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Literature / Utopia

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Utopia is a 1516 satirical 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.

Utopia provides examples of:

  • All Crimes Are Equal: Before the story about Utopia itself, there are discussions of several other nations with Meaningful Name. One of these points out the various flaws of having all crimes punished by death. The specific example is that a person who robs a house will then go to any length to escape rather than consider giving up. What's more, a prospective thief has every incentive to commit murder rather than just theft — he will be no worse off if caught, and by killing the principal (or only) witness, he reduces his chances of getting caught.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Apart from the name "Utopia" itself, More uses made-up yet meaningful Greek names a few times. For example there is a passing mention of a people called "Polylerites". This comes from Greek "poly", meaning "many" or "much", and "leros" meaning "nonsense".
  • 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.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: 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.
  • For Happiness: 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.
  • Framing Device: 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: 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.
  • 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, with those who do it being denied burial rites (this was the actual practice in England during More's time).
  • Mistaken for Clown: An occasion is described where another nation sends some ambassadors to Utopia, dressed in fine silks, gemstones and gold. Since in Utopia, gold is used for slave chains, and gemstones are kid toys (because neither should be taken seriously by Utopian adults), people wearing both are naturally mistaken for jesters, and their servants for the real ambassadors.
  • Noble Savage: 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. Adultery is also punished by enslavement.
  • Panopticon of Surveillance: There are no private meeting spaces such as taverns. This keeps everyone in full view and makes them behave.
  • The Philosopher King: Discussed but defied (as part of the book's gentle assault on Plato's The Republic). Raphael tells his hearers that most kings are only interested in the kind of knowledge that will get them more land and money; they certainly wouldn't want someone nearby who would tell them they already had enough.
  • 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).
  • Smart People Play Chess: While describing all the useful ways in which the Utopians occupy their time Raphael states that "They have, however, two sorts of games not unlike our chess".
  • The Unreveal: 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 started coughing at exactly the wrong moment, so he doesn't know either. Oh well...
  • 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. Additionally, many of the features of this world aren't exactly what people today would call ideal: communal living, a lack of privacy and personal possessions, slavery, lifelong leaders, all of it seems to have more in common with a modern view of a dystopia.
  • 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.