providence (the idea that God orders the events in humans' lives, and throughout the world's history). Individuals who hold these beliefs are counted as less than human and certainly not citizens of Utopia, and are believed to be immoral people who are not guided by the fear of punishment in the afterlife. Yet they are allowed to speak their minds "among priests and prudent men" with the hope that their "madness will yield to reason."



More establishes Utopia as satirical in nature through the correspondence framing the story. Satire is any form of literature in which irony and humor are used to criticize, for the purpose of reforming, the perceived flaws of individuals, institutions, or society. In the letters to Peter Giles that appear before Book 1 and following Book 2, More describes the obviously fictional account of the island of Utopia as based in fact. While he insists on the veracity of Hythloday's account and refers to Hythloday as a real person, More nevertheless includes a paragraph in the second letter to Giles rife with clues to the work's satirical nature. He states that if he had in fact decided to write a story about a commonwealth like Utopia, he would have employed a "fictional presentation" in such a way as to feed the readers the truth in a pleasant manner, and that if he had sought to fool ignorant readers, he would at least have included hints designed to indicate to the intelligent reader just what he was up to. More states, for example, that had this been his aim, he would have assigned the island a name that would suggest that it was nowhere. Scholars have observed that "utopia" is a Greek term that literally means "no place." More did, in fact, do all that he describes. He created a fictional account that relates truth, or truths about the problems in European societies, in a way that is pleasant to the reader (since the reader believes he or she is reading a work of fiction). The work includes the various hints that More states he would include in such a work, namely, rendering the place name in such a way as to indicate that the place is "nowhere." Additionally, while "utopia" means "no place," "eutopia," the Greek homophone, translates to "good place." More capitalizes on the double meaning created by these words: the Utopia he describes through the character of Hythloday is an ideal place that does not exist. The questions that naturally follow—Could it exist? Should it exist?—remain unresolved.

Frame Narrative and First-Person Point of View

Utopia is a first-person narrative embedded in an overarching first-person narrative. The first-person point of view is one in which the narrating character speaks from his or her own perspective and refers to him or herself as "I" throughout the work. First and foremost, More speaks in the first person in the letters framing Books 1 and 2 of the story, letters he writes to Peter Giles. In this regard, Utopia may also be viewed as a frame narrative. A frame narrative is one in which one story is set off, or bookended, by another story, thereby giving the nested story a reference point from which it is to be considered. In this case, Books 1 and 2 of Utopia are to be understood within the context explained by the letters from More to Peter Giles, the letters that appear before and after the Utopia narrative.

Books 1 and 2, the reader is informed, are "A Discourse on the Best Form of a Commonwealth, Spoken by the Remarkable Raphael Hythloday, as Reported by the Illustrious Thomas More, a Citizen and the Undersheriff of the Famous British City of London." The dual nature of the account is thereby introduced. In Book 1, the layering of first-person accounts begins to be revealed. More is the "I" initially speaking. But when the conversation between Giles, Hythloday, and More turns to Hythloday's account of his exchange with Cardinal Morton, the lengthy discourse is told in the first person from Hythloday's point of view. After some time, Hythloday addresses More directly once again, and the first-person point of view is transferred back to More. Following the conclusion of Book 1, More establishes that the section to follow will be the tale that Hythloday relates. Book 2 is told without interruption, with Hythloday speaking in the first person. After he concludes his tale, More takes up the first-person mantle once again when he makes a few brief comments about both the absurdity and the appeal of Hythloday's account of the Utopians. The resurging duality of first-person accounts reflects another pairing between competing elements. Just as the narrating voice shifts back and forth between More and Hythloday, More's attitude regarding ideal values seems to shift as well. Additionally, just as the reader is uncertain about the views held by the character More, there exists similar confusion about what the author More intends the reader to assume about his own opinions.


Class and Economics in King Henry VIII's England

During the reign of King Henry VIII, which lasted from 1509 through 1547, English society was segmented into various classes including peasants, a burgeoning middle class, and the nobility. Such a system was based on deep inequalities in the distribution of wealth. Peasant farmers were tenants on the land of nobles and subject to their landlords' demands. Peasant agriculture served as the foundation of the English economy, yet peasant farmers were vulnerable to the desires of the markets they served. As Hythloday suggests and condemns in Utopia, what was deemed valuable in European societies was what was rare, rather than what was useful. Peasant farmers faced the possibility of being driven off their land when it was turned over to shepherds for the production of valuable wool. The middle, or working, class was heavily taxed. The middle class consisted of church and state officials, merchants, bankers, businessmen, professionals such as lawyers and doctors, and skilled craftsmen. At this time, large-scale manufacturing had yet to transform the English economy, but capitalism was beginning to seep into the structure of the economy, primarily in the area of usury (money lending) and in agriculture as well, as nobles began to practice capitalist farming. Conflicts existed between merchants and landed gentry (middle-class individuals who owned land as opposed to members of the noble class with inherited estates), but they had common interests, such as the desire to avoid taxation and the promotion of free, safe roadways for the purposes of transporting goods. This time period has been described as a relatively stable one; despite the disparities in wealth, any unrest present did not take an active form in open rebellion by the common people. Rather, the power struggles amongst nobles were of greater concern to Henry VIII, who was known to have feared an aristocratic rebellion.

Roman Catholicism versus the Church of England

Thomas More was at the center of religious tensions that eventually fractured the practice of Catholicism in England. A power struggle was brewing in the early sixteenth century between the leading Roman officials (the emperor and the pope) and England's King Henry VIII. Henry increasingly sought to distance his nation's religion from the power of Rome. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was emperor-elect from 1519 through 1530 and emperor from 1530 through 1556; as emperor, it was Charles's duty to protect the Catholic Church. Pope Leo X (who served from 1513 to 1521), like Charles, played a role in English history. While Roman interests conflicted with Henry's desire for religious independence and consolidation of power in England, Catholicism was also under attack by Lutherans, who questioned many of the Church's practices. With Martin Luther leading an attack against the Church, the Protestant Reformation began in England during the early 1500s. Luther questioned papal authority by insisting that the Bible was the only source of infallible teaching about God, and that the pope could not decree other infallible teachings of the Church. Lutheranism also came to be associated with the notion of predestination (the idea that God planned the fate of human souls prior to creation) in opposition to the Catholic notion of free will (choices are not predestined; one has the ability to chose between right and wrong action), although there is some debate regarding Luther's own views on this matter.

From 1529 through 1532, More played an active role in persecuting Lutherans, having the authority as lord chancellor to have heretics burned at the stake or imprisoned. Around the same time, Henry took his most definitive action against Rome by marrying Anne Boleyn and discarding Catherine of Aragon; the marriage was condemned by the emperor and by Pope Clement VII (who served from 1523 through 1534). In 1534, Henry broke with Rome and established the Anglican Church. More did not speak out openly against Henry's decision but could not support it. He refused to sign the Act of Succession, which validated Henry's marriage to Anne and legitimized any heirs that would be born to the couple. More was subsequently imprisoned, convicted of treason, and beheaded.


  • 1500s: Henry VIII is the king of England, and More is one of the king's ambassadors and advisors. The king's power is not unlimited and is, to some extent, restrained by Parliament, but the monarch is the ruling head of state. Henry is viewed as a powerful monarch who transforms England from a weak nation into a dominant force in European politics.

    Today: The government of the United Kingdom (which includes England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and is also referred to as the UK or Britain) remains a monarchy. Queen Elizabeth II has reigned since 1952. Since the seventeenth century, however, the monarch has played an increasingly smaller role in politics and governance of the nation. The prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the recognized political leader, and he or she is held accountable by Parliament, which consists of both appointed and elected members.

  • 1500s: It is a revolutionary view in England to hold that males and females are equally capable and entitled to an education, a view held by humanists such as Thomas More. Most lower-class children of either gender have no access to education at all, and among the nobility, often it is only boys who receive an academic education. More educates his daughters and son in his home by employing a private, humanist tutor, who emphasizes ancient Greek and Roman writers and philosophy, oratory and rhetoric, ethics, and theology.

    Today: All British children are required to attend either free state schools or independent (private) schools, or be home-schooled from the ages of five through sixteen. Proposals are in place to make it compulsory for children to be educated through the age of eighteen.

  • 1500s: Religious turmoil divides England. Conflicts exist among Catholics, some of whom remain loyal to Rome and some of whom side with King Henry VIII, who rejects Roman Catholicism and creates the Church of England. At the same time, Catholicism is fractured by a faction of Lutherans, led by Martin Luther (1483-1546), who are at odds with many of the Church's teachings. The fact that the Church is being splintered by Lutherans, or "reformed," from their point of view, helps contribute to the rise of Anglicanism, a term that was later applied to the beliefs and structures of the Church of England.

    Today: According to recent census data gathered by the British government, a majority of Brits identify themselves as Christians. However, a substantial proportion of the population identify themselves as having no religion. The second most common religion is Islam. Additionally, other figures suggest that Catholicism is about to surpass Anglicanism as the most commonly practiced Christian denomination.


It is often observed that Thomas More considered himself a humanist and moved in intellectual circles that included other humanist thinkers such as the Dutch scholar and theologian Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466-1536) and Peter Giles (c. 1486-1533) of Belgium. Humanism, as understood in terms of sixteenth-century philosophy, stressed the value of the individual and believed in the education of all people, male and female. Humanists emphasized the significance of ancient Greek and Roman writers and philosophers and often took issue with various elements of Catholicism.

While the Church taught the notion of free will, its authority in shaping moral thought was widely accepted and deferred to. Humanists included in their curriculum the teaching of ethics separately from theology, and therefore were at risk of being accused of heresy for questioning the Church's authority. Erasmus, for example, approved of many of the objections Lutherans had to Catholic beliefs and practices, but stressed he had no objection to the doctrines that served as the foundation of Catholicism. Despite his association with Martin Luther, Erasmus advocated reform of the Catholic Church rather than separation from it. More, on the other hand, possessed a religious fervor that led him to an intolerance of Lutheranism so extreme that when he held a position powerful enough to do so, he punished and persecuted Lutherans who spoke out against the Catholic Church. The attentive reader will notice that in More's Utopia, the society appears to be based on a reasoned approach to right behavior that promotes the common good, but at the same time, severe punishments, and a required belief that vice will be judged by God in the afterlife, suggest that it is fear that motivates right behavior, rather than reason. Edward L. Surtz, in his 1957 assessment of the religious and moral issues in Utopia, explains this apparent discrepancy as an aspect of the conflict More felt between his humanist philosophy and his Catholic religion. More establishes his notions of "his ideal commonwealth upon reason," as "a philosopher," Surtz demonstrates, but he "directs his admonitions … to the reputed followers of Christ" as "a Christian teacher."


More's Utopia is a dense and self-reflexive work that criticizes European society and offers a variety of remedies to various social ills. Yet it fails to clarify the true motives and opinions of its author. The main issue critics of the work address is that of how to interpret More's intentions. This point of contention was as much a problem for the work's sixteenth-century critics as it is for modern ones, although Utopia did not appear in England as an English translation until 1551, sixteen years after More's death. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, More's humanism and the reflections of such thought in the work were of primary interest among critics. By the nineteenth century, Utopia increasingly became studied with an eye toward its possible socialist motivations. Over the years, some readers and scholars have viewed the work as a blueprint for an ideal society, one in which human greed is prevented by the established social and economic structures, which presage communism. Others have viewed it as pure satire to be interpreted as More's mocking indictment of European society in the early 1500s. A middle ground is commonly defended as well, in which scholars argue that neither the persona of More nor the character of Hythloday should be viewed as the author's mouthpiece, and in which it is held that More uses extreme "solutions," ones he did not advocate implementing, to reveal the depth of the inequities in the world in which he lived. Often, details about More's life and information gleaned from his other writings are used to inform readings of Utopia.

In his 1904 introduction to Sir Thomas More's Utopia, J. Churton Collins argues that More's purpose in writing the work was "to point out where and from what causes the European Commonwealths, and more especially the English, with which More was most familiar, were at fault." Like other critics to follow, Collins concedes that it is difficult to tell when More is writing in total seriousness and when he is indulging his sense of irony and humor. Similarly J. H. Hexter, in his 1952 study, More's Utopia, affirms that the only point upon which critics can unanimously agree regarding Utopia is that the work is intended as social commentary. After Hexter suggests a number of reasons why More's true intentions seem inscrutable, he studies the history of the text's composition in order to help determine what More may have been advocating, and stresses the importance of the fact that Book 1 was actually composed after Book 2.

Edward L. Surtz, in his 1957 assessment of Utopia titled The Praise of Wisdom: A Commentary on the Religious and Moral Problems and Backgrounds of St. Thomas More's Utopia, emphasizes that it would be foolish to assume that Utopia is either completely mocking or entirely serious in intent. Surtz divides the critical approaches to the work into three camps: those who minimize any moralizing More may be attempting, those who view it as an exploration of dangerous policies, and those who analyze the work as "a document of humanistic reform." While advocating the view that More sought to reform Christianity based on humanist principles, Surtz stresses that when More wrote Utopia, Christians were largely a united group of believers, but later in his political and literary career, More felt that Christianity was under attack by Lutherans whose views contradicted the pope's teachings. Through these observations, Surtz suggests that the More who seems to preach religious tolerance in Utopia was understandably a different More than the one who ordered Lutherans burned at the stake.

In his essay in the 1978 collection Quincentennial Essays on St. Thomas More, edited by Michael J. Moore, Thomas I. White argues for a reading of Utopia that views the work's criticism of wealth as a serious aim of the book. White maintains that in Utopia, More is advocating as "morally superior" the view that an object's worth depends on how useful it is, rather than on how rare it is. Like White, Susan Bruce, in her 1999 introduction to Three Early Modern Utopias, identifies More's discussions on private wealth as highly pertinent to an understanding of Utopia. Bruce finds that the communism of Utopia is the foundation from which all other aspects of the society stem. Furthermore, Bruce goes a step further than many critics by suggesting that while the communist Utopian society may appear authoritarian, it is hardly as repressive as More's England was. She states that it is not obvious that More takes the Utopians' suppression of individual happiness for the greater good of the society to be a "misguided ideal." Just as Bruce references English society, Russell Ames, in Citizen Thomas More and His Utopia (1949), explores various aspects of English society in order to comprehend the context in which Utopia was written. Ames emphasizes that More's work "not only describes some things that man and society can be but reflects accurately much that they were in the early sixteenth century." Contending that the middle class had not yet gained a foothold in the social and economic structures of early sixteenth-century England, Ames suggests that Utopia may be viewed as a revolutionary and rebellious work of literature.


Catherine Dominic

Dominic is a novelist and a freelance writer and editor. In this essay, she asserts that although the character of Hythloday in Utopia emphasizes the equality inherent in Utopian society, his descriptions demonstrate that great discrepancies exist in the way Utopians value various members of society—particularly women, children, slaves, and individuals with a lack of particular religious beliefs.

Most scholars agree that an identification of Thomas More's true aims and intentions in Utopia cannot be achieved with any accuracy. Attempting to demonstrate what he may or may not have believed about the role of women in society, for example, would be a rather subjective endeavor. This does not diminish the importance of an exploration of the nature of the inequities in Utopian society and the tracing of the consistent manner by which Raphael Hythloday glosses over the obvious unfairness of various Utopian practices. Such an undertaking offers a means of approaching the text, as some scholars have suggested, as a dialogue between author and reader about the problems inherent in society in general. A dialogue of this nature remains just as fruitful in the twenty-first century as it was for More's contemporary readers.

