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Dr. Andrew Wood
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Summary of Thomas More's Utopia

More, T. (1516/1997).  Utopia. New York, NY: Dover Thrift Edition.

Utopia (published in 1516) attempts to offer a practical response to the crises of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by carefully defining an ideal republic. Unlike Plato's Republic, a largely abstract dialogue about justice, Utopia focuses on politics and social organization in stark detail. The books begin a conversation between Thomas More and Raphael (Hebrew for 'God has healed'). Raphael is a traveler who has seen much of the world yet is impressed by little of it. Even monsters are hardly worthy of concern. After all, "There is never any shortage of horrible creatures who prey on human beings, snatch away their food, or devour whole populations; but examples of wise social planning are not so easy to find" (p. 40). [Note: throughout this essay, I cite from the Turner translation.]

Before long, it becomes clear that Raphael offers shrewd analysis of various communities around the globe - and that he finds most of them to be faulty in some way. Even Tudor England offers little in the form of civilization. Raphael illustrates this rebuke by noting that thieves in English society are executed when, instead, they should be pitied and helped. The seizure of land by oligarchs, the maintenance of a wasteful standing army, the practice of gambling and gratuitous ornamentation - all of these social ills lead to a sick society, according to Raphael. Moreover, these ills produce a subjugated people: "you create thieves, and then punish them for stealing" (p. 49)!

Of course, Raphael remains an outsider to civilization - despite his wisdom. When More asks if he might serve as counselor to some king, Raphael responds that no king or court would tolerate a counselor who might challenge their strongly (and wrongly) held assumptions. Referring to Plato's Republic, Raphael notes that the likelihood of a king acting as a philosopher, or merely tolerating one, is coincidental at best: "I'd be promptly thrown out, or merely treated as a figure of fun" (p. 57). More responds that social reform is a pleasant ideal, but that conservatism is more appropriate to these precarious days: "what you can't put right you must try to make as little wrong as possible. For things will never be perfect, until human beings are perfect - which I don't expect them to be for quite a number of years" (p. 64)! Raphael concludes Book One of Utopia by responding that cures for social ills demand systematic healing of the body politic. No improvement in public life can occur without the elimination of social illness at its deepest level. This is not mere fancy, Raphael reminds his friend; the good life can be realized, if it can be visualized. Throughout the second book, Raphael helps More visualize the perfected story by sketching his recollection of a distant island: Utopia. I've chosen to organize his narrative according to four principles:

• elimination of private property

• universal labor

• moderated pleasure

• family as microcosm of state

This primary organizing principle of Utopia is the elimination of private property. All goods are held in common and dispensed freely. The implications of this form of public life are significant:

In other 'republics' practically everyone knows that, if he doesn't look out for himself, he'll starve to death, however prosperous his country may be. He's therefore compelled to give his own interests priority over those of the public; that is, of other people. But in Utopia, where everything's under public ownership, no one has any fear of going short, as long as the public storehouses are full. Everyone gets a fair share, so there are never any poor men or beggars. Nobody owns anything, but everyone is rich - for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety? (p. 128)

There are no shortages in this community because so few things have value, as compared to English society in which valued things are necessarily in short supply. Gold and silver, prized among English possessions, are used in chamber pots and slave fetters in Utopia. Because everyone has a job producing basic staples of society, there is little reason for long workdays. Utopians produce only what the community needs to survive.

This leads to a second key principle: the universal nature of labor. In this way, Utopia is different from Plato's Republic. All people (with the exception of a handful of scholars and officials) must work - and all must benefit from their communal labor. Sullivan (1983) illuminates this key distinction: "Whereas the common life is led only by the soldiers and guardians of the Republic who are also exempt from manual labor, all the Utopians share in the goods produced and all [with those exceptions noted above] work as farmers or craftsmen" (p. 33). In contrast to the Republic, More's Utopia seeks to create a largely classless society (with the key exception of slaves), rather than a society in which many work to sustain public life for a few.

In More's ideal community, labor serves as a means of social cohesion and control. Someone who leaves his or her town and workplace without permission will be severely punished. Even when a person visits another town on the island, s/he must work in order to eat:

Wherever you are, you always have to work. There's never any excuse for idleness. 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. (p. 84)

Despite this constant surveillance, utopian ethics and religion emphasize that a good life is spent in pleasurable pursuits - and that work is pleasurable. When not at labor, utopians read, enjoy conversations, play games, or attend public lectures.

This leads to the third principle of society in More's Utopia: the role of moderated pleasure in social life. Public life is organized around the principle that one can be happy on this earth insofar as one is moderate in one's pleasures and doesn't seek to limit the pleasures of others. Indeed, the highest pleasures follow those who willingly sacrifice their own happiness for the happiness of others. Religious tolerance follows this principle - people may believe in God however they wish, as long as they don't foist their views on other people who may believe differently. Most Utopians believe in some sort of God, but none are forced to follow a specific manner of faith. While this notion might seem common to the contemporary reader, one should remember that More wrote his philosophy in a age when the desires of individuals were easily thwarted by church and state. More, himself, was executed for his unwillingness to bow to a religious edict made by his king, Henry VIII. In Utopia, one may practice any religion because, right or wrong, faith in some manner of God serves to unite the community. Only an atheist who does not fear judgement in the afterlife is ostracized from the Utopian community.

A fourth principle of Utopia is the role of family as the microcosm of state. Family life is organized around the needs of the state, patterned according to trades more than biological lineage. Thus, a child who prefers to be a woodworker would be moved to a family of woodworkers. Families are patriarchal: "When a girl grows up and gets married, she joins her husband's household, but the boys of each generation stay at home, under the control of their oldest male relative" (p. 79). This patriarchy manifests itself in utopian religion where women must admit their sins to their husbands even before attending church. As Hertzler (1965) notes: "More departed from Plato and most communist writers who have held the family as the complement or bulwark of property. They held that the abandonment of property meant the destruction of the family. But More was satisfied with a supervised mating and family life" (p. 139). In contrast to book five of The Republic, More's Utopian family represents the state at its smallest level in the individual lives of its citizens.

Utopia, like all fanciful works about public life, is really about the contemporary times of its author. The setting for public life, as in Plato's Republic, is the city - in this case a not-too veiled description of London as it might have appeared in the early sixteenth century. Of course, this London-that-isn't is improved and perfected by the Utopian social order:

The streets are well designed, both for traffic and for protection against the wind. The buildings are far from unimpressive, for they take the form of terraces, facing one another and running the whole length of the street. The fronts of the houses are separated by a twenty-foot carriageway. Behind them is a large garden, also as long as the street itself, and completely enclosed by the backs of other streets. Each house has a front door leading into the street, and a back door into the garden. In both cases, they're double swing-doors, which open at a touch, and close automatically behind you. So anyone can go in and out - for there's no such thing as private property. (p. 73)

In this way, Utopia is a sort of Gernsback Continuum - an ideal community that exists just slightly beyond the world of Thomas More and contemporary readers. This community exists through the communal longing of its readers to create it. Their artifacts - books, speeches, drawings, and the like - allow us to pass from the real to the ideal, even if just for a moment.


Hertzler, J.O. (1965). The history of utopian thought. New York: Cooper Square Publishers.

More, T. (1516/1965). Utopia (P. Turner, Trans.). New York: Penguin Books.

Sullivan, E.D.S. (1983). Place and no place: Examples of the ordered society in literature. In E.D.S. Sullivan's (ed.)., The utopian vision. San Diego, CA: San Diego State University Press.