Summary and Analysis
Book I: The Dialogue of Counsel:
The Meeting at Cardinal Morton's House
The first point Hythloday makes in his denunciation of existing conditions is brought out in an account he gives of a meeting at the home of Cardinal Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, when he was visiting in England. Hythloday had challenged one of Morton's guests, a lawyer who boasted of the effectiveness of the English system of justice, which was breaking all records for hanging thieves. Hythloday took the position that the death penalty was altogether too severe a penalty for theft and suggested that it would be better to seek for remedies to eliminate the causes of thievery. Men, he maintained, were driven to stealing through desperation. There were many disabled veterans wandering about the country with no possible means of support. Furthermore, the practice of rich men maintaining large households of retainers who were, for the most part, idle, contributed to the number of thieves and beggars because often retainers found themselves cast out without support when they grew old or sick or when the head of the household fell upon hard times.
The system was fundamentally faulty, he argued, in which non-productive noblemen maintained non-productive flunkeys while forcing the common laborers to drudge in abject poverty.
A further set of circumstances was contributing to the multiplication of thieves and beggars throughout the country, according to Hythloday. In many places farmlands were being appropriated for sheep grazing, since wool growing had become very profitable. The consequence was that many farmers were being driven off their lands without any provision for their subsistence.
Continuing his report to More and Giles of that dispute in Cardinal Morton's home, Hythloday tells how he further criticized English aristocracy and even the middle classes for their luxury and their vices, calling attention to the prevalence of taverns, alehouses, and brothels, as well as the practices of dicing and playing cards, football, and tennis, all of which affect moral fiber and the general welfare adversely. The remedies he proposed included limiting the production of wool, restoring of farmlands to their original use, and returning of former farmers to their work, thus increasing employment.
When asked by the cardinal to justify his objections to making theft a capital crime, Hythloday argued that a human life is of more worth than money, and that it is unreasonable to punish equally the taking of a man's life and his purse. He suggested further that if a thief knows that in the event he is caught he will receive the same sentence whether he robs or murders his victim, he may be much more disposed to murder him than he otherwise would. As to an alternative to the death penalty, Hythloday suggested a treatment similar to that of the ancient Romans of a nation neighboring on Persia, namely to sentence convicted thieves to hard labor on public works.
Most of the cardinal's guests seemed to react unfavorably to his proposal until they learned that the cardinal believed there was merit in the ideas, whereupon all of the rest voiced their agreement, applauding the cardinal's judgment.
When one of the company raised the question of how to deal with people who were incapacitated for work because of old age or illness, a jester proposed that they ought to be consigned to monasteries or nunneries. The cardinal smiled at the suggestion, taking it simply as a jest, but others around the table mistook this for approval and readily supported the proposition of the fool.
This long account of the meeting at the cardinal's house, Hythloday explains to More, was offered to illustrate the way courtiers are apt to receive the recommendations of outsiders and, in contrast, the way the views of their leader or prince are instantly accepted and applauded.
The fact that Hythloday places the discussion of conditions in England at the home of Cardinal Morton is interesting inasmuch as Thomas More was well acquainted with the cardinal, having lived at his home as a boy. It is natural, then, to read into this passage certain autobiographical echoes. Furthermore, it is impossible not to believe that Hythloday's analysis of English laws and customs is an expression of More's own views. Certainly the humanitarian attitude expressed regarding beggars, disabled veterans, the aged and infirm conforms to what we know of More's character. The criticism of the role in society played by the aristocrats and their parasitic retinues is not so readily identified with More's views but is subsequently to be shown as a basic aspect of the philosophy of the entire book. In fact, every point raised in Hythloday's criticism of current practices in England is subtly preparing for the contrast to be drawn later on in the book between Europe and Utopia.