The character of Hythloday describes situations throughout Utopia in which slaves, women, and children are demeaned, objectified, or depersonalized, but he does so apparently without concern for the harmed individuals. At the same time, Utopia is applauded by Hythloday, who fails to recognize his own hypocrisy or that of the Utopians. Utopia is described by Hythloday as a society in which "everything is equalized, everyone has plenty of everything." What some people in this society lack, however, is an acknowledgement of their own basic human dignity by their fellow citizens. In the section of Book 2 on social relations, Hythloday describes a society that is essentially patriarchal, despite the fact that females are educated as well as males, and are admitted into a variety of professions. Likewise, women and men alike are trained in warfare. However, young women, when they marry are moved from their father's household to that of their husband, whereas sons remain in their father's house.

In addition to a social structure in which males take a predominant role, individuals in Utopian society are often objectified, treated as nameless, faceless Utopian units. As each household and city are only allowed a set number of people, individuals are simply transferred from one household or city to another in order to maintain population balances. Children who seek to learn a trade different from that of their father are simply shifted into another household, Hythloday informs us. A further indication of the homogenous, objectified state of the Utopians is their clothing, which is utilitarian and varies only to denote gender and marital status. When the "natives" of Utopia agree "willingly to the same style of life and the same customs," they are "easily assimilated," but if they refuse to live under Utopian laws they are "driven out of the territory the Utopians have marked off for their use" and war is waged against them if they resist. Utopia, apparently, is not deserved by everyone, so notions of equality apply not to all people but only to people who accept the customs of Utopia.

Hythloday returns to a discussion of household practices and structures, observing that it is the duty of wives to serve their husbands, and of children to serve their parents. In the communal dining halls where Utopians eat at set times, slaves do the work that is "heavy or dirty" while women are entirely responsible for preparing food and making arrangements for the meal. Men sit at dining tables with their backs facing the wall, with the women "on the outside, so if they should suddenly feel ill, as happens, sometimes, when they are pregnant," they can leave the hall "without disturbing the seating arrangement." Older children serve the dining Utopians, or stand by in "absolute silence" if they are young or unable to serve. The children are allowed to eat only what is handed to them by the seated diners, and no other time is allotted for their meals. While women are ostensibly eligible to serve as elected officials, Hythloday's observation that the magistrates and their wives sit in a place of honor indicates that these officials are more often than not male. Utopians, then, are depicted as utilitarian objects who accomplish various tasks to support the community as a whole. Children may be taken from their parents in order to learn a trade, and families may be severed in order to maintain prescribed numbers of citizens contained in a household or city. Women and children, while allowed an education, remain subservient to the male members of society and are required to do work the older males are exempt from. While More's humanist interest in the education of males and females alike is apparent in his Utopia, the country reflects sixteenth-century England's own biases regarding the inherent value of certain groups of its citizenry.

Individuals who have committed a "serious crime" in Utopia, or foreigners who have received a death sentence in their own countries and who have been "acquired" by Utopia, work as slaves for Utopian communities, thereby serving the common good, as Hythloday explains. He appears to view this arrangement as just, and by comparison to the English punishment of hanging for thievery, it does seem to be an improvement on the treatment of criminals. Nevertheless, treatment of slaves in Utopia is often severe. Foreign criminals are kept "constantly at work but also in chains." Utopian criminals are treated with harsher measure due to their rejection of their Utopian moral upbringing. Other slaves are "poor, overworked drudges from other nations" who chose to live among the Utopians as slaves. While these individuals are treated "decently," they are worked "a bit harder (since they are used to it)." Severe crimes are punished with forced labor, and adultery is considered one of the worst crimes and therefore punished with the "harshest servitude." In the case of adultery, there are unique circumstances. If both adulterers were married, the deceived spouses may divorce and remarry. But if the spouse of an adulterer wishes to remain married to the adulterer, both adulterer and his or her spouse are "condemned to hard labor." They may eventually be set free, but if the crime recurs, the adulterer is killed. Slaves who are considered rebellious are killed. As noted above, slaves do the heavy, dirty work that Utopians deem unacceptable.


  • The Life of Thomas More, by Peter Ackroyd, is a highly acclaimed biography in which More's intimate role in English political events and religious conflicts is explored in great detail. Ackroyd's analysis of More's life is placed within the context of English history. The work is available through Anchor Press and was published in 1999.
  • Saint Thomas More: Selected Writings, edited by John F. Thornton and published by Vintage in 2003, focuses on More's later writings, specifically those known as the "Tower Works," which More wrote during his imprisonment in the Tower of London. These works include essays, letters to his eldest daughter, poems, and devotional pieces.
  • The History of King Richard III and Selections from the English and Latin Poems, edited by Richard S. Sylvester, contains some of More's earlier writings, including the Richard III history, which was written around 1513 and served as a source for Shakespeare's play about King Richard III. The volume was published in 1976 by Yale University Press.
  • Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, by E. Gordon Rupp and Philip S. Watson, published by Westminster John Knox Press in 1978, explores the religious thought of two men with an intimate connection with More. Luther represented the enemy, the purveyor of heretical thought, whereas Erasmus was More's fellow humanist and friend. The book includes texts by both men in which they attack one another's religious viewpoints and provides introductions that elucidate the turbulent environment in which they each, along with More, played a part.
  • Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift, was originally published in 1726. Like Utopia, this novel is a social satire. The two works are also similar in that they feature a character who travels to nonexistent lands. A 2005 edition of Gulliver's Travels, edited by Claude Rawson and Ian Higgins, is available from Oxford University Press.

Citizens work six hours a day (although it is unclear whether or not the kitchen chores of the women are included, or in addition to this figure) whereas slaves are required to work "constantly" and in chains, if they are foreigners. One can only imagine what the harsher treatment Utopian slaves receive might be; Hythloday does not elaborate on this point. Hythloday, in Book 1, vehemently objects to the execution of thieves by the English, and argues that in a society where social and economic equality is maintained, there is no need for thievery or for its unjust punishment by hanging. Yet Hythloday, in his discussion of slavery, does not allude to whether or not there are many or few Utopian slaves (only that there are more foreigner than Utopian slaves), nor does he explain which of their crimes, other than adultery, results in a sentence of slavery. To what extent then, one wonders, have the Utopians succeeded in providing their citizens with everything they need? By the very existence of Utopian slaves and a system for punishing them, the reader can infer that Utopians have not overcome the greed inherent in the European society Hythloday judges so harshly. Nor have they, apparently, succeeded in finding a way to treat their criminals more humanely than the English. A death penalty still exists, though presumably not for thievery, and the "harshest" punishments and severest forms of forced labor await Utopian lawbreakers.

In his discussion of Utopian religious practices, Hythloday reveals a telling detail, a notion that perhaps serves as a disturbing underpinning of Utopian society. While extolling the virtues of Utopian religious tolerance, Hythloday observes that individuals who do not believe in an afterlife in which punishments are administered for "vices and rewards for virtues," cannot even be included "in the category of human beings" since they have rejected the notion of their own soul. Such individuals are held in contempt by society and are not allowed any positions of public responsibility. Hythloday goes on to state that people who have nothing to fear but punishment for breaking the law, and who hope for nothing after their earthly existence, cannot help but be motivated by "personal greed." Such individuals would undoubtedly seek to avoid public laws or to forcefully break them, he asserts.

Hythloday is suggesting here that there can be no morality or social conscience that is not based in fear of divine judgment and retribution. He undercuts his own extended argument regarding the notion of the common good. If an individual is only capable of being motivated to behave in a moral fashion out of fear of God's wrath in the afterlife, then each Utopian is not working for the common good purely for the sake of the common good. Rather, because they fear God's punishment, they behave in a moral way, which happens to benefit the common good, but their motivation is selfish, not communal. This same idea is hinted at earlier, when Hythloday brings up punishments for premarital intercourse. Transgressors are forbidden from ever marrying anyone, and the "master and mistress of the household where the offense was committed fall into utter disgrace" for not preventing the transgression from occurring. The punishment is severe, Hythloday explains, because otherwise there would be no incentive for people to marry. They would have no reason to withstand the challenges of a lifelong bond, if promiscuity were not "carefully restrained," and transgressors were not prohibited from other relationships. Fear of punishment, again, is the motivator for "proper" behavior. Utopians, apparently, are unable to live moral lives unless they are threatened. They are not trusted to behave in a moral fashion because it is good and right to do so, and they only manage to behave in a moral fashion because punishment will be extracted in this life and the next if they do not comply with so-called equitable Utopian laws and social customs. For a society allegedly based on principles of equality and fairness and the common good, Utopia has the look of a regimented authoritarian nation that routinely violates basic human rights and is charged with an undercurrent of fear.

Source: Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on Utopia, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

Anne Lake Prescott

In the following excerpt, Prescott addresses questions about the authorship and margins of Utopia.

… Related to postmodern doubts about identity and words has been a fruitful concern with how margins relate to centers: the margins and centers of societies and literary traditions, of course, but also the margins and centers of books. Looking at scribbles by early book owners is a growth industry in English departments. True, our discussions of the marginal can become intellectually incoherent: to boast (and one does boast) of refocusing on the "marginalized"—the illiterate, women, the racially or sexually "other," Catholics in Elizabethan England, writers not found on older reading lists—all this assumes that there is a center. A more radical move might be to relocate the center or even abolish the very notion. Christians like More could, after all, point to God's birth in a stable on the edges of the Roman Empire, not in a palace on one of the great city's seven hills. More's own interest in the socially marginal shows in the anger with which his Hythloday condemns England's treatment of its paupers and criminals—indeed England's creation of paupers and criminals. It shows as well in More's efforts, some years later, to study and help solve the problem of England's many vagabonds, although needless to say he was unable to do much.

The margins of Utopia are nearly as disorienting as the dialogue on which they comment. A recent essay by a follower of Derrida claims that our culture mystifies the margins of books by making them inviolate and sacred white space, a halo surrounding and protecting the text. He may be right in our own time: nice people do not scribble in other people's books and the financial value of a first edition plummets if annotated by the uncelebrated. Until very recently, moreover, modern editions of older texts often omitted liminary poems, running commentary, printers' prefaces, and so forth. But what Derrida's follower says would certainly not apply to Renaissance readers or printers, who viewed empty margins much as Holbein might have viewed blank canvas: an invitation to come right in, not otherworldly space saying "Abandon all print and pencils ye who enter here."

The little notes in Utopia's margins serve at least two functions. First, they offer additional ironies or remarks along with some identifications and allusions. Sometimes they are straightforward (locating a source in Livy, for example). Some exclaim at Utopia's superiority to Europe. When Hythloday reports that Utopians start their meals with some reading, the margin says that "Today Scarcely the Monks Observe this Custom." Another note condemns European countries' desire for expansion. Sometimes, though, it is hard to gauge the tone: when the main text says that Utopia has nowhere in which to waste time, no wine shops, alehouses, brothels, no "lurking holes or secret places," the margin exclaims, "O Holy Commonwealth—and Worthy of Imitation Even by Christians." Well, maybe. Since Utopia is indeed "Nowhere" it is possible that Utopian lurking houses and alehouses that are nowhere to be found can therefore, logically, be in fact found there. In any case, however, More was no Puritan. Could he have wanted an England without any place in which to bend an elbow with a friend? With nowhere in which to discuss some private doubt or desire? And Christians have sometimes needed secret places—catacombs, or, more recently, confessionals. True, in Utopia one might not need lurking-holes, although after the island becomes Christian it might need confessionals, or at least some corners for quiet pastoral counseling. So is this marginal note to be read straight? Ironically? Or is the shudder it gives modern readers merely the result of our own increased stress on privacy?

The notes do something else, too: they add another voice to the dialogue. More, Hythloday, and Peter Giles are sitting in a garden talking, and talking in ways that leave us uncertain as to who, if anybody, speaks for the author. That is, to use a favorite postmodern word, Utopia is "dialogic" as well as a dialogue. In the margins, however, yet another voice joins the dialogue, increasing its polyvocality. The speakers there in the Antwerp garden cannot hear it, or so one may assume, but we can. Where does it come from? Some Renaissance equivalent of cyberspace? The voice's ontological status is deliciously hard to determine.

In fact the voice may be that of Erasmus, who some think wrote the notes. This raises yet another issue. A major impulse of postmodern thinking, most notably that by Foucault and Derrida, has been to undercut the notion that "authorship" is a historically stable concept. Such reconsideration of authorship, however seldom scholars like to apply it to themselves, has had a largely salutary effect on Renaissance scholarship. We are now less taken aback, for example, by Shakespeare's collaboration with other dramatists. Similarly, more scholars are aware that the full effect of Utopia includes the marginal notes, letters to More by various humanists, More's own paradox-filled letter to Peter Giles, maps, even the Utopian alphabet and some lines of Utopian verse. The title "Utopia," one could argue, should refer to this entire collaborative performance, one that is arguably more premodern and postmodern than plain modern. Modernist literature is not free of collaboration—as witness what Ezra Pound did for T. S. Eliot's Wasteland—but it is still hard to imagine the quasi-modernist H. G. Wells, say, publishing The Time Machine with letters from the Time Traveler's Victorian dinner companions, snatches of worried verse in the Eloi language, Morlock recipes for Eloi stew, and impish marginal notes by Bernard Shaw….

Source: Anne Lake Prescott, "Postmodern More," in Moreana, Vol. 40, No. 153-154, March 2003, pp. 219-39.

Stephanie Forward

In the following essay, Forward examines Utopia and attempts to determine More's objective in writing the work.

In sixteenth-century Britain, Thomas More was acknowledged to be one of our most distinguished intellectuals. His book Utopia concerns life on a fictitious island, and the impact of the text was such that the words ‘utopia’ and ‘utopian’ entered our language and became applied to a particular genre.

‘More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning; I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness, and affability? And as time requireth a man of marvellous mirth and pastimes; and sometimes of as sad gravity: a man for all seasons’ (Robert Whittinton).


More was born in 1478 in London. He was the son of a judge, and was educated at St Anthony's School in Thread-needle Street. From the age of 12 he was a page in the service of Archbishop John Morton, then he studied at Oxford for 2 years. During his time as a student, More went to live at a Carthusian monastery to consider whether his true vocation was the priesthood. Although he decided against it, he continued to prefer an austere lifestyle, and even wore a hair-shirt for the rest of his life. More excelled in his chosen profession, which was the law. He became an MP in 1504, and later was appointed as one of the two Under-sheriffs of London. His first wife died in childbirth in 1511; subsequently he remarried. During a spell as envoy to Flanders, as part of a delegation concerned with the wool trade, he commenced his work Utopia.

In 1518, More became privy councillor to Henry VIII, and other honours followed: he was knighted, was made Speaker of the House of Commons, and became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. When More was named as Lord Chancellor in 1529, he was the first layman to hold the post regarded as the most important office in the kingdom. It was a role he performed with great conscientiousness and integrity, but his honesty led to conflict when he found it impossible to condone Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and he would not attend the coronation of Henry's new wife, Anne Boleyn. Although More did not speak out against the King, the fact that he refused to support Henry was regarded as a crime. In March 1534, More was called upon to swear an oath of Supremacy, to recognise Henry as Head of the Church rather than the Pope. He tried to remain silent, because he believed in the Pope's supremacy, but his passive resistance spoke volumes. Cast into the Tower of London, accused of high treason, he remained incorruptible and true to his principles. As a result, he was beheaded in 1535. More was beatified in 1886, then canonised as a Roman Catholic martyr in 1935 by Pope Pius XI.

