Note: Thomas More the author of Utopia should not be assumed to be identical with More, the character in the book. For the purposes of distinguishing the two, the author is referred to as Thomas More, while the character is referred to as More.
More tells how King Henry VIII (1491-1547) of England sends him to Flanders, Belgium, on a diplomatic mission. There he meets a friend, Peter Giles, who introduces him to a Portuguese seaman, Raphael Hythloday (his name is taken from the Greek meaning "speaker of nonsense"). Hythloday explains that he has been traveling with Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer. He has discovered an island called Utopia, where the people live in a perfectly ordered society. He begins to tell More and Giles about the many excellent aspects of Utopian life. Giles asks Hythloday why he has not offered his services as an advisor to a king, since any political leader would benefit from hearing what he has to say. Hythloday rejects this idea, at first giving the reason that it would interfere with his freedom, but as the discussion continues, another reason emerges: he feels that his advice would not be welcomed or listened to. Kings, he says, are more interested in making war and acquiring new territories than in learning to govern better those territories they already rule. Also, courtiers are governed by envy, and would respond with hostility to any influential advisor. He has been to England, and found the government of that country particularly resistant to improvement.
Hythloday recalls that one day in England, he was dining with Cardinal John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, when an English lawyer praised the severity of English justice regarding thieves, who were executed by hanging, and remarked approvingly on the great number of thieves who were hung. He could not understand why so many thieves were still active. Hythloday said it is no wonder that the punishment is not effective: theft is not a crime that is worthy of the death penalty, and no punishment can make someone refrain from theft if it is their only means of survival. It would be better to ensure that nobody needs to steal to survive. There are some people in English society who have no choice but to steal. These include disabled war veterans, who cannot follow their old trades and are too old to learn new ones; and the servants of aristocrats who are suddenly without a job if their lord dies or if they fall sick and are turned out. The French make the mistake of keeping a standing army in time of peace, and these men prove a menace to society, since they are either idle or trying to overthrow the government.
A third class of people who are forced into thievery in England, says Hythloday, are rural people who are victims of the growing practice of enclosure of arable land for the grazing of sheep. Wool has become profitable in England and landowners are keen to cash in. To this end, they turn out of their homes the farm tenants who previously worked the land to grow food, and fence it in for sheep pasture, often demolishing the houses to make room for more sheep. While arable farming requires many laborers, the keeping of sheep needs few. Thus large populations of unemployed and starving agricultural laborers roam the land.
Another class of people who turn to thievery is gamblers, who must find a way of replenishing their lost money. Hythloday would ban gambling and bring in government legislation to regulate the production of wool, forcing the rich to rebuild the villages and turn most of the land back to agriculture.
One of the root causes of thievery, Hythloday says, is poor education. If society fails to educate its people, it should not be surprised if they turn to crime. Finally, he adds that if the punishment for theft and murder is the same, then robbers will be more disposed to kill their victims and thereby get rid of the witness, as if he is caught, he will be no worse off for having killed.
Hythloday describes a better method of dealing with thieves, which is practiced among the (fictional) Polylerit people of Persia. The thieves are made to make restitution to their victims, if necessary by confiscating their goods, and the remainder of their possessions is given to their wives and children. They are then made to serve a sentence of community work; alternatively, they are made to hire themselves out to whoever needs work done, at a slightly lower rate of pay than a freeman. Provided they are not dangerous, they are neither imprisoned nor chained up during the day, but are shut up at night after a roll call. A small piece is cut out of their ears, so that they can be identified if they try to escape. Every year, some of those who have shown a good character are released.
When Hythloday finishes his account, the dinner guests seem to think his ideas ridiculous. But Cardinal Morton is more open-minded, and says that as it has never been tried in England, it is impossible to judge its effectiveness; he thinks it should be tried on thieves, and on vagabonds too. When the dinner guests hear the Cardinal giving credence to Hythloday's notions, they agree that they are very sensible, especially the Cardinal's own suggestion about vagabonds.
