The book, written in Latin, is a frame narrative primarily depicting a fictional island society and its religious, social and political customs. The name of the place is derived from the Greek words οὐ u ("not") and τόπος tópos ("place"), with the topographical suffix -εία eía, hence Οὐτοπεία outopeía (Latinized as Utopia), “no-place land.” It also contains a pun, however, because “Utopia” could also be the Latinization of Εὐτοπεία eutopeía, “good-place land,” which uses the Greek prefix ευ eu, “good,” instead of οὐ. One interpretation holds that this suggests that while Utopia might be some sort of perfected society, it is ultimately unreachable. Despite modern connotations of the word "utopia," it is widely accepted that the society More describes in this work was not actually his own "perfect society." Rather he wished to use the contrast between the imaginary land's unusual political ideas and the chaotic politics of his own day as a platform from which to discuss social issues in Europe.
What probably first suggested the idea for Utopia to Thomas More was his work with Erasmus, when they jointly translated some of Lucian's works from Greek into Latin. Among these dialogues, one involved the story of Menippus, the Greek playwright, descending into the underworld and describing what he found there. The other significant influence was Plato's Republic, which is a far more politically motivated work about imaginary lands; it is referred to several times in Utopia.
The work begins with some letters between Saint Thomas More and a couple of real people he met on the continent: Peter Giles, Town clerk of Antwerp, and Jerome Busleiden, counselor to Charles V. These letters help continue the fiction that they actually met a man named Raphael and they also include a specimen of the Utopian alphabet and its poetry. The letters also explain why nobody else had visited Utopia; someone had coughed and the exact longitude and latitude had not been heard, but Raphael was being sought to disclose the information. The first book tells of the traveler Raphael Hythloday, to whom More is introduced in Antwerp and also explores the subject of how best to counsel a prince, a popular topic at the time.
The first discussions with Raphael allow him to discuss some of the modern ills affecting Europe such as the tendency of kings to start wars and the subsequent bleeding away of money on fruitless endeavours. He also criticises the use of execution to punish theft saying that thieves might as well murder who they rob, to remove witnesses, if the punishment is going to be the same. He lays most of the problems of theft at the cause of enclosure—the enclosing of common land—and the subsequent poverty and starvation of people who are denied access to land because of sheep farming.
More tries to convince Raphael that he could find a good job in a royal court, advising monarchs, but Raphael says that his views are too radical and would not be listened to. Raphael sees himself in the tradition of Plato: he knows that for good governance, kings must act philosophically. However, he points out that
Plato doubtless did well foresee, unless kings themselves would apply their minds to the study of philosophy, that else they would never thoroughly allow the council of philosophers, being themselves before, even from their tender age, infected and corrupt with perverse and evil opinions.
More seems to contemplate the duty of philosophers to work around and in real situations and, for the sake of political expediency, work within flawed systems to make them better, rather than hoping to start again from first principles.
... for in courts they will not bear with a man's holding his peace or conniving at what others do: a man must barefacedly approve of the worst counsels and consent to the blackest designs, so that he would pass for a spy, or, possibly, for a traitor, that did but coldly approve of such wicked practices
According to More, the island of Utopia is
…two hundred miles across in the middle part, where it is widest, and nowhere much narrower than this except towards the two ends, where it gradually tapers. These ends, curved round as if completing a circle five hundred miles in circumference, make the island crescent-shaped, like a new moon.This is actually a geometrical impossibility (at least on Earth), as in order to have a circumference of 500 miles, the island would have to have a diameter of 500/π ≈ 159.15 miles, making it impossible for the island to be 200 miles wide at any point.
The island was originally a peninsula but a 15-mile wide channel was dug by the community's founder King Utopos to separate it from the mainland. The island contains 54 towns, each with about 6000 households. The capital city, Amaurot, is located directly in the middle of the crescent island. Thirty households are grouped together and controlled by a Syphograntus ("Styward"), and 10 Stywards are overseen by a Traniborus ("Bencheater"). Each town has a mayor elected from among the ranks of the Bencheaters. Every household has between 10 and 16 adults and people are re-distributed around the households and towns to keep numbers even. If the island suffers from overpopulation colonies are set up on the mainland. Alternatively, the natives of the mainland are invited to be part of these Utopian colonies, but if they dislike it and no longer wish to stay they may return. In the case of under population the colonists are re-called.
There is no private ownership on Utopia, with goods being stored in warehouses and people requesting what they need. There are also no locks on the doors of the houses, which are rotated between the citizens every ten years. Agriculture is the most important job on the island. Every person is taught it and must live in the countryside, farming, for two years at a time, with women doing the same work as men. Parallel to this, every citizen must learn at least one of the other essential trades: weaving (mainly done by the women), carpentry, metalsmithing and masonry. There is deliberate simplicity about these trades; for instance, all people wear the same types of simple clothes and there are no dressmakers making fine apparel. All able-bodied citizens must work; thus unemployment is eradicated, and the length of the working day can be minimised: the people only have to work six hours a day (although many willingly work for longer). More does allow scholars in his society to become the ruling officials or priests, people picked during their primary education for their ability to learn. All other citizens are however encouraged to apply themselves to learning in their leisure time.
Slavery is a feature of Utopian life and it is reported that every household has two slaves. The slaves are either from other countries or are the Utopian criminals. These criminals are weighed down with chains made out of gold. The gold is part of the community wealth of the country, and fettering criminals with it or using it for shameful things like chamber pots gives the citizens a healthy dislike of it. It also makes it difficult to steal as it is in plain view. The wealth though is of little importance and is only good for buying commodities from foreign nations or bribing these nations to fight each other. Slaves are periodically released for good behaviour.
