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Themes and Colors
Travel, Discovery, and Place Theme Icon
Bad Governance, Pride, and Idleness Theme Icon
Property, Labor, and Utopian Society Theme Icon
The Public Good, Virtue, and Religion Theme Icon
Ideals and Practicality Theme Icon
The Ambiguities of Utopia Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Utopia, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Ideals and Practicality Theme Icon

There is a tension throughout Utopia between our ideals and practicality, between wish and reality. Indeed, after listening patiently to Hythloday’s description of Utopia, that ideal society, Thomas More the character confesses that, though he wishes for many features of Utopia to be realized in Europe’s cities, he doesn’t dare hope as much, for such a hope would be unrealistic.

More the character, for his part, is nonetheless somewhat optimistic, at least in Book I. There he proposes that that Hythloday enter into the service of a prince as his philosophical counselor, so that his experience and wisdom may help society in some way. When kings listen to philosophers, after all, or when the philosophers are themselves the kings, as in Plato’s Republic, won’t our wish for good governance at last be realized? Hythloday has his doubts, however. In fact, he says darkly that philosophy has no place among kings. The counselors of kings, necessarily working in imperfect institutions among corrupt people, can do no more than make what is “very evil” into merely a lesser evil, and even the good counselor is easily perverted into wrongdoing. It may well be as More himself says: “It is not possible for all things to be well unless all men were good. Which I think will not be yet these good many years.”

One of the ironies of Utopia, of course, is that the Utopians themselves can be so much more down-to-earth and practical than the philosopher who imagines them. They all wear comfortable, flexible uniforms, distinguished only by gender and marital status, to minimize the number of cloth workers they need. They are skilled inventors and astronomers. In contrast to their European counterparts, the Utopians value iron, which can be used to fashion various tools and instruments, above useless gold, which they scorn and chain their slaves with. Also, rather than force their incurable, agonized sick people to suffer drawn-out deaths, the Utopians have legalized euthanasia (or voluntary death), which they see as both humane and, rather bluntly, as practical, “seeing [as an invalid] is not able to do any duty of life.” It is especially in warfare that the Utopians are so “practical” as to strike us as conniving or cruel. They hire mercenaries to avoid the bloodshed of Utopian citizens—and they rather relish the prospect of their own mercenaries falling in battle, for this means both the death of vicious, warlike men, and also that the Utopians won’t have to pay as much for their services.

Utopia’s interest in practicality seeps so deeply into the text as to determine its very style. In a letter to Peter Giles, More’s real-life friend who also does double-duty as a character in Utopia, More argues that texts plainly and simply written often get closer to the truth—better an iron than a golden tongue.

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Ideals and Practicality Quotes in Utopia

Below you will find the important quotes in Utopia related to the theme of Ideals and Practicality.
Book 1 Quotes

Provision should have been made [in England], so that no man should be driven to this extreme necessity, first to steal and then to die.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker), A Lawyer
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Hythloday recalls a conversation he had with a cunning lawyer about justice. Their conversation centers on the example of the thief, who, in Europe, is hanged for his crimes. Hythloday argues that this punishment is extreme and inappropriate for the crime. Indeed, Hylthloday thinks that the crime of stealing is motivated by "extreme necessity" as opposed to a base desire to do bad things. As such, the thief who steals to keep themselves or their family alive is more a victim than a criminal - their society has failed them by leaving them unable to earn a living, and then it fails them twice over when it executes them for acting on their only available chance at survival. 

This scene can be read as a sort of “parable” in which the various characters exemplify what Hythloday sees as the wrongs of European society. The lawyer and Hythloday have two conflicting ideas of justice. The lawyer thinks that justice is the law being effectively enforced, while Hythloday thinks that justice is the organization of a society such that people don’t have any need to break the law in the first place. The lawyer’s view, in contrast to Hythloday’s, seems merciless, inhumane, and ultimately ineffective.