More repeats the recommendation that Hythloday offer his counsel to some king, reinforcing his argument with the Greek philosopher Plato's (c. 427-c. 347 BC) belief that "nations will be happy, when either philosophers become kings, or kings become philosophers." But Hythloday says that kings are too corrupt from childhood to listen to the advice of philosophers. He describes a hypothetical meeting of the French king's council, where the advisors to the king are only concerned with how to wage war on other nations or how to gain an advantage over them. He imagines himself advising the king to abandon thoughts of conquering other nations, since his own country was too large to govern well by one man. He asks More how such advice would be received, and More admits that it would not be welcome.
Hythloday then imagines that he is in a meeting of the king's financial advisors. The advisors are concerned only expanding the king's treasury through various means: manipulating the value of the currency; raising taxes to pay for a pretended war that is then called off; and imposing financial penalties on certain items or activities. They are also eager to find ways of ensuring that judges always rule in favor of the crown. Hythloday would counsel the king that it is more honorable and more in his interest to ensure the wealth of his people, not of himself. A wealthy monarch ruling over a suffering people is a jailer, not a king. Yet in the courts of European kings, a belief prevails that citizens are only kept obedient by being constrained by poverty and misery. Hythloday says that the Macarians, a people whose land is close to Utopia, have a law that their king cannot have more than a thousand pounds in his treasury at any one time.
More agrees that Hythloday's advice as it has just been delivered would not be welcomed in any court that he knows of, yet he believes a middle road is possible. Hythloday should not abandon the state because he does not like the way it is governed, but instead he should get involved and try to influence things so that even if they do not work out well, at least they will do less harm than might otherwise be the case. But Hythloday says he could not compromise so. He sees the clergy compromise: aware that most people will never live according to Christ's teachings, they simply change the teachings to fit people's lives. The result, he says, is to make people falsely believe that Christ sanctions their wickedness. He cites Plato to the effect that if a man sees a large number of people running out into the rain every day and getting wet, and he knows that he will never persuade them to keep indoors, he will do better to stay indoors and avoid getting wet himself.
Hythloday concludes by saying that he believes that as long as there is personal property, and while money governs everything, there can be no justice in government or happiness in society. This is because the worst men will appropriate the best things, and the rest of the people will be left in misery. In Utopia, there is neither property nor money, and the people are governed well with few laws. He concedes that in Europe, if laws were passed to limit the wealth of individuals, then the "disease" of misery of the majority would be mitigated, but the state would not be cured.
More protests that without money or private property, there can be no incentive for men to work. Hythloday responds that if More had been with him in Utopia, where Hythloday lived for five years, he would have no doubt that the system there worked very well. More and Giles beg Hythloday to tell them all about Utopia and its people, a request to which Hythloday readily agrees.
Book I sets the stage for the extended description of the Utopian way of life and government that follows in the remaining Books. It satirizes the faulty governments of sixteenth-century England and Europe by pointing out the abuses and corruption that prevail there. Against these failures it sets the more enlightened government of the fictional Polylerit and Macarian people, as a prelude to describing the ideal Utopian government. The name Utopia is taken from the Greek for "no" (ou) and "place" (topos), thus meaning nowhere. It could also be considered to come from the Greek words for "good" (eu) and "place" (topos).
The Utopian system, in common with that of Plato's Republic, is based on the premise that money corrupts government and destroys justice in rulership and happiness in society. Thus, Thomas More argues that the basis of a fair society is the abolition of money and private property (in Plato's Republic also, all property was held in common).
Thomas More uses various devices to give a sense of authenticity to his portrayal of the ideal state. One device is to draw all his characters except for one (Hythloday) from real life. There is More himself; his friend Peter Giles, who helped More publish Utopia; and Cardinal John Morton, in whose household More spent much of his childhood. The episode in which Hythloday dines with Cardinal Morton brings the fictional world into the real world, creating the impression that Hythloday too is as real as his companions. The diplomatic mission to Flanders, where More is introduced to Hythloday, was a real one on which King Henry VIII sent More to negotiate with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. This inclusion of authentic details helps to deflect the obvious objection to the ideas presented in Utopia - that they apply to an imaginary state that can have no place in the 'real' world.