Other significant innovations of Utopia include: a welfare state with free hospitals, euthanasia encouraged by the state, priests being allowed to marry, divorce permitted, premarital sex punished by a lifetime of enforced celibacy and adultery being punished by enslavement. Meals are taken in community dining halls and the job of feeding the population is given to a different household in turn. Although all are fed the same, Raphael explains that the old and the administrators are given the best of the food. Travel on the island is only permitted with an internal passport and anyone found without a passport they are, on a first occasion, returned in disgrace, but after a second offence they are placed into slavery. In addition, there are no lawyers and the law is made deliberately simple, as all should understand it and not leave people in any doubt of what is right and wrong.
There are several religions on the island: moon-worshipers, sun-worshipers, planet-worshipers, ancestor-worshipers and monotheists, but each is tolerant of the others. Only atheists are despised in Utopia, as they are seen as representing a danger to the state: since they do not believe in any punishment or reward after this life, they have no reason to share the communistic life of Utopia, and will break the laws for their own gain. They are not banished but encouraged to talk out their erroneous beliefs with the priests until they are convinced of their wrong. Raphael says that through his teachings Christianity was beginning to take hold in Utopia. The toleration of all other religious ideas is enshrined in a universal prayer all the Utopians recite.
...but, if they are mistaken, and if there is either a better government, or a religion more acceptable to God, they implore His goodness to let them know it.
Perhaps, by modern standards, women are not given a high degree of equality in the society. Wives are subject to their husbands and are restricted to conducting household tasks. Only few widowed women become priests. While all are trained in military arts, women are still subordinate to men, with women confessing their sins to their husbands once a month. Gambling, hunting, makeup and astrology are all discouraged in Utopia. The role allocated to women in Utopia might, however, have been seen as being more liberal from a contemporary point of view.
Also the communistic life style of a Utopian is a strange one coming from a rich landowner, though maybe influenced by the Spanish colonization of the Americas, which was bringing to European ears tales of ideal civilizations at about this time, such as the communistic Inca Empire.
Utopia is often seen as a satire and there are many jokes and satirical asides such as how honest people are in Europe, but these are usually contrasted with the simple, uncomplicated society of the Utopians. Some of the religious concepts, such as women as priests, were proposed by Protestants such as William Tyndale and More may be including the ideas in order to ridicule them.
The other option is that More agreed with the ideas he was propounding. The method of making a story about an imaginary place told by an imaginary man has the effect of distancing More from his radical political thoughts. Apart from Utopia meaning "Noplace" several other lands are mentioned: Achora meaning "Nolandia", Polyleritae meaning "Muchnonsense", Macarenses meaning "Happiland" and the river Anydrus meaning "Nowater". These names are designed to emphasise the illusory nature of the work and Raphael's last name, Hythlodaeus meaning "dispenser of nonsense" helps to discredit his words among those who get the joke.
The name Raphael, though, may have been chosen by More to remind his readers of the archangel Raphael who is mentioned in the Book of Tobit. In that book the angel guides Tobias and later cures his father of his blindness. While Hythloday may suggest his words are not to be trusted, Raphael meaning "God has healed" suggests that Raphael may be opening the eyes of the reader to what is true. The suggestion that More may have agreed with the views of Raphael is given weight by the way he dressed; with "his cloak was hanging carelessly about him"; a style which Roger Ascham reports that More himself was wont to adopt. Furthermore, more recent criticism has questioned the reliability of both Gile's annotations and the character of "More" in the text itself. Claims that the book only subverts Utopia and Hythloday are possibly oversimplistic.
The communist views may seem out of place over three hundred years before Karl Marx re-proposed them but there were similar communistic views expressed in the Bible. One must be careful when referring to communism in Utopia, however - the differing historical contexts mean that Marx and More would think of property in differing ways. Furthermore, the people of the island work communally as means to a hedonistic end, rather than the kind of socialist will Marx postulated.
This refers to the early Church in Jerusalem, rather than to society as a whole, and did not involve compulsion, as in Utopia, but it may have been influential in More's political views. Whatever Thomas More's purpose or actual opinion of his Utopian work the final sentence of Utopia seems to make it clear that it was probably not meant to be considered as wholly satirical.
I cannot perfectly agree to everything he has related. However, there are many things in the commonwealth of Utopia that I rather wish, than hope, to see followed in our governments.
More was not aware that the work would be published, nor did he himself publish it. His good friend Erasmus had it published for him after reading it.
The work seems to have been popular, if misunderstood, with the introduction of More's Epigrams of 1518 mentioning a certain fathead who did not regard More as a good writer as he was just repeating someone else.
The word Utopia overtook More's short work and has been used ever since to describe this kind of imaginary society with many unusual ideas being contemplated. Although he may not have founded the genre of Utopian and dystopian fiction More certainly popularised it and some of the early works which owe something to Utopia include The City of the Sun by Tommaso Campanella, Description of the Republic of Christianopolis by Johannes Valentinus Andreae, New Atlantis by Francis Bacon and Candide by Voltaire.
The politics of Utopia have been seen as influential to the ideas of Anabaptism, Mormonism and Communism. While utopian socialism was used to describe the first concepts of socialism later Marxist theorists tended to see the ideas as too simplistic and not grounded on the realistic principles. The religious message in the work and its uncertain, possibly satiric, tone has also alienated some theorists from the work.
Utopia is the last book given to Danielle (Barrymore) by her father before he dies, and she quotes it during an argument with Prince Henry (Dougray Scott):
"If you suffer your people to be ill-educated and their manners corrupted from infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded, sire, but that you first make thieves and then punish them?""
The song So Says I, recorded by The Shins, contains the lyrics "Cause this is nothing like we ever dreamt, tell Sir Thomas More we've got another failed attempt. Cause if it makes them money, they might just give you life this time."