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Utopia

Sir Thomas More

On Philosophy and Counseling a King

Hythloday and His Travels

Conditions in England

Summary

More and Giles are so impressed with the political and social insight Hythloday displays during his description of the countries through which he traveled that they suggest he attach himself to some king in order to put his great knowledge and understanding to public use. The beauty of such a course, according to More and Giles, will be that Hythloday would put himself in position to help the common people, his family and friends, and himself. Hythloday disagrees, first saying that he has no desire for personal wealth or power and feels no further debt to his friends or family since he already dispersed his wealth among them when he left on his travels. As for being a benefactor of the public, Hythloday rejects the notion that a royal counselor can have any such effect. He argues that princes are interested in war rather than peace, in conquering new territory rather than finding better ways to govern their own. He further argues that the advice of the prince's favorites, whether wise or foolish, will always be met with approval by men trying to curry favor. In such an atmosphere, the advice of an outsider, no matter how wise, would meet with disdain.

Commentary

The exchange between More and Hythloday can be seen as a conflict between two separate ways of thought. Hythloday adheres to a belief in the purity of the philosophical ideal of truth; More has a more pragmatic belief that such purity has no value and that it must be tempered and put to public use, even if that means compromising the original ideal. This is a classic political and philosophical conflict, with roots spread at least as far back as Plato's ideal Republic and Aristotle's scathing response that the Republic simply could never function as a state.

It is worthwhile also to remember, though, that More and Hythloday can both be interpreted as aspects of Sir Thomas More. The issue of whether to join the service of the King or remain a philosopher was one that Sir Thomas More constantly struggled with in his life. At the time he wrote Utopia, this question was of particular interest to him, as he was on the cusp of joining the King's service. The argument between More and Hythloday can therefore be seen as an internal argument Sir Thomas More was having with himself. The struggle between remaining free to pursue the ideal and pragmatically compromising that purity for the sake of social utility is an important theme in Sir Thomas More's life, right down to his final decision to abandon pragmatism for the ultimate ideal of martyrdom.

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