The year 2016 marked the 500th anniversary of the publishing of Thomas More’s book Utopia. Much has been written about the idea of Utopia and Utopian societies, stretching all the way back to ancient times. Since Thomas More gifted us a detailed physical description of his “good place,” I thought it would be fun to walk-through his land, 500 years later, give some simple measurements and compare it to some real places today.
The Name “Utopia”
The name of the place, Utopia, is a Latin word created by More and comes from the Greek words ou meaning “not” and topos meaning “place.” So literally, it means “no-place”; a place that does not or cannot exist. However, the people of the time (early-16th Century England) interpreted it as Eutopia, the first part of the word changed to the prefix eu, meaning “good” in Greek. This would render its meaning as “good place.”
St. Thomas agreed with this interpretation, so much so that in a later addendum to the book he stated that, “Wherfore not Utopie, but rather rightely my name is Eutopie, a place of felicitie.” Accordingly, we may think of Utopia as a “fictional good place,” which is exactly what it was intended to be.
Utopia was imagined as a large-sized island laying somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean not far from mainland Europe. As described by More, the island is roughly 200 miles in breadth and around 500 miles in perimeter, and tapered or rounded at its edges—in general shape and in size, somewhat similar to the state of Maine. Comparing with island countries, fairly close matches are Ireland and Cuba, with Utopia fitting just about between them in size.
Interesting in the book is that More has the land originally attached to the mainland as a peninsula. But, by order of the King, Utopius (the place is named after him), a 15-mile wide canal was dug to separate the place from the continent.
Due to its location, assumed to be not too far north or south, the temperature and climate would have been mild– a rainy springtime, with warm summers and a cool fall. Light snowfall in the winter, just enough to create a pleasant “blanket.” In this respect, more akin to Ireland, except with a bit less rain and more days of sunshine (further similarities with Ireland will be described later).
Regarding the island’s interior, there is a long and winding river that runs circular through the entire island, forming an inverted U-shape (see above map). The river flows gently and empties into a large protected bay located centrally at the south end of the island. It is wide and deep enough to be navigable by ship, both smaller vessels of the inhabitants and the larger vessels of merchants sailing between Utopia and the mainland.
The interior of the land contains an agreeable mixture of flat and hilly areas, both wooded and open. It would be pleasant to travel in, and a more challenging hike in some spots through forest or over highlands. The island coast is mostly comprised of rougher crags and cliffs, with a few small inlets of sandy beach. Thomas explains the overall coarseness of the coastline as ideal for defensive reasons.
Sea trade was very important for the welfare of Utopia. But More recognized the dangers of pirates and invaders and so had the people of the story create a system of special landmarks placed in and around the main bay that Utopian navigators could use to safely guide themselves. These landmarks were special in that they were able to be “turned,” “translated” and “removed,” as More relates, such that enemy ships could be “foiled”– crashing themselves on rocks hidden at the entrance to the bay just beneath the water’s surface.
The Settlement of Utopia
Thus far, in terms of man-made features, we have seen the “great canal” dug by order of King Utopius to separate his land from the rest of the world, and the unique “landmarks” emplaced around the island’s main bay to guide friendly seafarers and thwart hostile ones.
Now we shall explore the broad pattern of cultivation of the island’s interior.
Utopia, a land approximately 200 miles wide and 35,000 square miles, contains 54 “large and fair cities,” or “shire towns,” as Thomas calls them. (Note: In the real world, a shire town would be the administrative capital of a County.) In the age of the Renaissance (1400-1600), a large city would have had a population of about 100,000 to 150,000, with none less than 50,000 and the largest (typically state capitals) anywhere from 200,000-400,000. A few of the largest and most prosperous cities of that time, globally, would have been Beijing, Cairo, Constantinople (Istanbul), Paris, Genoa, Vijayanagar, Venice, and Tenochtitlan.
