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Utopia

Sir Thomas More

Geography and History of Utopia

Common Property

Agriculture, Cities, and Government

Summary

Utopia occupies a crescent-shaped island that curves in on itself, enclosing a large bay and protecting it from the ocean and wind. The bay functions as a huge harbor. Access to the bay is impeded by submerged rocks, the locations of which are known only to Utopians. The bay allows for easy internal shipping and travel, but makes any sort of external attack or unwanted contact unlikely. This allows the Utopians to remain as isolated as they want to be.

At one time in its history Utopia was called Abraxa. Filled with uncouth and fractious inhabitants, the land that is now an island was then connected to the mainland by an isthmus. The great General Utopus conquered the land, and then set his army and the conquered inhabitants to destroying the isthmus. Utopus inspired great loyalty and effort, and the work was finished remarkably fast.

The present-day island has fifty-four cities, all with the same basic structure, architecture, language, customs, and laws. All citizens are within once day's walk of their nearest neighbor. The city of Amaurot is the political center of the island, simply because it is the city most accessible to all the other cities. Each year, three representatives from each city meet in Amaurot to make island-wide policy.

Commentary

Book Two of Utopia is presented to the reader as a direct discourse on various aspects of Utopian society. It is, however, important to remember the fictional frame in which this discourse exists. Book Two is in fact More's paraphrase of Hythloday's description of Utopia. Between Thomas More the author and Hythloday the teller of the story is a remove of two fictional levels mediated by More the character, who does not agree with the more radical proposals Hythloday makes.

Hythloday begins by discussing the geography and history of Utopia, each of which proves perfect for nurturing an ideal society. Utopia occupies an island that is as isolated as it wants to be; the Utopians interact with the rest of the world on their terms. Utopia needs no real external resources, is well defended against any sort of attack, is fruitful enough to carry on a surplus in trade, and allows for easy transport of goods and people within its own territory. With the story of General Utopus the ideal geography is given a source: the island was built, cut off from the mainland thousands of years ago. General Utopus conquered the territory and installed in a single historical moment the roots of the present-day Utopian society. Utopia, then, did not develop in a way comparable to any other state in the history of mankind. Its geography and history can only be described as ideal. Implicit in the recognition that an ideal society can only emerge out of ideal circumstances is More's criticism that Hythloday's "ivory-tower theorizing" cannot have any effect in a world that, by its very nature, is not ideal. The ideal society of Utopia is not presented by Thomas More as a real possibility for other nations to mimic. Thomas More admits as much by describing Utopia only within a fictional frame. Utopia may be ideal, but in the very structure of Utopia is the understanding that the ideal can never be attained and instead can only be used as a measuring stick.

The description of the cities introduces a general fact of Utopian life: homogeneity. Everything in Utopia is as similar as it possibly can be. According to Hythloday the cities are almost indistinguishable from each other. They have virtually the same populations, architecture, layouts, and customs. It is interesting to note how this theme of sameness is seized upon by both Utopian and Dystopian works of literature (e.g., ##1984## or ##Brave New World##). The former sees in homogeneity an end to injustice while the latter sees an end to creativity, self-expression, and the autonomy of the individual. It is interesting, also, though as a tangent to Utopia rather than a theme dealt with by the book, that More imagines a rational community as being a homogenous community. Such a conception necessarily posits that all rational thought leads in the same direction, toward the same eternal truths. Further, it posits that in matters of social theory there are single, definite truths to be found.

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