Places: Utopia

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: De Optimo Reipublicae Statu, deque Nova Insula Utopia, 1516 (English translation, 1551)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social morality

Time of work: Reign of Henry VII of England

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Antwerp

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

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

*London

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

Utopia

Utopia. Far-off island adjacent to a larger landmass, somewhat like England in relation to the continent of Europe, which Hythloday reaches by a long, roundabout route and a series of strange adventures after being left behind in the New World by Vespucci. Hythloday’s adventures serve to hide the exact location of Utopia, but it is possible to place it in the Western Hemisphere–on the other side of the globe from England. More places Utopia both physically and symbolically opposite to England.

The name Utopia is a Greek word, which contains a pun: In Greek, the name could be either U-topia, meaning “no place,” or Eu-topia, meaning “better-place.” Renowned not only as one of the most learned men of his day but also as a great wit, More almost certainly intended the pun. He describes his book as a comedy, and though not a comedy in the modern sense, it is clearly a work whose details are intended to amuse, one that uses a lightness of touch as a way to deflect the consequences of his criticism of religious and political institutions, which were, at the time, supposedly above criticism.

The novel is divided into two parts. The first records a conversation between More and Hythloday that introduces Utopia; the second is a discourse by Hythloday on the institutions and practices of Utopia. This latter is the main focus of the novel. More’s intent in questioning the social and political institutions of his own country is served by presenting the ideal social and political institutions of Utopia. The nature of the location, therefore, enters only peripherally into the second part of the novel. It is more closely described in the earlier dialogue, when it becomes clear how well ordered the country is.

What makes Utopia “utopian” is how rational everything is, such as the treatment of criminals and the Utopians’ relations with neighboring states. Utopia maintains its own peace in the face of ceaselessly warring neighbors through a Machiavellian mixture of alliances and corruption. The utopian ideal contains a healthy dose of reality: Their marriage practices require brides and grooms to be revealed naked to one another before their betrothals. The layout of Utopia is also rational; the ordered patterns of cities and towns–their roads and farms–clearly reflect the sensible way in which the country is run and contrast noticeably with the disordered pattern of towns and cities in the real world of England. While More is careful not to make the landscape seem artificially regular and contrived, he uses the shape of his imaginary island as a mirror for the sensible ordering of this ideal world that makes Utopia such a sane and happy land.

Additional ReadingAckroyd, Peter. The Life of Thomas More. London: Chatto and Windus, 1998. A helpful biographical study of Sir Thomas More’s life and times, which explores the ideas he developed and the difficult personal decisions that he faced.Baker-Smith, Dominic. More’s “Utopia.” New York: HarperCollins, 1991. A complete study of Utopia that balances analysis of its contents as a literary work and as a treatise on political theory. Includes information about the history of Utopia’s composition, the Renaissance humanism that permeates More’s thought, and the sources that influenced its ideas and literary style.Fox, Alistair. Thomas More: History and Providence. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. This intellectual biography details the evolution of More’s thought, delving deep into his views about God and humanity.Fox, Alistair. Utopia: An Elusive Vision. New York: Twayne, 1993. A veteran More scholar offers an interpretation of More’s aims in the writing and vision of his famous Utopia.Guy, John. Thomas More. London: Arnold, 2000. A study of the life and thought of the author of Utopia.Hexter, J. H. More’s “Utopia”: The Biography of an Idea. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Examines Utopia for evidence of its stages of composition. This sequence forms the basis for analyzing More’s intentions in writing Utopia and the ideas he wanted to express in his work.Johnson, Robbin S. More’s “Utopia”: Ideal and Illusion. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1969. An essay interpreting Utopia based on an honors thesis by a Yale undergraduate. Presents More’s Utopia as a continuing discourse on the balance between ideal and reality in society and government.Marius, Richard. Thomas More. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. A well-crafted biography that analyzes a man torn between the medieval world of faith and the modern world of reason and who ultimately chose the spirit over the flesh.Martz, Louis L. Thomas More: The Search for the Inner Man. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990. An effort to interpret the complexities of More’s life, which involved politics, philosophy, and religion.Monti, James. The King’s Good Servant but God’s First: The Life and Writing of Saint Thomas More. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997. A biographical study that explores the clash of politics and religion in More’s life.Olin, John C., ed. Interpreting Thomas More’s “Utopia.” New York: Fordham University Press, 1989. Helpful essays by important More scholars explore and assess the meaning and significance of More’s classic on the ideal human society.Reynolds, E. E. Thomas More and Erasmus. New York: Fordham University Press, 1965. A careful study of the relationship between two dynamic thinkers who influenced the development of European humanism.
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