Thomas More the character sets the stage for Utopia by recounting how he was sent by King Henry VIII of England as an ambassador to the Netherlands, along with several other excellent men. Their mission is to negotiate with a Flemish commission organized by Charles, the King of Castile, concerning the English wool trade. The commissions meet once or twice without arriving at any full agreement. Consequently, the Flemish travel to Brussels for further instructions from their prince, during which time More travels to Antwerp.
More frames Utopia with an account of a mission that Thomas More, the historical figure, really did undertake, thus adding a sense of reality to the fictional elements of his work. He wants us at once to believe in, and to interrogate the reality of, his discourse on Utopia. That the English mission concerns the wool trade gives a historical context for Hythloday’s critique of the wool trade to come.
While living in Antwerp, More befriends an honest, learned citizen of that city: Peter Giles. More finds Giles’s conversation both merry and pleasant, and it makes More feel less homesick to have such an entertaining new friend, even though he’s been away from his wife and children for four months at this point.
More’s friendship with Giles serves as a model in the text for how people in society should relate to one another, a kind of ideal community in miniature. That More misses his wife reminds us, however, of the practical human needs that impinge on such ideals.
One day, while returning to his house in Antwerp after a church service, More runs into Giles, who is speaking with an old, sunburned, long-bearded, and cloaked stranger from Portugal; this man is named Raphael Hythloday. More takes him to be a mariner. Giles exclaims that he was just about to escort Hythloday to More’s lodgings for a meeting, because the old man is well-traveled and knows much about the world, especially foreign peoples and countries. However, Hythloday turns out to be not so much a mariner (though he did travel with Amerigo Vespucci) as a person in quest of knowledge, like the Greek hero Ulysses and the philosopher Plato.
Hythloday is pure invention, but his having sailed with a historical figure, Amerigo Vespucci, lends credibility to his stories. Hythloday’s strange appearance suggests how his experiences abroad have transformed him into something of a sage or prophet. He resembles Odysseus in that he has been everywhere in his quest for knowledge, and he resembles Plato in the sense that he not only has broad practical knowledge but also has high theoretical knowledge about the world.
More, Giles, and Hythloday go to More’s house and sit in the garden where Hythloday tells of his travels. During one voyage, he says, he received Vespucci’s permission to stay behind and explore the East for himself. After many days spent crossing scorching deserts and wilderness, Hythloday and his companions came upon well-governed people, cities, and towns. Ships gladly welcomed Hythloday and his companions aboard, and they were consequently able to visit many nearby countries. Hythloday even introduced some sailors to the use of the lodestone, a magnet used in navigation. More, however, suggests that sailors have so much confidence in the lodestone that they become reckless and expose themselves to danger.
In the Biblical tradition, a paradisiacal garden is imagined as surrounding the City of God in Heaven, and it is therefore a fitting location for three virtuous people to contemplate the perfect cities of Utopia. Hythloday’s travels took him to the New World, the Americas, by way of sub-equatorial Asia. The lodestone is a cautionary image for the book as a whole: just as the lodestone can help people navigate the sea, so can Utopia help us navigate the difficulties of governing well; but to become too confident in such a guide is also to court disaster.
More and Giles are especially curious about how the peoples Hythloday encountered are governed, and they ask him many questions on this point. More is also quick to point out that they don’t ask Hythloday any questions about monsters, because monsters, like Scylla from Homer’s Odyssey and cannibals, are easy to find, whereas people ruled by good and wholesome laws are not. Of all the societies Hythloday presents, however, More is “determined to rehearse only that he told us…of the Utopians” (from the Greek meaning “nowhere”).
More the author parodies the genre of the travel narrative throughout his work. Here he pokes fun at people who read about the world for entertainment rather than for insights into how they can better their societies and themselves. He is also making an ironic jab at the princes and aristocracies of Europe: they are the monsters so easy to find, those that cannibalize their own societies.
