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The Ambiguities of Utopia Theme Analysis

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.
The Ambiguities of Utopia Theme Icon

Utopia is so ambiguous a work that one critic calls it “the most slippery of texts: in no other literary work is the question of authorial intention at once more pressing or more unanswerable.” As such, we can’t take at face value anything we read in the book. Questions the text invites but never resolves include: can a utopia be established on earth, and, if not, why imagine one, especially when philosophy falls on deaf ears in the courts of kings? Moreover, does the Utopia that Raphael Hythloday describes really nurture human happiness, or is it oppressively totalitarian? (The name “Hythloday,” it is appropriate to add here, likely means something like “peddler of triflers,” “kindler of nonsense,” and yet the traveler also shares his first name with Raphael, the angel who helps man understand the ways of God.)

As if to make his own text even slipperier, Thomas More the man led a life dramatically inconsistent with Utopian law and order, in what amounts to an extreme clash between his literary “ideal” and his lived reality. He was a lawyer—but lawyers are banned from Utopia for being too cunning in their interpretations of the law. He was a devout Catholic who, during the Reformation, tortured Protestants and approved of burning them at the stake as heretics—but Utopia is tolerant of all religions (just not the irreligious), and those who “vehemently and fervently” attempt to convert others are banished or enslaved.

There are even internal inconsistencies in the description of Utopia itself, it would seem. One critic, Stephen Greenblatt, argues that, though Utopians are only required to work six hours a day, a close reading reveals that the workday as described in the text would really fill one’s day from sunrise to sunset. At the end of Book II, even Thomas More the character says, “Many things came to mind which in the manners and laws of that people seemed to be instituted and founded of no good reason.”

What are we to make of this literary house of mirrors, of all these maze-like questions, ambiguities, and inconsistencies? Many readers have simply found Utopia to be nothing more, at last, than a grand literary joke, impossible to pin down and so difficult to connect with. But perhaps there is a more fruitful way of engaging with the work. In the first theme we discussed how Utopia is “nowhere,” but the potential for a utopia is everywhere. What More’s ambiguities direct our attention to are the great difficulties that await us as we seek to realize that potential; Utopia cannot be built in a day, as it were. These ambiguities also require that we carefully weigh and examine matters for ourselves, that we awaken and listen to our inner philosophers—which is, after all, the first step all of us must take before any of us can begin the journey to utopia.

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The Ambiguities of Utopia ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Ambiguities of Utopia appears in each chapter of Utopia. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Ambiguities of Utopia Quotes in Utopia

Below you will find the important quotes in Utopia related to the theme of The Ambiguities of Utopia.
Book 1 Quotes

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.


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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 Slaves, and of Their Marriages Quotes

But if the disease [of a Utopian] be not only incurable, but also full of continual pain and anguish, then the priests and the magistrates exhort the man…that he will determine with himself no longer to cherish that pestilent and painful disease…but rather…either dispatch himself out of that painful life, as out of a prison or a rack of torment, or else suffer himself willingly to be rid out of it by other.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, we learn that the Utopian health care system makes allowances for assisted suicide, or euthanasia, in the cases of people suffering from"pestilent and painful" terminal diseases. This is one of the most intriguing moments in the text, especially in light of the ambiguities it raises about More's own opinions on Utopia.

The Utopians’ conception of the public good is not one of ruthless productivity and efficiency—rather, it is one of general welfare and happiness. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Utopians’ health care system, which is centered on availability and excellence of care as well as compassion. Note that the Catholic Church, of which the man Thomas More was a part, strictly prohibits euthanasia as a crime against God’s gift of life. The question arises then (here, as elsewhere): to what extent does the author of Utopia really approve of Utopian policy?

Now and then it chanceth whereas the man and the woman [in a marriage] cannot well agree between themselves, both of them finding other, with whom they hope to live more quietly and merrily, that they by the full consent of them both be divorced asunder and married again to other.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

The Utopian laws concerning marriage and sex are among their most conservative, save for their divorce laws, which are surprisingly lenient, and, as we will see, offer another moment of authorial ambiguity. 

The Utopians strictly punish premarital sex, and they also insist that a man sees his future wife naked before he marries her, under the disturbing logic that one would not buy a horse without having inspected it thoroughly. While these laws are conservative, and, in the second case, sexist and dehumanizing, the Utopian opinion on divorce is surprisingly open. Although it is not common in Utopian society, divorce is allowed and respected, which enables Utopians to find partners that they can live with "more quietly and merrily."

Utopia’s policies concerning divorce are much more liberal than those of More’s England at the time. Indeed, More himself infuriated King Henry VIII when he refused to condone the King’s divorce—a moral stance that ultimately led to More being executed. It is surprising and intriguing that the author of Utopia, a land in which divorce is legal, lost his life defending the eternal sanctity of marriage. 

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.