The narrator, Thomas More, arrives in Bruges, in present-day Belgium, and meets his friend Peter Giles. Giles introduces More to Raphael Hythloday, an explorer who has seen much of the world. More, Giles, and Hythloday go to More’s house, and Hythloday describes his travels. Giles asks him why he hasn’t offered his services to rulers, who could use his knowledge of diverse customs and practices to improve society. More and Giles explain that a person of learning and experience has an obligation to use his talents to better humanity. Hythloday, unconvinced, attempts to demonstrate why offering one’s wisdom to government is not desirable.
Hythloday, a fictional character, plays an ambiguous role in Utopia. On one hand, Giles describes him as wise and well traveled and therefore qualified to comment on a wide range of issues. Hythloday has traveled with the famed explorer Amerigo Vespucci, but since the author More and many others thought Vespucci was a fraud, it is unclear whether Hythloday’s association with Vespucci lends him credibility or suggests that Hythloday is prone to exaggeration. Hythloday in Greek means “speaker of nonsense,” which may suggest that Hythloday’s remarks, despite being blended with factual elements from the author More’s life, should be taken with a grain of salt.
More and Hythloday’s conversation about placing one’s talents at the service of a ruler demonstrates a conflict between two ways of thinking. Hythloday believes in the purity of the ideal of truth, whereas More believes such purity has no value and that talents must be put to public use, even if the original ideal is compromised by doing so. More is committed to the Humanist ideal of individual conscience and wrestles with the problem of whether one can remain true to one’s principles and to truth while in the employment of a ruler. As Hythloday attempts to demonstrate, reality would force a conscientious person to make many concessions to power and corruption. However, More and Giles argue that the wise cannot leave leadership to the corrupt and must attempt to better society when possible.
The author More struggled with the issue of whether to join the service of the king or remain a philosopher, and at the time he wrote Utopia, More was on the cusp of joining the king’s service. The argument between the narrator More and Hythloday suggests an internal argument between More and himself as he struggled to choose between remaining free to pursue the ideal and compromising that ideal for the sake of social utility. He eventually rose to the position of Lord Chancellor, the most powerful office in England next to the king himself, but he ultimately abandoned pragmatism for the ultimate ideal of martyrdom.