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Literature / Utopia

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Utopia is a 1516 philosophical treatise by Thomas More, detailing the government and customs of a certain island nation which has (possibly) created the ideal society. Trope Namer for Utopia (lit. "good place") and by extension Dystopia ("wrong/bad place"). The name itself is a pun on the Greek ou (no/not) vs eu (good) — the island is "no place;" which is to say, entirely fictional.

While in Flanders on business, More and his associate Peter Giles run into a New World traveler named Raphael, whose travels have exposed him to many other societies and given him a new perspective from which to judge England's particular flaws and foibles. When he begins to describe Utopia, a remarkable island on which he lived a number of years, More and Giles are fascinated and take him aside for a whole afternoon to hear more about Utopia and its laws, customs, and so on — this account takes up most of the book. Afterward, More concludes that he would like to see England adopt the same system, though he doubts it ever could.

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Utopia provides examples of:

  • Ambition Is Evil: Utopians won't take land — either as colonies or as part of an existing city's holdings — unless they have enough people to farm it, and anyone who seeks political office is deemed unworthy and disqualified just for asking.
  • Arranged Marriage: Implied to be the usual way, though the participants have some say in whether or not to accept. Apparently it's a custom that the prospective bride and groom can see the other naked before making a decision.
  • Artistic License – Geography: Utopia is a crescent-shaped island with a circular harbor in the center. It was originally part of a larger land mass but Utopos, using the labor of his soldiers and the locals, cut a channel through the isthmus to make it a true island. (Needless to say, a lot of this is geographically suspect — but then it's not like Utopia actually exists).
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  • Big Brother Is Watching: There is no privacy in Utopia. There are no places for private gatherings on the island to keep all men in full view, so as to ensure they all behave. Even most meals are communal, with a seating arrangement that prevents peers from sitting next to each other.
  • Call to Agriculture: Every Utopian learns how to farm as part of their duty rotation, and those who like it and are suited to it can do it all year.
  • Dirty Communists: Utopia sounds a lot like a communist paradise. Nobody owns anything, people live together in communes, everyone takes what they need from warehouses when they need it, the state provides free hospitals, everyone has a job and works when they want (provided it meets a minimum of six hours a day), and generally everyone is happy with their lives.
  • Ethical Hedonism: The general Utopian political philosophy. Everyone works, everyone lives in the same sort of houses and wears the same clothes, eats the same food, etc. because it makes a comparatively high standard of living for everyone.
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  • Framing Device: Ostensibly the main part of the book (describing Utopia and some other islands) is just More's transcription of what Raphael said. More even includes a couple of letters — one to Giles asking him to check the accuracy and one from Giles saying he thinks it's correct.
  • Illegal Religion: Inverted and Subverted. There is no heresy on Utopia — the majority religion is some kind of sun worship, but the inhabitants have many faiths. However, atheism is frowned upon because of the suspicion that a person with no religion has no reason to be moral. Even then, they aren't killed, enslaved, or otherwise punished for their lack of belief, merely sent to speak with the priests in an effort to change their minds.
  • Indecisive Deconstruction: It clearly has Plato's The Republic in its sights, especially in Raphael's early comments about philosophers and kings. While Plato thought kings would want wise men as advisers (being philosophers themselves), Raphael remarks that kings really want advice on how to gain more money, land, and power, and that he would be just as likely to tell them they already had enough, thus making himself unpopular. Accordingly, it's hard to tell whether Utopia is a genuine effort to describe the perfect society or a parodic sneer at the very idea.
  • Made a Slave: The usual punishment inflicted instead of imprisonment on Utopia and a few other islands. After all, slaves are still useful labor. Unlike most other cases of slavery, Utopian slaves can be released for good behavior.
  • Mercy Kill: Voluntary euthanasia is available to those who are too ill to work and are in constant pain. No one is forced into it, however, and suicide is otherwise discouraged.
  • Noble Savage: Probably averted. Despite being a New World island, Utopia was founded by Utopos, who was apparently from the Old World. Before his conquest it was called Abraxa, which translator Paul Turner speculates comes from the Greek for "no trousers."
  • No Sex Allowed: Unmarried persons are not permitted to have sex before marriage, under the hypothesis that no one would marry if they could just have sex. Anyone caught doing so is not allowed to marry (and by extension, have sex) at all.
  • Regional Redecoration: Utopia used to be a peninsula until Utopos ordered a 15-mile wide canal to be dug to separate it from the mainland.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: Averted. When Utopians are at war, they offer a lot of money and land to anyone who hands over the rulers of that country, and they always keep their agreement. (After all, if they don't follow through, it won't work next time).
  • The Un-Reveal: More prefaces the work with two "letters" from his correspondence with Giles. One of his questions is where, exactly, Utopia is — Giles answers that someone starting coughing at exactly the wrong moment, so he doesn't know either. Oh well...
  • The Thirty-Six Stratagems: Utopia uses a lot of these. In fact, they fight fairly dirty when they do go to war, given that they are willing to lose all of their money but none of their citizens.
  • Utopia: The Trope Namer. No one is poor, no one is starving or homeless, no one is forced to work more than six hours a day and has generous amounts of leisure time... However, the fact that it also means "no place" implies Moore saw such a world to be impossible.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: Invoked. Utopians know the purchasing power of gold and jewels, but in order to keep themselves from growing attached to them, gems are given to little children as nursery toys and gold is used to make chamber pots, slave chains, or heavy articles to punish and humiliate criminals.
    • Utopians also see gold as worthless in the direct sense — yes, it's shiny, but it's too soft and heavy to be useful. Iron, which makes tools, is far more valuable to them.
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