Great care is taken by More as to the regional distribution and layout of the cities. All 54 cities are sufficiently sited and spaced, with the closest two cities about 24 miles apart. Though these are the closest in proximity, no two cities, according to the author, would have been more than a day’s journey apart on foot. Practically speaking, this could have meant anywhere from 30-50 miles, depending on the route (paved road or not?) and any number of other factors.
Each city also has side boundaries of at least 20 miles long, enough to allow for a good-sized polis with a surrounding countryside of natural and agricultural lands. Assuming a rectangular four-sided plot, this gives each city at least 400 square miles of territory; yet Thomas says that some cities had “much more” than 20 miles on a given side, so that we may assume there was a decent variety in the plotting of the territories but enough regularity so as not to impose too confusing a pattern of land title or urban development.
Next, we come to the peculiarities of the countryside. Each city’s jurisdiction contained a sufficient amount of farmland, likely enough to sustain the city’s population (though More is not specific on this point). The rural parts contained large farmhouses, each employing a minimum of 40 people and privately owned by a single family. The farmhouses were to act as a type of filter or “sieve” between the rough uncultivated country and the refined urban locale. As we will explore later, this had the effect of a type of “social exchange program,” whereby the ruffians of the exterior could land a decent (but hard) job on a large farm, and the urbanites, bored with the cosmopolitan life, could retreat to the farm for a while to live simply and get their hands dirty.
Finally, Thomas was explicit in that all cities are of the same general quality—in other words, physically safe in terms of foundation and construction, well-kept, and attractive to the eye. Furthermore, he mentions that they were this way “as far forth as the place or plot suffereth.” This means that though they were about equal in quality, they had differences based on the surroundings and the purpose of the city. For example, one city may have been more physically constrained than another due to a nearby forest or coastline; and if it had a coastline, for example, it could have had extra fortifications or a fishery, distinguishing its function from other cities.
If we assume an average population of 100,000 for each of the 54 Utopian cities, this yields a total of about 5.4 million people. Going back to our closest examples, this makes it much more populous than Maine (1.3 million) and much less than Cuba (11.2 million). It seems as though our winner in the Utopia “twins” contest is Ireland: with a current population of 6.3 million, this makes it quite identical not only in being an island of about the same size and climate, but also of population.
A Well-Balanced Place
From its physical characteristics of geography, settlement and population, we might gather that the island of Utopia is a well-balanced place—cities and hinterlands existing in a peculiar harmony. Beyond the scope of this short article is the social structure of Utopia; and suffice it is to say that the happiness of Utopian citizens was, in sum, considerable.
I suspect More would have credited the overall balance of the place to a simple ingredient: the beneficence of the people and their king. And yet, it was the place itself, the polis and environs, functioning harmoniously, which returned the “common goods” (physical, social, spiritual) back to individuals and helped to keep them happy. So in an unexpected way, it would seem that ecology and civility go hand-in-hand. They are interrelated.
What’s interesting is that although Thomas More could have imagined Utopia with one large metropolis dominating the land (after all, most nations even today are mostly dependent upon one large capital city), he instead envisioned a land of many smaller cities dispersed evenly throughout the island’s area. More certainly knew of the larger cities of his day and in history (Rome had over a million), and certainly had the imagination to envision giant-sized metropoli. Yet he chose a different model. Why? Perhaps because he knew that cities only needed to be a certain size to achieve an ideal condition– the common good of all and for all.
In the classical Western philosophical tradition, and especially in More’s time, the perceived purpose and function of civil society was to imbue its citizens with virtue. At that time, it would have been impossible for philosophers to envision the achievement of the common good without a “common people of character,” the body-politic, shaped by virtuous deeds freely done. It then follows that since cities are the physical manifestation of civilization and society, they would have been expected (through its organization, aesthetics, institutions, etc.) to achieve this ever-important goal of instilling virtue in people.
As urbanists, city-thinkers and city-dwellers, do we look at cities in the same way today? It’s a worthy thought.
Happy New Year to all!
Figure 1: Wikipedia, public domain
Figure 2: Wikipedia, public domain