Hythloday begins his discourse on the island of Utopia by describing its geography. The island itself is about 200 miles broad and 500 miles long, in roughly the shape of a crescent. Between its corners the sea calmly runs in, which profitably provides ships with access to every part of the land. However, the corners of the island are rocky and dangerous for ships to access. This means the Utopians need only one military post for defense, strategically located upon a great rock in the sea. The Utopians themselves would struggle to sail to their island were it not for certain landmarks on the shore. The coasts of Utopia are so naturally protected that a few defenders can drive back armies.
Utopia’s geography is, from one perspective, a metaphor for Utopian society itself. It is difficult to access unless you already know the way, but once you’re there, it is easy to defend. In other words, it is difficult to establish a utopia, but once a utopia has been established, it won’t be readily lost or corrupted. But if you need to know the way to Utopia before you can arrive there, is it even really possible to arrive at all?
Utopia was not always an island, Hythloday says, nor was it always called Utopia. Its first name was Abraxa, perhaps meaning “Holy Name,” “without breeches,” or “waterless.” Utopus, the conqueror of the place and the founder of Utopia itself, civilized the natives of Abraxa and had them, along with his own soldiers, cut up and dig away the fifteen miles of ground that connected Utopia to the mainland. Many hands on the project made light work, and so Utopia was born as an island.
It is perhaps 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. 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.
There are fifty-four large and fair cities in Utopia, each with a jurisdiction of at least twenty miles, all alike in language, customs, institutions, and laws. They are all built to be as identical as possible. The closest cities are miles away from one another, but each is within a day’s walk from the next. The centermost city, Amaurote (“dim city”), is on account of its position taken for the capital. Every year, three old, wise, and experienced men come from every city to Amaurote to debate “the common matters of the land.” No city desires to expand, because the Utopians consider themselves not so much owners as the good husbands of their land.
The fact that all cities in Utopia are virtually identical suggests that uniformity is required in a commonwealth for the public good to be served. Amaurote is also a shadowy copy of More’s London. Far from being “nowhere” for More’s contemporary readers, Utopia would have seemed strangely familiar. Unlike the Europeans who turn farmable land to pasture, the Utopians don’t exploit but cultivate their land. This idea is central to many of Hythloday’s arguments, despite More’s connection to the wool trade.
In the countryside are houses, farms, and farm implements. Here the Utopians live together in families of at least forty people, along with two bondmen, or slaves. A wise man and woman govern over each household, and every group of thirty families is governed by a magistrate called a Philarch (from the Greek meaning “head of the group” or “loving ruler”).
Farm labor is the cornerstone of Utopian society. It reflects the people’s rigorous work ethic, their down-to-earth practicality, and their harmonious relationship with the natural world. As the family is the nucleus of Utopian society, so too does Utopia resemble one big family.
Every year, each family sends twenty Utopians who have been working the farms for the past two years to the cities, and twenty fresh workers are sent from the cities to take their place, to be taught country work by people who have already been there for a year. This system ensures that the Utopians always have expertise in farming, which protects against food shortages caused by ignorance. This system also prevents people from becoming overworked, although many Utopians enjoy farming so much that they choose to stay beyond their required two years.
The Utopians highly value equality: there are no idle landlords here as in Europe, for here everyone farms. Notice that the island of Utopia is not imagined to be some perfect pastoral world devoid of natural disasters; the Utopians just prepare for natural disasters, like food shortages, more rigorously and thoroughly than their European counterparts do.
The duties of people in the countryside include plowing and tilling the ground, breeding cattle, and chopping wood, which they carry to the city both by land or water, whatever is most convenient. The Utopians also breed many, many chickens, and in a strange way: instead of letting the hens sit on and incubate their eggs, the Utopians keep the eggs in “a certain equal heat.” This makes it so that, when the chicks hatch, they consider the people who feed them to be their mothers, and even follow them around. The Utopians raise horses only to train their youths in riding and combat. Oxen, in contrast, do all of the plowing and drawing, because they can endure more labor and pain than horses, and because they are healthier, cheaper, and good to eat.
Unlike later utopias, More’s does not rely on fantastic technological progress. The people in Utopia do all the work an English peasant would be expected to do, only in healthier, more communal conditions. The Utopians, who value compassion, do not raise their farm animals in grisly, miserable captivity, but rather treat them with respect, even as a mother would treat her child. The horse is historically an animal of the aristocracy and of warfare; this perhaps explains the Utopians’ preference for the more practical, useful ox.
The Utopians sow corn only for bread, and they drink either wine, cider, or water. They know exactly how much food each city needs, yet they cultivate a surplus of corn and cattle to give to their neighbors. When the people in the country need something not found among them, they fetch it from town for free. The Utopians all gather in town once a month on the holy day. During the harvest, the Philarchs tell the city magistrates how many laborers need to be sent to them out of the city, and these are readily dispatched so that the harvest work takes little more than one good day.
The Utopians are a people of good, honest, pleasure, and so they don’t abstain altogether from alcoholic beverages like wine. Although physically isolated from the outside world, they are connected to it in the form of generosity. They are constitutionally incapable of waste, and so any surplus is always put to good use. An important principle in Utopia is that, when everyone works, the work goes quickly.