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Utopia

Sir Thomas More

Agriculture, Cities, and Government

Geography and History of Utopia

Occupations, Workload, and Productivity

Summary

Each city is surrounded by farmland, and every member of each city spends occasional two-year stints in the country doing agricultural work. Cities do not attempt to expand their frontiers; they think of the surrounding areas as land to be worked rather than as estates to be owned. When one city has an agricultural surplus, it exports with no charge to its neighbors. Those neighbors do the same in return. When it is time to harvest, extra men are sent from the city to help out. Harvesting usually takes little more than a day.

Cities are distinguishable from each other only by those differences imposed by geographical location and topography. Hythloday describes them all by describing one, choosing the capital city, Amaurot, as his subject. Amaurot is spread along a tidal river that is bridged only at its farthest point from the sea, so that ships can access all of the city quays. A second fresh water stream runs through the city. The source of this stream is enclosed within the city walls, so that the city will never be without a source of drinking water.

The city is surrounded by a thick wall. Its streets are rationally planned to allow for easy movement of traffic. Buildings are well maintained. Every house has a front door that opens on a street and a back door that opens onto a garden. No doors can be locked; there is no private space. Houses are all well built and three stories high, with brick or flint facades.

Households are split into groups of thirty, and every year each of these groups chooses an administrator, called a phylarch. Every ten phylarches operate under a higher official, called a senior phylarch. Senior phylarches meet in a committee chaired by the chief executive. Under pain of death, no person may discuss issues of state outside of the committee, so as to insure no one can conspire against the government and install tyrannical rule. They operate under the rule that no issue brought to committee can be decided upon until the next day, so as to remove any chance of over-hasty action.

Commentary

The communal method of agricultural work was a revolutionary idea for its time for a variety of reasons. In England and Europe agricultural work was an occupation of the poor, disdained by those with any wealth or station. In Utopia, those class distinctions are broken down; working on the land is made a necessary part of life, and the stigma of that work is removed. The sentence stating that Utopians think of the land as something to be worked rather than to be owned is an obvious reference to the enclosure movement that Hythloday attacked in Book 1. The enclosure movement in Britain transformed the wool and agricultural market into an oligopoly that simultaneously drove up prices and deprived small landholders of their livelihood. Utopian agriculture, for that matter, does not operate on any market system whatsoever. Instead of selling off its surplus, a city freely gives it away. As can be seen in its agricultural policy, the economic structures of markets and money simply do not exist in Utopia. More earlier claimed that without the competition inspired by the market Utopian productivity can't possibly match that of a market-based economy. Hythloday's response will be seen later in his description of Utopia.

Amaurot is laid out much as London is. Amaurot's tidal river finds a corollary in the Thames, and both rivers are spanned by bridges at the farthest possible point from the sea in order to provide the greatest number of accessible quays. Thomas More was certainly aware of the resemblance of Amaurot to London, and no doubt created this similarity on purpose. In creating Amaurot as a likeness to London, it is almost as if he wishes the two to be compared in the reader's mind. It should be noted that Hythloday's description of the buildings of Utopian cities were not far off from the cities of Flanders, where Thomas More wrote and set part of the book. Travelers to these cities were often amazed to see their cleanliness and the quality of buildings. This is an interesting fact in that it suggests the possibility that some aspects of the ideal can be achieved in the flawed world, that perhaps More is correct in his argument with Hythloday after all.

Utopian politics seems a strange mixture of freedom and repression. Utopia employs a democratic government, its people represented by two layers of elected public officials, the higher level selected by the lower level. However, the rule abolishing on pain of death any discussion of politics outside of the political arena seems incredibly repressive. This repression, though, is a fair repression in the sense that all citizens of Utopia are equally bound by it. This is a very different repression than those in place in Europe, where the poor and weak were repressed by the rich and powerful. Utopia is operating under a rule of law, with all citizens subject to that law, even if the law itself strikes modern readers as excessive.

Hythloday trumpets the lack of private space as a wonderful idea promoting friendship and stifling pettiness and gossip. Again, though, in the loss of private space is a correspondent loss of privacy and autonomy. Utopia is a society in which everyone watches everyone else, much as everyone does in George Orwell's nightmare world of ##1984##. There is often little differentiating one man's Utopia from another's dystopia.

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