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Let not so many be brought up in idleness; let husbandry and tillage be restored; let clothworking be renewed, that there may be honest labours for this idle sort to pass their time in profitably, which hitherto either poverty hath caused to be thieves, or else now be either vagabonds or idle serving men, and shortly will be thieves.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Hythloday and the lawyer continue their discussion of justice. Hythloday has been expanding on the many social ills in England that create thieves out of men who could be dependable and responsible citizens if the society were better structured.

Here, Hythloday makes an argument that idleness is one of the most dangerous symptoms of a poorly functioning society, as well as an open door to further criminal and anti-social behavior. A thief, after all, must have been "brought up in idleness," or else they would know a trade and be able to provide for themselves. 

Hythloday calls for a renewal of essential trades: taking care of animals, working the land, and weaving. These, he argues, will give idle men, who currently pass their time as "vagabonds or idle serving-men" something profitable to do with their time that benefits them as well as their society. 

It is against the dignity of a king to have rule over beggars, but rather over rich and wealthy men.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Hythloday is considering the possibility of being a counselor to a king, as his guests have suggested that he would excel at. Hythloday begins to imagine what his fellow counselors would advise a king to do, and makes arguments against their hypothetical advice. 

Here, Hythloday is arguing against the idea that poverty makes men too weak to behave badly or rebel, and so it can be considered in a king's best interest to keep his subjects poor. However, Hythloday points out that all great revolutions begin in dissatisfaction. If a person has nothing to lose, they are much more likely to be desperate and violent. He goes to point out that it is pathetic and below their "dignity" for a king to "rule over beggars." This kind of rule is better suited to a jailer.

Irrational princes who do everything they can to control their people will ironically bring about revolutions in their realm. 

This school philosophy is not unpleasant among friends in familiar communication, but in the council of kings, where great matters be debated and reasoned with great authority, these things have no place.

Related Characters: Thomas More (speaker), Raphael Hythloday
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

"School philosophy" is used here to refer to academic philosophy divorced from the context of real life. Here, More and Hylthoday agree that school philosophy is pleasant and educational when friends are discussing issues, but that the use of it is not practical in Europe as it is. The "council of kings" is too much concerned with the real-life contexts of the country and people under their rule, and as such, school philosophy would strike them as frivolous and naive.

However, the two men leave open the possibility that in a better world, where people are open-minded and interested in the public good, school philosophy does have a place in governance.

It is not possible for all things to be well unless all men were good.

Related Characters: Thomas More (speaker)
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, More continues to consider the question of "school philosophy." He argues that philosophy must have a place in governance - but that it must "know its place and not digress." The end of this kind of philosophy would be to turn the "very bad" into the "merely bad." More then says that "It is not possible for all things to be well unless all men are good," a statement that is complicated by the fact that More feels that most men are bad, and as such, it will be a while yet before all men can be "good." We might imagine that More includes himself among the ranks of men who need to become good before a utopia can be realized.

More also points out that school philosophy need not be presented in an overly systematic way. It can be made entertaining—just as Utopia presents philosophical ideas in the entertaining form of the travel narrative. If the world can’t be perfect, at least it can be better than it is.

Book 2: Discourse on Utopia Quotes

Utopus…even at his first arriving and entering upon the land [which was to become Utopia], forthwith obtaining the victory [over the natives], caused fifteen miles space of uplandish ground, where the sea had no passage, to be cut and digged up. And so brought the sea round about the land.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker), Utopus
Related Symbols: The Garden and the Island
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

In Book II, Hythloday speaks in detail about Utopia, beginning with its geography. Although Utopia is currently an island, it was not always so. 

In fact, the founder of Utopia, Utopus, arrived and conquered the native people of the land and put them to work digging up the land surrounding Utopia to create an island. This story about how Utopia was founded and created is very telling - the fact that Utopia is an island is especially revealing of Utopia's disconnect from the rest of the world, and of the difficulties of ever arriving at Utopia.

