Book Two (First Half) Summary:
In the first half of Book Two, Raphael describes the natural geography of Utopia and then addresses the major cities, the system of government, the social distribution of labor and responsibility, and "how the Utopians travel." Throughout Book Two, Hythloday praises the Utopian customs and fails to offer any negative criticism.
In Utopia's Introduction, the quatrain mentions that Utopia was made into an island. In book Two, Hythloday explains that the general Utopus dug through the narrow isthmus that connected Utopia to the mainland. The neighboring villagers mocked Utopus because his ambitious project seemed doomed to fail. What Utopus and his men achieved in a relatively short period of time astonished these naysayers.
The island is roughly circular in shape and its natural harbors are navigable. The straits of Utopia are dangerous with shallows and rocks. The Utopians have mapped and mastered these waters but the shallows and rocks successfully deter foreign invaders. The island has fifty-four cities sharing "exactly the same language, customs, institutions, and laws." The cities also have the same planned layout. Much of this is due to the civilizing influence of Utopus who transformed a "crude and rustic mob" into a culture of note. Amaurot, the capital city, is located at the center of the island and every year, each city sends three delegates to Amaurot to discuss common problems.
The Utopians regulate the size of each household, organizing the households into governable units. In addition to its cities, Utopia has a wealth of rural farming land. Each citizen serves a two-year stint in the country and then returns homes. As a result, the hard labor of farming is distributed across the population and everyone learns the necessary agricultural skills. Utopia enjoys a surplus of goods and the country villages and cities freely give to each other without receiving anything in exchange.
Amaurot sits on the banks of the Anyder River, the largest river in Utopia. The Anyder is pure-water near Amaurot. Upstream, the Anyder becomes salty and flows into the ocean. The Utopians built a stonework bridge and fortified the area. The houses and streets are planned in design, aesthetics, and dimensions and the model is duplicated across the island. Each house has a garden and Utopians take great pride in their gardens. There are no locks on the front doors and these doors "open easily with a push of the hand." As a result, "there is nothing private anywhere." Utopians exchange houses every ten years.
Stretching back 1760 years, the history of Utopia is well preserved. Magistrates are elected from groups of families and the highest of these magistrates serve in the Senate and elect the ruler of the people. Unless he is "suspected of trying to become a tyrant," the ruler serves for life. Most other positions are yearlong. All public business must be conducted within the public assemblies and it is a capital crime to hold such discussions elsewhere. Furthermore, in the Senate, no point is discussed on the same day during which it is introduced. These measures aim to prevent conspiracy and prevent shortsighted decision-making.
In terms of occupation, all of the Utopians (both males and females) are trained in farming, though everyone learns another trade. Children generally learn their father's trade. If a child wishes to learn another trade, the child is adopted into a different household. Individuals are also permitted to learn two trades in this manner and they can then practice whichever trade they prefer unless the city has a greater need for the other skill.
The Utopians believe in working smart, rather than simply working hard. They work only six hours each day, sleeping for eight hours, and devoting the remainder to meals and leisure. Most of the Utopian leisure activities are edifying or intellectual. They have morning lecturesmandatory for those selected to pursue intellectual activities as a trade, but regularly attended by a good number of "ordinary" people. The equitable distribution of labor enables Utopia to produce a surplus of goods. There is no leisure class; there are no beggars, swashbucklers, religious orders, or malingerers, nor is one sex exempted from (or forbidden to) work. There are no guilds to deliberately keep the supply of goods fixed and scarce. Raphael suggests that Britain would do well by eliminating idleness. The Utopians are vigilant against the spread of vice and in their leisure time, they play a game resembling chess in which the "virtues" are lined up in battle against the "vices." The game shows how vices and virtues interact and attack one another, and how one side ultimately overpowers the other. From this game, Utopians learn how to use their virtues to overcome their vices. The Utopians select their ambassadors, priests, tranibors (highest magistrates) and the ruler himself from the order of scholars. Scholars are selected based upon their intellectual promise at an early age. Sometimes an artisan makes great progress in his own leisurely intellectual pursuits and he is promoted to join the scholars.
Raphael devotes a good amount of time to explaining the social relations of Utopians in greater detail. Utopians create large households that are extended families. Sons and grandsons often start their families within the household of their youth. The oldest parent rules each household. The family structure is not inviolable, however; when cities are over- or under-populated or when a household has fewer than 10 or more than 16 adults, persons are moved from one household to another. If the city is overpopulated, the excess population moves to under-populated cities. Each city has six thousand households. When the island is over-populated as a whole, the government recruits citizens to colonize nearby areas of the continent where the natives have plenty of uncultivated land. Either the natives adopt the Utopians' laws and customs, or they are driven off the land, by force if necessary. If any city is under-populated, colonists return to replenish the island.
Each city is divided into four equal districts and the marketplace occupies the center of the city. The head of each household offers his goods and obtains whatever his household needs. There is no exchange of money and no direct exchange of goods for "there is plenty of everything" and no reason to hoard goods or deny them to others. In the city, each block of houses has a dining hall in which the households eat together. Stewards from each hall go to the market to get food for the meals. Hence, in the cities, the Utopians eat their meals in large communal groups and not as isolated families as is the case in the countryside. As always, the Utopians seek to advance the moral education of their peopleespecially the youth. The common dining halls feature brief lectures or readings followed by discussion. Young people are seated with their elders to prevent the youth from misbehaving.
