Summary and Analysis
Book I: The Dialogue of Counsel: More Versus Hythloday on Public Service
More acknowledges the justice of Hythloday's opinions in terms of abstract theory, but he persists in his belief that Hythloday could and should engage in public affairs, attempting to modify the faulty practice of which he complains, even though he cannot expect full and immediate agreement on the part of incumbent officials. In practical politics, More reasons, one needs to learn to compromise in order to function, expecting only limited success. Consider, he points out, that if you cannot achieve perfection, you may at least lessen the evils to some degree. And, he adds, "It is impossible to do all things well unless all men are good and this I do not expect to see for a long time."
Hythloday still insists that his efforts to advise existing governments would have no effect, that advice being as radically different from the established system as is the plan recommended by Plato in his Republic or as that practiced in the commonwealth of Utopia. As to More's suggestion for compromise and accommodation, Hythloday declares that he cannot stoop to becoming a partner to the administration of the present system in any form, and he is perfectly sure that his recommendations would not be considered seriously by the men in power. Ergo, why bother?
His whole thesis is based primarily on the belief that so long as there is money, and individuals own property in a state, there will be no equity, no justice, and no happiness. On this point, he agrees emphatically with Plato. At length he is willing to concede that laws restricting wealth and eliminating corruption in government might mitigate to some degree the evils of present conditions.
More questions the elimination of private property, arguing that in a nation where all things are held in common the incentive for achievement is lost, a situation which would be conducive to sloth. He further believes that in a period of shortages there would be danger of outbreaks of sedition.
In response, Hythloday admits that More's suppositions are natural for one whose experience is limited to our present system, but if only More and Peter Giles could have been with him when he lived in Utopia for five years and have had a chance to observe their government in operation and to perceive how happily those people lived together, it would be clear why he supports these views.
After such large claims for that unknown commonwealth of Utopia, More and Giles beg Hythloday to explain in all particulars the nature of the country, the people, the manners, and the laws — to which request he readily assents.
After Hythloday's ruthless dissection of the European social, economic, and political system, he finally explains the alternate system which he would propose. It would obviously cause a great upheaval because it is based, first of all, on the elimination of private property and of money. On that foundation many ramifications are to be developed and many advantages will accrue which contribute to a life of reason, justice, and happiness. It is difficult for More and Giles to imagine how people could live under such a system, but Hythloday has made such a strong impression that they are eager to hear his full account of the Utopian commonwealth.
"The Dialogue of Counsel," the Book I of Utopia, between Raphael Hythloday, Thomas More, and Peter Giles is of interest for a number of reasons. For the modern reader it gives an authentic picture of conditions in England at the beginning of the 16th century. It also serves as an effective preparation, by way of contrast, for the following account of the "ideal" state of Utopia. Finally, the dialogue has extremely interesting autobiographical overtones, since it is now known that More wrote this section of the book during a period when he was confronted with the problem of whether or not to accept an appointment in the government of Henry VIII and Wolsey. Torn between his reluctance to compromise his personal ideals and his sense of duty to serve his country, he incorporated into this debate his own personal struggle. Thus More in the dialogue is speaking for himself, but Hythloday is also voicing More's thoughts.