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by Thomas More

Utopia Book 1 Summary

The Best State of the Commonwealth, A Discourse by the Extraordinary Raphael Hythloday, as recorded by the noted Thomas More, Citizen and Sheriff of the famous City of Britain, London, Book One

  • Yep, that's the title of Book 1. Off we go.
  • Our narrator, Thomas More, is on official "King's business," so he's been traveling around Northern Europe, ending up in Antwerp.
  • While he's there, he sees his good old friend Peter Giles, an incredibly smart guy, chatting with an intriguing-looking stranger.
  • This stranger, named Raphael Hythloday, has done some serious traveling. And since More loves to hear all about weird, unexplored places, Giles knows they'll want to chat.
  • Giles explains that Hythloday is not just any old traveler: he's studied ancient Greek, loves to talk about philosophy, and took his whole library with him on his voyages—not to mention he traveled with the famous Amerigo Vespucci.
  • History moment! Amerigo Vespucci. Name sound familiar? He's an Italian explorer who traveled around the same time as Columbus and gave his name to America.
  • Back to the story. More is totally impressed, and after introducing himself, they all go to More's house for a long chat in his garden.
  • Here, our narrator, More, describes Hythloday's story. Hythloday's direct narration isn't recorded until a little later (don't worry, we'll give you a heads up).
  • More explains that while Raphael was sailing with Vespucci, he and a few other men asked if they could stay behind as a garrison in some vague, far-away place. Yeah, More is often vague.
  • There, they meet the local people, make friends with an unidentified prince, and then head out to do some more exploring.
  • As they travel, they encounter various other towns and cities, as well as long stretches of desolate, unpopulated deserts.
  • Along the way, they make friends with so many various countries that they're invited to sail in all kinds of ships to all kinds of places.
  • Even though these various countries have some nifty ship technology, Hythloday really impresses them by showing off his compass.
  • Hythloday thinks that the compass has made a big difference in the traveling abilities of these countries, but he's also a bit worried that this invention might lead them into mischief.
  • Apparently, Hythloday has lots of other interesting things to say, but More explains that there just isn't time to repeat it all.
  • More acknowledges that Raphael did a great job answering many, many questions, particularly ones about how other "civilized nations" do things (12).
  • Unlike most people, More and Giles didn't ask anything about silly monsters; they're both much more interested in politics and government.
  • More thinks that the government that sounded most interesting was Utopia, so he's going to focus on what Hythloday had to say about that country, and on the particular conversation that got them started on that topic.
  • Here's how it went down:
  • After hearing about how many different experiences Hythloday had while visiting other governments and countries, Giles asks him why he doesn't go work for a prince, put all his knowledge to good use, and help out his friends and family by getting to know someone in high places (wink wink).
  • No way, says Hythloday (who we finally get to hear from directly). He's already been super generous to his family and friends and is totally not interested in being a slave to some king.
  • Whoa. Who said anything about being a slave? says Giles. He just meant Hythloday could offer advice.
  • Hythloday thinks they're the same thing.
  • Whatever, says Giles. It's still a good way to help your friends, and people in general, and have a good time.
  • Hythloday couldn't disagree more. He likes to do whatever he wants and if he worked for a king, he'd always be trying to please him and pander to people. Yuck.
  • More jumps in at this point and praises Hythloday for being so uninterested in money and influence.
  • But, More says, shouldn't someone so interested in philosophy want to do some good, even if he doesn't like it? He could help all those princes and kings be better by giving them good advice and sharing wisdom.
  • Hythloday thinks More is completely wrong for a whole bunch of reasons:
  • (1) Kings mostly like war. Hythloday doesn't.
  • (2) Advisors to kings are way too into themselves to listen to anyone else.
  • (3) Advising kings actually = flattering them
  • (4) Because being the best is so important, instead of being inspired by new ideas, advisors are afraid of looking stupid, so they'll find fault with anything you suggest.
  • (5) In fact, they don't even care about new ideas and experiences, they just like the idea that the old way is obviously the best way.
  • Hythloday ends by mentioning that he's even seen these kinds of attitudes in England, which surprises More since he didn't think Hythloday had ever been there.
  • Absolutely, Hythloday responds, and explains that he was in fact there for a number of months staying with a great guy called Cardinal Morton. He was virtuous, wise, always made sure people were honest, fair, gave great speeches, knew everything... you get the idea.
