Conditions in England
As an example to his point about not wanting to be counselor to a king, Hythloday describes a dinner he once attended in England with Cardinal Morton, who was then Chancellor to Henry VII. At this dinner was a lawyer who begins, in intelligent discourse to support the policy of capital punishment for the crime of theft, and yet expresses amazement that so many continued to steal. Hythloday speaks up, exclaiming that the lawyer should not be surprised, since capital punishment of thieves "is contrary to justice and of no benefit to the public." He claims that capital punishment is at once too harsh a penalty and not a good deterrent. Theft does not deserve death, and death will not stop a person from stealing in order to put food on his table. A far better policy, Hythloday advocates, would simply be to make sure that everyone has enough to eat. The lawyer responds that such is already the case--men can choose to work or they can choose to steal. Hythloday disagrees, outlining a number of social, political, and economic realities that in fact produce a never-ending stream of thieves. First, maintaining a standing army creates a population of soldiers who in bad times make very good and cold-blooded thieves. Second, exploitative nobles barely allow peasants to survive without resorting to banditry. Finally, the "enclosure movement," which transforms arable land into private pastures, steals peasants' livelihoods while simultaneously creating an oligopoly (ownership by the wealthy few) that raises the price of bread and wool. In short, Hythloday claims that English society is implicitly engaged in "manufacturing thieves and then blaming them for being thieves."
The lawyer begins a response that is obviously hollow and dull, but is soon cut off by Cardinal Morton. The Cardinal asks Hythloday what would be a better punishment for theft, in terms of both amplitude and deterrence. Hythloday begins by noting that God commanded man not to kill fellow man; the existence of capital punishment, therefore, puts man-made laws above God's law, an obvious blasphemy. Hythloday also notes the practical idiocy of having the same punishment for theft and homicide, meaning that there is nothing deterring a thief from also being a murderer. To describe a better means of punishment, Hythloday invokes the example of the Polylerites, who force thieves to return stolen goods to their victims. These thieves are not treated badly, they are well fed and treated with respect, but they are forced to perform hard labor for the rest of their lives. If these thieves commit any further crime, then they are put to death. This system of punishment, Hythloday observes, "is directed at eliminating crime, not criminals."
The lawyer claims that the policies of the Polylerites could not be instituted in England without tearing English society apart. The other members of the dinner party rush to agree. The Cardinal musingly responds that it would not be clear how the Polylerite policies would affect England unless they were tested. With this endorsement of Hythloday's ideas, the members of the dinner party begin to praise what they had just been ridiculing.
Hythloday's description of his dinner with Cardinal Morton has a number of textual layers. First, it proves his point that at court his ideas will be judged by counselors more interested in wealth and power than truth or rationality.
Second, it is a sardonic attack on lawyers (one of Sir Thomas More's many occupations and one which does not exist in his Utopia). More broadly, it is an attack on those who speak to hear themselves talk without giving any rational thought to the subject of their discourse. The lawyer, with his haughty hollowness, is a caricature of such a man, and is held up to ridicule by Hythloday, Morton, and by Sir Thomas More.
Third, the dinner scene provides Sir Thomas More with the opportunity to discuss current social issues in England, such as the use of capital punishment in crimes of theft and the exploitative nature of the enclosure movement. Hythloday's argument finds fault with the practice on both religious and secular grounds and is so convincing in its portrayal of capital punishment as both immoral and ineffective that it serves as a condemnation of the practice throughout England.
Finally, through Hythloday's articulation of society as a series of interwoven threads of structures of society as both causes and effects, Sir Thomas More demonstrates a dramatic originality and importance as a social theorist. The understanding that the actions of individuals are caused by the structures of wealth and power in society was a remarkable insight for the time. Many of Sir Thomas More's contemporaries, for example, still believed in the Great Chain of Being, a conception of society that held each individual's social and political status as directed by God.
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