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Utopia Summary and Analysis

by Sir Thomas More

Book One

Book One Summary:

In Book One, Thomas More describes the circumstances surrounding his trip to Flanders where he has the privilege of meeting Raphael Hythloday. This first part of Utopia chronicles the early conversations between More, Peter Giles, and Hythloday. The three men discuss a wide range of civil, religious and philosophical issues. Hythloday is renegade and iconoclastic on certain issues but he is a skilled orator. Both More and Giles think there is considerable merit in much of what Hythloday has to say. Book Two is the continuation of the conversation during which Hythloday explains the details of Utopia in full.

More visited Flanders as an ambassador of Henry VIII. Alongside a man named Cuthbert Tunstall, More toured the cities of Bruges, Brussels, and Antwerp (all in present-day Belgium). Once in Antwerp, More finds his friend Giles. After attending a Mass at the Church of St. Mary, Giles introduces Thomas More to Raphael Hythloday. Raphael is not a native Utopian; he is Portuguese. Peter explains that Raphael accompanied Amerigo Vespucci on a voyage to the New World but Raphael remained oversees when Vespucci returned to Europe. Hythloday and his companions enjoyed their continued travels and afterwards, they were reconnected with a fleet of Portuguese ships near the island of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka, due south of India). Hythloday made his way home with these sailors. Apparently, Hythloday's visit to Utopia occurred in between his voluntary separation from Vespucci and his arrival at Ceylon.

After this rather lengthy introduction, Hythloday and More exchange greetings and the three men continue their discussion in the garden attached to More's lodging place. When he visited various regions, Raphael befriended the native inhabitants and gained their sincere friendship and trust. According to Raphael, the equatorial regions are excessively hot and there are monsters in the New World. When one continues further south, however, the climate becomes temperate again; populous cities and commercial areas emerge. Because Raphael's comparative analysis of the regions is so precise and intelligent, Peter suggests that Raphael become an advisor or counselor for a king. Raphael rejects the idea and celebrates the degree of freedom that he currently enjoys‹freedom Raphael would forfeit should he enter politics. He argues further that the other royal counselors would become jealous and would create unbearable complications. More agrees with Giles, but Raphael is resolute in his belief that he could ultimately do little in a political position.

Hythloday mentions that he has extensively traveled through Europe, encountering "arrogant, absurd, and captious judgmentsŠ once even in England." More is eager to hear Hythloday's impressions of England because the traveler spent several months there. Hythloday spent some time with the Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury, Rev. Father John Morton‹an acquaintance of More's. The traveler recounts a dinner conversation with Morton and several of Morton's assistants: Hythloday focuses more on political issues and less on the usual traveler's cultural interests. It is not long before Hythloday is engaged in a spirited albeit respectful debate on British legal practices. Hythloday learns of "the rigorous justice applied to thieves in England"‹hanging. He argues that the crime is too harsh and unjustly severe for such a small crime. He also says that the punishment will not deter thieves is they are poor and have no way to make a living. The Cardinal argues that the thieves could have become tradesmen or farmers but Raphael disputes this: there are many wounded veterans of the King's wars who can no longer become farmers or learn a new trade. The government provides no avenue of opportunity for these veterans. Raphael also argues that the British noble class enforces a system of economic efficiency. Nobles keep their tenants in poverty and reserve much of the land for non-agrarian purposes (private gardens, hunting grounds). Raphael also mentions that once a noble lord has died, the lord's retainers often become armed beggars and thieves. Raphael continues his argument with a lawyer and their debate touches upon the military valor of retainers, England's "sheep" problem, and the moral hazard of merchants who seek to develop monopolies.

The Cardinal finally interrupts Raphael and stops him from rambling. The Cardinal returns to the original topic (capital punishment) and asks what punishment Raphael would propose in place of hanging thieves. Raphael argues that Christianity has evolved from "the law of Moses" to the "new law of mercy" and that killing one another is forbidden. Raphael argues that murder and theft should not be punished in the same way; otherwise, a thief may be more inclined to kill, there being no additional penalty. Raphael suggests hard labor restoring the public works (roads, bridges) and that the thief pay restitution to the owner of the stolen property. The lawyer disagrees with this idea and says it would endanger the commonwealth, but the Cardinal says that it would make sense to try the idea as the present system has failed. The Cardinal's associates then applaud the idea as the Cardinal's own.

Raphael apologizes to More and Giles for his lengthy discourse only to draw attention to the fickle and jealous character of the Cardinal's crowd. Raphael takes this as evidence that he would not fare well with the King's courtiers. More is pleased with Raphael's story and reminded of his own education in the Cardinal's household.