  • One night Hythloday, Cardinal Morton, and some visitors were all having dinner. One visitor, a lawyer, said how much he liked the current policy of hanging thieves (great dinner topic, buddy!). But he was a bit confused why, considering how many are killed, more and more still seem to be around.
  • And this is how the conversation continued:
  • At this point, Hythloday interrupts and explains that executing robbers is a terrible way of controlling robbery. People steal when they're desperate, not because they're cunning master criminals. If you want people to stop stealing, you need to give them the means to take care of themselves.
  • "Oh, we've taken care of that," (16) the lawyer responds, explaining, you know, they can farm or something.
  • "Oh no, you don't," (16) Hythloday replies, and gives him the real deal:
  • (1) What about veterans who've been disabled? Can they farm? (Nope.)
  • (2) And it's not like noblemen do anything all day. In fact, the only reason they get to sit around is because they have a bunch of people slaving away for them... not terribly enabling.
  • (3) And what about all those useless attendants that noblemen always seem to have waiting around? No one teaches them how to do anything useful so that one day, when they get sick and are fired, they have no way to take care of themselves. Nobody, not even farmers, wants to hire someone useless.
  • The lawyer still insists (for some reason) that these are the people who should become soldiers.
    Hythloday again points out that there is still plenty of time when there are no wars going on, and these people inevitably get up to no good when they aren't kept busy.
  • It's not just England that has this problem, Hythloday continues, France is even worse! Only idiots think that having a 24/7 army is a good idea. All you have to do is read some Roman history to see how often those armies get bored and just attack their own country. Wouldn't it be better for everyone if their time was occupied by learning some useful craft?
  • This isn't the only reason there is widespread thievery in England, Hythloday explains. Massive private farming and land-owning is also a huge problem. There isn't any land left for ploughing! Instead, it's just owned by a handful of lazy, rich people who kick out the local farmers and do whatever they want with it. Where are all these displaced people supposed to go? How are they supposed to find money to feed themselves and their families? Especially since buying all this farming land has also lead to food and wool being more expensive.
  • Moreover (Hythloday is seriously on a rant here), these noblemen who buy land for their own private benefit intentionally charge lots of money for animals and livestock. And for what? So that they can indulge in absurd amounts of luxury: new outfits, tons of food and drink, silly card games. Obviously, the rich need to be regulated. They shouldn't be allowed to do whatever they want or the problem of thievery will just get worse.
    Hythloday concludes (finally!) by saying that executing thieves just looks like justice, but it isn't and it doesn't work. He says it's just like blaming a child for being bad if his parents raised him poorly.
  • Well, the lawyer is getting all ready for a big comeback, but Cardinal Morton shuts him down and says he needs to wait until they meet up again the next day, because no one wants to hear him talk that much.
  • Instead, he does want to hear more from Hythloday about this whole punishing-thieves issue. How should they be punished then? Wouldn't a mild punishment still encourage robbery?
  • It's just completely unfair, Hythloday insists, to take someone's life because they took someone's money. "Thou shalt not kill" is one of the Ten Commandments, so why are we doing it all the time? It seems like a can of worms; if killing becomes legal, what's next: rape, adultery? God gets to make laws, not people. The laws of Moses are severe, but fair, so let's emulate that.
  • Okay, let's take a break for a quick history snack. Thomas More, as you might be aware, was later made a saint by the Catholic Church after being executed by Henry VIII. So, you can imagine, he was a pretty religious guy. And remember, when he was writing Utopia, Christianity was the accepted and standard religious code, so he would have expect his readers to all believe in the Christian God, too.
  • Back to the story. Aside from religion, Hythloday goes on to say that it's actually dangerous to make death the penalty for stealing because then murder and theft are punished in the same way. If that's true, won't that encourage robbers to kill their victims since they have nothing left to lose?
    In terms of an alternative punishment, Raphael thinks the Roman idea of putting thieves to work in chains isn't too bad, but the best one he learned from the nation of the Polylerites (don't worry if you've never heard of them before...).
  • Fun fact: More invented this name from two Greek words which, when put together, mean "The People of Much Nonsense." Clever, More. Very clever.
  • Speaking of the Polylerites...
  • Hythloday gets a little off topic and offers some quick background: they live in a country far from the sea, they aren't into invading other places, they happily eat what their land produces, they don't fight wars, they don't indulge in luxury... (hint hint).
  • Back to theft. Hythloday explains that the Polylerites punish robbers by having them repay the actual victim of the robbery—not the state—and then they have to go off and do hard labor for the rest of their lives. But this hard labor isn't in chains or anything, they just have to be involved in a project that helps the public.
