Utopia Summary

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Utopia Summary

Thomas More is a public servant living in London with his family. He writes a letter to a friend in Antwerp (Belgium) named Peter Giles. Giles is a printer and editor, as well as a clerk for the city. In More's letter, we read that More is sending Utopia to Giles for editing and publication. Utopia chronicles a conversation that More and Giles enjoyed with a man named Raphael Hythloday.
Thomas More and Peter Giles are real persons. In Utopia, they are fictionalized. Their mutual acquaintance, Raphael Hythloday, is entirely invented and fictional. In Book One, Utopia recounts the initial meeting of Hythloday, More and Giles. Book One introduces Hythloday and vaguely mentions the New World island of Utopia. More visits Giles in Antwerp, and this is when Giles introduces Hythloday to More. Hythloday is a Portuguese man who sailed to the New World with the Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. Hythloday stayed behind in the New World and traveled to a few additional locations, eventually making his way back home to Europe. During these travels, Hythloday became acquainted with the Utopians.

The three men make their way back to More's lodging place in the city and they enjoy a conversation in the garden. Hythloday is quite a talker; More and Giles can barely get a word in edgewise. Hythloday gives his opinions on a wide range of topics. Having toured Europe, Hythloday believes that many of the Utopian customs are morally superior to European customs. Hythloday especially focuses on political and economic issues (the distribution of labor, capital punishment for thieves, land reform, the abolition of private property). Hythloday's arguments are rather surprising and the Utopian society is quite unlike the European commonwealths.

Neither More nor Giles professes deep belief in or total support of Utopian policies. Nonetheless, both men are interested in hearing more about the island nation. The three men break for lunch and Book Two chronicles the continuation of Hythloday's presentation, in which he presents the details of Utopia.

Book Two is a long commentary on Hythloday's part. It is not very much of a dialogue and there are few interruptions from More or Giles. Hythloday describes Utopian history, geography, social customs, legal and political systems, economic structures, religious beliefs and philosophy. Utopia is quite unlike the negatively portrayed New World villages with primitive levels of social organization and development. 1760 years before Raphael's commentary on the island, the general Utopus conquered and civilized the area, giving the land and the people his name. As a demonstration of mastery over nature, Utopus formed the land into an island, organizing a labor force that cut through the thin isthmus connected Utopus from the rest of the continent.

Hythloday notes that the Utopians have retained many of the plans and values initially established by Utopus. The rulers are selected from the order of scholars. Language, social customs, religion, dress, architecture and education are identical in Utopia's fifty-four cities. There is a large degree of uniformity and very little individual expression. Laws and social customs heavily regulate the private decisions of individuals. A child is re-assigned to another household if the child wishes to learn a trade other than his or her father's. Households are composed of extended families, but family members can be relocated to other households if the distribution of adults per household becomes uneven within a given city.

In terms of natural geography, the Utopians have capitalized on their natural resources. The capital city, Amaurot, is in the center of the island. The city is a major trade port, sitting on the banks of the Anyder River. Hythloday's depiction indicates that Amaurot is an improved London and the Anyder River is a cleaner version of the Thames River.

The Utopians are a morally developed people though they are not Christians. Hythloday mentions that the Utopians were eager to hear more about Christianity and that many Utopians had already converted. Most Utopians are monotheists and their religion is similar to Christianity. Some of the Utopians' beliefs run counter to the moral traditions of the Christian church (e.g. the Utopians encourage euthanasia when the patient is terminally ill). The Utopians believe that pride is the root of great evils. Accordingly, the Utopians have eliminated wealth, the nobility, private property, and currency. Labor and goods are distributed equally. Property is held in common. Everyone works the same hours and even though the rulers are exempt from public labor, they work to set a good example for the others. Work hours are equally distributed and there are no monasteries, convents, alehouses, or academies wherein an individual might withdraw from the rest of society. All Utopians are socially productive.

Utopia ends with another letter from More to Giles. In the letter, More positively reflects upon the initial reactions to the published work Utopia. More also gives the reader enough jokes and puns to fix the idea that Utopia is an imagined and unreal place. The writer has presented Utopia as an entertaining way to stir contemplation of serious issues. As such, the book is "medicine smeared with honey."

About Utopia

Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516. The work was written in Latin and it was published in Louvain (present-day Belgium). Utopia is a work of satire, indirectly criticizing Europe's political corruption and religious hypocrisy. More was a Catholic Humanist. Alongside his close friend, the philosopher and writer Erasmus, More saw Humanism as a way to combine faith and reason. In depicting Utopia, More steps outside the bounds of orthodox Catholicism, but More's ultimate goal is to indicate areas of improvement for Christian society. Is an ideal state possible? Utopia means "no place" but sounds like "good place." At the very least, Utopia exposes the absurdities and evils of More's society by depicting an alternative.

