Utopia is a crescent-shaped island country, 500 miles long and 200 miles wide. In the crescent’s curve, large underwater rocks protect a harbor from attack. Utopia had once been connected to the mainland, but when a man named Utopus conquered and civilized the barbarian inhabitants, he made them dig a canal to turn Utopia into an island.
Utopia consists of fifty-four cities, with the capital, Amaurot, in the center. Every year, each city sends three wise old men to Amaurot to discuss matters that affect Utopia. In the countryside, groups called “families” occupy and work the farmland for two-year periods, producing enough food to sustain the entire country. A “family” consists of forty male and female workers, two slaves, and a leader, or phylarch. Twenty people each year return to the cities and are replaced by twenty new people. If a city has a surplus, it shares that surplus with neighboring cities.
Hythloday says that all the cities of Utopia look about the same, and he describes Amaurot to give a general impression of the others. Amaurot is a walled city of two square miles, surrounded by thorn-filled trenches on three sides and the river Anyder on the fourth. Uniform houses, which citizens trade every ten years, line wide streets. Because private property does not exist, people leave their doors unlocked and roam wherever they wish. All houses have gardens.
Each year, each group of thirty families elects a representative leader called a syphogrant. Groups of ten syphogrants in turn elect a tranibor, and the 200 syphogrants elect the prince. The tranibors, with rotating representatives of the syphogrants, meet secretly with the prince to manage the commonwealth’s affairs. To prevent corruption, the council must discuss legislation on at least three separate days, and members are prohibited from discussing political matters outside of the council meeting or they face the death penalty.
The first descriptions of Utopia seem to suggest a cautious reading of Utopian practices. The translation of Utopia, a word of Greek origin, suggests both “good place” and “no place,” and Anyder, the name of the river running through the capital, means “no water.” Utopia, in other words, is a fantasy. Many details in Hythloday’s account are unrealistic, such as the fact that Utopia could have evolved from barbarism into a perfect civilization virtually overnight. By drawing attention to Utopia’s unreality, the author More seems to imply that the seemingly superior elements of this society cannot simply be adopted into actual society. At the same time, he does seem to encourage comparisons between Utopia and the real world. Utopia, despite its many fantastical elements, in many ways resembles More’s England. Amaurot, for example, closely follows London in its basic layout. We may be tempted to conclude that More really does believe that Utopia provides a viable model for the real world and that he treats his own ideas as absurdities because they are so radical and subversive of the status quo. On the other hand, More’s point may be that Utopia truly is unrealistic and fanciful but that we can gain insight into the real world by comparison.
By describing the agricultural practices and layout of the cities, Hythloday reveals some of the main principles governing Utopian life. Utopia is a cooperative society of shared resources, and citizens work together to better the whole. No private property exists, and Utopians enforce the absence of status differences and materialism through strict uniformity. This vision of equality and communalism foreshadows the socialist and communist visions that were to emerge centuries after More—many readers have seen Utopia as a precursor to Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto. Modern readers, remembering nightmarish twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, may see an inhuman authoritarianism in the Utopians’ insistence on equality through uniformity. However, some of More’s contemporaries might have believed just the opposite. For them, outward conformity was liberating, since clothing and lifestyle in sixteenth-century England reflected the rigid class system.