  • If they don't work, they get whipped; if they do, they get fed and housed (under lock and key) by the state. This isn't an issue because the Polylerites are generous people and like to support the state.
  • Hythloday describes how Polylerite convicts have a particular physical appearance (yes, this bit is kind of wacky): they all wear clothes of the same color (no one else can wear this color...), they have short hair, and the tip of one ear is cut off. (We warned you it's wacky, if not downright creepy).
  • Friends can give them anything except money or clothing of a different color and, unsurprisingly, they don't get to carry weapons. They also have to wear a special badge indicating that they're convicts, and escape plans are punishable by death.
  • Sounds pretty rational, huh? Hythloday thinks it is because the goal of the system isn't just punishment, but to turn the criminals into better people.
  • In fact, the system works so well that travelers love chatting with Polylerite convicts because they're not dangerous and they're easy to spot.
  • What about a slave rebellion? you ask. Not a chance, says Hythloday. Criminals from different districts aren't allowed to talk to each other. And why would they rebel? If they're good, they even have a chance of being pardoned.
  • Hythloday goes on to wonder why this kind of a system isn't set up in England, but the lawyer says it would be a disaster.
  • Cardinal Morton jumps in and remarks that there's no way to know if it would work in England since no one has ever tried it. Maybe a criminal could have his death sentence temporarily suspended and that would be a way to try it out? No harm, no foul, right?
  • Suddenly, everyone at dinner seems to think this is a great idea. Hythloday is not pleased that when he suggested it they all thought it was absurd, but once mister big shot Cardinal agrees, they all love the idea.
  • After this, someone else at dinner remarks that the only social problem they haven't discussed yet is the poor.
  • A fool, who had been standing around being mostly silly but sometimes clever, replied that he was all over that since the poor never bother him because he never has anything to give them—just like priests (ouch!). He then suggests that all the poor be sent to monasteries to help out the monks there.
  • History moment! A fool, like, from a play or something? Yep, fools actually did hang around major courts annoying/entertaining noblemen, kings, etc. Check out "The Fool" in Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory for more.
  • The Cardinal gets a bit nervous since this fool just made fun of the church and one of his guests is a friar. But the friar thinks the joke is hilarious (phew!) and even makes fun of himself, saying the friars can be like beggars sometimes too.
  • And… another history moment! A friar is a religious leader somewhere between a priest and a monk (that may be why he liked the joke so much). He doesn't live shut off in a monastery, but instead lives in villages usually tending to the poor.
  • But the fool has his own comeback, and says that friars are more like the criminals they were discussing earlier.
  • Everyone else laughs at this one, but the friar is quite insulted. He starts calling the fool all kinds of mean names.
  • Friars aren't supposed to get angry, says the fool, quoting the Bible.
    The friar insists he isn't angry at all (in a very angry way!).
  • The Cardinal steps in to cool the friar off, but the friar insists that this is something worth getting angry about.
  • Well, says the Cardinal, it's kind of lame that you're this upset about something a fool said.
  • But the friar continues to get heated, insisting it's his religious duty to show this fool just how foolish he is.
  • What do you know—the Cardinal suddenly decides to change the subject.
  • Here, Hythloday stops narrating his experience of visiting the Cardinal in England and apologizes for how long he's been talking.
  • Um, yep.
  • He explains to his two friends that he wanted to include every little detail so that More and Giles would understand just how fake and flattering advisors can be.
  • More, however, insists that he loved hearing Hythloday's story, especially since he grew up knowing the Cardinal and it brought back lovely memories.
  • But More is still not convinced that all advisors to kings have to be bad and thinks Hythloday could do some serious good. Just think about what Plato recommended, More says: that the best kind of state is one ruled by philosophers.
  • Fun factoid: More is referring to Plato's Republic, a famous work of Greek philosophy which imagined a perfect state ruled by philosopher kings. More's Utopia is actually modeled on this text, which some people consider to be proto-Utopian.
  • Hythloday insists that plenty of philosophers try to influence kings all time by writing books of advice that the kings just don't read. He says he agrees with Plato's idea, but it first requires kings to become the kind of people who even care about philosophy. Even Plato tried to influence a tyrant during his lifetime and it was a complete fail.
  • Hythloday then offers More and Giles some scenarios to prove his point:
  • Scenario 1: Hythloday at the court of France in some top-secret session about how to basically take over all of Europe.
