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Utopia | Book 1 : Discourses of Raphael Hythloday, of the Best State of a Commonwealth | Summary

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Summary

Book One of Utopia is subtitled "First Book of the Discussion Which the Exceptional Man Raphael Hythloday Held Concerning the Best State of a Commonwealth, by Way of the Illustrious Man Thomas More, Citizen and Undersheriff of the Glorious City of London in Britain." This subtitle provides a clear overview of the events within the section.

Book One is narrated by a fictionalized version of Thomas More himself. He describes a journey he takes to Bruges in Flanders (modern-day Belgium) for a meeting on behalf of King Henry VIII. Once the official meeting is over, More travels to Antwerp (also in Belgium) to spend time with an old friend, Peter Giles. Having spent as long as four months away, More notes he has no particular desire to return home. His friend's conversation is "so pleasant and so innocently cheerful."

One day Peter introduces Thomas to a friend of his, Raphael Hythloday. Raphael, Peter explains, is a traveler who joined Amerigo Vespucci in his voyages of exploration to the New World. Raphael is invited to Peter's home, and the three men go into the garden to talk. Raphael, who was born in Portugal, explains that he and some companions left Vespucci in New Castile (probably Peru). He says they "by degrees insinuated themselves into the affections of the people of the country." They traveled "under the equator, and as far on both sides of it as the sun moves." Raphael goes on to describe the habits and behaviors of the people he met, expressing strong opinions about their customs.

Intrigued by Raphael's ideas, Peter asks, "I wonder, Raphael, how it comes that you enter into no king's service?" Raphael responds, "I think my friends ought ... not to expect that for their sakes I should enslave myself to any king whatsoever." He goes on to express his negative opinions about royal courts where favoritism and politics are more important than wisdom. He says he has seen this type of behavior in England.

Raphael describes a dinner with the king, a Cardinal (John Morton, for whom the real-life Thomas More worked as a boy), and members of the court. At dinner, a discussion came up about the punishment of thieves by death. Raphael expressed the opinion that such punishment is much too harsh but wouldn't stop men from stealing. "It were much better," he says, "to make such good provisions by which every man might be put in a method how to live."

After much discussion of the ethical treatment of the poor and indigent, the Cardinal finally asks Raphael to justify his belief that death is too harsh a punishment for thieves. Raphael replies, "God has commanded us not to kill, and shall we kill so easily for a little money?" Challenged to come up with a better punishment, he describes the imaginary Polylerits of Persia. They force thieves to work for the public good for free—or for a private individual at a lower fee than would ordinarily be paid. As a result, he says, "Vice is ... destroyed and men preserved, but they are treated in such a manner as to make them see the necessity of being honest."

Though the members of the court, including the jester and friar, make fun of Raphael's ideas, the Cardinal decides to restate them as his own. Now, with the Cardinal accepting the ideas, the whole court expresses agreement, forgetting the ideas were originally Raphael's. Raphael is bitter about this turn of events. Thomas tries to cheer him up. Raphael replies he won't express his ideas again. He says if he were to try to express his ideas again to a king, "I should either be turned out of his court or, at least, be laughed at for my pains."

Thomas and Peter argue with Raphael, saying no court in the world is made up entirely of good men. It is better, they say, to improve the situation as it stands than to hope for a perfect nation. Raphael replies there really is such a perfect nation. He and his friends visited it in the New World. There, says Raphael, the people "made themselves masters of all the good inventions that were among us."

Thomas and Peter ask Raphael to tell them all about this place—after dinner.

Analysis

A unique quality of Book One is More's intriguing mixture of real and imaginary people and places. More had, indeed, traveled to Flanders on the king's business. He had, indeed, spent time enjoying the company of his good friend Peter Giles. Amerigo Vespucci had, in fact, traveled to the Americas. The dinner party described by Raphael included real people (such as Cardinal John Morton) whom More knew well.

At the same time Raphael himself is a wholly imaginary character, as are almost all the places he describes. The Persians he mentions live in an imaginary province. The various countries of South America he describes are nonexistent. Of course, the perfect land of Utopia exists only in More's imagination.

The ideas expressed by Raphael are a combination of More's own ideas and political satire. It is all the more interesting, therefore, that the character of More argues against Raphael. In fact More's character of Raphael is distressed by the ideas expressed by the character of More.

More says, "One is never to offer propositions or advice that we are certain will not be entertained." Raphael retorts, "That is what I was saying ... that there is no room for philosophy in the courts of princes." The argument between the two continues with neither character backing down.

It is not clear whether More intends the reader to believe in the character of Raphael and his travels. It is also not clear whether he intends the reader to side with the character of Raphael or the character of More. Each seems to have valid points. The real Thomas More, many years later, is put to death for being too forthright and too dedicated to his own ideals. That reality suggests perhaps Raphael's ideas are closest to the real More's.

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