However, Thomas More also subtly subverts his claim to reality in naming Hythloday ("speaker of nonsense") and Utopia ("no-place"), both of which names suggest an element of ridiculousness, inconsequence, and unreality. In similar vein, Hythloday has traveled with the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, but since Thomas More and many others thought Vespucci was a fraud, this may lessen his credibility. Some critics claim that all this proves that Thomas More was inwardly laughing at Hythloday's ideas and only wrote Utopia as a comedy or a satire against communistic notions. But they are surely missing the point. It is more likely that Thomas More, ever the careful lawyer, used these names as an insurance policy to protect himself from charges of sedition or treason. Like many dissident authors of Soviet Russia, who made use of nonsensical elements in any work that made serious points about the regime, Thomas More chose his names to make plausible the defense that the book is a mere piece of whimsy of no importance. It is clear that Thomas More was aware of how contentious the book was, hence his decision to publish it in Belgium and not in England. His placing Book I's specific criticisms of contemporary kings and courts in France rather than England was undoubtedly another self-defense ploy. Certainly, all the points he makes about the government in France could equally apply to Henry VIII's government in England, and this will not have bypassed English readers.
An additional purpose in the meaning of the names of Utopia and Hythloday is probably ironic. Thomas More may be admitting that Utopia has so reasonable and enlightened a society compared with that of the Europe of his time that it is inconceivable that so good a place could exist in so bad a world. Terming Hythloday a speaker of nonsense makes an ironic comment on the likely reaction of conservative and self-serving European leaders to the Utopian ideas that Hythloday puts forward.
The main source of contention between More and Hythloday in Book I is whether it is better for a wise man to compromise his ideals to enter the service of a king and try to improve things from within the system, or to remain independent. More advocates the first, but Hythloday refuses to compromise and determinedly holds to his independence. This may reflect a real-life conflict in the author Thomas More's own mind, as at the time he wrote Utopia, he was considering entering the service of King Henry VIII. He did so, and rose to the position of Lord Chancellor, but in the end he could not sacrifice his ideals to support Henry in his break with the Pope and the Catholic Church. Rejecting compromise, he chose martyrdom and was executed.
Hythloday's view that European courts are too self-seeking, avaricious and driven by envy to appreciate good advice is supported by the response that his suggestions about the rehabilitation of thieves receives from the company at Cardinal Morton's dinner. They scorn his ideas until they see the powerful Morton cautiously supporting them, when they instantly change their tune and fall in with him. Thomas More had been brought up around the political leaders of England, including Morton, and had undoubtedly witnessed such scenes at first hand.
In Book I, the author Thomas More draws attention to some of the abuses and injustices in contemporary English and European society. These include the inequity of giving thieves the same death penalty as murderers. The alternative that the author puts forward through the mouthpiece of Hythloday, of community service work, was revolutionary in the sixteenth century and even today is a subject of debate among reformers of the criminal justice system. Still more radical was Thomas More's determination to look behind the phenomenon of crime at the possible social causes and co-factors such as education and poverty. Again, this is still a controversial area. Traditionalists insist that there is no excuse for crime and therefore no reason to address causes and co-factors; in dealing with crime, they emphasize efficient detection, severe sentences and a sufficient number of prisons. Progressives argue that unless social causes and co-factors are identified and addressed, the problem of crime will never be solved on the level of punishment.
Another social problem that the book highlights is the suffering caused in rural areas by the enclosure of arable land and forced depopulation of villages to create sheep pasture. Thomas More's suggestion that the government should regulate the production of wool and force landowners to reinstate villages and arable land is again radical, even to modern eyes. While state intervention in markets is (contrary to popular belief) as commonplace in capitalist leaning as in socialist-leaning governments, almost nowhere is it done to help the poor at the expense of the wealthy.