  • Everyone has a bunch of totally different suggestions: make deals, hire mercenaries, pay off various kings, marry off some women, make an alliance with England, etc.
  • So what does Hythloday think? He thinks France is big enough and the king should just be happy with the land he's got.
  • Then (at this imaginary meeting) Hythloday starts talking about the Achorians, a people he encountered during his travels, who live near Utopia.
  • The name "Achorian" comes from two Greek words and means "The People without a Country." Hopefully you're getting the picture by now that More really likes playing word games with Greek.
  • Anyway, they waged war on a nearby kingdom and found out it was nothing but trouble. They were dealing with rebellions, taxes, corruption, etc.
  • The king couldn't focus on either his own kingdom or this new one so he finally gave up and handed the new kingdom over to a friend.
  • So Hythloday tells the council that the best kind of king just minds his own business and doesn't invade other places. And what kind of outcome does More expect this advice to have?
  • More admits: not a good one.
  • Scenario 2: Hythloday at a secret royal session about making lots of money.
  • There are the usual bunch of sneaky recommendations from other advisors: increase the value of money when the king pays his debts and devalue it when he collects, invent a war (those always make money), invent some laws that everyone is breaking and collect a bunch of fines, make new laws preventing certain activities unless you pay up big time, pay off the judges so that they always rule in the interest of the king....
  • All these (imaginary) advisors agree anyway that kings always need more money and kings can't really do wrong anyway, right? He's king! In fact, he shouldn't be too nice to his subjects at all, because he needs them to be timid and obedient.
  • Cue Hythloday who—guess what?—doesn't agree. He thinks the security of the king relies upon the security his subjects feel and believes that a king's duty is to take care of his people, not exploit them for his own comfort.
  • Poverty does not equal security (says Hythloday). Just think about beggars. They're always getting into fights. And what better reason do people have to start a revolution than starvation? If you have nothing to lose, you'll do all kinds of reckless stuff. If a king is only king because he's horrible to his subject, he doesn't deserve to be king because he doesn't embody real authority. He's more like a jailer or an incompetent doctor than a king.
  • Here's what needs to happen, says Hythloday: the king should only live off his own income, he should train his subjects to be obedient, not mistreat them and then punish them, he shouldn't invent or revive totally antiquated laws, and he shouldn't impose unfair fines.
  • Instead, he should imitate the Macarians, another people who live near Utopia (we're sensing a pattern...).
  • Macarian isn't quite as fun as More's usual names. It just means "blessed" or "happy."
  • So the Macarians have this law saying that the treasury can only have a certain amount of gold in it at one time. That way, the king can never just spend all his time trying to gain lots of money. The amount is just enough to run the kingdom, but not enough for any outlandish silliness, so the subjects are the ones who benefit. If the treasury does go over, he has to give the extra money to his subjects, so he's really nice to them and he's feared by other kings for having such a strong kingdom.
  • End of scenario 2.
  • Hythloday again asks More how he thinks the other advisors would respond to such a suggestion.
  • And More again admits that they wouldn't listen at all. He agrees that it would probably be a complete waste of time since such philosophical idealism is totally unhelpful in the political context of the court.
  • Hythloday says that this is exactly what he's been trying to prove all along.
  • But More thinks the problem is actually with how Hythloday was trying to incorporate philosophy, not just philosophy period.
  • More insists that philosophy can be adaptable, you just need to be able to communicate it in way that political (not philosophical) people will understand.
  • Say you're watching a comedy. Would you get up in the middle and give a speech from a tragedy? No. You'd want to stick with the comedic vibe. Otherwise, you'd just look dumb.
  • This is just how it is during a political council. You need to know the lingo and not just give up when you fail once. Be tactful be subtle and don't expect everyone to be suddenly good all at once.
  • Nope, says Hythloday. The problem with that idea is that he'd just turn into to those pandering councilors he's been trying to avoid. The only way to speak truthfully is to speak in the way he's been describing. Maybe philosophers do lie, but he won't.
  • He doesn't even understand why his ideas would be considered so crazy! Think about what Plato describes in the Republic or how the Utopians actually run things? European political leaders are just too obsessed with the idea that private property is the best so they would never understand these countries where things are shared.
  • Plus, no one likes to listen to advice that points out problems with something that's well established, so you'd listen to his radical ideas? It's too bad because an unusual idea isn't necessarily a bad one. Seriously, Jesus said lots of things that were considered weird back in the day, but that didn't stop him. But people still don't want to actually follow what Jesus says, so priests just offer interpretations of what Jesus says that fit current lifestyles. All they do, then, is make people feel justified for leading immoral lives.
