Study Guide

Utopia Themes

  • Dissatisfaction

    Hythloday can't get no satisfaction from the current state affairs in Europe. That's how that song goes, right? The more we get to know the protagonist of Utopia, the clearer it is that he just isn't happy with how things are going down in his home continent: corruption, poverty, inequality, and violence abound. Yep, it's a bummer. And while he finds temporary relief in the radically different society of this unknown island called Utopia, it just doesn't last. In fact, when he returns to Europe and realizes how few people are open to the kinds of social systems Utopia uses, things only get worse for him. Poor guy.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Does there seem to be one experience in particular that made Hythloday so dissatisfied with European governments? Or is this a general feeling that arose from some deep thinking? What would be the difference between those two reasons for dissatisfaction?
    2. How does Hythloday express his dissatisfaction? Does he just go out and say things are bad, or do we have to piece those feeling together as readers?
    3. How exactly does the island of Utopia free Hythloday from his dissatisfaction? Does it offer him hope? Does it offer him escape? What kinds of experiences does he have there?
    4. Is Hythloday the only dissatisfied character in the book? Who else might be?

    Chew on This

    Hythloday is just having a case of "the grass is greener." If he had actually stayed in Utopia, he'd start to find faults with all kinds of things there, too.

    Utopian society is designed so that no one can ever feel dissatisfied—it's impossible.

  • Pride

    Pride is the problem. At least for Hythloday it's that simple. In Utopia, Hythloday sees Pride as public enemy #1, the main contributor to every political, social, and economic issue facing Europe. Poverty? Pride's fault. Bad kings? You guessed it, Pride. Even though you might think of pride as just one of those seven deadly sins, Hythloday goes out of his way to claim that it's at the root of all other sins. And guess what makes Utopian society so successful? Pride is never rewarded, so it doesn't really exist. Problem solved… maybe.

    Questions About Pride

    1. What exactly is Hythloday's rationale for attacking pride? What behaviors does he see it directly cause? Why?
    2. According to Hythloday, what specifically is it about Utopian society that discourages pride? What is it about European society that makes it so common? 
    3. What are some examples of proud behavior in Utopia? Do our three main characters act proudly or do we just hear about pride in other situations?

    Chew on This

    Hythloday is wrong; pride may not always be great but it isn't all bad. In fact, having some pride is necessary in order to accomplish good things.

    Hythloday is the one with the pride problem here, not the rest of Europe. Can you get much prouder than believing you're right and everyone else is wrong?

  • Society and Class

    Utopia is not your average island for many a reason, but its social organization and hierarchies are probably the most obvious difference between there and, well, anywhere else. Often considered to be proto-Communist, Utopia depicts a society that seems to have almost no class-system, no hierarchies (aristocracy, plebs, etc.), and very rigid family structures. By imagining such a radically different conception of how people live together, More is thinking hard about whether everyone should have equal social standing or whether having some degree of social hierarchy is actually helpful. But wait, what's the answer? Don't hold your breath—More definitely doesn't give us one.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Are there any kinds of hierarchies in Utopia or is everyone actually equal? If there are hierarchies, are they at all similar to ones we know, or are they completely different, too?
    2. What holds the community together in Utopia? How does the government fit into community? What about family?
    3. How do people interact with each other in Utopia? Can we relate this to its unique social organization? 
    4. Where, if anywhere, does Hythloday fit into Utopian society? Does he have a specific role, or is he perpetually an outsider?

    Chew on This

    Utopian society isn't that radical; many aspects of its day-to-day organization are super similar to Europe.

    Utopia couldn't exist without social hierarchies. After all, they are a natural part of how people live together. They aren't good or bad; they're just a reality.

  • Wealth

    Utopia is chock full of social commentary. And when Hythloday gets to Utopia, he's pretty taken with their unorthodox way of eliminating wealth: no private property. Without private ownership, there is no such thing as wealth—or poverty, for that matter—and people just don't care about being rich. This works out well, says Hythloday, because then there's no greed; and when there's no greed, everyone is happy. Everyone except him, of course, because it reminds him of how money-driven European society really is.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. Does the question of wealth come up in places other than in the description of Utopia? If so, when and how?
    2. What exactly is the Utopian attitude toward wealth and precious things? Do they serve a function in their society at all?
    3. Hythloday sees wealth and private property as directly related—but are they? Are there examples in the text where they could be different? 
    4. While it's very clear how Hythloday feels about wealth, do we get a sense of what other characters think about it? If so, do they agree with him?

    Chew on This

    Like it or not, ownership of things makes us happy; it's completely unrealistic that people could be happy in Utopia.

    If Hythloday hates wealth so much, he shouldn't be hanging around with his wealthy friends all the time enjoying their food and beautiful gardens.