Peter Giles is so impressed by Hythloday that he strongly encourages him to go into the service of a prince as his counselor, for the prince, the nation, and Hythloday’s own friends and family would benefit from Hythloday’s profound learning and wisdom. Hythloday counters that he has done enough for his friends and family as it is, having long ago given them most of his belongings. As such, he would not “give [himself] in bondage unto kings” on their account. Peter says he does not mean bondage at all; Hythloday could become very wealthy by serving in a king’s court. Hythloday, again, has a counter: wealth stands in opposition to his own principles and nature. He values the liberty to follow his own thoughts and pleasures too much to serve a prince.
Hythloday’s character is entangled in ambiguities. If his learning and wisdom can’t be put into his nation’s service, just how valuable is it really? We might also wonder whether it’s a touch hypocritical that Hythloday later praises the family-like communities of Utopia while he himself says here that he’s done enough for his own family; the Utopians would probably be displeased by such an attitude. More captures such ambiguities nicely in Hythloday’s name: “Hythloday” likely means something like “kindler of nonsense,” and yet ”Raphael” is the Biblical angel who helps mankind understand the ways of God.
More, for his part, encourages Hythloday to go into a prince’s service not for wealth but to contribute to the public good. Hythloday responds, first, that he does not possess the ability to fill a prince’s head with truth and virtue, because princes are more interested in chivalry, war, and conquest than good governance. Second, counselors prefer the ideas they themselves invent to all others, and therefore attempt to fault the ideas of their peers, no matter how good, which means that their best decrees “‘lie unexecuted.’”
Whereas Peter Giles suggests that Hythloday serve a prince out of self-interest, More suggests that he serve a prince out of self-sacrifice. But Hythloday suggests that the whole system of governance in Europe is so corrupt, and that people are so proud, that such self-sacrifice would be in vain anyway. It would be a waste to serve a king, to Hythloday’s mind.
More asks Hythloday if he’s been to England. Hythloday says he has, and he stayed there for four or five months, shortly after a Cornish rebellion—which was motivated by overtaxation—was bloodily put down in 1497. Hythloday spent much of his time in England in the company of Cardinal John Morton, whom More served as a page in boyhood and whom Hythloday describes as upright, reverent, gentle, wise, and eloquent—an excellent administrator of policy and law.
The circumstances of Hythloday’s visit to England are significant: the Cornish rebellion signifies the bloody, wasteful effects of bad governance in general. It is ironic that such atrocities occur in countries governed by people as good as Cardinal Morton—but Hythloday later suggests that even good people working in corrupt systems can’t help but fail to do good.
One day, while sitting at Cardinal Morton’s table, Hythloday fell into discussion with a cunning lawyer concerning English law. The lawyer praises the rigorous justice executed upon felons and especially thieves at that time, for many were hanged for their crimes and few escaped punishment. Hythloday disagrees: death is “‘too extreme and cruel a punishment for theft’,” he says. He also argues that people who resort to thievery are forced into it by having no other way of getting their living. Instead of executing thieves, he says, England should make it so that the thieves can live by honest work instead.
This scene begins a sort of “parable” in which the various characters at Morton’s table exemplify what Hythloday sees as the wrongs of European society. The lawyer and Hythloday have two conflicting ideas of justice. The lawyer thinks that justice is the law being effectively enforced, while Hythloday thinks that justice is the organization of a society such that people don’t have any need to break the law in the first place. The lawyer’s view, in contrast to Hythloday’s, seems merciless, inhumane, and ultimately ineffective.
Hythloday claims, moreover, that he’s not just referring to people who can’t work because they’ve been maimed and lamed by fighting on behalf of their nation in the wars. He is referring to people who can’t work for more commonplace reasons. First, Hythloday says, there are a great number of idle gentlemen who live by exploitatively raising their tenants’ rent and who hire serving men to proudly show off the wealth of their estates. But these serving men never learn any craft, and they become as idle as their lords.
