When Utopia opens, the character Thomas More is in the Netherlands, serving as an ambassador sent by King Henry VIII of England to hold negotiations concerning the English wool trade. More then travels to Antwerp, where he takes up residence and befriends an honest, learned citizen of that city named Peter Giles.
More is returning home from church one day when he runs into Giles, who is speaking with an old man called Raphael Hythloday. More, Giles, and Hythloday walk together to More’s house, and in his garden the three men talk at length. Hythloday, we learn, sailed the world alongside the great historical explorer Amerigo Vespucci, and he even traveled to the New World by way of Asia. Moreover, it was in the New World that he came into contact with the Utopians, an island people who live in what Hythloday thinks to be the most perfectly organized commonwealth in the world.
More and Giles are so impressed with Hythloday that they encourage him to go into the service of a prince as his counselor, but Hythloday has his doubts: princes are too interested chivalry and war to heed wisdom, and his fellow counselors would be proud and corrupt.
By way of illustration, Hythloday recounts a dinner he had at Cardinal John Morton’s table in England years earlier. There a lawyer praised England for severely punishing its thieves (with the death penalty). Hythloday counters that the punishment is disproportionate to the crime in such a case; moreover, he argues that, instead of killing its thieves, England should change the social conditions that breed thieves in the first place. Specifically, he indicts the pride and greed of aristocrats and landowners as a great cause of idleness among the lower classes. Idleness, he says, causes poverty and misery. Hythloday instead proposes that thieves be forced to labor as punishment, which would spare them their lives and also serve the public good. Everyone at the table disagrees with Hythloday’s ideas—that is, until Cardinal Morton approves them, which suggests that the men surrounding the Cardinal are just self-absorbed flatterers.
At the end of this story, More says that he still believes that if Hythloday were to serve as the counselor of a prince, he would greatly benefit his nation. Hythloday disagrees. He imagines helping an empire-building French king like Charles the VIII or Louis the VII wage his wars of conquest: if Hythloday were to suggest that the king cease his wars and focus on domestic matters, what would happen? More concedes that the king would not be grateful for such advice. Hythloday goes on to say that, as a counselor, he would be forced to approve of bad laws and policies or else go mad. He speculates that no nation with private property or money can ever be justly governed.
Hythloday then begins his discourse on Utopia. At More’s request, Hythloday describes the island in great detail. The cities are all virtually identical to one another—prosperous, conveniently laid out—but Amaurote is the capital because of its central location. The foundation of Utopian society is this: the citizens of Utopia own nothing individually but share the resources of their nation collectively, from land to housing to bread and wine; also, money does not exist in Utopia (indeed, the Utopians loathe gold as a useless metal). Without private property, Hythloday says, people don’t cultivate their pride so much as their nation, which is like a thriving household or family.
The Utopians live together in patriarchal families with no fewer than ten and no more than sixteen members (not counting children). All Utopians work at both farming and at least one other craft, and they work for at least six hours each day. When the Utopians are not working, eating, or sleeping, they are free to use their time as they please. There are few laws in Utopia, and lawyers are banned from the commonwealth for being too cunning in their interpretations of the law. The only offense for which there is a prescribed punishment is adultery: a person who commits adultery once is forced into bondage, and a person who commits the offense twice is sentenced to death.
The Utopians are overseen and encouraged in their work by magistrates known as Philarchs, elected by the people themselves. The Philarchs, as well as their superiors, the Archphilarchs and Prince, often meet to discuss the state of the commonwealth, including any problems among the commoners, though these seldom arise. Policies are in place to protect the Utopians from tyranny, political corruption, and rash decision-making; for example, magistrates who hold consultations about the commonwealth outside of the council or the place of the common election are sentenced to death. However, the magistrates love their people, and are both just and humane. In addition to the magistracy, slavery is perhaps the most distinct social feature in Utopia. Slavery in Utopia is a punishment for those Utopians who have committed “heinous offenses”; the nation also pays cities in other lands for their criminals, but only those already condemned to death, who are then brought back to Utopia to labor in bondage. The Utopians are reluctant to go to war, but when they’re forced to do so they hire mercenaries so as to spare their own people bloodshed. The Utopians are cunning in war and “fight dirty,” doing everything possible to save life and resolve conflict quickly.
As for moral philosophy, the Utopians’ chief area of inquiry is how people can attain to happiness. They are essentially hedonists: people who believe that pleasure is the most important thing in life. The Utopians define virtue as a life organized according to nature. We follow nature by heeding what our reason approves of and disapproves of; reason also guides us in the love of the divine. The Utopians’ highest pleasures are the exercise of virtue and conscience. Underlying the Utopians’ philosophy are religious ideas. They hold the soul to be immortal and destined by God for happiness; they also believe that good deeds are rewarded, and bad deeds punished, in the afterlife. All over the island, however, and even within a given city, people worship different deities, from the sun to great heroes of the past. Atheism is rebuked but tolerated in Utopia, as are heresies like that which holds the souls of animals to be immortal; only people who condemn other religions and attempt to force others to their opinions are subject to exile or bondage. All people worship in the same churches together, and the priests are elected by secret ballot to provide the community with spiritual guidance.
After Hythloday concludes his discourse on Utopia, More thinks to himself that many Utopian laws and policies are founded on no good reason, even when it comes to the principal foundation of their ordinances (their collective ownership of resources and moneyless economy). However, More doesn’t want to offend Hythloday by disagreeing with his claims. Though More cannot agree with Hythloday in everything, he confesses that he wishes for many features of Utopia to be realized in Europe’s cities—but he also doesn’t dare hope as much, for such a hope would be unrealistic.