As a satirist, More continues the tradition of Ancient Roman writers like Juvenal and Horace. As a philosopher brave enough to tackle the idea of the "ideal state," More leans away from Aristotle and towards Plato, author of The Republic. Sustaining the arguments of The Republic, Utopia fashions a society whose rulers are scholars (not unlike Plato's philosopher-king). Though Aristotle was opposed to the idea of common property and the abolition of private property, Aristotle's ideas of aesthetics, justice and harmony are present in the Utopian's philosophy.

A devout Catholic, More was beheaded as a martyr in 1535, standing opposed to the principle of the Anglican Church and the King of England's role as the head of the Church (replacing the Pope in Rome). In the 1530s, More wrote polemical tracts and essays attacking Lutheranism as heresy. All the same, More's Utopia implies that Utopians are better than some Christians. St. Augustine's City of God established the theme of the earthly city of God, reiterating the image of New Jerusalem presented din the Biblical Book of Revelations. Utopia is a type of New Jerusalem, a perfect place on earth. The Puritan experiments of the 1600s (in Britain and in North America) exemplify the programming of Utopian New Jerusalem.

Certianly, we must remember the context of New World exploration. Raphael Hythlodaygives us the story of Utopia because he once sailed with Amerigo Vespucci. The First Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci was published in Latin in 1507. Columbus, Vespucci, and others returned with stories of the New World but earlier works of Marco Polo and John Mandeville already developed a genre of travel writing‹stories of far-off lands that combined fact with a great deal of fiction. More uses the New World theme to get his philosophical points across. He is less interested in New World politics and more interested in offering Utopia as an indirect critique of the Catholic European societies (England mainly, but also France, the Italian city-states, and other areas to a lesser extent). More opposed the vast land enclosures of the wealthy English aristocracy, the monopolistic maneuvers of London's guilds and merchants, and the burdensome oppression of the work through the imposition of unjust laws.

More's work has left a lasting impact on subsequent political thought and literature. The Greek word Utopia translates as "no place" or "nowhere," but in modern parlance, a Utopia is a good place, an ideal place (eu-topia). The term "utopia" has gained more significance than More's original work. Utopia has inspired a diverse group of political thinkers. The utilitarian philosophy expounded in the late 1700s and early 1800s developed the idea of the ideal and perfect balance of happiness. Jeremy Bentham, a leading Utilitarian thinker, developed ideas of surveillance and the panopticon by which all can be seen. These reformatory practices, designed to quantify happiness, calculate moral goodness and produce the optimal balance, echo the anti-privacy measures inflicted upon the citizens of More's Utopia.

In the 1800s, the rise of urban industrialization triggered the proliferation of Utopian projects (agricultural communes), all of which failed. Utopia became the project of creating an ideal society apart from the demoralizing city. These Utopian projects were especially popular in Britain, France, and New England. The Utopian celebration of common property and dependence upon extensive state planning are the groundwork for communism and socialism as presented in Marx and Engels' written works. 1848, the year of Marx's Communist Manifesto is a year of urban revolutions. Utopia's criticisms of the nobility's perversion of law to subjugate the poor were applied to the suffering of industrial and factory workers. The abolition of money, private property, and class structure would undermine the power of the bourgeoisie. Socialists believed that agricultural economies with property held in common would cure the ills of industrial capitalization.

With the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the twentieth-century rise of communism, the ills of Utopia were made evident. The overbearing regulation and stifling of individualism were apparent in the communist Eastern Bloc and Soviet states. To be sure, More was neither a Communist nor a Socialist‹and it wouldn't necessarily be accurate to call More a Utopian either. All the same, More's work certainly propelled the philosophical development of these themes.

As a literary work, Utopia has retained its power to impact British and American writiers. From the Greek prefix dys- (i.e. bad, ill) comes the word "Dystopia," reflecting Utopia's negative qualities. Dickens' novels of industrialized Britain depict planned factory cities gone wrong‹like the city of Coketown in Hard Times. Utopia remains in the backdrop: a desirable alternative but an equally failing effort. Works like George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 are dystopic novels that warn of the false hope of heavily programmed utopias. In 1887, a New England socialist named Edward Bellamy wrote Looking Backward, a novel that glanced into the future, presenting a celebratory image of a Utopian America.

The word Utopia has a double meaning then. In the academic disciplines of architecture and urban planning, leading figures like Lewis Mumford, Le Corbusier, and Frederic Law Olmsted (creator of Central Park) all developed the idea of Utopia in a positive sense. In political theory, however, Utopia has often been interpreted as a most dangerous form of naiveté. The impulse to plan perfection leads to the tyranny of Orwell's "Big Brother."

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