Hythloday’s critique is directed at the feudal structure of English society, where the rich who own property live extravagantly by the sweat of their workers’ brows. Earlier in feudal England, landlords maintained private armies, but by More’s time this practice had largely diminished into the maintenance of serving men more for the sake of social prestige than for warfare.
Hythloday continues: once these serving men’s lords die, or once they themselves fall ill and are thrust out to get their living independently, serving men have no choice but to “‘manfully play the thieves’,” lest they starve. What choice do they have? After being thrust out, the men wear their clothes threadbare and become sickly, which makes it unlikely that another master will take them into service. Moreover, farmers dare not put them to work either, knowing that such men do not have the temperament or discipline to do hard work for small wages.
Many humanists like More and Erasmus (More’s friend) argued against feudalism as irrational, exploitative, and unchristian. Hythloday mounts just such an argument here. Notice that it is the pride and rapacious self-satisfaction of the landlords which breeds idleness among the lower classes of society—Hythloday will later indict pride specifically as the root of all evil. The Utopians, in contrast to the English, train everyone in useful crafts.
The lawyer responds that England should cherish these pampered, out-of-work serving men, for they are stouter and more courageous than craftsmen and farmers tend to be, and they make up the whole strength of the English army as such. Hythloday agrees that, when such out-of-work serving men don’t become thieves, they do tend to become soldiers, but he finds it troubling that England must cherish its thieves for war’s sake.
The lawyer cannot or will not imagine society organized in any other way than it presently is, and so he praises the army for solving the problem of idleness (although he doesn’t respond at all to Hythloday’s point that England hangs so many thieves because it breeds so many thieves). The more imaginative Hythloday understands the army to be an even greater evil than the problem it supposedly solves.
Moreover, Hythloday observes that in all nations, but especially in France, having a standing army in peacetime is bad policy. Nations don’t like sending unpracticed soldiers into battle, and so they provide practice by seeking out unnecessary wars. Standing armies of mercenaries or slaves also have a history of turning against the countries that support them. Finally, as France’s military record in wars with England would suggest, practiced soldiers don’t even have an advantage over unpracticed ones. Hythloday thinks that men who have a craft tend to be stouter and sturdier than gentlemen’s serving men who are softened by idleness anyway.
The course of Hythloday’s argument suggests that a few social arrangements, like landlords keeping serving men, cause a huge host of widespread evils to arise. The tolerance of pride corrupts English society absolutely. His argument also suggests how the lawyer’s reflex patriotism is ironically connected to his nation’s deficiencies, for the lawyer praises the English army even though standing armies, it would seem, pose more dangers to a country than they deter.
Hythloday introduces a second cause of thievery in England. For the sake of reaping huge profits in the wool trade, noblemen, gentlemen, and even churchmen tear down houses and towns to pasture their sheep on what could otherwise be farmland, thereby making it impossible for people to live on and work the land. The farmers who are cheated or oppressed out of their land often get nothing for it, or for their household stuff. After wandering the country and spending all they have, they inevitably turn to theft, having no other way to get their living, and then they are hanged. Those who beg instead are often imprisoned; in any case, they can’t contribute to the public good either.
In a self-interested effort to maximize their own profits, noblemen, gentlemen, and churchmen harm the society of which they’re part, which is especially egregious of the churchmen, for their predatory actions directly cut against Christian teachings. Keep in mind that More the character is in the Netherlands to promote the English wool trade, which colors Hythloday’s critique here with ambiguity: if More the man buys into what Hythloday is saying, it would seem that he values public service over his own principles.
The decay of farming causes yet other problems, in Hythloday’s account: food shortages and a spike in the price of wool, which makes it so that poor people can no longer afford to buy wool and make cloth from it. This problem was further exacerbated, Hythloday recalls, by the death of many English sheep due to an epidemic of sheep rot, which only made wool harder to get. This, again, results in people being forced out of work into idleness, and only a few greedy people profit. Hythloday also foresees similar problems arising when “utter covetousness” leads noblemen and gentlemen to exploit the cattle industry as they’ve already done with the sheep industry.
