First, a caveat: Utopia is not a character-driven story the way, oh, Hamlet or even Harry Potter are. We don't hear about anyone's childhood, their (non)relationship with their parents, anything about their love life. At times, the characters seem to function more as tools for expressing certain ideas rather than fully, psychologically imagined people.
Okay, now that we have that under our belts, let's move on to our main man.
Hythloday is not your average world-traveler. He's a total bibliophile (book-lover), philosopher (wisdom-lover), and has mad ancient Greek skills, in addition to being completely down for adventure. So, he's kind of like a genius-voyager. Unlike many people, he sees hoity-toity scholarship and down-and-dirty action as two equally important ways of learning about the world.
We know that he's Portuguese and has sailed with the famous (historical) explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who was also from Portugal. In fact, Portugal was considered a country full of explorer-types. Other than that, we don't get to learn a whole lot about our friend Hythloday's personal life. He doesn't appear to have a family, we're not really sure how old he is, and we don't even know his favorite color (okay, maybe the last one is asking too much). The point is, there is something intentionally mysterious about our man Hythloday that's meant to lend him and the story he tells an aura of excitement.
Even his appearance has some of that mysteriousness going on: "The stranger had a sunburned face, a long beard and a cloak hanging loosely from his shoulders; from his face and dress, I took him to be a ship's captain" (1.9). If he's starting to remind you a bit of Robinson Crusoe, you're not wrong. Sunburns, beards, and cloaks are all conventional ways of signaling that this is not someone from around here. For more on Hythloday's appearance, check out "The Weary Traveler" in Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory.
What's in a Name?
Quite a lot actually, especially if you're in the world of Thomas More's Utopia where almost every invented name is some kind of pun/joke/reference. Our protagonist Raphael Hythloday is no exception, and if you've been thinking his name sounds kind of funny, you're not alone. It is funny. And um, can we say, not even a little bit Portuguese.
One reason it's weird is that it's a kind of cultural mash-up: Raphael is biblical (Hebrew) while Hythloday is a Greek compound meaning "expert in nonsense." Huh? Yep, just to add to the confusion surrounding his character, he's given a last name that seems to undermine his authority as a speaker. Are we supposed to take this guy seriously, or is this some kind of joke? It's hard to say, but More clearly wants us to be keeping in mind that what Hythloday is describing is completely made-up.
Okay, so what about his first name, why biblical? That's also not entirely clear. Raphael was one the most famous archangels (the closest advisors/messengers to God) so it is definitely playing with Hythloday's role as both a messenger and as someone worried about how he can best advise people in power. His two names together also suggest an uncomfortable tension that More would have thought a lot about between the Christian world and the pagan (Greek) world. Does Hythloday somehow reconcile these two irreconcilable, yet equally important, world-views? Maybe.
It's also just a way of making Hythloday sound even more language-savvy and smart since Hebrew and Ancient Greek were two "dead" languages that had only been recently rediscovered in the Renaissance. You had to be pretty on top of things to know about them both.
Philosophy: It's a Way of Life
You've probably got the idea by this point that philosophy is a big part of Utopia. And Hythloday is no small reason for that, because philosophy, and leading a "philosophical-life" is very important to him. He's particularly hung up on the idea that philosophy—which he thinks = morality—is totally, 100% irreconcilable with the political world. Here's what he thinks the only two options are:
"Either [self-interested courtiers] will seduce you, or, if you remain honest and innocent, you will be made a screen for the [...] folly of others. Influencing policy indeed! You wouldn't have a chance!" (1.38)
The tone of this statement, plus the fact that he debates this point with Thomas More and Peter Giles for so long, shows how strongly he feel this way. Don't expect to see him running for senator anytime soon, okay?Raphael Hythloday Timeline