It might be surprising to learn that Utopus formed his ideal society only after conquering another people—although this may be metaphorical, meaning that our hearts must submit to the utopian spirit before we can build a utopia, in a way it seems disingenuous to found a free, just society on the subjugation of others. (Like, arguably, America and some European nations.)

Utopus presumably formed the island of Utopia to protect his ideal society from external corruptions. This purposeful disconnection makes it easier for a utopia to develop, but it also renders it unrelatable to the outside world and divorced from many of the historical troubles that real societies must deal with.

Book 2: Of Their Towns, Particularly of Amaurote Quotes

They set great store by their gardens. In them they have vineyards, all manner of fruit, herbs, and flowers, so pleasant, so well furnished, and so finely kept, that I never saw thing more fruitful nor better trimmed in any place.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Garden and the Island
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

The garden is an important symbol in Utopia, representing human work and desire imposed onto, and in harmony with, the natural world. The people of Utopia are hard workers, and they clearly put a great deal of effort into their gardens, keeping them "well furnished" and "trimmed." This symbolizes the Utopian's simultaneous mastery over and respect for the natural world. 

In caring for their gardens so attentively, the Utopians follow the traditions of their country's founder, Utopus, who dedicated himself to gardening.

The focus on the importance of the garden in Utopian society also suggests Paradise, where people live in perfection and happiness, just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Utopians are, More is suggesting, closer to Paradise than their proud, warlike counterparts in Europe. The connection between the garden and Paradise is finally strengthened by the fact that Utopia is located off the coast of the New World, that is, the Americas, which Europeans optimistically imagined to be the site of the Garden of Eden.

Book 2: Of Their Trades, and Manner of Life Quotes

Husbandry is a science common to them all [the Utopians] in general, both men and women, where they be all expert and cunning. In this they be all instructed even from their youth, partly in their schools with traditions and precepts, and partly in the country nigh the city, brought up, as it were in playing, not only beholding the use of it, but by occasion of exercising their bodies practising it also.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Equality in labor is necessary for an equal society, and many hands make light work. As such, all Utopians learn how to farm and tend to animals, in addition to their individual trades. This ensures that everyone in the society has work to fall back on. Additionally, in the case of an emergency like a famine, theoretical and practical knowledge of husbandry would come in handy. 

Learning to farm is not only necessary, but it also has an enjoyable, social component - Utopian children are "brought up" farming "as it were in playing," and in addition to the obvious practicality of the lessons, they treat it like wholesome "exercise."

Now consider with yourself of these few that do work [in countries other than Utopia], how few be occupied in necessary works. For where money beareth all the swing, there many vain and superfluous occupations must needs be used, to serve only for riotous superfluity and unhonest pleasure.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Hythloday draws More's attention to societies outside of Utopia, where not every citizen works, and those that do work tend not to do "necessary work," like farming. This is because these other societies are obsessed with money, which creates a market for superfluous and false pleasures as opposed to necessary, hearty products. 

Because the Utopians have abolished private property, they (supposedly) have no interest in luxury goods, and therefore they have no need for occupations other than those that serve essential functions.

As such, everyone shares the minimal amount of work, and, because everyone works, nobody is forced to work more than anyone else. Note that this does not imply the absence of beauty or art in Utopia—their houses and churches are gorgeous, and they love music—but there seems to be no “art for art’s sake,” as such things are meant primarily as a distracting pleasure, not a way of life valuable in itself.

Book 2: Of Their Traffic Quotes

They [the Utopians] begin every dinner and supper of reading something that pertaineth to good manners and virtue. But it is short, because no man shall be grieved therewith.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Hythloday tells More that all Utopian citizens eat together in large dining halls, as opposed to eating alone in their homes. This is because they appreciate and enjoy their community - a people that live in interchangeable cities tend to act as a group. Before they eat, they listen to a reading of some virtuous text.