Hythloday is methodical in making his case: after showing how the English wool trade causes idleness even in the best of times, he now shows how disastrous the wool trade can be in times of emergency. He also suggests that the rapacity of the upper classes is boundless, when he foresees the exploitation of the cattle industry. His point is that small evils, when tolerated, grow into very big evils. Perhaps he values Utopian society so highly because it tolerates no pride or self-interest.
Making matters even worse, according to Hythloday, is the fact that beggary and poverty are often accompanied by debauched drinking, decadent excess, the soliciting of prostitutes, and gambling among those not reduced to poverty, like serving men, craftsmen, and farmers. Hythloday calls for a law that will force the people who despoiled farmland to restore it, and he calls for an end to idleness. Until these problems are solved, he says, justice will be mere show and not profitable, and children will be brought up in sin. A society should not make thieves and then punish them cruelly, Hythloday concludes.
Legal and economic conditions have more than just legal or economic consequences: bad laws and policies also lead, perhaps most significantly, to the degeneracy of a society, to wasteful entertainment and vicious character. Notice that Hythloday does not blame individuals for the state of England; he blames the organization of society as a whole. In this sense, we are all responsible for our neighbors’ actions.
The lawyer tediously claims he will answer Hythloday, promising to rehearse each of his points in order and then counter all of Hythloday’s arguments. However, Cardinal Morton cuts him off: he doesn’t want to listen to such verbosity, and would rather the lawyer save his answer for later.
The lawyer’s tedious opening suggests that his own arguments come not from wisdom like Hythloday’s, but from pride: he likes to hear himself talk. But we must also wonder whether Cardinal Morton found Hythloday’s speech to be too long.
Instead, Cardinal Morton asks Hythloday how he thinks thieves should be punished, if not by death. Hythloday responds that a man’s life is worth more than money, that cruel laws disproportionate to the crime they’re punishing should not be tolerated, and that man’s law ought not to go against God’s commandment against killing insofar as this is possible, lest man usurp God’s power. Not even Moses’s sharp law punished theft with death, Hythloday points out. Moreover, thieves who know they’ll be hanged for thieving and murder alike are more likely to kill their witnesses, such that the death penalty for theft perversely incentivizes murder.
Instead of directly answering the Cardinal’s question, Hythloday begins by critiquing the death penalty in general. He gives moral, legal, religious, and rational arguments for his position, and even plays on anti-Semitism by favorably comparing the laws of Moses to English law (the insinuation is that Christians should be more merciful than Jews). An irony underlying these arguments is that More the man would go on to approve the deaths of many Protestants as punishment for heresy in the years to come.
Hythloday then turns to how thieves should be punished. He points out that the Romans punished thieves and other criminals by forcing them to serve the public good in stone quarries and mines. Hythloday says that the (fictional) people called the Polylerites (from the Greek meaning “nonsensical people”), whose fertile land is ringed in by mountains, punish thieves by forcing them to pay restitution to the victims of their crimes, and also by forcing them to become common laborers, or serving men. These laborers, humanely treated, are not imprisoned or bound unless they refuse to work, in which case they are also whipped.
Hythloday sees the death penalty, fundamentally, as a waste of human potential. He would rather make offenders useful, as slaves. We might find this cold or scandalous, but it is part and parcel of his program of eliminating idleness and waste. Note that the Polylerites are not altogether humane: they are willing to resort to bodily punishment. We might wonder whether a society that can bring itself to treat people like animals is altogether admirable, no matter how “efficient” it might be.
Furthermore, Hythloday says, the serving men among the Polylerites are distinguished from other citizens by the common color of their clothes and the fact that the tip of one of their ears is cut off. For them to receive money or weapons is death, for the receiver and giver alike; for a serving man to throw away his distinct clothes or to run away is likewise death. For a free man to counsel a serving man to run away is bondage; for a serving man to do so, death. Those who reveal the plots of a runaway receive freedom or money, depending on whether they’re serving men or freemen, respectively. It is always better for a runaway to repent and turn back than to “go forward in their evil purpose.” Serving men can also achieve freedom through hard work and patience.