Thomas More's conflict with Henry has been explored in Robert Bolt's gripping play A Man for All Seasons (1960). Despite overwhelming personal and political pressure, More knew he must be true to himself: ‘I neither could nor would rule my King. But there's a little … little area … where I must rule myself.’


Utopia was written in Latin, which was then a universal language among the educated, and it was first published at Louvain in 1516. An English translation by Ralph Robinson appeared in 1551. In the book, the narrator encounters a traveller named Raphael Hythlodaeus—indeed, a regular element of utopian fiction is the technique of introducing a character who describes an incredible journey and/or an amazing discovery. During a discussion about the problems of contemporary society, Raphael mentions Utopia, and More asks him to elaborate. Raphael describes an ideal republic: a harmonious community on an island where there is full employment, the citizens are not obsessed with money, and are tolerant towards their fellow men.

The name ‘Utopia’ is Greek, meaning ‘not-place’. It is a play on the words eutopos, meaning ‘a good place’, and outopos, meaning ‘no place’. Previous writers had described idyllic locations, such as Elysium and Atlantis, and had envisaged perfect communities, most famously Plato in his Republic.

The text begins with an intriguing combination of fantasy and fact. It is prefaced by the Utopian alphabet, along with an example of Utopian poetry. There is then a letter from More to Peter Gilles, who was in real life the Chief Secretary, or Town Clerk, of Antwerp. Here, More distances himself from the material that follows by emphasising that the views expressed are not his own: ‘My job was simply to write down what I'd heard’; and ‘all I had to do was repeat what Raphael told us’. Such a disclaimer was no doubt a wise move and a necessary safeguard in a society where freedom of speech—and indeed freedom of thought—was limited. Similarly, a letter from Gilles to another friend, Jerome Busleiden, states that Raphael was ‘describing his own experiences in a place where he'd lived for quite a long time’ (5 years). The letter is amusing because Gilles praises More excessively, lauding ‘the prodigious, if not positively superhuman power of his intellect’. He asks: ‘who could be better qualified to introduce sound ideas to the public than one who has spent many years in the public service and earned the highest praise for his wisdom and integrity?’

Book I is written in the form of a dialogue, which presents a perceptive analysis of problems in England. It begins with references to More's official visit to Flanders and Bruges in 1515. He was sent to re-establish commercial relations with the Netherlands following a dispute between the English government and Prince Charles of Castile that had damaged the English wool trade. In this way, More suggests a realistic setting, and the effect is heightened when he includes other real-life names and places. For example, Raphael is said to have been a companion of Amerigo Vespucci, after whom America was named. Raphael claims to have visited England: he speaks of the Cornish rebellion over taxes in 1497, and mentions John Morton, the Archbishop served by More when he was a teenager.

When Raphael is introduced to More, he is likened to Ulysses and to Plato. Here, then, is a man whose words should be taken seriously! At the outset he condemns certain unnecessarily harsh aspects of English law: ‘Petty larceny isn't bad enough to deserve the death penalty, and no penalty on earth will stop people from stealing, if it's their only way of getting food.’ He compares the English to incompetent schoolmasters who cane their pupils rather than teach them: ‘you create thieves, and then punish them for stealing’. The most effective method of deterring thieves, he declares, is to provide everyone with employment. Raphael voices his disapproval of the greedy nobles, gentlemen and abbots who have evicted farmers and seized their lands to rear sheep, in order to increase their revenue from wool. This selfish attitude has a knock-on effect, depriving many workers from earning a living. Raphael advocates ‘honest, useful work for the great army of unemployed’. In Utopia, society runs efficiently with only a few regulations because there is equal prosperity for all of the citizens. Indeed, Raphael recommends the abolition of private property altogether. At this point in the text More disagrees, arguing that without the incentive of profit people would become idle, which would lead inevitably to poverty and crime. However, he requests Raphael to give a detailed account of Utopia, which he does in the narrative that forms Book II.

The island has 54 towns: all within easy reach of each other, all sharing the same language, traditions and rules. The towns are virtually identical, each containing 6,000 households of between 10 and 16 adults. The inhabitants change houses every 10 years. Each group of 30 households is overseen by a Styward, or District Controller, and every 10 Stywards by a Bencheater, or Senior District Controller. A town has 200 Stywards, who elect a Mayor with whom the Bencheaters liaise regularly to resolve occasional disputes. In towns, meals are eaten communally at the Stywards' homes. Raphael observes: ‘Social relations are uniformly friendly, for officials are never pompous or intimidating in their manner.’ Excellent hospital care is provided, and also special nurseries for mothers and babies.

Money is not essential because citizens can select all they require from the shops. It is only needed in cases of emergency, such as war. In fact, the Utopians hold gold in such contempt that they use it to make chamber-pots! Primary education is provided for all children. Farming is part of everyone's education—indeed, citizens are obliged to work on the land for a period of 2 years to reduce the likelihood of food shortages. Individuals generally learn special trades, although exceptionally gifted intellectuals may take academic roles. Many people choose to study when they are not working. The working day lasts for only 6 hours, and the citizens are encouraged to enjoy their leisure time. Indeed, for the Utopians the chief aim in life is pleasure.

Several different religions exist peacefully side by side, but almost everyone believes in a single divine power active in the universe, known as Mythras. Citizens worship together, envisaging God as they choose, for one of the foremost principles of the constitution is religious tolerance. Priests are elected by the community, and are responsible for the moral and academic training of youngsters.


Each member of Utopian society is cared for: everyone has a home, food, clothes, education, employment and medical care. On the other hand, there is a uniformity, a lack of individuality, which is unappealing to modern readers. The typical day seems to be time tabled rigidly, with bedtime at 8 p.m. Fashion does not exist because there are no tailors or dressmakers. Everyone wears the same sort of clothes, with only slight variations according to sex and marital status. Raphael observes: ‘So whereas in other countries you won't find anyone satisfied with less than five [or] six suits and as many silk shirts, while dressy types want over ten of each, your Utopian is content with a single piece of clothing every 2 years.’ Furthermore, the Utopians do not have complete freedom of movement, but are obliged to apply for special passports to travel within their own country. At times there is a sinister, rather chilling note: ‘There are also no wine-taverns, no ale-houses, no brothels, no opportunities For seduction, no secret meeting-places. Everyone has his eye on you, so you're practically forced to get on with your job, and make some proper use of your spare time.’

Although Raphael criticises England's treatment of thieves, he seems to accept the Utopians' extreme punishments for those who indulge in sex before marriage or in adultery. Utopian society is male-dominated, and husbands are responsible for disciplining their wives—to the extent that wives have to confess to their husbands on a monthly basis. There appears to be a great deal of state interference in courtship and marriage, with a somewhat regimented approach. Girls may not marry until they are 18 and boys until they are 22. (The prospective bride and groom must view each other in the nude before committing themselves to marriage! The Utopians maintain that it is essential to choose a suitable partner, because they are a monogamous people.)

There is supposed to be religious tolerance on the island, yet atheists are despised. Although citizens have all that is required to live comfortably, there is still a competitive atmosphere: the people vie with each other to win the award for best-kept garden.

Despite the claim that there is equality on the island, there is a clear class system, with a hierarchy of diplomats, priests, Bencheasters and Mayors drawn from a specific class. The best food is given to hospital patients, which sounds admirable, but thereafter preferential treatment is given to those highly placed in the hierarchy. The Utopians use slaves to perform menial tasks, who are obliged to work in chain gangs. The usual punishment for serious crime is slavery, but a genuinely penitent criminal can ultimately be rehabilitated into society. In time of war the Utopians pay mercenaries to fight for them. Often they hire savage Venalians (who are probably meant to signify the Swiss, because they often served in foreign armies): ‘For the Utopians don't care how many Venalians they send to their deaths. They say, if only they could wipe the filthy scum off the face of the earth completely, they'd be doing the human race a very good turn.’ Fundamentally, they disapprove of war except in self-defence or when helping victims of oppression.

It is vital that we should not impose our own values onto a text that was written almost 500 years ago. In those days there was a massive divide between rich and poor, and it has to be said that More addressed some very complex topics in a constructive manner. A number of the issues discussed are strikingly relevant and significant to present-day readers: for example, euthanasia, hunting, and the questions of whether priests should be permitted to marry and whether women should be ordained. In Utopian society, if a person is suffering froman incurable and excruciating illness, priests or government officials visit the patient to suggest euthanasia. This, unlike suicide, is regarded as an honourable death. The terminally ill person is not obliged to consent, but if he elects to die he can either voluntarily starve or be assisted to die painlessly. The Utopians oppose hunting for sport, and never use animals for sacrifices to God. In their country, male priests are allowed to marry and elderly widows may become priests.

Raphael claims that he is simply describing the Utopian way of life, as opposed to defending it. However, he asserts: ‘you won't find a more prosperous country or a more splendid lot of people anywhere on earth.’ In Utopia, ‘Nobody owns anything, but everyone is rich—for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?’

At the end of the book, More's objections are stated, but only very briefly. He regards many of the laws and customs as ridiculous, and questions the sense of founding their society on communism minus money. However, he admits that there are many features of Utopia which he would like to see adopted in Europe.

Perhaps it is not surprising that there is an ambiguous ‘feel’ to the book. More was a strange mixture himself: a man who, according to Erasmus (the great humanist scholar), had ‘a passion for jokes’; a family man whose pets at his Chelsea home included a beaver, a fox, a monkey and a weasel; a man who was famed for his scrupulous honesty; yet a man who was responsible for ordering the death penalty—burning alive—for a number of heretics.

More's scholarly talents are much in evidence in his book. His knowledge of the Bible and of Greek and Latin was extensive, and his word-play delighted intellectual readers. Raphael's surname, Hythlodaeus, actually means ‘dispenser of nonsense’, which is heavily ironic considering that much of what he says is thought-provoking and, at times, appealing. More recognised that serious issues could be couched in humorous terms without losing their significance.


Does More's Utopia hold any significance for us in the new millennium? Often during such periods of transition people are particularly conscious of the need for new beginnings. More's vibrant, and in many ways timeless, text poses compelling questions and offers fascinating solutions.


Other examples of utopian fiction include: City of the Sun by Tommaso Campanella (1623), New Atlantis by Francis Bacon (1627), The Commonwealth of Oceana by James Harrington (1656), Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888), News from Nowhere by William Morris (1891)[, and] Merrie England by Robert Blatchford (1893).

In the 1890s and early 1900s—at a time when women were seeking greater freedom in their lives—a number of feminist writers envisaged utopian states, notably: Lady Florence Dixie in Gloriana (1890), Olive Schreiner in Dreams (1897), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman in Herland (1915), which describes a successful community of women who have dispensed with men altogether.

Some works are satirical in their treatment of the utopian theme. These include Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) and Samuel Butler's [Erewhon], an anagram of ‘nowhere’ (1872).

The dictionary definition of ‘utopia’ is: ‘an ideally well organised social community, a place where everything is perfect’. ‘Utopia’ with a capital letter is described as ‘a fictional island enjoying perfect government’. However the adjective ‘utopian’ is defined in two ways: (1) ‘of or like Utopia’; (2) ‘ideally perfect but unpractical’ (my italics).

One of the features of utopian fiction is ambiguity, because the reader wonders whether utopia is a feasible concept and whether it is desirable anyway.

In some texts, the imagined states turn out to be dystopian, or undesirable: for example, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932) and Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell (1949).

Source: Stephanie Forward, "A Taste of Paradise: Thomas More's Utopia," in English Review, Vol. 11, No. 4, April 2001, p. 24.

A. R. Heiserman

In the following excerpt, Heiserman discusses Utopia as a satire.

… Even Erasmus felt obliged to apologize for Book I of the Utopia; and More's admirers have always tended to ignore most of it. But if we are to throw light upon Utopia's meaning, we must show that all of Book I reflects a satirical intention. Having learned from the introductory apparatus that Utopia is a censuring poetical work not less salutary than humorous, the reader of 1518 would now note the care with which More constructs his via diversa and directs it to a set of contemporary vices.

As his over-riding structural device, More used the convention of the "Platonic" dialogue; and as the dramaturgy (scene, event, character) varies in significance in the Platonic dialogues themselves, so it does in works by More's contemporaries. More's apparatus is as complete as its function demands: to establish satiric verisimilitude. He begins with an almost official account of a well-known embassage to Flanders where, after Mass one day, he chances upon his real-life friend Giles, who points out to him "a certayne straunger, a man well stryken in age, with a blake sonne burned face, a longe bearde, and a cloke homely [neglectim—the word More used to describe his style] aboute his shoulders; whom … I iudged to be a maryner." All this is quite commonplace. Now, through a "realistic" conversation, we learn that this Physician from God and Distributor of Nonsense incarnates the Humanist virtues: he has a wide knowledge of Greek (especially moral philosophy), a good Latin style, and experience in many lands. He is a survivor of Vespucci's famous voyages, has wandered across the equator and circumnavigated the globe via the mysterious southern hemisphere, and knows many anecdotes which More will not relate because tales of "monsters be no newes." By this means More alludes to, and detaches himself from, the second structural device of his via diversa—the tall travel-tale. When asked the seminal question of the dialogue—"I wonder greatly whie you gette you not into some kinges courte"—Raphael further characterizes himself. He has long ago abandoned his family and all concern for power—those matters which More claimed had delayed his book; and he looks with contempt on princes and their courts.

This lengthy introduction is justified only because it establishes a realistic setting within which a fictional character can operate. As Hythloday turns to attack the courts, we become aware that he is a version of a conventional satiric persona: the visionary who returns from a journey through strange places to report the unadorned truth about society, the court, the clergy, the times. The dream-vision provided the most common structure for journeys into fabulous spheres. But like Skelton's Colyn Cloute, the traveller could also report abuses without benefit of allegory. Yet, his journey was always extensive, his report always penetrated abuses to reveal their cause, and he himself was frequently so shaken by his discoveries that, like Gulliver, he seemed "straunge" to the world he had left and from which he was now alienated. More has converted this satiric persona into a humanist and sent him around the world to Noplace, using not a dream-vision but a Vespuccian travel-memoir as his structural device; he has also placed him in a Platonic dialogue, and named him Nonsense. Babblers of nonsense also appear in earlier satires (though not usually combined with the strange traveler) as fools, prophets, and crazy birds, yet all speak the truth while appearing to speak nonsense. What they say about the times conceals wisdom under the satiric fiction of folly.

Just as Utopia's structure combines the dialogue with the journey, so Hythloday himself is an amalgam of several satiric conventions. He is both a conventional traveler adroitly brought up to date, and a conventional truth-sayer who works under the name of folly. This unprecedented blend of conventions in one intact satiric fiction provides More with a delightful viadiversa, and one through which all the "ideas," the intellectual substance of Utopia, work. For example, we may say that the new isle of Noplace exists only poetically (like the spheres, the house of fame, the allegorized landscape of dream-visions), and that its institutions are invented (as were the characteristics of Erasmus' Folly) on the satiric principle—not to embody "ideals" of a commonwealth, nor a program for practical reform, but to condemn current follies.

