Summary and Analysis
Book II: The Discourse on Utopia:
Treaties and Alliances
In their relations with other nations, the Utopians never enter into alliances because they have observed how easily pledges are broken by their neighboring countries. It is a pity, Hythloday comments, that those remote nations cannot learn to follow the splendid examples set by the Christian nations of Europe, who are inspired by the injunctions and examples of the popes.
The leaders of those far-off, benighted countries have an unscrupulous practice of phrasing documents in terms that leave loopholes for their violation if that becomes convenient. If those same deceptive devices that are used in conducting international affairs were discovered in the actions of private citizens, they would be vehemently condemned as grossly unethical. In those countries (the neighbors of the Utopians), there are two distinct standards of justice — the one applied to ordinary people demanding a rigidly moral standard of conduct, and the second, which operates for princes and persons in high station, according to which "lawful and unlawful is only measured by pleasure and interest."
In discussing the lack of principles in the conduct of international treaties and alliances, Hythloday is indulging in patent irony. His suggestion that Christian nations could serve as sterling examples of adherence to their pledged oaths could not be taken literally by anyone familiar with European politics of the period. The rules by which most governments operated were those set down in Machiavelli's contemporary work The Prince; in that work, such unedifying principles as these are enunciated: the rule among nations is dog-eat-dog; the end justifies the means; keep your pledge only so long as it suits your purpose to do so; lying, stealing, and murder are sins in the lives of ordinary men, but they are necessary in the conduct of politics.
More abhorred these practices but was honest enough to admit their prevalence. These considerations must have aroused his misgivings when he was deliberating about entering the government.