Resuming his attempts to persuade Raphael to consider public service, More mentions Plato's Republic and the idea of a "philosopher-king." Since Raphael cannot be king, he should bring his philosophy to the court. Raphael cites the fact of common property in Utopia, as opposed to private property. This difference makes it difficult to enact Utopian policies in Britain. Raphael's final argument is that wise men, perceiving the folly of those in government, do well to stay clear of politics and "remain in safety themselves." Raphael does not convince More of the superiority of common property nor does the abolition of private property strike More as a good idea. Raphael reminds More that the Utopians adopted the best practices of every culture with which they came in contact. Within a short period of time, Utopians interview their guests‹travelers like Hythloday‹and learn of advances in science, nautical engineering, law and culture. At this point, More is eager to hear of the Utopians and after lunch, Raphael begins his discourse describing Utopia. This is found in Book Two.

Analysis:

Raphael's discourse with More and Giles is philosophical and abstract. It is also very idealized. The conversation begins in a church, continues in a garden, and pauses for lunch. This philosophizing is a leisure activity enjoyed by three well-educated men of means. How do we reconcile this with More's confession to Giles that he has been so busy working that he has not had time to write Utopia? Indeed, More has had time to write and to invent "Utopia." The theme of public service appears in More and Hythloday's debate on the utility of philosophy. Is Raphael morally obligated to put his philosophy and knowledge to good use in the service of the King? Does royal service or political work even count as a worthy application of philosophy and knowledge?

This thematic question applies to More's career in the broadest sense. More was a lawyer who served in a variety of roles: undersheriff, ambassador, member of the King's Council, Master of Requests, Speaker of the House of Commons, High Steward of Oxford and Cambridge, and, eventually, Lord Chancellor of England. Concurrently, More wrote a number a number of philosophical works besides Utopia, contributing to the discourse of his era.

Thomas More wrote Utopia early in his career and this underscores the importance of More's argument with the fictional Raphael. After a life of public service, More was convicted of treason (on perjured evidence) and beheaded by the very king whom he defended fourteen years earlier in a work called Responsio ad Lutherum (1523). There is a strange unintended irony in Book One. At least on one point, More's fictional character proves wiser than More himself.

Raphael Hythloday is half-sage, half-fool and Book One develops both literary traditions. Raphael is clearly a man of intellect with more than a few good ideas. Nonetheless, Raphael's stories of far-off Utopia are laughably naïve and innocent. His ideas for policy are unrealistic. The account of the Cardinal's dinner parallels the courts scenes later made famous in Elizabethan drama. Hythloday has some interesting ideas but he is so wordy, so verbose that the Cardinal must interrupt him. Raphael is unable to answer a raised question without first answering other unanswered peripheral questions.

"Raphael" is the name of a guardian angel. "Hythloday" is a compound of Greek words translating to "peddler of nonsense." Thomas More does not intend for us to take Raphael or Utopia at face value. Book One is written in a style resembling the ancient ŒDialogues." In these Dialogues, intermingled real and fictional characters discussed philosophical ideas. The written work is essentially a transcript of the discussion. Raphael is so wordy that Book One hardly seems like a discussion or dialogue. It is not hard to argue that More concentrates on presenting ideas and constructing complex sentences (the original Latin work was praised as much for its syntax as for its narrative). More is less interested in telling a very good story.

Modern readers accustomed to reading novels might interpret Book One as a narrative device to build suspense. We must read through nearly half of Utopia before we reach the full description of the island. More is interested in the philosophical contemplation of European and Christian legal customs. Book One provides the context wherein More can critique the Utopian society. The abolition of private property has already become a point of contention between more and Hythloday. Conveniently, Hythloday's visit to England justifies and enables More's desire to discuss England's problems (and also pay tribute to his dearly beloved, dearly influential friend, the Cardinal Archbishop). Raphael is a fictional character and a mask. More shields himself behind Raphael and gains the safety to discuss a number of controversial ideas. Raphael presents land reform, capital punishment, and the distribution of property. On these issues, either More is silent or he takes the traditional position. More does not create Raphael as a mouthpiece for his own secret and unpopular beliefs; rather, More uses Raphael to create a discussion on issues that clearly need resolution. More may not accept Raphael's extreme and divergent opinions, but More does imply that some reform is needed.

Much like the island of Utopia, Raphael is a piece of fiction inserted in the real world. Amerigo Vespucci did travel to the New World, but it remains unclear how Raphael would have found his way from "the New World" to Ceylon, off the coast of India. The Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa did not reach the Pacific Ocean until 1513. In 1516, More and his contemporaries had not yet grasped the enormity of the "American continent" and so, Hythloday's story seemed geographically plausible. This same lack of precise information bespeaks the Europeans' fascination with "Utopia" and the New World. Somewhere in between India and Portugal's Atlantic coast there is more than enough room for More to invent a Utopia. This expanse of the land is an answer to the problems of property and land discussed in Book One.

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