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Travel, Discovery, and Place 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.
Travel, Discovery, and Place Theme Icon

Thomas More wrote his Utopia during the so-called Age of Discovery, when European voyages of exploration, especially by sea, were vastly enriching human knowledge about the globe. With discovery, moreover, came a renewed belief in human progress and perfectibility—both ideas that More muses upon in his work.

Utopia is at once a parody of the then-popular genre of the travel narrative—written by explorers about their exciting adventures abroad—and also a vision of a society organized far more coherently than any our history has yet produced: Utopia. Thus More’s fictional narrator, the wise traveller Raphael Hythloday, doesn’t entertain us with death-defying adventures littered with sea monsters and hostile natives, as would be typical of the Renaissance travel narrative, but instead educates us by recalling his intellectual adventures among the Utopians, a hard-working, practical, and virtuous people who have organized their society to maximize human health and happiness. After all, monsters like those in popular travel narratives are easy to find (as More points out), and you don’t even have to go abroad to find them: just look at the proud leaders of European societies, who nurse idleness, punish their citizens cruelly, kill for worthless gold, and wage bloody, unjust warfare. To find citizens like the Utopians who are ruled by good laws, in contrast, is ironically a much harder thing to do.

As earnest as Utopia is about the need for good governance, the work’s playful ambiguities nonetheless invite us to question the possibility of such an ideally organized society as Utopia ever arising on earth. The word “utopia” itself, More’s coinage, sounds like the Greek eutopia, “the good place,” but literally means “nowhere.” (Most of the invented names in the work are jokes in this vein.) But, we might ask, how did Hythloday travel to a place that is nowhere? And is it possible for people to build a utopia, a nowhere, here on earth? According to Hythloday, the island nation is, in fact, located off the coast of the New World, that is, the Americas. Europeans (including Christopher Columbus) optimistically imagined the Americas to be the site of the Garden of Eden, the divinely governed Biblical paradise from which humankind fell after disobeying God. The fact that the New World is at once a physical place and, at least in the Renaissance, a supposed mythical paradise, deepens More’s ambiguities. Can we, as people afflicted by sin and vice, build a society as happy as the paradise where people lived before sin was brought into the world? Complicating the matter even more, finally, is the fact that the capital city of Utopia, Amaurote (“dim city”), is a shadowy but point-for-point copy of More’s London, from its geography to the layout of its walls, streets, and houses. Far from being “nowhere” for More’s contemporary readers, then, Utopia would have seemed, if only in its superficial particulars, strangely familiar.

The implication of these ambiguities regarding place is that, while Utopia exists nowhere, the potential for a utopia exists everywhere. But to travel there we must, like Hythloday—whom we’re told resembles both the great sailor Ulysses and the great philosopher Plato—undertake an arduous intellectual adventure aboard the ship of reason and virtue.

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Travel, Discovery, and Place ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Utopia related to the theme of Travel, Discovery, and Place.
Book 1 Quotes

Nothing is more easy to be found than barking Scyllas, ravening Calaenos, and Laestrygons, devourers of people, and suchlike great and incredible monsters. But to find citizens ruled by good and wholesome laws, that is an exceeding rare and hard thing.

Related Characters: Thomas More (speaker), Raphael Hythloday
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

More (the character, as opposed to the author) is speaking with Raphael Hythloday, a traveler who seeks wisdom, and can be read as a mixture of Plato and Ulysses. More asks Hythloday about the places he has been, the people who inhabited them, and how those people governed themselves. More prides himself on not asking Hythloday about whether or not he encountered any monsters. 

In pointing this out, the text parodies the genre of travel narration, which usually relies on bombastic adventures and terrible beasts for entertainment value. Here, More (the author) pokes fun at people who read about the world for entertainment rather than for insights into how they can better their societies and themselves. He is also making an ironic jab at the princes and aristocracies of Europe: they are the monsters so easy to find, those that cannibalize their own societies.


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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

As for their [the Utopians’] cities, whoso knoweth one of them knoweth them all, they be all so like one to another as far forth as the nature of the place permitteth.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

All of the cities in Utopia are almost identical to one another - if you've been to one, then you know them all. 

This uniformity among the cities reflects the values and virtues of the citizens of Utopia. Being alike to one another is of utmost importance - just like their cities are identical, so everyone who lives in every city believes in the same values, and acts according to the same civic plan. It is clear that the citizens of Utopia and Hythloday consider this uniformity a recipe for a calm, just, and efficient country. 

There is no allowance for diversity or variety in Utopia, however, which is unsettling. But Hytholday does not seem to be disturbed by this lack - he essentially argues that peace and prosperity for all is more important than creativity and individuality.

Every house hath two doors… These doors be made with two leaves never locked nor bolted, so easy to be opened, that they will follow the least drawing of a finger, and shut again alone. Whoso will may go in, for there is nothing within the houses that is private or any man’s own.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

In Utopian society, there is no private property. Instead, everything is communal, including the houses. In this passage, we learn that every house has two doors which are easy to open, and, most importantly, are never locked. As the passage goes on to say, there is no point in locking your doors when you do not own anything inside of the house. 

This detail is borrowed from Plato's Republic, and reflects the Utopians’ absolute commitment to collective ownership of all resources. The foundation of their society, and its main divergence from all European societies, is the abolition of private property. Hythloday argues that this lack of possessiveness among the Utopians leads to their general trust and neighborliness.

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: Conclusion Quotes

When I consider and weigh in my mind all these commonwealths which nowadays anywhere do flourish, so God help me, I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of commonwealth.

Related Characters: Raphael Hythloday (speaker)
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

In the concluding section of the text, Hythloday begins explicitly comparing Utopia to European society. Here, he claims that Utopia is the best commonwealth in the world, and also the only one worthy of the name "commonwealth," as all things are equal in Utopia.

He then goes on to consider other "flourish[ing]" commonwealths, which he feels are ironically named - after all, they are really just conspiracies "of rich men" who exploit the poor "under the name and title of commonwealth."

The main difference between these sham commonwealths and Utopia is private property and the use of money. By getting rid of money, Hythloday argues, Utopians have pulled up evil by its root. Hythloday relates this to Christ's teachings against private property, which he says that European societies are too prideful to follow.