Hythloday begins with one of the most convention-ridden of all satiric objects—the Court. Courtiers motivated by ambition, self-centered princes who "haue more delyte in warlike matters … then in the goode feates of peace," policies determined by "flatterie," by "fond and folishe sayinges"—these are stock terms used against courts by John of Salisbury, Langland, Dunbar, Skelton, and now More. But when asked for examples, Hythloday describes not a royal court but that of the good Cardinal Morton. Since Morton's was certainly not a court corrupted by its prince, Hythloday ridicules such hangers-on as the lawyer who defends the hanging of petty thieves, and then goes on—as his literary ancestry equips him to do—to attack evils of the times: the plight of veterans, war itself, "idilnes" in the nobility, "bragging" vagrants opposed to the "poore man wyth a spade and a mattocke," mercenaries who are "beastes"—all conventional charges which implied, for earlier satirists, that the times were mad because the commonwealth's institutions violated the harmonious order of nature. To discover that these objects and principles of natural law are conventions is to discover More's meaning, not his meaningless triteness, for his art makes recurrent evil "contemporary" to our own day.

Like earlier satirists, Hythloday now examines the roots of contemporary follies. "Nobel men and … yea, certeyn Abbotes" who enclose fields, "husbandmen … thrust oute of their owne," high prices, "morreyn," "the vnreasonable couetousness of a fewe" which leads "to the vtter undoyng" of a realm—these were frequently taken as both signs and causes of current "disordre," "stryf," "hoder-moder." Such violations of natural order always lead to "great wantonnes; importunate superfluytie, and excessive ryote." A whole sub-genre of satire had attacked "strange and prowde newefanglenes in … apparrell," which along with "prodigal riotte … sumptuous fare … brothelhouses … tauernes … lewde and vnlawfull games," were sure signs of evil times. In attacking these follies, in combining them in such terms, and even in ascribing them to the enclosure movement, More is following satiric tradition. But his structural devices also permit him to move beyond such commonplaces. Since a dialogue-within-a-dialogue can support a little philosophizing, Hythloday may deliver a homily against capital punishment for minor crimes; and since he is reporting his travels, he may use as exemplar the just penal system of the Polylerytes. This Persian race functions for this minor issue as do the Utopians for the whole satire. Their ridiculous name (Much Nonsense), like others More attached to admirable persons and countries, implies that their reasonableness is nonsensical, or non-existent, in the European world.

Thus More combines conventions of structure (dialogue and fabulous journey), persona (dialectitian, nonsense-babbler, traveler), and diction (plain style) to attack conventional objects (folly, courts, the times). But the combination is organic, not mechanical; it vivifies the tradition by moulding commonplaces into a new unity. The court proves an arena in which all the follies of the times may be exposed, for corruption of its powers is both sign and cause of all current corruption. Therefore the dialectical structure of Book I turns on the question, Why doesn't Hythloday go to court? And the answer to this question (the natural fountain of good policy and action is clogged) means that the humanistic wisdom of Hythloday is nonsense in evil times. These unifying principles control all details of Book I. For example, when another convention of anticourt satire, "a certein iesting parasite, or scoffer, which wold seem to cownterfeit the foole," rises to mock the clergy's lack of simple charity, and to suggest that all vagabonds be "bestowed into houses of religion," still another satirical persona, "a certeyne freare," appears who, fearing that such a remedy would impoverish his order, flies into a typical rage, one so sinful that the Cardinal chastizes him. This swift attack on the ancient vices of the friars—their greed, lack of charity, proud anger—shows how More adopts conventions wholesale to compress and enforce his attack on the courts and the times.

Many satirists had attacked courtiers whose jostling for favor was more ridiculous than dangerous; a few had attacked the court as a generator of evil policies, where flattering courtiers become dangerous advisers, and the prince himself appears as both a cause and victim of national corruption. In like fashion, one could attack the evil times in general terms by pointing out how manners, morals, clothing, prices were so topsy-turvy that sheep eat men; or, one could attack the specific causes of such follies—a corrupt clergy, a lazy nobility, a rebellious commons. More's dialogue-structure permits him to do all these things—to attack the court as a collection of fawning fools, the times as a shambles of natural law, princes as dupes and tyrants. To accomplish all this, More takes Hythloday out of Cardinal Morton's court and into a conjectured sitting of the French king's council, where great advisers and their willing prince discuss means of augmenting their powers by conquest and by manipulation of taxes, currency, and the judiciary. Current affairs (French ambitions in Italy, debates on the coinage, etc.) provide fresh targets for these attacks; and More's fiction produces fresh exemplars against which these evils may be measured—the Placeless People (Achoriens), who limit their king to one kingdom; and the Blessed People (Macariens), who limit their monarch's wealth to 1,000 pounds. But behind these attacks and exempla lie familiar norms: kingdoms which do not submit to natural limitations create "hurley-burley"; the king who seeks to rise "aboue his power" will "brynge all in hurlie-burles." These are the terms in which earlier satirists explained the causes of evil times. Yet we now become aware that More has been leading us to a point which is quite unprecedented in satire, if not in political philosophy: the chief cause of all these evils is private property.

To determine principal causes, and thereby define problems under discussion, are familiar goals in Platonic dialogues; the discovery of absolute values, in Platonic ethics, should enforce adherence to them in action; and the construction of fables to exemplify absolutes is a commonplace Platonic strategy. More now adapts these procedures to his satiric discourse. Hythloday defines the problems besetting courts and the times by determining their principal cause; this determination produces in him an uncompromising attitude toward the evils described; and he goes on to relate a fable portraying a state from which the principal cause of evil has been removed. This cause, and the satire's fiction, now raise More's work to levels which so delighted his learned contemporaries that they would forget most of Book I and remember only Hythloday's attack on private ownership and his fable of Utopia.

The humanist reformers would have seen in the ideal humanist, Hythloday, their most painful mocker. He points out that "the maners of the worlde now a dayes" (the generic object he had hitherto attacked) make philosophy inoperative; that a compromiser like More (who suggests that good men must work with possibilities, blending virtuous philosophy with vicious powers to produce good results) is "worse than a spye … as euell as a traytoure" because he corrupts good principles themselves; and that therefore philosophers must, as Hythloday says Plato said, "kepe them selfes within their howses." But the humanist reader would have been consoled for More's defeat on this point (which his satire has been devised to justify) by considering that Hythloday's name is Nonsense, that the cause he now derives (private property) is so radical that action against it is impossible, and that his uncompromising values can be embodied only in a Platonic fable about Noplace. That is, the reader would have remembered that this is a satire.

As Hythloday analyzes the cause of corruption in realm and court, he speaks as a satiric persona filled more with indignation than the spirit of philosophical inquiry. His complaints are well known: maldistribution of wealth, multiplicity of futile laws, impoverishment of the many and luxury of the few, private property itself—all leading to and deriving from a conspiratorial oligarchy centered at court. More's objections to Hythloday's radical cure (pure communism) are the standard ones: wealth is produced only by men seeking personal gain; without this incentive and without laws of property, anarchy would result. To these objections we find a satiric, not an argumentative answer: Hythloday merely asserts that communism can work, and for proof he points to Noplace….

Like earlier satires, Utopia mixes devices of structure, diction, and personae to build a via diversa by which it may attack a syndrome of objects. But the fable of Noplace which now emerges is so unconventional that it has always dominated the whole work; it becomes so "realistic" that one tends to forget its function in the satire.

In describing More's "pleasure in declamations," which made him choose "some disputable subject, as involving a keener exercise of mind," Erasmus remarks that he had in his youth written a dialogue "in which he carried the defense of Plato's commonwealth even to the matter of wives." This pleasure, hints Erasmus, led him to compose Utopia, Book II of which he wrote "at his leisure, and afterwards, when he found it was required, added the first off hand." Now, why was Book I "required"? We may answer that without it Utopia would have remained a mystery without point. The satirist must on the one hand invent a via diversa, else he will write merely another "pompous argument"; on the other hand he must permit his readers to see through his fiction, else he will produce nothing but a bit of "dissolute poeticizing." In attempting to strike this satiric mean, satirists frequently bewilder their audiences; the via diversa of Book II is so beguiling that More perhaps saw the necessity of putting it into the explicit satiric context of Book I. But the fact that he did not merely tack this "off-hand" material onto his fable implies that the position of Book II has significance. Does this position mean that the fable of Utopia functions as an exemplum in the Platonic sense, and that the Utopian commonwealth therefore embodies normative ideals? Is it not like Bembo's ecstatic definition of love at the conclusion of The Courtier, where an ideal love is both described and portrayed by the speaker? After all, More himself termed Utopia "my Republic"; his readers frequently compared it with Plato's work; Hythloday seems an ardent Platonist. All this has raised a crucial question for modern critics of the Utopia: if Utopia—with its communism, euthanasia, Mithraworship, divorce, etc.—is, as Busleyden said, "an ideal commonwealth, a pattern and finished model of conduct," then its author was really an incipient Marxist, or his opinions changed with his career, or much of this work is merely a jeu d'esprit. All of More's critics have wrestled with these alternatives; we hope to show that More's invention was guided by the satiric principle, that Book II as a whole derives from this principle, and that the "meaning" of all its ideas is controlled by satiric intentions….

But even though Utopia's is not an "ideal commonwealth" but one invented to serve a satiric function, in what sense could it be a "model of conduct"? Again, the Republic hints at an answer. The question of whether the ideal state could ever exist on earth hovers above its construction in Books II through IX. At some points the state is merely a formula with which one can examine existent souls and states; at other stages in the argument, Socrates asserts that a philosopher king with absolute power could create it. But by the end of Book IX Socrates agrees that the ideal state "exists in idea only…. In heaven … there is laid up a pattern of it, methinks, which he who desires may behold, and beholding, may set his own house in order. But whether such an one exists, or ever will exist in fact, is no matter; for he will live after the manner of that city, having nothing to do with any other." This is Hythloday's stance: having discovered the causes of contemporary disorder (that is, visited Utopia), he has "learned" that philosophers must "kepe them selfes within their howses; beynge content that they be saffe them selfes, seynge they can not remedy the follye of the people" (p. 104). While Utopia is not an ideal state, it provides a model for private conduct, conduct conditioned by the realization that "the mother of all mischiefe, pride, doth withstonde and let" the removal of the cause of political evil, and pride "is so depely roted in mens brestes, that she can not be plucked out."

The first satiric principle we encounter is that which determines the invention of a "realistic" fiction. More begins Chapter i by drawing a physical and political map of Utopia, using not the Republic but the Critias as a model. Unlike the ideal state, Atlantis in the Critias has a geographical location; and since More's fiction also demanded that he place Noplace and describe it physically, he does so with a verisimilitude comparable with Plato's. Poseidon and his son, King Atlas (Atlantis), brought civilization to Plato's rocky-coasted island as King Utopus brought civilization to rocky-coasted Utopia. Poseidon converted his island into three concentric circles of land separated by channels and placed his chief city on the central island, to which King Atlas constructed a system of ditches and bridges eleven stades long (Critias, pp. 113-116). King Utopus cut his island from the mainland by means of a ditch, placed his chief city in the island's center, and permitted access to the interior through a channel eleven miles wide (Lupton, pp. 116-119). More's invention of a double set of names for offices, places, and personages, and his mention of Egyptian visitors to Utopia, perhaps reflects Plato's invention of double names, which are Solon's translations of Egyptian versions of Atlantean names (Critias, 114; Timaeus, 22-25); and as Plato begins with physical geography, then describes "allottments" (60,000 persons per allotment), so More begins with physical geography, then divides his community into fifty-four "shires" (whose cities each contain 6,000 families). More's care in recording distances, quantities, etc., is much like that of Plato, and the figures themselves are as absurd. Utopia's 200 mile diameter hardly fits with the 500 mile circumference of what is almost a circular island. Its fifty-four cities may derive from the perfect political number, 5,040, which forms the basis of order in the Magnesian colony prescribed in the Laws; but More could have seen that fifty-four shire cities each at least twenty-four miles distant from all others would mean that each shire contained a minimum of 645 square miles, and that they therefore could not have fit into an island of 31,000 square miles. All this shows not that More deliberately modelled Utopia on Atlantis, enemy of Athens, or on such parodies as Lucian's True History, but that he used Plato's descriptive techniques to reestablish the satiric verisimilitude of his work.

This via diversa makes it unnecessary that he attack explicitly ambition, luxury, famine, drudgery; he need only describe how Utopians work and live. The details in Chapter i which neither establish satiric verisimilitude, nor resonate obviously against satiric objects, reveal that all things are valued for their use in a well-ordered society, and that the rule of reason forbids timocratic delusions of honor: the Utopians unblushingly beguile invaders onto the rocks by changing channel markers. The fiction also permits jesting inversions, a full working out of the consequences of communism, and fresh attacks on old satiric objects. Other satirists, for example, had inveighed against the stenches and inconveniences of city life. In Chapter ii More merely describes those features of Amaurote (Dimville, or Fogtown) which contrast with the absurdities of cities ruled by irrational principles. It is the very conventionality of such objects as the law's delay, the corruption of judicial procedures, the helplessness of commoners before the bar, the multiplicity of laws framed to preserve injustices, which gives a brief remark on the quickness of Utopian judicial procedures such force. Readers could at once recognize his object, and perhaps appreciate how little space he need devote to it. In Book I More in effect had laid out this satiric tradition in plain terms lest anyone mistake his intentions in Book II. Here he can proceed quickly, by via diversa, relying on his fiction and his conventions. All this suggests that it would prove futile to attempt to show that Utopian institutions make constant or consistent reference to new, specific abuses in Tudor England. They refer to evils prevalent in all ages; and especially to More's generic object—the institution of private property which remains with us. As More's art directs his attacks at his own time, it also directs them to our own. In this way, great satire, while completely contemporary, survives its time.

The descriptions of family life in Chapter v do not seem at all satiric; but these inventions may also be explained by the logic of More's fiction and by the objects of his attack. For example, if his fiction demands that he find a way of disposing of the surplus population a state like Utopia would produce, he lets the Utopians conquer unoccupied portions of neighboring realms, then remarks that the "law of nature" makes such invasions "the most iust cause of warre," thus condemning both the waste of natural resources and the trivial causes of European wars. The natural law is also visible in the Utopians' well-ordered family life, where the older rule and teach while the younger learn and obey, where pleasure is moderate, where plenty eliminates greed, where hospitals are efficient and not lethal, and where butchering is done outside the city limits. When the verisimilitude drives him to explain who would do the ugly work of butchering, it creates a group of bondsmen which also serves a satiric function; for bondsmen contribute to the commonwealth rather than adorn gibbets. We need not say that More "approved" of bondage or conquest, but we can say that all his inventions serve the purposes of his satire.

This satiric principle now helps us solve many of the problems which have long attracted attention. Why should the future chancellor and saint make his "ideal" people combine stoicism with Epicureanism? The common answers—that these good pagans had reached the highest point achievable by reason unaided by revelation, and that even paganism is more virtuous than corrupt European Christianity—obscures the full significance of this discussion. In fact, Hythloday's relatively brief description of their lofty hedonism sets up attacks on a variety of satiric objects: men who mistake smaller for greater ends, luxurious clothing, a nobility lusting for the appurtenances of power, love of gold and jewels, dicers, hunters, health addicts on the one hand and fanatic ascetics on the other. We need not wonder whether More approved of this hedonism; the meaning of these ideas derives from their satiric functions.

