Study Guide

Utopia Philosophical Viewpoints: Political Philosophy

By Thomas More

Philosophical Viewpoints: Political Philosophy

We made no inquiries, however, about monsters, which are the routine of traveler's tales. Scyllas, ravenous Celaenos, man-eating Lastrygonians and that sort of monstrosity you can hardly avoid, but to find governments wisely established and sensibly ruled is not so easy. (1.12)

More is describing a pretty bleak political landscape here. You know you're in a political crisis when finding a well-governed country is more exciting and rare than a monster.

Peter replied, "[...] I do not mean that you should be in servitude to any king, only in his service."

"The difference is only a matter of one syllable," Raphael replied. (1.13)

As the More, Giles, and Hythloday debate gets going, we get a nice illustration of the divergent points of view on what it means to be involved in politics. Giles and More tend to agree, while Hythloday (surprise surprise) is the resident pessimist.

Your learning is so full, that even if it weren't combined with experience [...] you would be an extraordinary counsellor to any king in the world. (1.14)

More and Giles might be a tad frustrated with Hythloday's lack of interest in involving himself politically. Come on, Hythloday. Smart people should be out there advising kings—let's go!

At the same time [counsellors] endorse and flatter the most absurd statements of the prince's special favorites, through whose influence they hope to stand well with the prince. (1.14)

This sound-bite is pretty representative of Hythloday's general attitude toward political life: courts are places for flattery, not philosophical honesty.

When I had finished this account, I added that I saw no reason why this policy could not be adopted even in England [...] but the lawyer replied that such a system could never be practiced [...] without putting the commonwealth in danger (1.25)

Idealism, meet realism. Hythloday uses this as an example of why his voice would not be welcome in a Renaissance court.

No wonder we are so far from happiness when philosophers do not condescend even to assist kings with their counsel (1.28)

We hear you, More. But does Hythloday? How can politics improve philosophically if there are no, um, philosophers?

"...I would advise the king to look after his ancestral kingdom [...] he should love his people and be loved by them; he should live among them, govern them kindly, and let other governments alone, since his own is big enough, if not too big, for him. How do you think, my dear More, the other councillors would take this speech of mine?"

"Not very well, I'm sure," said I (1.31)

Hythloday is very fond of these kind of "thought experiments," in which he imagines a situation in order to prove his point. (In fact, we might even think of Utopia as one, long thought-experiment.)

There is another philosophy, better suited for the political arena […] this is the philosophy for you to use (1.36)

In disagreement with Hythloday, More suggests that philosophy can be realistic; you just need to know how to communicate it.

From this class of scholars [in Utopia] are chosen ambassadors, priests [...] and the prince himself[...] (2.53)

We're pretty down with the idea the scholars should be running things. We think. On second thought, let us sleep on it.

In matters of moral philosophy, [the Utopians] carry on the same arguments as we do. (2.67)

Can't say we're so surprised to hear that philosophy is an important part of Utopian society. Are we surprised at how similar their arguments are, too?