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Thomas More (1478–1535)

Utopia, continued

Utopia

Utopia, continued

Summary: Hythloday at Cardinal Morton’s

Hythloday describes a dinner he had with Cardinal Morton in England, where he discusses punishment for thieves. A lawyer believes thieves should be hanged, but Hythloday thinks this punishment is too severe and that one should try to understand the reasons men steal in the first place, such as a lack of jobs. He describes how greedy landlords are evicting peasants from their property, rendering them jobless, to pursue the wool trade. Cardinal More asks why Hythloday would eliminate the death penalty, and Hythloday says death is not a deterrent. He describes the ancient Polyerites, who enslaved their thieves and killed them only if they tried to escape. Though the lawyer rejects Hythloday’s suggestion that England adopt this policy, Cardinal Morton recommends that it at least be tried for thieves as well as beggars, and others agree. An exchange ensues about what to do with the poor and sick follows, with a jokester suggesting they become brothers and nuns.

Hythloday explains to More that this episode at Cardinal Morton’s table shows the futility of counseling political rulers since the officials who were present mocked his reasonable advice. More cites Plato’s argument that philosophers must advise kings whenever possible, and Hythloday cites Plato in return: unless the king is himself a philosopher, he will be unlikely to take philosophers seriously. Hythloday proposes a scenario in which he is present at a discussion between the king of France and his advisors, who recommend various ways the king might manipulate treaties and connive diplomatically to increase his power in Italy. In this situation, Hythloday would want to tell the king to worry about the welfare of his own people and leave Italy alone, surely an unwelcome opinion. Hythloday goes on to give further examples of the futility of hoping to change politics.

More concedes that Hythloday’s suggestions would not be seriously considered in such scenarios, but he says a wise statesman must act subtly if he hopes to wield any influence. He must make a dire situation as good as possible, even if the outcome is not wholly to his liking. Hythloday counters that court advisors must approve of the worst things and that, by compromising, they become complicit in corruption. He believes private property to be the source of this corruption and explains that in Utopia all property is communal and that Utopia consequently lacks many of the ills that plague a country such as England. More remains skeptical about the desirability of communal property and argues that in such a society people would have no motivation to work. Hythloday insists that Utopia is a well-ordered society, much older and wiser than European societies, so ancient and advanced that when a party of Romans were shipwrecked there the Utopians quickly mastered everything the Romans taught them. More then requests a thorough description of Utopia, and Hythloday begins his lengthy account.

Analysis

The scene at Cardinal Morton’s validates some of Hythloday’s concerns about putting his wisdom at the service of rulers. The author More had been involved in politics since childhood and was certainly familiar with the various personalities that make up the court. The dismissive lawyer is doubtless reminiscent of many of the unsavory characters More encountered both as page boy in the very same Cardinal Morton household and as a member of parliament and advisor to Henry VIII. However, the fact that Cardinal Morton was himself willing to entertain the idea of implementing Hythloday’s proposed policy suggests that hope is not lost. Though More is probably somewhat sympathetic to Hythloday’s skeptical attitude, he seems to suggest that a person of conviction and intelligence can, if tactful and persevering, win small battles.

Book I illuminates the author More’s perceptions of the social ills of early sixteenth-century England. Many historians believe the wool trade was partly responsible for the destruction of rural peasant society, and More and many of his contemporaries criticized those who profited from the high price of wool by evicting peasant farmers from the land to turn it over to sheep herding. The resulting mass poverty contrasted the increasingly opulent lifestyles of the wealthy, and More saw their greed not only as a corrupting influence but also as an offense to Christian piety. Hythloday claims that theft is only a symptom of a larger social issue, a suggestion that in More’s time was a novel way of approaching political and social problems. The understanding that social structures such as wealth and power can be the cause of individuals’ actions was a remarkable insight, since many of More’s contemporaries still believed in the Great Chain of Being, the idea that God determined social and political status.

The vice of greed is a constantly recurring theme throughout Utopia. Foreign rulers are interested only in increasing their wealth and care little for the welfare of the people, and Hythloday believes abolishing private property to be the only real solution. The narrator More expresses doubts that this plan would actually work, but his response to Hythloday’s provocative reflections occupies an ambiguous middle ground. The author More uses Hythloday to introduce idealistic models and the narrator More to show how they might play out in practice. In some ways, this two-sidedness is in keeping with the author More’s personal attempt to reconcile principle with political reality. More advocates a realistic attitude in contrast to Hythloday, whose idealism has left him cynically inactive. However, More seems also to suggest that some element of truth exists in the ideals Hythloday represents and that those ideals can be realized only if they can be reconciled with the realities of politics and practical life.

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