Similar problems rise in Chapter vii. Why should a "pattern" state condone euthanasia as well as bondage? Again, such institutions are invented to serve satiric, not prescriptive, functions. When Hythloday divides bondsmen into two groups—aliens who choose Utopian bondage in preference to execution or drudgery at home, and Utopians who commit crimes—he is attacking familiar objects: the harshness of contemporary life, and the irrational disparity between punishment and crime in Europe. When he remarks that incurably ill Utopians may choose to die, he does so in order to comment that in Utopia (though not in Europe) no sick man dies by negligence or against his will, thus using euthanasia to make his satiric point. Utopian laws concerning courtship, marriage, fornication, adultery, and divorce are also invented for satiric purposes. More's descriptions either preserve satiric verisimilitude (as his giving ages for marriage) or attack contemporary evils by turning them upside-down. Satiric inversions become more explicit in the chapter's remaining pages. When Hythloday attacks the making and breaking of treaties, he employs ironia to make his method of satiric inversion plain while preserving its character. Since Europeans are Christians, he says, they of course always keep faith with their treaties; but since the neighbors of Utopia do not keep faith, the Utopians make no treaties, place no faith in words, believe that taking life is wrong even without treaties to forbid it, and contend that the fellowship of nature is a strong enough league. This irony makes for a double inversion, enriching the method employed throughout this chapter.

Another kind of verbal device opens the chapter on Utopian methods of war-making which has also puzzled More's admirers. Was he jesting or prescribing when he described the Machiavellian deceits of his Utopians? Neither; he was attacking an object—war caused and waged by bestial irrationality. The pun which introduces his chapter reveals this object by satiric indirection. "Bellumutpote rem plane beluinam"—since war (bellum) is beastly (bellua), the Utopians detest it (p. 243). But what is it in bellum that makes it bellua? Obviously, the absence of "the myghte and pusyannce of wytte" and the dependence on irrational bloodshed, glory, and "boddelye strengthe." Therefore the Utopians fight only just wars (wars for rational goals), they fight with specifically human means—"wytte and reason," and their peace-making is never tarnished by irrational vengeance. In short, Utopian warfare removes the bellua from bellum, as the Utopian constitution removes ownership from the state.

In like fashion, More constructs Utopian religion to attack various European abuses. The chief complaint made against the clergy, religious and hierarchy in medieval satires was the "disordre" resulting from a proud prelacy, from a clergy in secular power, from simony and luxury in all. In a well ordered commonwealth, the church serves a natural function of teaching and preaching; in a disordered state the church neglects this office and assumes others. Utopian religion functions as part of a whole state by enforcing consensus on but a few reasonable dogmas (God exists and rewards man's virtue in a future life), and by tolerating diversity of opinion in many accidentals. King Utopus' principles—that internal order is essential, that the truth will out, and that "contention" harms religion by raising up superstitions—are used to oppose conventional satiric objects of disorder and superstition, not to recommend ways of curing them. For example, unlike European religious orders, which generations of satirists had attacked as collections of beggars, meddlers, and sinners, those in Utopia work at the hardest jobs, mind their own business, and are composed of the most virtuous men. The virtues ascribed to Utopian priests oppose precisely the traditional vices of the European clergy. The concluding section on holy days and divine services also resonates against conventional satiric objects and preserves the fiction which permits attack by indirection.

By now it might seem that More's fiction has run away with his satire. What does the abuse of church music, for example, have to do with private property? To make all connections plain, and to remove all doubts that Utopia is a satire, More writes a summary invective which asserts that the evils attacked directly and indirectly in Books I and II could not exist in a communistic state. We know that More had constructed Utopia to banish them; Hythloday, however, contends that they could not exist because Utopia is a true commonwealth, not a "pryuate wealthe" disguised under another name. Wealth controlled by usurious bankers and rich idlers; plowmen and laborers whose lives are bestial and graves evil; a topsy-turvy "justice" which rewards idle flatterers and punishes wealth-producers—on he goes, striking at the root-cause—money in private control, that "certein conspiracy of riche men"—which had been the chief principle of his invention. This cause is not a conventional satiric object; even the lollard satirists had rested content with abstractions like Pride and Covetousness. But More's terms even now remain conventional: "striffe" and "dissention" in the commonwealth "now a dayes" remain the generic evil which contains all the evils of court, clergy, policy, civic life he has managed to attack. And since Pride supports the rule of money, Hythloday leaves us without hope; for Pride "is so depely roted in mens' breastes, that she can not be plucked out." No wonder More concludes that "many thinges be in the vtopian weal publique, which in our cities I may rather wisshe for then hoope after."…

Source: A. R. Heiserman, "Satire in the Utopia," in PMLA, Vol. 78, No. 3, June 1963, pp. 163-74.


Ames, Russell, "Late Feudalism in England and Europe," and "The Middle Class Man," in Citizen Thomas More and His Utopia, Princeton University Press, 1949, pp. 22-35, 74-80.

Bender, Daniel, "Thomas More," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 281, British Rhetoricians and Logicians, 1500-1660, Second Series, Thomson Gale, 2003, pp. 201-14.

British Office for National Statistics, "Census 2001—Ethnicity and Religion in England and Wales," http://www.statistics.gov.uk/census2001/profiles/commentaries/ethnicity.asp#religion (accessed on June 11, 2008).

Bruce, Susan, Introduction to Three Early Modern Utopias, edited by Susan Bruce, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. ix-xlii.

Collins, J. Churton, Introduction to Sir Thomas More's Utopia, edited by J. Churton Collins, Clarendon Press, 1904, pp. vii-lii.

Gledhill, Ruth, "Catholics Set to Pass Anglicans as Leading UK Church," in Times Online, February 15, 2007, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/article1386939.ece (accessed on June 11, 2008).

Hexter, J. H., "The Anatomy of a Printed Book," in More's Utopia, Princeton University Press, 1952, pp. 11-30.

Jones, Judith P., and Sherianne Sellars Seibel, "Thomas More's Feminism: To Reform or Re-Form," in Quincentennial Essays on St. Thomas More, edited by Michael J. Moore, Albion, 1978, pp. 67-77.

McCutcheon, Elizabeth, "Thomas More," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 136, Sixteenth-Century British Nondramatic Writers, Second Series, edited by David A. Richardson, Gale Research, 1994, pp. 235-54.

Miller, Clarence H., Introduction to Utopia, by Thomas More, translated by Clarence H. Miller, Yale University Press, 2001.

More, Thomas, Utopia, translated by Clarence H. Miller, Yale University Press, 2001.

Surtz, Edward L., "Interpretations of Utopia," in The Praise of Wisdom: A Commentary on the Religious and Moral Problems and Backgrounds of St. Thomas More's Utopia, Loyola University Press, 1957, pp. 1-20.

White, Thomas I., "Festivitas, Utilitas, et Opes: The Concluding Irony and Philosophical Purpose of Thomas More's Utopia," in Quincentennial Essays on St. Thomas More, edited by Michael J. Moore, Albion, 1978, pp. 135-50.


Andrews, Charles M., Ideal Empires and Republics: Rousseau's Social Contract, More's Utopia, Bacon's New Atlantis and Campanella's City of the Sun, Kessinger Publishing, 2007.

In this collection of several of the best-known works of Utopian literature, the editor, in his introduction, offers an overview of Utopian writing. Andrews additionally explores the social conditions that typically inspire such works. The collection, along with Andrews's commentary, provides an introduction to Utopian literature as a genre.

Haigh, Christopher, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors, Oxford University Press, 1993.

Haigh examines a variety of details pertaining to sixteenth-century English society, providing a broad overview of the sociopolitical and religious climates as well as studying the details of the daily life and religious practices of English citizens.

Kinney, Arthur F., Rhetoric and Poetic in Thomas More's Utopia, Undena Publications, 1979.

In this work, Kinney explores the rhetoric and poetic devices More utilizes in Utopia and to what effect such devices are employed.

Patriquin, Larry, Agrarian Capitalism and Poor Relief in England, 1500-1860: Rethinking the Origins of the Welfare State, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Patriquin studies the rise of agricultural capitalism in England in the 1500s and assesses the ways in which this early form of capitalism helped shape the class system in England. The author goes on to trace the effects of capitalism on the poor classes.


views updated May 14 2018


The word utopia was coined by Thomas More (14781535) as the name of the island described in his Libellus vere aureus nec minus salutaris quam festivus de optimo reip[ublicae] statu, deq[ue] noua Insula Vtopia (1516). While More wrote in Latin, he based his new word on Greek. More combined topos (place or where ) with u or ou (no or not ) to create nowhere, but in "Six Lines on the Island of Utopia," part of the larger work, he suggests that the word eutopia, or good place, is a better descriptor. Thus, from the time of More's original coinage, the word utopia has been conflated with eutopia to mean a nonexistent good place.

The word utopia entered Western languages quicklythe book was translated into German in 1524, Italian in 1548, French in 1550, English in 1551, and Dutch in 1553, and the word itself often entered these languages before the book was translated. In the eighteenth century, the word dystopia was first used to characterize a nonexistent bad place, but the word did not become standard usage until the mid-twentieth century.

While More coined the word and invented the genre of literature that grew from the book, he was not the first to imagine the possibility of a society better than the one currently existing and to describe such a society. Examples of such imaginings can be found in ancient Sumer, classical Greek, and Latin literature, the Old Testament, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism, among other predecessors.

While it is no longer possible to see utopia as a product of the Christian West, the role of utopia in Christianity has long been an area of dispute. Eden, the millennium, and heaven all have clear utopian elements, but the extent to which they can be achieved through human action is open to dispute. The Fall and the resultant emphasis on sinful human nature has led some commentators to view utopia as anti-Christian and heretical. Human beings are simply not capable of a utopia in this life. But other commentators, like the theologian Paul Tillich (18861965) and the founders of Liberation Theology, have argued that utopia is central to any understanding of the social message of Christianity.

Expressions of Utopianism

Today dreaming of or imagining better societies is usually called "utopianism," and utopianism can be expressed in a variety of ways. Utopian literature, the creation of intentional communities or communes, formerly called utopian experiments, and utopian social theory are the most commonly noted forms in which utopianism is expressed, but there are other means of expressing utopianism, such as the design of ideal cities.

Utopian literature.

Utopian literature is most common in the English-speaking world, with particularly strong traditions in England, the United States, and New Zealand. Brazil, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Russia, and Spanish America also have strong utopian traditions, and we now know that there are substantial utopian traditions in other European countries and in the non-Western world. The strongest non-Western utopian tradition is found in China, but such traditions exist throughout the Middle East and in India and Southeast Asia; there are also developing utopian traditions in various African countries. Even Japan, which was once thought to have no such tradition, has recently been shown by young Japanese scholars to have one.

Although early scholarship in the field treated utopias from all times and places as if they were alike, these utopian literatures differ from each other in significant ways, and national and cultural differences are now recognized. Also, as a direct result of the influence of feminist scholarship, we are now more aware of both the similarities and differences found in utopias written by men and woman, and recently such awareness has been extended to differences and similarities based on ethnicity, race, religion, and other such characteristics.

From its earliest expression to the present, a basic human utopia is found in which everyone has adequate food, shelter, and clothing gained without debilitating labor and in which people lead secure lives without fear of, in early versions, wild animals, and in later versions, other human beings. But these basic elements are expressed in different ways in different times and places and also reflect individual concerns; as a result, the range of utopias present throughout history is immense.

Much utopian literature, particularly the dystopian, has been marketed as science fiction, and one minor scholarly controversy had some arguing that utopias were a subgenre of science fiction and others arguing that historically it was the other way around. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, there was clearly an intellectual as well as a marketing overlap with the most prolific writers of utopias, like Ursula K. Le Guin (b. 1929) and Mack (Dallas McCord) Reynolds (19171983), using science fictional motifs and tropes. In Scraps of the Untainted Sky (2000), Tom Moylan carefully considers the relationships between utopia, dystopia, and science fiction.

Scholarship on utopian literature increased in both quantity and quality in the 1970s and 1980s with the publication of definitional essays by Lyman Tower Sargent and Darko Suvin that helped clarify the conceptual muddle; bibliographies by Arthur O. Lewis, Glenn Negley, and Sargent that transformed the understanding of the subject; and important books by Krishan Kumar, Frank E. and Fritzie P. Manuel, Tom Moylan, and Kenneth M. Roemer that rewrote the history of utopian literature. At the same time, there was a major revival of utopian writing, the most important works being Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974), significantly subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969); Joanna Russ's (b. 1937) Female Man (1975); Marge Piercy's (b. 1936) Woman on the Edge of Time (1976); Samuel R. Delany's (b. 1942) Dhalgren (1975) and Triton (1976); and Margaret Atwood's (b. 1939) The Handmaid's Tale (1985).

A major contribution to our understanding of the changes utopias were undergoing was Moylan's development in Demand the Impossible (1986) of the "critical utopia." Moylan wrote:

A central concern in the critical utopia is the awareness of the limitations of the utopian tradition, so that these texts reject utopia as a blueprint while preserving it as a dream. Furthermore, the novels dwell on the conflict between the originary world and the utopian society opposed to it so that the process of social change is more directly articulated. Finally, the novels focus on the continuing presence of difference and imperfection within the utopian society itself and thus render more recognizable and dynamic alternatives. (pp. 1011)

Even though positive utopias were published in every year of the twentieth century, the dystopia has been the most frequently published form of utopian literature from World War I to the early twenty-first century. The dystopia uses the depiction of a usually extrapolated negative future as a means of warning the present to change its behavior. The message of the dystopia is that if the human race continues in the direction it is now heading, this is what will happen. The dystopia, thus, has a positive element in that it suggests the possibility of change. In this, the dystopia is in the tradition of the Jeremiad, or a work modeled on the Book of Jeremiah, in which a condemnation of contemporary behavior and a warning of retribution also holds out hope of improvement if the warning is heeded.

Although there were precursors, the dystopia came to prominence through four works: We (1924), by Yevgeny Zamyatin (18841937); Brave New World (1932), by Aldous Huxley (18941963); and Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), by George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair; 19031950). They were concerned with the effects of the dominant ideologies of the twentieth century and each raised the question of the potential danger of a utopia based on one of these ideologies being imposed on some country. Such works continued to be written, albeit rarely as well, throughout the rest of the century. Later the dystopia was applied to other areas. Two works by John Brunner (19341995) are outstanding examples: Stand on Zanzibar (1968), focusing on the effects of overpopulation, and The Sheep Look Up (1972), focusing on the effects of pollution.

Some authors, such as Fredric Jameson and Sargent, have made a distinction between dystopia and anti-utopia. Sargent reserves the latter for works written against positive utopias or utopianism. Jameson does the same, but in doing so makes a political point by arguing that anti-utopianism has dominated the late twentieth century.

The most important twentieth-century theme of positive utopias has been feminism. The discovery of Herland (published serially in 1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (18601935) with its first book publication in 1979 led to the discovery or rediscovery of many early feminist utopias, particularly The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666), by Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle (1623?1674); A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), by Mary Astell (16681731); and A Description of Millenium Hall (1762), by Sarah Scott (17231795).