The fact that these texts are always very brief is a revealing moment of good humor and practicality—the people of Utopia, practical as they are, understand that it’s hard to focus when one is hungry. They also enrich the necessity of eating with unnecessary, harmless pleasures, squeezing as much enjoyment as they can out of their free time.

Book 2: Of the Travelling of the Utopians Quotes

Gold and silver, whereof money is made, they [the Utopians] do so use as none of them doth more esteem it than the very nature of the thing deserveth. And then who doth not plainly see how far it is under iron, as without the which men can no better live than without fire and water?

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Related Symbols: Gold
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

In these lines, we learn about one of the most striking details of Utopian society: their disdain for gold and other precious metals and gems that European society so cherishes. Hythloday explains that their disdain is born out of practicality: you cannot do much with gold and silver other than make coins and jewelry. Both metals are seen as being infinitely inferior to "iron," which is as essential as "fire and water" to the Utopians. 

The Utopians are attracted to gold, much like Europeans, but they fight their attraction by making only loathsome things out of the metal: chamber pots, fetters for slaves, and jewelry meant to shame wrong-doers. Similarly, Utopians gives precious stones and jewels to their children to play with so that the children will come to think of these things as immature and embarrassing when they are grown. These efforts on the part of the Utopians reveal that they have the same instinctual interest in gold and precious stones, but unlike the Europeans who give into that instinct, the Utopians fight it in the name of a healthy society.  

They [the Utopians] marvel also that gold, which of its own nature is a thing so unprofitable, is now among all people in so high estimation, that man himself, by whom, yea, and for the use of whom, it is so much set by, is in much less estimation than the gold itself.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Related Symbols: Gold
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

The Utopians are well-aware of the status that gold holds in other areas of the world, and they are confounded and disturbed by the fact that a man's life is considered less valuable than gold by many people in other countries. It is imminently practical, as well as humane, for the Utopians to value human life over gold. 

Utopians are also disturbed by the fact that, in many societies, money seems to be a stand-in for virtue and intelligence. In Europe, an idiot will be well-respected if he is rich. This is a perversion of the Utopians' most cherished values of hard work and self-improvement. Instead of working hard and enriching their society, rich men and women are free to be idle and live off the work of others. Thus, introducing gold and money into a society is a poisonous practice as it enables people to avoid work and public service.

The chief and principal question [for the Utopians] is in what thing, be it one or more, the felicity of man consisteth. But in this point they seem almost too much given and inclined to the opinion of them which defend pleasure, wherein they determine either all or the chiefest part of man’s felicity to rest.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Hythloday has been discussing the Utopian position on philosophy. Although they were ignorant of many of the most famous philosophers due to their isolation, the Utopians still managed to come to a lot of the same conclusions. 

The main philosophical question that the Utopians are engaged with, however, is in what "the felicity of man consisteth," or, how best to be happy. Boiled down, the Utopians are hedonists: they believe that pleasure is the most important thing in life. 

Hythloday’s account of Utopian philosophy is notoriously confused. He gently disapproves of the Utopians’ love of pleasure in this passage, yet we later learn that their chief pleasures are of the mind—exercising virtue and good conscience. Hythloday seems too bookish and dry to truly relish intellectual activity as a form of pleasure.

Book 2: Of Their Military Discipline Quotes

Their [the Utopians’] chief and principal purpose in war is to obtain that thing, which if they had before obtained, they would not have moved battle. But if that be not possible, they take so cruel vengeance of them which be in the fault, that ever after they be afeard to do the like.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

The Utopians love health and respect human life, so it makes good sense that they would rather satisfy their objectives through intelligence than through blood. When the Utopians do decide to go to battle, they do not do so to gain spoils or conquer other countries. Instead, they are focused, practical, and controlled - they keep in mind the single object that motivated them to fight in the first place.

To this end, Utopians prefer to "fight dirty," that is, to make use of propaganda and rewards for defectors. These tactics are meant to minimize bloodshed. However, as we see in these lines, sometimes the Utopians are called upon to take "cruel vengeance" on their enemies in an effort to stop further fighting. 