Hythloday brings up the Polylerites as an example of people who have done away with the death penalty, but it soon becomes clear that they just “displace it, rendering it less visible,” in the words of one critic. It may be More the author’s point here that well-intentioned, idealistic principles—let’s abolish the death penalty—cannot be practically institutionalized; we must always compromise our principles if society is to function. Still, the Polylerites do seem more humane than the English, despite their inconsistencies.
Hythloday concludes that the Polylerites’ treatment of thieves is much more humane than England’s. He thinks that society can be so organized that even bad people can’t help but to do good. The lawyer at once counters that, were England to do as the Polylerites do, the nation would fall into danger; he says no more, but everyone present agrees with him except Cardinal Morton. The Cardinal says proof is needed to decide either way, but he is sympathetic to Hythloday’s proposal and adds that forcing even vagabonds into labor might benefit society. Everyone at the table then praises what Hythloday had said; the highest praise, however, is reserved for the Cardinal’s novel point about vagabonds.
The lawyer responds to Hythloday’s nuanced argument with out-of-hand dismissal. Even though he gives no reasoning, everyone ironically agrees with him at once. This suggests that Hythloday is right in thinking that counselors think about arguments self-interestedly, not rationally. When Cardinal Morton announces his sympathy to Hythloday’s case, however, all present contradict what they said moments ago to praise him—mere flattery indeed. An idea is praised not for its merit but for its maker.
Hythloday then tells More and Giles about a joker at Cardinal Morton’s table who tried to say witty things as a professional fool might, but more often than not his jokes were so belabored and out of sync with the conversation that people ended up laughing at him more than at his jokes. Once in a while, however, the joker did succeed in saying something very witty and reasonable indeed.
The joker makes jokes for the sake of drawing attention to himself, not for the sake of forming good law and policy. However, his playful spirit seems preferable, in More’s eyes, to the deceptions of other counselors, for playfulness at least yields reason occasionally, and does little harm. If Utopia is one big literary hoax, perhaps its value is similar to the joker’s.
One person at Cardinal Morton’s table says that, thanks to the proposals of Hythloday and the Cardinal, both thieves and vagabonds are taken care of in England—all that remains is to make provisions for the sick and old who have fallen into beggary. The joker proposes that beggars be forced into monasteries and convents and made into lay brethren and nuns. The Cardinal smiles at this joke, but others at the table uncritically accept the proposal in earnest. A usually very serious friar jests that, now that the joker has made provisions for beggars, he must make provisions for friars, too. The joker retorts that the Cardinal’s provision for vagabonds (putting them to work) applies to friars as well, for friars “‘be the veriest vagabonds that be’,” in the joker’s words.
It is a dark irony that even so good a leader as Cardinal Morton should have for his tablemates not only flatterers but people so insensitive to the merit of ideas, so eager to please their betters, that they accept jokes for earnest proposals. Or is the joker’s proposal not so silly as it seems? One critic argues that the joker is here making a virtuous Christian proposal, and that it is only because society is so corrupt that his proposal appears to be a joke. Then again, perhaps More the author is suggesting that our desire for mere entertainment, like the joker’s jokes, debases intellectual exchange.
The joker’s mockery of friars is too much for the friar to bear, and he is enraged. He chides, scolds, and curses the joker. The joker scoffs very entertainingly and advises the friar to follow the scripture in being patient. The friar maintains that he is angry but that he is not sinning. Cardinal Morton calms the friar and tells him not to debase his intelligence by arguing with a fool. The friar praises the Cardinal’s wisdom, but nonetheless insinuates that the joker could be excommunicated for his mockery. The Cardinal, seeing that the argument will not end, sends the fool away, changes the subject, and soon after dismisses all his company. Hythloday says that this story suggests how little courtiers would value his counsel.