Such feminist utopias are found throughout the history of utopian literature, but the greatest number were published from the mid-1970s through the end of the twentieth century, with the most important being those by Le Guin, Piercy, and Russ. Small feminist presses published many of these novels, and the many lesbian utopias were published almost exclusively by lesbian presses. Such lesbian utopias included Retreat: As It Was! (1979), by Donna J. Young; Daughters of a Coral Dawn (1984), by Katherine Forrest (b. 1939); and Womonseed: A Vision (1986), by Sunlight.

The other major theme of the late twentieth century was environmentalism. Ecotopia (1975), by Ernest Callenbach (b. 1929), the most influential of the environmental utopias, was initially published by a small press and then reissued by a mass-market publisher. Later, environmentalism and feminism combined in ecofeminism, and most utopias that are feminist or reflect environmentalism include the other perspective.

Intentional communities.

The aspect of turn-of-the-twenty-first-century utopian studies that might appear least connected to the tradition of utopianism is intentional communities, but most such communities had a clear vision of how they hoped to live, which was in many cases explicitly utopian. In most cases, the actuality of the communities had little to do with the visions. Still, the visions were there, and they attracted and continue to attract people who choose to try to live the vision, even if they regularly fail to do so.

Many intentional communities were founded in the late 1960s through the 1970s, and while most were short-lived, there are a substantial number of such communities, like Twin Oaks in Virginia and The Farm in Tennessee, that are well past their thirtieth anniversary. And there are individual communities in various countries that are past fifty or seventy-five years. The phenomenon continues to grow, with more communities planned and some founded each year, and although members now downplay the utopian aspects, they are still there.

Utopian social theory.

The first major theorist to use utopia as an aspect of social theory was Karl Mannheim (18931947). Mannheim's sociology of knowledge is concerned with the social origins of thought systems, and to understand them he contrasts ideology and utopia. Ideology characterizes dominant social groupings who unconsciously obscure the fragility of their position. Utopia characterizes subordinate social positions; it reflects the desire to escape from reality. The utopian mentality is at the base of all serious social change.

Karl R. Popper (19021994) objected to utopianism in his The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). Popper argued that utopianism leads to violence and totalitarianism, saying, "the Utopian approach can be saved only by the Platonic belief in one absolute and unchanging ideal, together with two further assumptions, namely (a) that there are rational methods to determine once and for all what this ideal is, and (b) what the best means of its realization are" (vol. 1, p. 161). Popper's position came to dominate discussions of utopianism.

Those opposing Popper and supporting utopianism, like Ernst Bloch (18851977) and Frederik L. Polak (19071985), argued that utopianism was an essential element of all positive social theory. Polak argues that it is fundamental to the continuance of civilization, saying:

if Western man now stops thinking and dreaming the materials of new images of the future and attempts to shut himself up in the present, out of longing for security and for fear of the future, his civilization will come to an end. He has no choice but to dream or to die, condemning the whole of Western society to die with him. (vol. 1, p. 53)

Others have argued that while some people may be willing to impose their vision on others if they have the power to do so, this is not a problem with utopianism but with people misusing power.

Karl Marx (18181883) and his followers argued that their version of socialism was scientific, in contrast to the socialism of the so-called utopian socialists. This position was most famously expressed by Friedrich Engels (18201895) in his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1882), but Marxists have always been more ambivalent about utopianism than this simple division suggests, and while many Marxists were anti-utopian, others were clearly utopian themselves.

Thus, while Bloch was a Marxist, he did not have the negative attitude to utopias of many Marxists because his philosophy stressed the end or goal of human life. He saw utopia as an aspect of present reality, saying, in his Principle of Hope (19551959):

So far does utopia extend, so vigorously does this raw material spread to all human activities, so essentially must every anthropology and science of the world contain it. There is no realism worthy of the name if it abstracts from this strongest element in reality, as an unfinished reality. (p. 624; emphasis in the original)

Bloch makes a key distinction between "abstract" and "concrete" utopia. "Abstract utopia" includes the wishful thinking or fanciful elements found in the utopian tradition, such as the golden ages, earthly paradises, and cockaignes that occur early in most utopian traditions but also continue throughout their histories. "Concrete utopia" anticipates and affects the future, something like Polak's idea that our images of the future are part of the creation of our actual future. But for Bloch, as a Marxist, utopia must be part of praxis, it must grow out of present reality and influence actual political activity. Utopia, for Bloch, is a mechanism that has the potential of being reached. As Oscar Wilde famously put it, "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of utopias (p. 27).

Bloch's approach is based on the joined concepts of "hope" and "desire," in which desire can become an active agent of change. In The Concept of Utopia (1990), Ruth Levitas uses Bloch's approach to develop an understanding of utopia as a politically important tool whose essence is desire.


The coming of postmodernism, with its rejection of universals, posed a problem for those utopians who see utopias as generalizable solutions. But as Moylan points out in Demand the Impossible, writers of utopias had begun to change their approach even as postmodernism became influential. Le Guin's subtitle, An Ambiguous Utopia, signaled an explicit rejection of perfection and the recognition that utopias will face problems and will change over time.

Fredric Jameson, one of the most important theorists of postmodernism, has written extensively on utopianism. Jameson, like Bloch, argues that the literary utopia is a form of praxis rather than representation. But for Jameson, utopias are not goals, as they are for Bloch, but critiques of the present that help reeducate us regarding the present.

Both positive and negative utopias continue to be published. Intentional communities continue to be founded, and while most will fail, some will last for many years, fulfilling at least some of the expectations of their members. And attempts to understand the roles played by utopianism in human thought continue. Utopias have always expressed both the hopes and fears of humanity, the highest aspirations for human life and the deep-seated fear that we may not be capable of our own aspirations.

Non-Western Utopianism

While some well-regarded scholars argue that utopianism is a Western phenomenon and that utopias do not appear outside the West until the influence of More's Utopia was felt, others have argued that utopianism developed independently in non-Western cultures. Thomas More invented a literary genre, but there are texts in the West and outside it that predate More's Utopia that describe a nonexistent society that is identifiably better than the existing society. Probably the best-known early non-Western utopia is "The Peach Blossom Spring," a poem of T'ao Yüan Ming (also known as T'ao Ch'ien) (365427), that describes a peaceful peasant society, but there are golden ages, earthly paradises, and other forms of utopianism found in Sumerian clay tablets and within Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, and Daoism.

Once it is established that there are utopian traditions that are certainly non-Western, there are problems that confront a scholar approaching the subject at the beginning of the twenty-first century. One is the issue of what is non-Western. Scholars disagree profoundly over what constitutes non-Western and Western. Some would limit Western to Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand and thereby exclude the substantial Portuguese and Spanish literatures published in Central and South America, which contain many utopias. Others would include these literatures. A second problem is that there are no good bibliographies of any non-Western utopianism not written in English. A related problem is that there are debates in a number of countries, even in countries such as India, where English is an official language, over the status of works written in English, particularly those written by authors who choose to live outside the country.

In ancient China, Moist and Legalist thought had utopian elements, and the same can be said for neo-Confucianism and Daoism. In twentieth-century China, Mao Zedong (18931976) was clearly utopian in his desire to transform Chinese society along the lines of his vision for it, and it can be argued that Mao's Communism was both Marxist and rooted in Confucianism.

There have been a number of twentieth-century political movements with utopian dimensions. In India, Mohandas K. Gandhi (18691948) was a utopian and used the Hindu notion of Ramaraja (the rule of the Rama), the golden age, as a means of communicating his ideas. The vision of the Islamic republic developed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900?1989) and by the Taliban for Afghanistan were also clearly utopian and fit Popper's analysis of the dangers of utopianism.

There are oral utopian traditions among the aborigines in Australia, the first nations in Canada, the Maori in New Zealand, and the Native American Indians in the United States. The struggle against colonialism produced millennial movements with strong utopian elements, such as the Taiping Rebellion (18511864) in China and the Ghost Dance movement in the United States. There were dozens of such movements in South America and movements among the Maori in New Zealand, some of whose successors still exist in the early twenty-first century, such as the Maori's Ratana Church.

Also, there is a strong communitarian tradition in both Buddhism and Hinduism, and there is a traditional communitarianism among various indigenous peoples that has redeveloped since around 1980 as chosen, better ways of living, particularly among the Maori in New Zealand.

Most non-Western utopianism is post-More and clearly connected with the genre of literature he invented, and as a result are deeply influenced by the West. Since China had the strongest pre-More utopian tradition, it is not surprising that it has the strongest post-More tradition. The Chinese utopias that are best-known in the West are Li Ju-Chen's (c. 1760c. 1830) Flowers in the Mirror (1828), which favors the rights of women, and Kang Youwei's (18581929) Da T'ung Shu (1935), which is concerned with world unity.

Works that most nearly fit the genre of utopian literature appear to be most common in former colonies, and aspects of Chinese utopianism fit this model. There are utopias in English in various African countries, including South Africa, where utopias are in Afrikaans, English, and indigenous languages. In addition, there are utopias (because of limited research, how many is not known) in various indigenous languages in other African countries and in India.

African utopias in English are the works most widely read in the West. They come from many different countries and have a strong dystopian flavor. But as with many contemporary Western utopias, they often hold out hope of positive change. Ali A. Mazrui (1933), who was born in Kenya, wrote The Trial of Christopher Okigbo (1971), which is mostly dystopian but still holds out hope. Authors born in Nigeria include Buchi Emechta (1944), whose The Rape of Shavi (1983) shows the destruction of traditional utopia by colonialism; Wole Soyinka (1934), whose Seasons of Anomy (1973) is primarily dystopian but includes the possibility of a better life; and Ben Okri (1959), whose Astonishing the Gods (1995) presents the search for utopia. Bessie Head (19371986) was born in South Africa and lived in Botswana; her When Rain Clouds Gather (1969) presents a village that is both described as a utopia and is the location of an attempt to create a utopia.

The best-known Indian utopia in English is probably Salman Rushdie's (1947) Grimus (1975), which includes a society that is described in the text as "utopian" because it functions on a basis of rough equality and with no money. Other Indian utopias do not appear to have gained much of an audience outside India.

Comparative studies on Western and non-Western utopianism are only just beginning. (An early-twenty-first-century example is Zhang Longxi's "The Utopian Vision, East and West" in the journal Utopian Studies [2002].)

See also Equality ; Paradise on Earth ; Society .


Al-Azmeh, Aziz. "Utopia and Islamic Political Thought." History of Political Thought 11 (1990): 919.

Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope. 3 vols. Translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986.

Jameson, Fredric. The Seeds of Time. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Kumar, Krishan. Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

Levitas, Ruth. The Concept of Utopia. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1990.

Lewis, Arthur O. Utopian Literature in The Pennsylvania State University Libraries: A Selected Bibliography. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Libraries, 1984.

Mannheim, Karl. Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. Translated by Louis Wirth and Edward Shils. New ed. London: Routledge, 1991.

Manuel, Frank E., and Fritzie P. Manuel. Utopian Thought in the Western World. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Moylan, Tom. Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. London: Methuen, 1986.

. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2000.

Negley, Glenn. Utopian Literature. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1977.

Polak, Fred[erik] L. The Image of the Future; Enlightening the Past, Orientating the Present, Forecasting the Future. 2 vols. Translated by Elise Boulding. New York: Oceana, 1961.

Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies. 4th rev. ed. 2 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962. Originally published in 1945.

Pordzik, Ralph. The Quest for Postcolonial Utopia: A Comparative Introduction to the Utopian Novel in the New English Literatures. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.

Pordzik, Ralph, and Hans Ulrich Seeber, eds. Utopie und Dystopie in den Neuen Englischen Literaturen. Heidelberg, Germany: Universtätsverlag C. Winter, 2002.

Roemer, Kenneth M. The Obsolete Necessity: America in Utopian Writings, 18881900. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1976.

Sargent, Lyman Tower. British and American Utopian Literature, 15161985: An Annotated, Chronological Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1988.

. "The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited." Utopian Studies 5, no. 1 (1994): 137.

Schaer, Roland, Gregory Claeys, and Lyman Tower Sargent, eds.Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World. New York: New York Public Library and Oxford University Press, 2000.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

Wilde, Oscar. The Soul of Man under Socialism. Boston: Luce, 1910.

Zhang Longxi. "The Utopian Vision, East and West." Utopian Studies 13 (2002): 120.

Lyman Tower Sargent


views updated May 21 2018


UTOPIA . The term utopia (from the Greek ou-topos, "no place," or eutopos, "good place," and evidently coined as a pun by Thomas More for the title of his book published in 1516) has very diverse, often confusing connotations. Sometimes it is used to mean any idealization of the distant or primordial past, when humans lived closer to the gods (or God), as found in Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform accounts of Dilman; in the Hebrew story of Eden of Genesis; in portrayals of the Golden Age by Hesiod, Vergil, Symmachus, and other Greek and Roman writers; in myths of the "perfect great period" (ktayuga, suśamā, etc.) in later Vedic, earlier Jain, and Buddhist traditions; or in accounts of the early age of the four (mythic) emperors of popular Chinese thought. In some ancient cultures, the original inhabitants of certain foreign regions were imagined to live in an innocent, trouble-free state (the Greeks, for instance, wrote of the Ethiopians, Scythians, and others in this fashion), while not a few students of prehistory in modern times have visualized the earliest humans as herbivores, free from war (as held by Richard Leakey), or as without the sexual constraints and inequalities of later ages (as held by Friedrich Engels).

In contrast, the term utopia at other times refers to the future realization of some perfect place and time. It can take on futurist instead of primitivist associations, thus becoming a lost paradise regained, the projection of the hopes and dreams of a millenarianism (the kingdom of God or its equivalent on earth), or the establishment of an ideal society divinely or otherwise sanctioned to replace the glaring ills of the day. Occasionally notions of heavenly worldssuch as the mythic Isles of the Blessed in Greco-Roman belief, the Chinese Māhāyana Buddhist Pure Land of the West, or the Qurʾanic vision of heaven as fertile gardens with maidservantshave been described as utopian, as also have visions of an eternal city set above the known order, such as Augustine's City of God, which nevertheless partakes of earthly affairs.

A more traditional understanding of utopia (as in More) is that of a distant, wondrous land allegedly discovered and described by a traveler returning home. Hints of this are found in Homer's Odyssey (the account of the Phaeacians), and the earliest extant written description of utopia is that of Euhemerus, who not only argued that the gods were originally deified mortals but also described an idyllic social order outside the bounds and difficulties of ordinary human life. Interestingly, priests are the effective rulers of the Sacred Isle, although they have no official political status.

Pertinent comparisons here include the Greek romancer (and perhaps Cynic) Iambulus writing on the island City of the Sun (early first century bce), the church historian Socrates on the location of Eden (440 century ce), More's Utopia (1516), the Spanish explorer Garcilaso de la Vega's impressions of the Inca empire (1617), the Rosicrucian Johann Valentia Andreae's Christianopolis (1619), the Dominican Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun (1623), empiricist Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627), and philosophe Denis Diderot's Tahiti (1772), all Western in origin. More's crescent-shaped, two-hundred-mile-long, substantially urbanized island utopia is the most famous, remarkable for its religious tolerance and its endearing priests, who do not persecute but instead constrain those few who happen to hold to the three destructive, forbidden views: that the soul is mortal, that the world is the outcome of mere chance, and that there is no reward or punishment after death.

