Because of his Humanist studies of classical philosophy, author More had an ideal vision of morality that contrasted with the realities of his world, and one of the major goals of the Humanist movement was to integrate those ideals into real life. However, More knew that principles alone will not get anyone very far in politics.

More’s father was a notable judge who raised him amid politics and politicians, so More knew how corrupt political life could be. A major theme of his early work, The History of King Richard III, was the deception and ruthlessness of rulers. The bloody Wars of the Roses, a vicious power struggle over the English throne that had thrown the country into chaos for much of the previous century, remained potent in English memory. In Book One of Utopia, More accuses Hythloday of being too “academic” in his attitude toward advising rulers. More seems to be saying that one cannot simply represent ideal principles and then despair that corrupt leaders will never heed them. Instead, to gain influence, a conscientious political advisor must learn to play the game and to accept the realities of a world dominated by power and greed.

This conflict between principles and harsh reality is one that would have been particularly meaningful to Sir Thomas More, who, it is worth remembering is reflected in both Hythloday and the character More. 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.

The issue of whether to join the service of the King or remain a philosopher was one that Sir Thomas More struggled with in his life. At the time he wrote Utopia, he was on the cusp of joining the King's service. The argument between More and Hythloday could therefore be seen as reflecting an internal argument Sir Thomas More had with himself. This struggle between remaining free to pursue the ideal and pragmatically compromising that purity for the sake of social utility reappeared at the end of his life when he made the final decision to abandon pragmatism for the ultimate ideal of martyrdom.

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