Thomas More wrote about an isolated, fictional island in his Utopia in 1516. Heavily influenced by Greek thought, he presented a clear argument in the book about how we can achieve a better society. He also set up major conventions for utopian literature in this book. What were these conventions?
Book I of Utopia introduces us to two characters, Raphael Hythloday and Thomas Morus, who are having a long conversation about a number of questions fundamental to the economics of Utopia. It ends like any other philosophical dialogue, there is no agreement between Morus and Hythloday about a better system of managing the economy in Utopia.
In Book II, we see the relationship between the fictional and the real world, the focus on the didactic over the narrative, and a set of clear prescriptions—although they might be undercut—for setting up a better society. Let us take a closer look at these conventions of utopian literature.
This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
How does Utopia connect the fictional and the real?
The first thing Hythloday tells us is that Utopia is a pretty isolated island, but it’s also rather large—200 miles across in most places, shaped like a crescent moon, with a circumference of about 500 miles. Also, it has 54 city-states, all very similar except for one, Amaurot, the central city in which much of the centralization of the society occurs.
England is not shaped like a crescent, but otherwise it’s almost exactly the same size as the island of Utopia. It even had, at that time, 53 counties, plus London—so 54 city-states. Utopia can definitely be read as another version of England, of what England could be under different philosophical, political, and economic circumstances.
So, what is a reader of More’s text to think? Despite all the levels of framing in Utopia, the text as a whole seems to encourage utopian dreaming, to encourage the good people of Renaissance Britain to think, “Could we do it? Could we reorganize our society so we would have more equity, more resources for everyone, a shorter and more fulfilling workday, a sense of peace and self-actualization?”
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Utopia as Speculative Fiction
There is a big reason as to why the genre of utopia is categorized as speculative fiction alongside science fiction and fantasy.
Speculative fiction imagines different worlds, using what science fiction critic Darko Suvin calls cognitive estrangement—showing us something familiar but making it strange—to invite readers to think more deeply about their own world, their own circumstances.
This leads us to another convention: the balance of the narrative and the didactic, with an emphasis, frankly, on the didactic. The narrative is the story or the plot, and most utopias focus far more on ideas than on heart-pounding or gut-wrenching stories.
The didactic is more important. The emphasis is on what the reader will actually learn from the text. So, what are the concrete prescriptions for living well in Book II of Utopia?
The Economy of Utopia
The first prescription can be seen in the economic system of Utopia. The island of Utopia has a functioning communist economy, a few centuries before Marx and the communist experiments that followed his work.
Hythloday says that by training every citizen in at least two trades—farming and one other—the government creates a populace that is able to produce enough goods to ensure a continual surplus. Since each citizen has equal access to all goods and feels personally engaged in and responsible for his or her job, the workers of Utopia are amazingly productive.
Hythloday tells Morus, the good people of Utopia work only six hours per day—three hours in the morning, nice long lunch, three more hours in the afternoon. And yet they have everything they need, not only for survival, but for a fulfilling life in which they have plenty of time to pursue whatever leisure activities are of personal interest.
How is this accomplished when in Renaissance England, a roughly equivalent island, millions of people live in destitution? There are never enough resources to go around, let alone a way to distribute them effectively.
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Utopia: An Answer to England’s Economic Woes
There are two main reasons why people are living a fulfilling life in Utopia. First, there is no need of money in Utopia since all goods are centrally held, to be drawn by citizens as needed.
What is the second reason for Utopia’s great wealth? The entire population of Utopia works. Basic survival needs, like shelter, food, health care, are communally produced. Leisure activities are done for their own pleasure and never for profit.
Mental pleasures are seen as the pinnacle of enjoyment, and the bodily pleasure held in highest esteem: health. Therefore, the Utopians have no interest in leisure activities that might have deleterious effects, like gambling or drinking or other forms of carousing.
Utopia: A Society without Money
You might think that sounds pretty unlikely, that the pure pleasures of intellectual stimulation and excellent health would wear thin after a while. But, no, that’s not something Hythloday addresses. Instead, he talks about the superiority of a society without money, and he does so in a way that fetishizes currency rather than value.
Hythloday repeatedly assures Morus that the Utopians have huge stores of all the resources they need. They also have huge stores of coins and rare jewels, even though they disdain these. What they do is they adorn their slaves and convicts with jewelry, just to ensure that citizens internalize the belief that these items have no value whatsoever.
So, Thomas More sketches out an ideal society in Utopia, where everyone works hard to live a fulfilling life and is not corrupted by the lures of jewels and gambling.
Common Questions about a Close Examination of Thomas More’s Utopia
Hythloday describes Utopia as an isolated island, which is quite large—200 miles across in most places, shaped like a crescent moon, with a circumference of about 500 miles. It has 54 city-states, all very similar except for one, Amaurot, the central city in which much of the centralization of the society occurs.
There is no need of money in Utopia since all goods are centrally held, to be drawn by citizens as needed. The entire population of Utopia works. Basic survival needs are communally produced, like shelter, food, health care.
Raphael Hythloday and Thomas Morus are having a conversation in More’s Utopia.