  • So that's the problem. If Hythloday were advising a king, he'd rather disagree with everyone and not be listened to than agree with them and then justify their immorality.
  • More says that he should try to be "subtle" and "indirect," but Hythloday doesn't think those things exist in political councils—everyone is always saying things that are over the top and exaggerated. If you hold back, wham!, people start thinking you're a spy or a traitor.
  • How can one person do good when he is surrounded by people who don't care about improving themselves? They either win you over or ignore you. Indirect influence? Puh-lease!
  • Plato is totally right when he says that wise men can't make a difference for the public. They couldn't even convince a crowd to get out of the rain while they were all getting soaked. So instead, the wise just chill inside, keeping themselves dry at least since they can't convince anyone else. 
  • But you know what Hythloday really thinks? He thinks that anywhere private property and money are valued, it's really hard for a country to be happy or just. How can it, when all the worst people get all the best stuff? Where the few have the most and are always worried about holding on to what they have? And, of course, everyone else is totally miserable.
  • This is why the Utopians are so brilliant! They have a very successful government but only a few laws. Good deeds are rewarded, but they share everything and everyone has what they need.
  • Every other country is always struggling to keep itself ordered. Private property is a total disaster because laws don't actually protect that property—people steal it, ruin it, etc.—and so there are endless new laws produced and new lawsuits brought forward. Total nightmare.
  • Thinking about all this really does make him sympathetic to Plato and his anti-private property stance. He was so right when he realized that the only way to be happy is to make property equal. How can equality exist when individuals own property? Even if there are lots of good things to do around, people become greedy and so just a few super-greedy people end up with way more stuff than everyone else. You end up with two groups: greedy rich people and modest, hardworking poor people trying to benefit the public.
  • Hythloday is totally convinced that we need to get rid of private property in order for equality to exist and for people to be happy. As long as there is private property, most people will be oppressed, miserable, and poor.
  • It's true that we could still make improvement under the current political system: restrict the amount of property owned, prevent the prince from being too powerful, keep people from being too crazy, not allow public offices to be bought. This last one is important because if public positions can be paid for, then only the rich can hold these positions (total vicious cycle).
  • So yes, some of these laws could make a difference, but really, it would just be like helping a sick person feel better. It doesn't actually cure the real issue; that requires getting rid of private property. And in fact, by temporarily alleviating the "symptoms" of private property, you might make the whole thing worse in the long run. (Hythloday isn't very clear here about how or why...)
  • More just doesn't agree. How can people be happy if everything is shared? People would just stop working and then there wouldn't be any property at all. All he sees that leading to is total chaos with people fighting each other for this "common" stuff.
  • And who would be in charge? More can't imagine anyone being able to stay in control.
  • Of course More would say that, Hythloday responds, because he doesn't have a real vision of how a country could be like this. If only More had been with Hythloday in Utopia and seen how they do things. He lived there for five years and was so happy, he only left to tell the rest of the world about what a great country it is.
  • Giles jumps in here (first time in a while), skeptical that anywhere could be better governed than the European world they know. Europeans are just as smart as Utopians are and, he insists, European governments have been around way longer so they've had time to figure out what works and what doesn't.
  • Around longer? Hythloday asks. Giles needs to read some Utopian history before he says that. They had built cities before Europe was even populated. So they've had plenty of time to come up with all sorts of nifty ideas. And maybe Europeans are smarter, but the Utopians are super enthusiastic and self-disciplined.
  • In their history books, it seems that they've never encountered "men-from-beyond-the-equator" except once a long, long time ago, when some Romans and Egyptians turned up. But because of how enthusiastic and careful they are, the Utopians learned tons from these castaways. Every significant idea the Romans and Egyptians had the Utopians learned. Imagine how well they did when Hythloday and some Europeans landed there.
  • What Hythloday thinks is sad is that if the reverse happens, and some Utopians show up in Europe, it would take ages for any of their wonderful ideas to catch on. In fact, if Hythloday had to boil their success down to one quality, it would be this: they love learning.
  • Do tell! Do tell! More requests (pretty excited). He and Giles want to hear every little detail about this amazing island.
  • Absolutely, Hythloday offers, but since there's a lot to discuss, they all agree it would be better to wait until lunch. So they all have lunch and then return to the very same spot and listen to Hythloday's description of Utopia. 
  • Took 'em long enough to get there.

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