The friar’s anger is a symptom of his pride: he takes even a well-meaning joke as an insult. Moreover, his reference to scripture rings hollow as soon as he insinuates that the joker could be excommunicated, or kicked out of the Church, for his mockery. Ironically, in Utopia, it is the friar who would run the risk of exile for causing trouble on religious grounds. In any case, as so often happens, a trivial quarrel puts an end to intellectual exchange here. Hythloday’s ideals would fall on deaf ears in such an environment.
Hythloday pardons himself for telling Thomas More and Peter Giles such a long tale. He says he did so only because it seemed as though his companions wanted to hear it all. He points out that all present at Cardinal Morton’s table that day disagreed with his views on punishment until the Cardinal approved them, which suggests that those men are impudent flatterers, even to the point of accepting smiled-on jokes for earnest proposals.
Earlier, Cardinal More silenced the lawyer for verbosity; ironically, however, it is Hythloday who talks almost non-stop in Utopia, even to the point of apologizing for it. As much as Hythloday is More’s mouthpiece, he is also a target of satire. He is overly systematic in his arguments and he stifles true dialogue—both things humanists like More fought against.
More thanks Hythloday for his tale, which was especially pleasant for him because he served Cardinal Morton in his boyhood. More confesses that he hasn’t changed his mind on one point, however: he believes that if Hythloday serves as the counselor of a prince, he will greatly benefit his nation, which is nothing more than a good man’s duty. Only when philosophers are kings or the counselors of kings will society become perfect, as Plato says.
More the man really did serve in Cardinal Morton’s household. By interspersing fact in his fiction, he is teasing us: the possible and the ideal are so close and yet so far, as is Utopia from our world. Hythloday’s story about his night at Cardinal Morton’s does not persuade More that good counselors are always ineffective—after all, how could Hythloday expect to effect change in policy immediately over a casual conversation?
Hythloday does not agree with More. He says that, unless kings themselves study philosophy seriously, they will not listen to the counsel of philosophers. He imagines helping an empire-building French king like Charles the VIII or Louis the VII wage his wars of conquest. All his fellow counselors would propose cunning ways of winning battles, forging alliances, holding old territory, and gaining new territory. And if he, Hythloday, were to suggest that the king cease his wars of conquest and focus on domestic matters, what would happen?
Hythloday thinks that, unless leaders study philosophy, they won’t be open to reason concerning what goals a good commonwealth should set for itself. Instead they will do what comes naturally, from pride and greed: they will go to war to take what isn’t theirs. Such a prince can’t be reasoned with, Hythloday fears, and a good counselor’s ideals will never be realized.
Hythloday even has an example in mind for his hypothetical French king to follow, which he learned from a (fictional) people called the Achorians (Greek for “those who live in a place that does not exist”), neighbors of the Utopians. The Achorian king conquered a new kingdom, but had a harder time keeping it than he did in getting it because of rebellion. The Achorians lost money and blood in battle, and in peace many were so corrupted by their warlike ways that they had developed “wicked manners” and criminal tendencies. The Achorians forced their king to choose one kingdom to govern, because in governing both he was merely half a king. So it was that he contented himself with his old kingdom.
The story about the Achorians is like Utopia in miniature: both are cautionary models for good governance. However, Hythloday is confident, as is More, that the hypothetical French king would dismiss the story and continue to pursue his warlike ways. This invites the following question: If kings won’t listen to reason and follow good models anyway, why compose a book like Utopia in the first place? Won’t it just fall on deaf ears? Hythloday and More the character might think that it will, but More the author perhaps thinks otherwise.
Hythloday returns to his earlier question: how would the hypothetical French king receive his counsel, that he should cease his wars of conquest and not meddle with other kingdoms? More concedes the king would not be grateful for such advice.
Hythloday suggests that bad leaders only want to be told what affirms their beliefs and prejudices. This is consistent with his fear that people heed only their own thoughts.