Possible Eastern analogues to these strangely removed lands are found in Chinese and particularly Daoist beliefs from the fourth century ce onward. Accordingly, select individuals could secure, by some potion or other means, virtual immortality, and "not somewhere else out of this world," as Joseph Needham puts it, "nor in the underworld of the Yellow Springs, but among the mountains and forests here and forever." Looking further afield, from the pre-Christian Americans one learns of South American Indian migrations (the Guariní, in particular) in quest of the "land without evil" to the east. In transitional Melanesia, individuals who have managed to journey well beyond their own cultural bounds during colonial times (such as police, recruited laborers, and others) have often spun together novel mythic histories about where the whites came fromBritain, Germany, Jerusalem, Sydney, and so onand how they acquired "cargo" (European goods). From such far-off utopias, where God, the ancestors, and culture heroes are present, cargo came as transformation and blessing to the islanders.

In the present day, the idea of utopia has become inseparable from utopianism, the systematic attempt to engineer a preferable, even perfect society. The origins of utopia in this sense might be said to go back to the construction of the first cities (according to Lewis Mumford) or at least to the schemes of Plato (and the lesser-known Greek thinkers Hippodamus and Phaleas). But many scholars do not consider this exercise in model building for revolutionary social transformation much older than the eighteenth century (the moderately aristocratic Oceana scheme by the Englishman James Harrington in 1656 being only faintly precursory), and they have pointed out the central role of the Western ideal of universal progression toward utopianism's realization. They also recognize the secondary importance of practical experimentation in the Americas, where, especially in North America, European colonists attempted to establish new kinds of community or sought a new paradise in the wilderness away from the evils of the Old World.

Utopianist designs for social reconstruction have not always been distinctly religious, except insofar as their ethical stances reflect spiritual values. As the chief protagonist in Plato's Republic, Socrates was an atheist when it came to the old gods, yet the guardians of his new polity were to be fully enlightened by the supreme idea of the good (the equivalent of God). In modern times, utopianists have voiced radically anticlerical, if not anti-Christian sentiments, yet they have been dominated by a vision of what is ethically right regarding human relationships. The first utopia as a projected, future program rather than a millennial fiat was that of the French progressivist Sebastian Mercier. In his tract on the year 2440 (written in 1770) he expressed his wish that the church as he knew it would not survive, but nonetheless he imagined an initiation ceremony using telescopes and microscopes, in which young people would discover God, the author of nature (which, in turn, would serve as the basis of justice). Disillusioned with ecclesiastical orthodoxy, in 1825, one of his successors, Saint-Simon, wrote New Christianity, and the renowned Charles Fourier described a New Earth in the dawning of the Third Age, like Joachim di Fiore's Age of the Spirit (1847). If François-Noël Babeuf and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, two other French utopianists, were secular communists in their approach, each nevertheless preached with a religious intensity against injustice. There were other European utopian thinkers in the nineteenth century, both English and continental, from Scottish industrial reformer Robert Owen, a man touched by Christian millennial hopes in his New Vision of Society (1813), to vehemently antireligious anarchists, including Petr Kropotkin, a Russian litterateur active at the end of the century.

Marxism has been characterized as a species of secular utopianism, even millenarianism, for presaging a future, supranational society free of classes following a series of proletarian revolutions. Both Karl Marx himself and his collaborator Engels, however, detached themselves from the utopians (especially Proudhon) by arguing that the historical process rather than artificial reorganization would produce a radically better order. However, the fact that the programs of Lenin and Stalin in Russia, Mao Zedong in China, Kim Il Sung in North Korea, and others reveal massive political manipulation and forced mobilizations to support communist state policies suggests that where Marxism has been dominant in certain societies, politics have typically drifted toward the utopian, social-engineering model that Marx himself disdained. The end product of these maneuvers was meant to be a society free not only from classes but from religion.

Communism and socialism take a number of forms, although many less obviously political expressions are often referred to as communalisms, commutarianisms, or communes. Many and varied small-scale utopian communities have been established in the modern-day West, with the greatest number in North America. One discovers parallel and prototypic communities in earlier religious history: the Chinese Daoist and Neo-Confucian retreats of sagehood (Zhang Daoling at Dragon Tiger Mountain, Kiangsi, during the first century ce, or Zhou Dunyi at Lu Shan, c. 1050); in the early monasticisms (both the Jain and Buddhist traditions in India, the Jewish Qumranites and Therapeutae, the Christian Pachomians, Benedictines and their medieval successors, etc.); in the elitist, and for all appearances sectarian, spiritual fraternities (Indian āśrama s, the ancient gnostic and hermetic schools of Egypt, the medieval Brethren of the Free Spirit in Germany and the Low Countries, the Rosicrucian Order, and other esoteric groups in seventeenth-century England and Germany); and in the communities of the radical Reformation (Anabaptists, Hutterites, etc.) with this tradition generating Mennonite, Amish, and other experiments in North America, including the Quaker City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia.

By the nineteenth century the United States was sprinkled with many religious communities, at that time often dubbed "socialisms" (John Humphrey Noyes documented at least forty-eight in his History of American Socialisms, 1870) but today more likely called utopias or (somewhat pejoratively) "cults." The most famous, distinctly religious examples were Amana in Iowa, New Harmony in Indiana (inspired by Owen), the Shaker and Oneida communities (in New York and elsewhere), as well as the Mormon settlements in Utah. During the first half of this century such communities were spawned in the northwestern states, and since World War II the popularity of life in communes or special retreats has grown, especially in California because of the impact of Eastern meditative traditions and the rejection of highly mechanized and plutocratic North American society (in favor of, for example, a drug culture, anarchy, or a more highly disciplined, ascetic way of life). Some have been inspired by Thoreau's Walden and other American celebrations of seclusion in the wild, others by ravaged Amerindian traditions. Comparable postwar communes were established in northern Europe and Australia.

In view of these developments and the growth of state communism, Christian theologians have debated whether Christianity is a utopian faith. Reinhold Niebuhr characterized the Christian position as anti-utopian because evil can never be eradicated from society, while Paul Tillich argued that utopian dreaming has positive value in setting ideal goals but must be transcended when only enslavement or force can secure its long-lasting actualization. Modern Eastern philosophers, particularly Indian gurus who have encouraged or founded new communes, characteristically teach that such communities are but transitory supports before liberation from the realm of physical contingency and karmic law.

Utopia is a subject for both the sociology and psychology of religion. When attempts are made to realize a utopian scheme, it is important to ask questions about social dynamics, the role of a charismatic leader or elders, its degree of durability, and the rate of attrition. A stringently prestructured scheme usually results in a more legalistic orientation and a greater resort to authoritarianism, while in looser efforts at cooperation unity is maintained more by common hope of labors rewarded or a coming transformation. A shared sense of purpose, however, especially by the genuinely faithful, is crucial for the survival of either kind of movement. Apropos to religious categorization, utopianism tends to characterize sectarian, spiritualistic, and mystical persuasions, just as most utopists in the political arena tend to reject the current order of realpolitik, feeling it reflects the morally bankrupt established system.

Utopianism in practice is as attractive psychologically as millenarianism is for idealists, or for those in quest of some certainty and an anxiety-free existence in a sea of cultural, religious, and ethical pluralism. Utopia can also provide, as can the millennial transformation to come, satisfaction for feelings of resentment toward the world's ills or the society from which utopists secede. A need for the certainty a utopia can provide often coincides with extensive rule making and authoritarianism, while recriminatory tendencies can lead to isolationism and relative xenophobia.

Utopianism, when viewed as an oneiric tendency to project a vision of a better life or as exercises of the imagination that lead to social questioning, is more a product of the mind and religious intellectual activity than social organization. The contemplation of happiness and what it entails is a perennial feature of philosophical reflection in religious or quasi-religious traditions, and utopianism is one of its clearer manifestations. Students of the unconscious will note that the displacement of reality for imagined visualization can compel archetypally vivid dreams and rich symbols. Psychoanalytically interesting, moreover, is the aspect of utopias that touches on sexual mores. Thomas More imagined an ideal marriage state, with children being brought up by the community as a whole. An actual attempt at reconstructing Eden-like conditions of the male-female union came with the Adamites, one pre-Reformation group of which was isolated on an island in the river Elbe in Germany from the fifteenth century onward. Members went naked (a reminder that nudist colonies are essentially utopian), and the "naturalness" in the sexual relations of later groups are portrayed in the indelible symbols of Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Worldly Delights (1506?). A modern utopia of particular interest regarding the relationship of religion and sexuality is the Oneida community which was governed by Noyes's complex books of instruction.

Whether as a product of thought or action, or analyzed in a sociological or psychological sense, utopianism characteristically betrays assumptions about the limited relevance of historical change. Utopias are often conceived, sometimes unwillingly, "as good patterns of life in an ahistorical cosmos" (Olson, 1982). Little thought is given to what may lie beyond or develop out of these Utopias in the future, since, like the millennium, they constitute an end or proper fulfillment of the known order. Unlike the millennium, however, utopia can be discovered, and although it may also be the product of dreaming and imagination, it can be devised rationally and is not constructed only from the elusiveness and ambiguities of apocalyptic literary authorities. Admittedly some forms of millennialism, particularly those of American theologians who preached that the kingdom of God had to be worked for on earth (as documented best by Ernest Lee Tuveson), compare better with utopian visions. On the other hand, such visions are not intrinsically incompatible with noneschatological or more decidedly secular approaches to social reform. Marx, Freud, and other atheist commentators, however, suggest that all religion is inherently utopian in reflecting the presumptions or hypothesizing about a given realmespecially the afterlifethat escapes the ordinary contingencies of material existence and selfhood. And if this is at least arguable, so too it can be proposed that utopia is fundamentally a given of religious consciousness.

See Also

Cargo Cults; Community; Golden Age; Millenarianism; Noyes, John Humphrey.


Ferguson, John. Utopias of the Classical World. Ithaca, N.Y., 1975.

Holloway, Mark. Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America, 16801880. 2d ed., rev. New York, 1966.

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective. Cambridge, Mass., 1972.

Lasky, Melvin J. Utopia and Revolution: On the Origins of a Metaphor. Chicago, 1978.

Lovejoy, Arthur O., and George Boas. Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. Baltimore, 1935.

Manuel, Frank E., ed. Utopias and Utopian Thought. Boston, 1967. Includes important articles by Lewis Mumford and Paul Tillich.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China. 5 vols. Princeton, N.J., 19541983.

Noyes, John Humphrey. History of American Socialisms. Philadelphia, 1870. Reissued as Strange Cults and Utopias of Nineteenth-Century America. (New York, 1966).

Olsen, Theodore. Millennialism, Utopianism, and Progress. Toronto, 1982.

Pöhlmann, Robert von. Geschichte der Sozialen Frage und des Sozialismus in der antiken Welt. 2 vols. Munich, 1925.

Richter, Peyton E., ed. Utopias: Social Ideas and Communal Experiments. Boston, 1971.

Thrupp, Sylvia L., ed. Millennial Dreams in Action. New York, 1970.

Tuveson, Ernest Lee. Millennium and Utopia. Berkeley, Calif., 1949.

Venturi, Franco. Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment. Cambridge, 1971.

Yates, Frances A. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. London, 1972.

New Sources

Collins, Steven. Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities. Cambridge, 1998.

Dawson, Doyne. Cities of the Gods: Communist Utopias in Greek Thought. New York, 1992.

Eaton, Ruth. Ideal Cities: Utopianism and the (Un)built Environment. Antwerp, 2001.

Eliav Feldon, Miriam. Realistic Utopias: The Ideal Imaginary Societies of the Renaissance, 15161630. Oxford, 1982.

Hardy, Dennis. Utopian England: Community Experiments, 19001945. London, 2000.

Levitas, Ruth. The Concept of Utopia. New York, 1990.

Neville-Sington, Pamela, and David Sington. Paradise Dreamed: How Utopian Thinkers Have Changed the Modern World. London, 1993.

Garry W. Trompf (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 27 2018


UTOPIA. The impulse to wonder about a more perfect world is at least as old as Gilgamesh's search for the garden of Dilmun (c. 2500 b.c.e.). The dream of an earthly paradise seems to be widespread among the peoples of the earth, as a way of both imagining the ideal and expressing dissatisfaction with the here and now. Gilgamesh's perilous journey is prompted by his shock at the loss of his boon companion Enkidu and his own looming mortality. The propensity for utopian speculation is in part nostalgia for an idealized human existence, believed in the Islamic and Judeo-Christian tradition to have once existed in a paradise now lost. In times of social and political upheaval, such as existed in early modern Europe, authors also used the ideal for satiric purposes. As a result, utopian literature has flourished as a genre.

The first and most significant work of this kind is Sir Thomas More'sUtopia, published in Latin at Louvain in 1516 (1551 in the first English translation). In letters to friends, More called his planned work "Nusquama," from the Latin adverb for 'nowhere'; however, when he chose the title, he transliterated the Greek negative ou into the Latin u and combined it with the Greek topos to create a new word, "utopia," or 'nowhere'. In the commendatory letters from his humanist circle printed with early editions of the work, several observed that this country also ought to be called "Eutopia" (from the Greek eu for 'good'). Thus "utopian" was seen at once as an intriguing but impossible ideal.

More (14781535), who served Henry VIII as an adviser and became chancellor in 1529, wrote his classic in the turbulent years just before the beginning of the Reformation. He cast his imaginative flight in the form of a dialogue, a rhetorical strategy that allowed him to express dissatisfaction with current social conditions while maintaining a comfortable distance rhetorically from such dangerous ideas as the abolition of private property. The first part is a discussion between Raphael Hythloday ('babbler of nonsense'), a mariner who had chanced upon a fabulous land where all goods were held in common, and More himself, about the problems of Christian Europe, which was plagued by greed and corruption. Part two (which was written first) is the actual discussion of the ideal society, where Christianity takes root among the Utopians with surprising ease because it is so consistent with the Utopians' communal way of life. At the end, the character More finally admits that he would like to see some aspects of Utopian society put into practice in England, but states that he believes it is unlikely ever to happen. Ultimately, Utopia attempts to negotiate a course between the ideal and the actual and implicitly recognizes that, given the fallibility of mankind, perfection is impossible.

In the aftermath of Utopia, which earned great renown for More, other descriptive works appeared that made use of some of the same literary devices: a shipwreck or other chance encounter with an ideal community, followed by a return to Europe. Ortensio Lando and Anton Francesco Doni's collaborativeEutopia in 1548 (its full title is The Newly Discovered Republic of the Government of the Isle of Eutopia ) reverses this scenario by having a Eutopian citizen visit Italy to comment directly upon its excesses, which sparked interest in other utopian imitations.


In the seventeenth century Francis Bacon's (15611626) advocacy of a "new" science based on inductive reasoning led others to dream of synthesizing human knowledge with religion to produce a universal knowledge, or "pansophia." This "utopian" myth became the driving force for a new vision of a Christian commonwealth. Bacon's utopian work, The New Atlantis (written c. 1614 and published posthumously in 1627) was a coda to The GreatInstauration (1620). It took the form of a voyage to the island of Bensalem, the centerpiece of which is Salomon's House, a research college where the new scientific method leads to discoveries and inventions that greatly enrich the commonwealth. A belief in pansophia had similarly inspired Tommaso Campanella (15681639) to put forth his vision of The City of the Sun (1623), a sea captain's account of an ideal Christian community, where a single ruler named Sun is assisted by three aides, Power, Knowledge, and Love (with an obvious indebtedness to the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The role of science is paramount, with the seven concentric walls that ring the city displaying pictorially the unity of all knowledge. By naming these walls for the seven planets orbiting the sun, Campanella clearly stands with Copernicus on the most important scientific debate of the age.