This another moment of ambiguity - history forces us to question whether being cruel to one’s enemies is really an effective policy for deterring future conflict, or whether it only stirs up more anger and strife.

Book 2: Of the Religions of the Utopians Quotes

Though they [the Utopians] be in divers opinions, yet in this point they agree all together with the wisest sort in believing that there is one chief and principal God, the maker and ruler of the world… For every one of them, whatsoever that is which he taketh for the chief God, thinketh it to be the very same nature to whose only divine might and majesty the sum and sovereignty of all things by the consent of all people is attributed and given.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

Religion is the last topic that Hylthloday covers during his and More's discussion on Utopia, and it is one of the most intriguing and ambiguous of the sections. We remember that More, the man, actively fought against religious freedom in his time, and even supported the torture of Protestants.

Utopian society is marked by radical freedom of religion - different citizens are free to worship whichever god they choose without fear of persecution.

This diversity of religious thought is united by a few central tenents, outlined in this passage. They believe that God is eternal, incomprehensible, and inexplicable, dispersed throughout the world as power and virtue. He is the creator of all things and the end of all things. All Utopians, despite diverging opinions on the form God takes, nonetheless agree that there is one chief and principal Supreme Being, the maker and ruler of the world, and this Being they call Mithras (a Persian god, worshipped in Rome as the god of the sun). 

However, the deeper suggestion here is that the Utopians understand all gods to be images of one common truth. (Unsurprisingly, given More’s Catholic convictions, this truth sounds like what’s endorsed by Catholic theology.) The Utopians apparently find the majority’s idea of God most compelling, however, for they are adopting it of their own free will.

He [Utopus] made a decree that it should be lawful for every man to favour and follow what religion he would, and that he might do the best he could to bring other to his opinion, so that he did it peaceably, gently, quietly, and soberly, without hasty and contentious rebuking and inveighing against other.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

Hythloday continues to outline the religious freedom that marks Utopian society. Not only are all religions allowed, and none discriminated against, but the Utopians also are against violent proselytizing (attempting to convert someone to your religion). Here, we learn that Utopians are free to try and convince one another to convert to a different religion so long as they are respectful and "gentle" in their efforts. 

The moment that the conversation turns angry and "contentious," the aggressive party will be punished with exile or bondage. This harsh treatment is, like all things in Utopia, based in practicality. After all, religious tolerance was instituted by Utopus himself when he observed how religious disagreement caused strife among the natives of the island—and was what enabled his conquest of them in the first place. Maintaining that peace requires that no one be bullied into changing their beliefs. 

Thomas More, the man, was a devout Catholic who, during the Reformation, tortured Protestants and approved of burning them at the stake as heretics. It is darkly ironic, then, that his utopian vision should be one in which people who condemn other religions are subject to exile or bondage.

Book 2: Conclusion Quotes

As I cannot agree and consent to all things that he [Hythloday] said…so must I needs confess and grant that many things be in the Utopian weal-public which in our cities I may rather wish for than hope after.

Related Characters: Thomas More (speaker), Raphael Hythloday
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

At the very end of the text, More invites Hythloday in for dinner and says that they will discuss and evaluate Utopian society at a later time. Here, More tells us that he does not agree with all of Hythloday's points, but that he does wish for many Utopian features to be realized in European society. This can only be a "wish," however, as More feels that it is deeply unrealistic to hope that these changes will be put into effect.

More’s response to Hythloday’s account of Utopia is never presented to us, and so all our questions are left unanswered. This ending adds to the sense of the work as a “joke” or a playful satire, but perhaps the suggestion is also that we as readers are responsible for conducting that dialogue among ourselves. The text requires that we reason for ourselves about Utopia, and what system of governing might be best for an ideal society. This is, after all, the first step we all must take before any utopia can become a reality.