Hythloday then imagines what cunning, vicious things his fellow counselors might advise the king to do: inflate the currency; pretend to go to war to raise money; renew old, outdated laws to collect fines; impose fines for certain practices and sell licenses to exempt people from the fines; etc. All the counselors agree on one thing: as the rich Roman Crassus says, a prince who must maintain an army can never have enough gold, and a prince can never do an injustice, because all men are his already. Poverty, such counselors say, makes people too poor to behave badly or rebel. And how would the king receive Hythloday’s counsel then, if Hythloday advised that he should care more about the wealth of his people than about his own wealth? A shepherd’s duty, Hythloday says, is to feed his sheep rather than himself.
The counselors Hythloday imagines are all intelligent, shrewd people, but when they aren’t guided by reason and virtue their intelligence only leads to exploitation and evil. Against the teachings of Christ, who holds that all people are equal as God’s children, the counselors affirm that “might makes right.” Hythloday, by contrast, thinks of a leader not as the owner of, but as the nurturer of, his or her people. Christ, it should be added, is often imagined as the “good shepherd.”
Hythloday goes on to say that poverty is not the mother of peace so much as it is of conflict, arguing, and fighting, as the behavior of beggars would suggest. After all, people who are not content are also those most desirous for change, and people who have nothing to lose are likelier to resort to violence. Besides, it is beneath the dignity of a king to rule over beggars—this would be fitter work for a mere jailer. A king who cannot rule except by harming his subjects is not fit to rule at all; he would do better to renounce bad pleasures and pride.
The counselors Hythloday imagines think that poor people will be too weak to cause trouble in society. Hythloday gives counterexamples here to suggest otherwise: all revolutions begin in dissatisfaction, he says. Irrational princes who do everything they can to control their people will ironically bring about revolutions in their realm.
Hythloday introduces a law of the (fictional) people called the Macarians (from the Greek meaning “happy people”). The Macarians do not permit their king to have more than a thousand pounds of gold or silver in his treasury, and by this measure they make sure that he enriches his country and not himself. A thousand pound of gold or silver is enough to support the king in putting down a rebellion, but not enough to encourage him to steal from his subjects.
Hythloday’s critique of private property as a motivator of wrongdoing foreshadows the fact that Utopian society has abolished private property altogether. When people have no outlet for selfishness, they serve the public good as a matter of course, to Hythloday’s mind. More’s jokes also continue here, as he further satirizes the “travel narrative” with more invented peoples whose very names give away their non-existence—and undercut the way Hythloday idealizes them.
Hythloday concludes, at last, that his counsel could only fall on deaf ears in a king’s court, and Thomas More now agrees with him. More says that “school philosophy” is not profitable or palatable to people who have already made up their minds, even if it’s “not unpleasant” among friends. Hythloday agrees that school philosophy has no place in the consultations of princes.
The ideals generated by “school philosophy” (as More defines academic philosophy divorced from the context of real life) are not practical in Europe as it is, Hythloday and More agree. However, the two men leave open the possibility that in a better world, where people are open-minded and interested in the public good, school philosophy does have a place in governance.
More does say, however, that philosophy does have a part to play in governance, although it must know its place and cannot digress. He means that philosophy which is craftily and wittily poured into the unreceptive ears of its audience to turn the “very bad” into the “merely bad”—if not the good. Not until all men are good, More says, can all be well—and some men will be bad a while yet.
More points out that school philosophy need not be presented in an overly systematic way. It can be made entertaining—just as Utopia presents philosophical ideas in the entertaining form of the travel narrative. If the world can’t be perfect, at least it can be better than it is.