  • Religion

    Sure, Hythloday spends a lot of time discussing religion, but it's also one of the subjects that keeps his readers guessing. Why? Well, it's a pretty hot topic, and since More was writing Utopia at a time of major religious upheaval (think Reformation, burning at the stake, heretics, all that scary stuff), you didn't want to be caught saying something too controversial on the subject. What we do know about religion in Utopia is that most people believe in a single, God-like, all-powerful being who instills in us a moral code. But (and this is a big but) there's religious freedom to believe what you want. What do you make of that?

    Questions About Religion

    1. What are the specific connections between religion and morality that Hythloday describes? How do Utopians see those two things as connected?
    2. What's the relationship, if any, between the Utopian religion and these religious characters we meet, specifically the Friar and Cardinal Morton?
    3. Compare and contrast Utopian religious customs with the customs of other major religions. How different is Utopian religion? Why? 
    4. What is Hythloday's opinion on religion? Other than reporting the practices of the Utopians, what else, if anything, do we learn about his own belief and feelings on the topic?

    Chew on This

    The Utopians don't actually have a religion; they just follow a collection of philosophical observations.

    The fact that Utopians aren't Christian (the only acceptable religion in More's world) is proof that he didn't actually intend Utopia to be a model society.

  • Power

    Think Utopia is just a story about three regular guys having a little chat in a garden? Fine, it is. But it's also a profound examination of the power of, um, power: who should have it, how they should get it, and how they should use it. It's no accident More starts the whole book by praising the King of England (his employer). This book was written during a time when the people who were powerful were super-duper powerful. It's also no accident that this model of super-duper power it totally different from the way power exists in Utopia, which has a semi-democratic government. So, which is better? Well, folks, that's the million dollar question.

    Questions About Power

    1. What are the specifics of how power is distributed in Utopia? Does one person have most of the power? Many people? No one?
    2. What kinds of power dynamics do we see depicted in Book 1 (i.e., not in Utopia)? Are all the characters equally powerful, or are some under the authority of others?
    3. What kind of power does Hythloday have? How does he describe his power, or lack thereof? 
    4. Considering that the book is organized as a series of conversations, what, if any, is the connection between conversation and power? Is conversation ever powerful? What can it do or not do?

    Chew on This

    Hythloday, More, and Giles are all pretty privileged people; they can't have an honest discussion about power.

    Utopia can't call itself a semi-democracy—after all, it was founded by some king.

  • Exploration

    Philosophy, meet adventure. Adventure, this is philosophy. Shmoopers, here they are, brought together for your delight in More's Utopia. Despite being concerned with lots of Big Important Themes, this is also a book about exploration: the benefits—and drawbacks—of discovering new places and new ideas. What if, like Hythloday, everyone who leaves Europe to go exploring comes back preferring the new place? Will it help us improve or just make everyone miserable? What ethical responsibilities do we have toward these new people? What if they don't believe in our laws and moral ideals? Even though no one is directly voicing these concerns, you can bet that they would have been on everyone's mind.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. What kind of an explorer is Hythloday? How exactly does he make it to Utopia and why might this be important?
    2. Are any other characters in the text explorers of some kind? How is travel to new places other than Utopia described? 
    3. Do Utopians explore? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Utopia is not a book about exploration; it's just a convenient context for some philosophical speculations.

    In the Renaissance, exploration and travel would have been luxuries only an elite few could have taken advantage of, so morality and exploration are actually incompatible.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Political Philosophy

    Who runs the world? Philosophers! Not really, but Hythloday thinks they should—and they kind of do in Utopia. In fact, Hythloday thinks that the political health of Europe is in serious danger if kings without any philosophical know-how continue to run the show. In fact, the question of how to make the ideals of philosophy reconcilable with the realities of politics motivates the long debate of Book 1 of Utopia and is a subtle refrain in Hythloday's depiction of the island. For all their innovative and radical attitudes toward society, power, and religion, it's their devotion to learning and education that keeps the Utopians so on top of things.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: Political Philosophy

    1. How does Hythloday depict the role of philosophy in Utopian politics? Why is, or why isn't, the Utopian model possible in Europe?
    2. What is the fundamental disagreement between More and Hythloday on the role of philosophy in the political world? What specifically does Hythloday object to?
    3. In both the debate in Book 1 and in the description of Utopia, what is the relationship between type of government and philosophy? Is philosophy more or less reconcilable with monarchies, democracies, or neither? 
    4. What characters in the text can we consider philosophers? Why? Are we ever given a definition of what that title means?

    Chew on This

    Hythloday's point is that politics and philosophy are naturally connected; there's no way you can possibly separate them.

    Philosophy can never be political; it has to be able to conceive of an ideal world and never engage in the kind of compromises politics requires.