In Utopia, there is no problem of traveling bands of rogues, nor is it possible for an individual to escape his civic obligations by traveling to another city. When Utopians travel, they must join in the labor of the resident citizens, otherwise they are not fed. Citizens must first get the permission of the magistrate to travel and husbands must have their wives' consent. Hythloday concludes that these traveling individuals remain just as profitable and useful to the state as if they never left. And "with the eyes of everyone upon them," the Utopians have "no wine taverns, no alehouses, no brothels, no occasion to be corrupted, no hideouts, no hangouts."
Utopia believes in storing a full year's worth of provisions as reserves. The excess supply of goods is exported to foreign lands at a reasonable price and one-seventh is donated to the poor in foreign lands. Utopians import iron, which they lack at home, and they also bring back vast quantities of silver and gold. The balance of trade is well in Utopia's favor, as they import far less than they export. Gold and silver are held in low regard upon the island. Utopians use these "precious metals" to decorate criminals, slaves, and childrenand as a result of the stigma, god and silver are never stolen or hoarded. Hence, these metals are always in great supply and are available in case of war.
The Utopians follows a keen sense of virtue and rationalism. They seek to avoid the social complications of private wealth and class structure and they rely upon an education in reason, morality, and religion to keep Utopians well behaved. Utopians believe the greatest pleasures to be those of the mind and not the body, and they devote much of their free time to these pleasures.
In Book Two, Raphael Hythloday develops the motif of perfection. A series of images and symbols support the notion of Utopia as a good place (and Utopians as the ideal people). Garden imagery is prevalent in Book Two, presenting an allusion to the Biblical Garden of Eden. Utopians enjoy many gardens and love to garden. In symbolic terms, the Utopians enjoy a pure Eden-like life, free of many real world concerns. On a practical level, the garden imagery also reflects the agricultural skill and abundant harvests of the Utopians. The strength of the civilizations is seen in the life and vitality of its crops and vegetation.
Thomas More's combination of urban and agricultural features makes Utopia a unique and modern work. The Utopian ideal fills the cities the cities with gardens and surrounds each city with agricultural land. The land symbolizes Eden but there is certainly social commentary reflecting More's Britain. The Utopians have not constructed congested and dirty cities like London, nor have they devoted land to the wasteful pleasures of the nobility. More than Eden-like gardeners, the Utopians are "stewards" of the land and they carefully husband their resources. This connects the imagery of perfection and gardens to the themes of virtue and public services.
Besides the gardens, there are other images of perfection. Utopus constructed a "whole plan of the city" Amaurot, and the Utopians sustain this zeal for urban planning and design 1760 years later. The island is circular in shape, its cities are perfectly arranged, and the cities are divided into four equal districts. For the Utopians, equality is the visual image of perfection. Cities are the same size. Houses look the same. Each city has the same number of adults.
In considering Utopia as a philosophical treatise and Utopia as a model civilization, we find that the theme of truth becomes very complicated. There is the question of feasibility. Assuming that the Utopians' beliefs are true and morally correct, how useful is the information to More's audience? Hythloday asserts that Utopian policies could improve Britain's condition, but Utopia's condition seems unrealistically advantaged. Indeed, Utopia is described as the opposite of the real world. More than a mere "ideal," Utopia is a fictional society that haswith the stroke of More's peneasily solved the actual problems of real societies.
Utopus easily cuts through the isthmus that connects Utopia to the mainland. Here, More alludes to the Greeks' failed attempts to dig a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth. This historical episode was so well known in More's time that it became a proverbial figure of speech for failure. Utopia's capital city, Amaurot, strongly resembles London. London has the Thames River and a smaller stream called the Fleet Ditch, but these are far dirtier than Utopia's Anyder River and freshwater spring. Even more significant, both the Anyder and the Thames flow in from the sea, with the city built on the riverbanks. London's bridge was built in between the city and the coast, restricting ships from traveling through the city. Amaurot's bridge is built further inland so that ships can sail the river into the city and through much of it, facilitating trade. Utopia is More's reflection on his own society. It is not entirely fictional and imagined.
The Utopians' lifestyle also presents the theme of innovation. The Utopians discover the best practices and seek to implement them whenever possible. Like More's contemporaries, the Utopians discover new lands and come into contact with new foreign ideas as a result of international commerce and trade. The Utopians have rearranged their natural landscape, creating an island. This creates a tension between God's role as creator and man's roles as innovator.
By the standards of democratic capitalism, the Utopian idea of the common life is rather objectionable. Utopia looks a lot like communism. In the struggle to attain perfection, Utopians depend heavily upon formulas of equality. Household size is regulated and individuals can be sent to other families to keep the numbers balanced. The Utopians fear the vices of sloth, greed, and pride and they take proactive measures to eliminate the possibility of vice. But a good deal of freedom is sacrificed. We are told explicitly that front doors open at the touch of a hand and there is no privacy. Sons and grandsons start their families as part of their father's household. It is impossible to take a leisurely vacationone must work even when traveling, and work hours are assigned by the state.
Utopia resembles 1984 and Fahrenheit 451novels of "dystopia" that responded to big government, totalitarianism and tyranny. Utopia resembles the Puritan commonwealth that Oliver Cromwell established in Britain in the 1650s. It is hard to credit the Utopians with virtue when their choices have been made for them. Tragically, the Utopians (once an uncivilized "mob") are civilized to the point that they remain indistinguishable from one another. They live in the same houses and wear the same clothes according to the guidelines of their planned communities.