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1-Page Summary of Utopia
The author of Utopia, Sir Thomas More, was sent by King Henry VIII to the Netherlands to negotiate with Flemish representatives. However, they were unable to come up with a full agreement so they traveled to Brussels for further instructions from their prince. During that time, More visited Antwerp and learned about its culture.
While living in Antwerp, More meets a man named Peter Giles. They become good friends and talk often as they are neighbors. One day, while returning home from church service, More sees Giles with an old stranger who is speaking with him. More assumes that the man must be a sailor because of his sunburned skin and long beard; however, he turns out to be Raphael Hythloday. It turns out that Hythloday is not so much a sailor but someone looking for knowledge like Plato’s Ulysses or Homer’s Odysseus.
More, Giles and Hythloday go to More’s house. There, in the garden, Hythloday tells of his travels. He says that he was allowed by Vespucci to explore the East on his own. After crossing many deserts and wildernesses, he came upon well-governed people and cities with ships who were happy to have him onboard for visits in their countries. The lodestone is a magnetic object used by sailors as a compass for navigation; however, More suggests that they are so confident in its use that they become reckless because of it.
More and Giles are curious about the different societies Hythloday has observed. They ask him many questions about how those people govern themselves, but they don’t ask him any questions about monsters because there are so many of them in stories. More is also quick to point out that they don’t talk much about cannibals or other monstrous creatures, because it’s easy to find information on such things, whereas good laws aren’t as common. However, he wants to focus on the Utopians because their government is unique and interesting.
Peter is so impressed with Hythloday that he wants him to serve a prince. This would benefit the prince, as well as his friends and family. He can also become wealthy by serving in a king’s court. Hythloday doesn’t want to be in bondage to anyone, though; he values his own freedom too much for that.
More encourages Hythloday to join the service of a prince, but not for personal gain. Hythloday responds that he doubts his ability to contribute because princes are more interested in war and chivalry than good governance. Also, counselors prefer their own ideas over others’, so they criticize them no matter how great they are. This means that their best decrees “‘lie unexecuted.’”
More asks if Hythloday has been to England. Hythloday says he has, and he stayed there for four or five months shortly after a Cornish rebellion was put down with violence in 1497. During that time, More spent much of his time in the company of Cardinal John Morton, whom More served as a page when he was young and who is an excellent administrator of policy and law.
One day, while sitting at Morton’s table, Hythloday got into a discussion with a lawyer who was praising English law. The lawyer said that many people were hanged for their crimes and few escaped punishment. Hythloday disagreed: death is too extreme of a punishment for theft. He also argued that thieves resort to thievery because they don’t have any other way of living without it. Instead of executing thieves, he says England should make it so the thieves can live by honest work instead.
In addition, Hythloday says that he’s not referring to people who can’t work because they’ve been maimed in wars. He is referring to people who are disabled for other reasons as well. First, there are a large number of gentlemen who live by exploiting their tenants and hiring servants to show off the wealth of their estates. However, these servants never learn any craft and become idle like their masters.