The garden and the island are two interrelated symbols in Utopia. The former represents human work and desire imposed onto, and in harmony with, the natural world. It also represents the idea of Paradise, where people live in perfection and happiness, just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden before disobeying God. In Utopia itself, Raphael Hythloday presents his dialogue of counsel and discourse on Utopia while sitting with Thomas More and Peter Giles in More’s garden in Antwerp. It is as though these men, through learning, virtue, and philosophical inquiry, have been restored, if only temporarily, to Eden, there to meditate on the ideal society (Utopia, of course, also comes to read as an earthly reflection of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the perfect City of God in Heaven). The Utopians themselves, moreover, follow their founder Utopus in finely caring for their gardens, and this is one of their highest pleasures. They 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.
While Utopia is perhaps a kind of Paradise, it is also an island, which represents its disconnection from other societies as well as from the violence of human history. Utopia is physically apart from other lands, just as it is spiritually apart from them. In fact, the land Utopia is founded on was once connected to a mainland, but Utopus had a channel fifteen miles wild dug between the two, perhaps because he knew that, otherwise, the Utopians would either be conquered by others or corrupted. Compare this with Hythloday’s claim that the good philosopher must be disconnected from the governments of men if he’s to preserve his sanity and virtue. By setting his Utopia on an island, More is suggesting that Utopia is, at least for now, too fragile an ideal to be connected to real places inhabited by real people. Utopia will rejoin the mainland only when the world is ready to become a utopia, and the Garden of Eden will grow again only when it can grow everywhere.
The Garden and the Island Quotes in Utopia
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.
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.