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1.3: Themes in Utopia

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    Introduction: Themes in Utopia

    With topics ranging from colonization to the Tudor dynasty, Thomas More’s Utopia provides a glimpse into 16th-century Europe during the Age of European Expansion. Heavily influenced by the travel writing genre and other humanist and philosophical works, this text allowed More to candidly examine the socio-political time period in which he was writing. The use of letter writing within Utopia, as well as More’s decision to originally publish the text in Latin, reflects the humanist hegemonic discourse of the early modern period. More adopts a critical and analytical tone as he reflects on the ideal land of Utopos in comparison to his own English homeland. This theme-rich text examines topics relevant to More’s own historical context, such as colonialism, education, and social structure. 



    Much of Eastern European politics during the 15th and 16th centuries revolved around colonialism and colonization, especially during the Age of European Expansion. The economic and religious prospects in the “New World” convinced many European leaders to establish colonies in the Americas. More, writing at the time of King Henry VIII’s reign in England, was heavily influenced by the exploration and colonialism that characterized this time period. Raphael Hythloday, the man that describes the land of Utopos to More and Gillis, is described as a world explorer who is “driven by a desire to see the world” (More 25). Once acquainted, Hythloday goes on to give More an account of the Utopian people and their near-perfect way of life. This account is best understood in tandem with the rise of colonialism, which revolves around one nation’s ability to control and economically exploit a smaller, weaker country. Hythloday’s praise for the Utopian people must be understood alongside More’s glorification of exploration. This same type of exploration oftentimes led to colonization rather than the praise of a newly discovered land and its indigenous peoples.

    Reading Question

    To what extent does More’s Utopia reaffirm the Eurocentric view of colonialism and exploration? To what extent does it reject it?


    Women & Gender

    More spends a generous portion of his work explaining the roles of Utopian men and women and their respective responsibilities. He also notes their sexual and marital practices, which perhaps serves as a social commentary on the state of England’s own gender-based customs. For instance, anyone who is found “guilty of illicit sexual relations prior to marriage is severely reprimanded and permanently banned from marriage” (More 92). This is best understood in contrast to views on premarital sex in 16th-century England, which was warned against but oftentimes lacked realized consequences. More’s inclusion of such details regarding consequences for sexual promiscuity may reflect his own desire for a more stringent stance on English familial and social matters. Overall, much of More’s commentary on gender and sexual relations have direct connections to the cultural context in which he was writing.

    Reading Question

    How does the Utopian view of gender roles reflect traditional gender roles in 16th-century England? How does it differ?


    Christian Humanism & Education

    The education system and philosophy of the Utopian peoples are also best understood beneath the backdrop of Christian Humanism during the Late Renaissance and Early Modern periods. Christian Humanism was an intellectual movement that joined the individualism of Humanism with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Likewise, Christian Humanism also stressed a renewed interest in classical Greco-Roman texts. This humanist influence is spread throughout the entirety of More’s work. In Book 2 of Utopia, More writes that the Utopians believe “that the soul is immortal, and by the goodness of God destined to happiness” (More 80). He also notes that the Utopians employ a style of learning in which they are free to “leisure in intellectual pursuits” upon the completion of their trades (More 64). This educational style is reflective of one described by Erasmus, a Christian Humanist and contemporary of More. On the whole, Utopia is strewn with humanist ideas, reflecting the major intellectual movement of the time.

    Reading Question

    Where– specifically– do we see humanist influence in Utopia? What aspects of humanism are present (e.g., references to Greco-Roman texts and scholars)?



    More’s Utopia is a unique conglomerate of different literary genres. Book Two of Utopia, in which Hythloday describes the island of Utopos, often overshadows Book One, which serves primarily as a philosophical text. It is in this first book that More– the fictional character– engages in analytical conversation with Peter Gillis and Raphael Hythloday. The three men discuss ideas such as the role of philosophy in government and the validity of the death penalty for petty crimes. In contrast, the content of Book Two lends itself to the science fiction or fantasy genre. In this section of Utopia, Hythloday details the social structures, lifestyles, and educational systems of the Utopian people. This work is also heavily influenced by the travel writing genre, which gained popularity in medieval Europe as explorers, such as Christopher Columbus, published accounts of their expeditions. Overall, More expertly lines this work of fiction with philosophical undertones, blurring the lines between well-known literary genres.

    Reading Question: Genre

    What other genres helped shape More’s Utopia and why? From your literary knowledge, what subsequent works of literature were influenced by Utopia?


    Social Structure

    The social structure of Utopos provides a stark contrast to that of 16th-century England. In Book Two, Hythloday explains that “everything is shared equally, and all men live in plenty” in Utopos (More, PAGE #). This emphasis on social and economic equality cuts through a majority of Hythloday’s descriptions. This is not to say that discrepancies do not exist within the text, however. For instance, when describing the Utopians’ dining practices, Hythloday reveals that the phylarchs and their wives sit at the highest point of the communal table (More, PAGE #). While this shared dinner table reflects the Utopian value of equality, a hierarchical seating arrangement may undercut such attempts at egalitarianism. Family structure is another social element that Hythloday expounds upon in Utopia. He explains that each family is organized in a patriarchal manner and that “No family may have less than ten and more than sixteen persons in it” (More, PAGE #). By rehoming the children of “fruitful” couples to those who do “not abound so much in [children],” Utopians maintain this delicate familial balance. While a patrilineal family system was the norm in 16th-century Europe, the strict adherence to family size is uniquely Utopian. In general, the Utopian social structure forces readers to consider the likelihood that an ideal society founded upon equality could ever actually exist.

    Reading Question

    What connections can you draw between “Women & Gender” and “Social Structures”? How do these two themes build off of each other?



    Perhaps the profundity of More’s work lies in the dichotomy of the existence of Utopos. The etymology of the word “utopia” reveals an interesting account of More’s possible thought process. In modern Latin, “utopos” translates to “no place.” However, this word is strikingly similar to the Greek work “eutopos,” meaning “good place.” The title Utopia is best understood as a morphology between these two linguistic roots. Utopos as “no place” leaves very little room for nuance. Utopos as a possible “good place,” on the other hand, opens up the possibility of an actual ideal society. This blend between the real and the fictitious reflects the ambiguities of this historical period. It begs the question of whether or not an ideal society can ever actually exist. Moreover, while Hythloday exalts the Utopian culture, he still perpetuates the notion that a land is considered “undiscovered” until acknowledged by Europeans. The duality of Hythloday’s views mirror the duality of Utopos. It raises valuable and complex questions regarding this Age of Colonialism: does the validity of the “New World” rely upon its discovery? Is a society like Utopos considered “no place” until it is discovered to be a “good place?”



    Themes such as women and gender, colonialism, and Christian Humanism span the pages of More’s Utopia. Deeply rooted in the socio-political and cultural context of 16th-century Europe, each of these themes plays a key role in the understanding of this text as a whole. From marital expectations to philosophical systems of thought, Thomas More explores ideas that transcend geographical location and influence England and Utopos alike.


    By Tess Diamond

    1.3: Themes in Utopia is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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