The vision of a Christian commonwealth founded on scientific principles is at the heart of one of the century's more influential utopianists, Johann Valentin Andreae (15861654), a Lutheran churchman who produced several works, notably Christianopolis (1619, published as Reipublicae Christianopolitanae Descriptio [Description of a Christian republic]), which garnered praise from learned readers such as Robert Burton. Framed as a traveler's tale, it describes a Christian city in which an elite brotherhood possesses a secret wisdom and oversees the further exploration of nature's secrets through scientific experimentation. Andreae had been part of a youthful circle at the University of Tübingen that had produced a series of utopian pamphlets around 1610 (Fama Fraternitatis and the Confessio Fraternitatis [The Fame of the Fraternity and the Confession of the Fraternity]), advocating a Protestant brotherhood to bring about reform within the Lutheran church. These pamphlets caused an extraordinary sensation when published in print, often called the Rosicrucian furor. Andreae's ideas greatly influenced the Moravian reformer Jan Comenius (c. 15921670) and passed into England through Samuel Hartlib (c. 16001662), who brought out an English translation of another treatise by Andreae (A Modell of a Christian Society [London, 1647]) to help reform England in the aftermath of the Civil War. With some justification, the Royal Society (founded in 1660) can be considered the fruition of the dream of a Baconian research college to aid the commonwealth.


The rationalists of the Enlightenment who helped prepare the way for the revolutions of 1776 and 1789 did not produce any recognized utopian classics. There were, however, utopian elements in variousworks, suchasFénelon's Adventures of Telemachus (1699), Montesquieu's Persian Letters (1721), the sketch of El Dorado in Voltaire's Candide (1759), and Condorcet's Esquisse (1794), that were influential at the time.

See also Bacon, Francis ; Condorcet, Marie-Jean Caritat, marquis de ; Fénelon, François ; Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat de ; More, Thomas ; Philosophes ; Progress ; Rosicrucianism ; Voltaire .


Primary Sources

Andreae, Johann Valentin. Christianopolis. Introduced and translated by Edward H. Thompson. International Archives of the History of Ideas, vol. 162. Dordrecht and London, 1999.

Bacon, Sir Francis. The New Atlantis and the Great Instauration. Edited by Jerry Weinberger. Arlington Heights, Ill., 1989.

Campanella, Tommaso. The City of the Sun. Translated by Daniel J. Donno. Berkeley, 1981.

More, Thomas. Utopia. Translated by Edward Surtz. New Haven, 1964.

Secondary Sources

Dickson, Donald R. The Tessera of Antilia: Utopian Brotherhoods & Secret Societies in the Early Seventeenth Century. Brill's Studies in Intellectual History, vol. 88. Leiden, New York, and Cologne, 1998.

Manuel, Frank E., and Fritzie P. Manuel. Utopian Thought in the Western World. Cambridge, Mass., 1979.

Negley, Glenn. Utopian Literature: A Bibliography with a Supplementary Listing of Works Influential in Utopian Thought. Lawrence, Kans., 1977.

Donald R. Dickson


views updated Jun 11 2018

utopia, utopianism A utopia is an imaginative account of a perfect society or ideal commonwealth. The term, which is often used derogatively to mean unrealistic, is derived from Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516), but in sociology it is usually associated with the sociology of knowledge of Karl Mannheim. In Ideology and Utopia (1929), Mannheim claimed that subordinate groups and classes are attracted to utopian beliefs which emphasize the possibilities of change and transformation, whereas dominant social classes typically adopt an ideological outlook which emphasizes stability and continuity. For Mannheim, the radical views of the Anabaptist sects were examples of utopianism. However, Mannheim's interest in utopianism also had a philosophical and religious dimension: it is the capacity for utopianism which ultimately defines human nature, that is, the capacity to imagine alternative futures.

Mannheim's perception of the relationship between utopianism and human ontology was also shared by the Marxist social philosopher Ernst Bloch, whose The Principle of Hope (1959) examined the role of dreaming, fairy stories, utopian philosophies, and fantasies in human societies. For Bloch, utopianism was an anticipatory consciousness which is ubiquitous. Utopias have two dimensions, material and subjective, which he expressed in terms of the Not-Yet-Become and the Not-Yet-Conscious. Bloch's ideas were a protest against the failures of organized communism in Eastern Europe.

The utopian strands in Karl Marx's theory of communism are retained in even the most revisionist of contemporary neo-Marxisms. The work of André Gorz is typical in this respect. Born in Austria, Gorz became one of the leading social and political theorists of the French New Left, and for a time edited Les Temps modernes. He has written numerous short, popular articles, and a series of influential books including Ecology as Politics (1980), Farewell to the Working Class (1982), Paths to Paradise (1985), and Critique of Economic Reason (1989). Though strongly influenced by Marxist ideas, and especially by Sartre, Gorz has continually attempted to revise this heritage in the light of his own analyses of contemporary social changes, and his distinctive vision of a possible utopian future. His earlier work proposed a strategy for the labour movement based on an alliance between the declining ‘traditional’ working class and a growing ‘new’ working class. The meaninglessness and alienation of work in advanced capitalism were conditions shared by these different groups. Subsequently, however, Gorz ceased to assign to the working class in any form the revolutionary role expected by classical Marxism. Technological change in advanced capitalist societies is bringing about fundamental changes in the social structure: ‘worker-producers’ are increasingly outnumbered by a heterogeneous population in insecure, part-time, or temporary work, in other words a growing ‘post-industrial neo-proletariat’. At the same time, the obsession with economic growth and the commitment to the work ethic are increasingly destructive of both nature and of personal life in society. New social movements, especially ecological politics, point the way to a future in which class and domination are ended. A basic income will be provided independently of work. Technology will be employed to reduce to a minimum that element of unrewarding labour which remains necessary for the meeting of need. Meanwhile, such necessary labour as is required will be shared equally among the population. The progressive reduction in the working week made possible by these arrangements will free people for a creative, autonomous, and convivial use of their time and energies.

Gorz's work has been subjected to searching criticism in Boris Frankel's The Post-Industrial Utopians (1987). For a more general treatment of the topic see Ruth Levitas , The Concept of Utopia (1990


views updated May 29 2018


"Utopia" is a term that English statesman and author Thomas More coined in the early sixteenth century in his novel of the same name. It is derived from two Greek words:Eutopia (meaning "good place") and Outopia (meaning "no place"). Utopia is therefore a good place that does not exist. A space utopia, one could claim, is a good place that can exist only in space.

The word "utopia" conjures up the vision of an ideal society, where people are physically and morally free, where they work not because of need but out of pleasure, where love knows no laws, and where everyone is an artist. A space utopia is the same paradise set elsewhere and served with a generous dose of science fiction.

Space utopias resonate mostly in the United States, because of its history as an immigrant nation with an open frontier; its tolerance for small, like-minded, isolated communities; its preference for the individual as opposed to the government; and its faith in technology to solve human problems.

A good example of space utopia is the human-made space habitat first described by Princeton University physicist Gerard K. O'Neill in his book The High Frontier (1977). Situated at L-5, an equilibrium point between Earth and the Moon, and made of lunar material, this hypothetical habitat is entirely controlled by its creators, including the gravity, terrain, landscape, and weather. Energy is obtained from the Sun, while air, water, and materials are constantly recycled. The few thousand inhabitants in these settlements lead happy and productive lives, dedicated to learning, service, production, commerce, science, and exploration. Their society combines control over the environment, the beauty of self-made nature, the shared plenty of a consumer economy, and the intimacy of village life. There is little crime and no racial, ethnic, religious, or economic strife. Government is democratic and limited, imposing few legal, fiscal, or moral restraints on its citizens, thereby enabling them to pursue their individual happiness.

The likelihood of the successful existence of space utopias is diminished as the inherent difficulties of utopias on Earth are compounded by the rigors of the space environment. Social and biological scientists, humanists, and theologians argue that a large-scale utopian society is against human nature, if for no other reason than it ignores the human drive for power. Social scientists argue that the demise of small-scale utopian communities is caused by their inability to sufficiently isolate themselves from the rest of society and to survive the transition to new group leadership. Faced with fading communities, American Mennonites emigrated to the jungles of Central America, and few cults in the United States have survived their charismatic leaders. While many utopian cults transformed into established religions and institutions with bureaucratic organization independent of their founders, there are examples of those that could not and, instead, have found violent death (People's Temple followers, led by the Reverend Jim Jones, in Guyana, 1978; Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, in Texas, 1993; and Heaven's Gate followers, led by Marshall Applewhite, in California, 1997).

The harsh and unforgiving environment of space precludes the existence of human groups without strict authority structures, at least within our solar system. The International Space Station operates under a rigorous chain of command sanctioned by international law. Space utopian societies may have to wait for routine travel between solar systems and the availability of uninhabited Earthlike planets.

see also Communities in Space (volume 4); O'Neill, Gerard K. (volume 4); O'neill Colonies (volume 4); Settlements (volume 4); Social Ethics (volume 4).

Michael Fulda


Finney, Ben R., and Eric M. Jones, ed. Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Harrison, Albert A. Spacefaring: The Human Dimension. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.


views updated May 29 2018

672. Utopia (See also Heaven, Paradise, Wonderland.)

  1. Abbey of Thelema Rabelais vision of the ideal society. [Fr. Lit.: Gargantua, Plumb, 394]
  2. Altneuland future Jewish state; if willed, no fairytale. [Hung. Lit.: Altneuland, Wigoder, 21]
  3. Altruria equalitarian, socialist state founded on altruistic principles. [Am. Lit.: A Traveler from Altruria in Hart, 860]
  4. Amaurote chief city in Utopia. [Br. Lit.: Utopia ]
  5. Annfwn land of perpetual beauty and happiness where death is unknown. [Welsh Myth.: Leach, 91]
  6. Atlantis legendary island; inspired many Utopian myths. [Western Folklore: Misc.]
  7. Brook Farm literary, socialist commune intended to be small utopia (18411846). [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 63]
  8. Castalia founded by intellectuals to form a synthesis of arts and sciences, symbolized in the Glass Bead Game. [Ger. Lit.: Hesse Magister Ludi in Weiss, 278]
  9. Cloud Cuckooland (See Nephelococcygia, below.)
  10. Coming Race, The depicts a classless society of highly civilized people living deep under the earths surface. [Br. Lit.: Barnhart, 268]
  11. El Dorado legendary place of fabulous wealth. [Am. Hist.: Espy, 335]
  12. Erewhon utopiaanagram of nowhere. [Br. Lit.: Erewhon ]
  13. Golden Age legendary period under the rule of Cronus when life was easy and blissful for all. [Gk. Myth.: NCE, 33]
  14. Helicon Home Colony socialist community founded by Upton Sinclair. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 2524]
  15. Looking Backward, 20001887 utopian novel (1888). [Am. Lit.: Benét, 598]
  16. Nephelococcygia ethereal wonderland of castles; secure from gods. [Gk. Lit.: The Birds ]
  17. Never Never Land fictional home. [Br. Lit.: Peter Pan, Espy, 339]
  18. New Atlantis, The Sir Francis Bacons 1627 account of a visit to the island of Bensalem, which abounds in scientic discoveries. [Br. Lit.: Haydn & Fuller, 515]
  19. New Harmony cooperative colony founded by Robert Owen in Indiana (1825). [Am. Hist.: EB, X: 315]
  20. News from Nowhere account of a Socialist Utopia based on craftsmanship, love, and beauty. [Br. Lit.: Drabble, 695]
  21. Oneida founded by John Humphrey Noyes in New York; based on extended family system. [Am. Hist.: EB, X: 315]
  22. Perelandra used of the planet Venus, where life has been newly created and the atmosphere has the innocent beauty of Eden. [Eng. Lit.: Lewis Perelandra; The Space Trilogy in Weiss, 437]
  23. Republic, The Platos dialogue describes the ideal state. [Gk. Lit.: Benét, 850]
  24. Saint-Simonism sociopolitical theories advocating industrial socialism. [Fr. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 955]
  25. Seven Cities of Cibola the land of the Zunis (New Mexico); great wealth sought by Coronado. [Mex. Myth.: Payton, 614]
  26. Shangri-la earthly paradise in the Himalayas. [Br. Lit.: Lost Horizon ]
  27. Utopia Mores humanistic treatise on the ideal state (1516). [Br. Lit.: Utopia ]

Valor (See BRAVERY .)


views updated May 29 2018


In the Greek language, "utopia" means: "no place," suggesting that utopia is never to be found on earth; that it is instead an eternally-empty ideal, or dream. In 1516, the famous English philosopher, Sir Thomas More, wrote extensively about utopia, where he depicted an 'ideal state' that has since given its name (Utopia) to all such later romantic visions of an ideal country, or a "heaven on earth" society. Typically, people who are known as Utopian writers criticize the present conditions of the world and outline vast revolutionary schemes without describing the concrete, specific steps necessary to achieve them. Some famous philosophers who were regarded as Utopian include Plato, who constructed an ideal society in his Republic, as well as Campanella, Bacon, and Rousseau. During the nineteenth century, Utopian thinking began to be taken more seriously, as technological advances associated with industrialization caused many people to believe that a Utopian world could be achieved with the help of technology and with a scientific system of economics. In particular, Engels, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon, and other nineteenth-century socialist philosophers began to write extensively about creating Utopian socialist communities. Utopian experiments were actually tried, both in the United States and in Europe, but they were all short-lived, and all failed. In the twentieth century, most people became more cynical about the prospects for Utopian societies, and at least two major satiric anti-Utopian books were written: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and George Orwell's 1984.

See also: Brook Farm


views updated Jun 08 2018

406. Utopia

See also 376. SOCIETY .

an imaginary place where the conditions and quality of life are unpleasant. The opposite of Utopia.
the precepts and opinions of Etienne Cabet and his followers, who settled communistic utopias in the U.S. during the 19th cent., as Nauvoo, Illinois (1849). Icarian, n., adj.
a state in which the worst possible conditions exist in government, society, law, etc. Cf. Utopia.
1. name of an imaginary island; subject and title of a book by Sir Thomas More, that had a perfect political and social system.
2. (l.c. ) any ideal place or situation.
1. the views and habits of mind of a visionary or idealist, sometimes beyond realization.
2. impracticable schemes of political and social reform. utopian, utopianist, utopist, n., adj.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Utopia. Politico-philosophic work by Thomas More (1516), initiating a literary genre. Steeped in literary humanism, More sought for the best form of government through discussions with the fictitious Raphael Hythloday, addressing problems of counsel (from both monarchal and advisory viewpoints) and social concerns such as theft, before expanding into a more general analysis of Tudor England. This is followed by Hythloday's account of the ‘New Island of Utopia’ (‘No-place’), but its egalitarian commonwealth appears flawed since, despite religious freedom and absence of hunger and homelessness, personal freedom is restricted. If welfare democracies are anticipated, shadows of modern totalitarian regimes hover.

A. S. Hargreaves