Hythloday responds that playing such a crafty counselor would just make him as bad as everyone else. If he wants to speak truly, he must resort to “school philosophy,” and he does not know whether the philosopher can speak a falsehood and still be a philosopher. Hythloday does not want to play along with evil and wink at that which Christ forbids; he does not want ethics to be bent to accommodate vice. If he disagrees with a king’s counselors, no one will listen to him; and if he agrees with them, he will only help to further their madness and allow bad counsels and decrees to pass as good. He will either be denounced as a traitor, be corrupted himself, or be held accountable for the evils of others.
In some ways, Utopia is a way of presenting philosophical ideals in such a way as to avoid the pitfalls Hythloday points out here. The book, unlike a human counselor, cannot be corrupted, nor can it be punished for what it does or does not counsel. The idea that a good book should have as its ideal audience the receptive prince is common in Renaissance writings.
Hythloday speculates that no nation with private property or money can ever be justly governed. This reminds him of the Utopians, who have very few laws and share all resources collectively, but whose society is so well organized that everyone thrives. Just as Plato foresees in his Republic, because the Utopians have abolished private property, everyone is equal. No wicked, ravenous rich people prey on the poor, and no magistrates can be bought with bribes or gifts. Until private property is abolished in a society, Hythloday says, any kind of “cure” will just cause sickness somewhere else in a nation’s political body.
As More the character suggests later, Hythloday never gives an argument for his claim that private property necessarily corrupts society—he only demonstrates that it can do so. Can’t people own property in private and yet also be dedicated to the public good? Hythloday’s call for the abolition of private property ironically makes the realization of a utopia on earth even more distant, because it entails so radical and impractical a change.
More questions Hythloday as to whether or not people will really work at all without the incentive of personal gain—won’t they be too confident in other people’s industry and so lazily excuse themselves from labor? Hythloday is not surprised by this question, but says that, had More lived in Utopia as he had for more than five years, More would grant that no people are as well-ordered as the Utopians themselves.
Characteristically, Hythloday does not directly answer More’s question: you have to see Utopia to believe it, he essentially says. In what is a challenging paradox, however, we have to suspend our disbelief in Utopia before we can see it at all—and even then, as its name suggests, it is still “nowhere.”
Peter Giles says it’s hard for him to believe that this is so, given that the people in Europe are just as witty as others and that their nations are even more ancient and experienced in governance than the Utopians’. Hythloday responds that there were cities in Utopia before there were people in the Netherlands. He also says that, while Europeans may surpass the Utopians in wit, the Utopians are superior in study and work ethic.
To help us suspend our disbelief in a perfect commonwealth, More the author invents an elaborate historical backstory for his island. Hythloday believes that wit can be used for good and evil, and that more often than not it is used for evil. Learning and hard work, in contrast, he associates with the good.
To demonstrate the Utopians’ excellence, Hythloday tells a story. According to the Utopian chronicles, some 1,200 years ago certain Romans and Egyptians washed up on Utopian shores after their ship was destroyed in a storm. The Utopians then studiously and profitably mastered all the crafts and sciences these people could transmit. Hythloday doubts that Europeans could adopt Utopian know-how as readily. This is why, he says, Utopia is governed so much more wisely than Europe, though the Europeans are not inferior in intelligence or resources to the Utopians.
As useful as they are, the crafts and sciences of the Greeks and Romans certainly didn’t enable those peoples to perfect the organization of their societies. Indeed, Hythloday’s story suggests that we have not yet perfected the only science that really matters: the science of governing well and enabling as many people to thrive in happiness as possible. This science, however, is also the hardest to adopt.
Thomas More asks Hythloday to describe the island of Utopia in great detail, from its geography to its cities to its people to its customs to its laws. Hythloday gladly agrees, but says that the telling will require leisure. The men consequently agree to go into More’s house for dinner, after which they return to the garden and sit. Hythloday thinks in silence for a while, then proceeds to tell More and Peter Giles all about Utopia.
More’s household is a microcosm of the good community: it is a place of friendship, plentiful food, harmonious cohabitation with nature (as symbolized by the garden), and serious but friendly philosophical discussion. In no other environment are the conditions of Utopia so present—or so far from the ears of kings and counselors.