Blogging Utopia (3): The Dialogue of Counsel

Utopia is best-known for its description of More’s imaginary island. That only comes in Book 2, however. Book 1 prepares the reader for Hythloday’s account of his ideal land by discussing some of the social, economic and political problems that beset contemporary Europe.

In this third post, Dr Joanne Paul examines the ‘dialogue of counsel’ which comes near the start of Book 1, in which More’s speakers discuss whether or not it is a citizen’s duty to intervene in politics, and the challenges that such a public role might bring.

Image of Morus, Peter Giles and Hythlodaeus, conversing, with John Clement attending them
The three interlocutors, and More’s servant John Clement, from 1518 edition of More’s Utopia, (c) Universitat Bielefeld

The dialogue of counsel opens the discussion between Peter Giles, Thomas More (hereafter Morus, to save confusion with More the author) and Raphael Hythloday (Hythlodaeus) in Antwerp. It was almost certainly written by More upon his return to London, after he had written the bulk of Book 2. It is usually understood as a debate on the question of the good life between the Greek philosopher Plato (represented by Hythlodaeus) and the Roman philosopher-statesman Cicero (represented by Morus). Plato suggests that philosophers are corrupted by their involvement in politics and ought to stay away, instead living the ‘contemplative life’. For Cicero, it is a citizen’s duty to serve the common interest, living the ‘active life’.

Unsurprisingly, More weaves a lot into this dialogue. In particular, what is often missed is the way in which this initial discussion is connected to the question of private property in Book 2. The section begins with Morus declaring:

Now I intend to relate only what [Hythlodaeus] told us about the customs and institutions of the Utopians, but first recounting the conversation that drew him into speaking of that commonwealth…

This opening is outright comical. “Now” Morus (as narrator) intends only to discuss Utopia. But first he’ll discuss something (apparently) completely unrelated! J.H. Hexter has suggested that More opens up a ‘seam’ in his text to insert this dialogue, as it interrupts his intention to discuss the state of Utopia. It’s hard to read this passage without thinking that More was aware of this digression, comically reflecting on the topic of the debate which follows: namely, ill-placed and ill-timed advice. It also causes one to reflect on the ways in which this discussion in Book 1 is perhaps not so distinct from that of Book 2 after all.

Peter was amazed. ‘My dear Raphael’, he said, ‘I’m surprised that you don’t enter some king’s service; for I don’t know of a single prince who wouldn’t be very glad to have you. Your learning and your knowledge of various countries and peoples would entertain him while your advice and supply of examples would be helpful at the counsel board. Thus you might admirably advance your own interests and be of great use at the same time to all your relatives and friends.’

Peter Giles is the first to note that Hythlodaeus, as a well-travelled philosopher, might be well suited as a counsellor to a king. Like the book of Utopia itself, Hythlodaeus would be “No less beneficial than entertaining” to a prince. Giles, however, gives the wrong motives for such service, basing his suggestions in Hythlodaeus’s self-interest. Hythlodaeus is easily able to dismiss this suggestion, and Morus is in agreement: there is no guarantee of serving one’s own self-interest in serving a prince, and it shouldn’t be the motive for doing so.

With this misguided suggestion of self-interest out of the way, Morus and Hythlodaeus are free to engage in the heart of the debate: whether it is Hythlodaeus’ duty to live a contemplative life, or an active one:

Then [Morus] said, ‘It is clear, my dear Raphael, that you seek neither wealth nor power, and indeed I prize and revere a man of your disposition no less than I do the mightiest persons in the world. Yet I think if you could bring yourself to devote your intelligence and energy to public affairs, you would be doing something worthy of your noble and truly philosophical nature, even if you did not much like it. You could best perform such a service by joining the council of some great prince and inciting him to just and noble actions (as I’m sure you would): for a people’s welfare or misery flows in a stream from their prince as from a never-failing spring….’
‘You are twice mistaken, my dear More’, he said, ‘first in me and then in the situation itself. I don’t have the capacity you ascribe to me, and if I had it in the highest degree, the public would still not be any better off if I exchanged my contemplative leisure for active endeavour.’

Morus here uses classic images to persuade Hythlodaeus: the idea that the goodness of the people flows from the prince was drawn from Plutarch, and appeared also in the work of More’s friend Erasmus.

Hythlodaeus’s objection (modesty aside) is that he would not make any difference because (1) kings are only interested in the ‘arts of war’, while he inclines ‘to the good arts of peace’, and (2) that other counsellors will bar or dismiss his advice, always preferring their own. Hythlodaeus tells long stories to support these claims, along the way critiquing the legal and political practices of most European countries, including England. It is also not clear that he proves his point in either case; certainly Morus is not persuaded.

‘Now, don’t you suppose if I set these ideas and others like them before men strongly inclined to the contrary, they would turn deaf ears to me?’
‘Stone deaf, indeed, there’s no doubt about it,’ I said, ‘and by heaven it’s no wonder!… I don’t think you should thrust forward ideas of this sort, or offer advice that you know for certain will not be listened to…. This academic philosophy is pleasant enough in the private conversation of close friends, but in the councils of kings, where great matters are debated with great authority, there is no room for it.’
‘That is just what I was saying’, Raphael replied. ‘There is no place for philosophy in the councils of kings.’
‘Yes it is true,’ I said, ‘that there is no place for this school philosophy which supposes every topic suitable for every occasion. But there is another philosophy, better suited for the role of citizen, that takes its cue, adapts itself to the drama at hand and acts its part neatly and appropriately. This is the philosophy for you to use. Otherwise, when a comedy by Plautus is being played, and the household slaves are cracking trivial jokes together, you come onstage in the garb of a philosopher and repeat Seneca’s speech to Nero from the Octavia….
That’s how things go in the commonwealth, and in the councils of princes. If you cannot pluck up bad ideas by the root, or cure long-standing evils to your heart’s content, you must not therefore abandon the commonwealth. Don’t give up the ship in a storm because you cannot hold back the winds…. Instead, by an indirect approach, you must strive and struggle as best you can to handle everything tactfully – and thus what you cannot turn to good, you may at least make as little bad as possible. For it is impossible to make everything good unless all men are good, and that I don’t expect to see for quite a few years yet.’

Having listened to Hythlodaeus’ examples with only a small interjection, Morus at last states his case clearly. Hythlodaeus had maintained that, if he had presented his advice to an unsympathetic crowd, he would be made a laughing stock, or worse, suffer a fate like his “friend” Plato, and be exiled into slavery by a tyrant. Morus, in no uncertain terms, agrees with him. However, what Hythlodaeus has missed, Morus asserts, is the concept of “decorum”, translated above as “appropriately”. This rhetorical figure reminds the speaker that his speech has to be suited to the audience at hand. Counsellors have to adapt their advice to the circumstances, rather than thinking “every topic suitable for every occasion”. This is presented in the guise of the stage-play, as it had been by Cicero.

Hythlodaeus rejects Morus’ view, suggesting that to compromise in such a way would be to become corrupt himself, thereby no longer presenting any possibility of a solution to the corruption of the political world around them. His advice will only be useful, he says, where there is no pride and greed, and pride and greed always exist where there is private property, which leads Hythlodaeus (finally!) into the discussion of the island of Utopia.

Of course, as More’s contemporary Thomas Starkey would later point out, Hythlodaeus’s description of Utopia is precisely the sort of abstract “academic” philosophizing that Morus had objected to. As a “no-place”, Utopia completely ignores the particularities of time and place, which is why – at the end of the book – Morus concludes that he may wish to see it realized, but wouldn’t expect it.

17th-century image of the Tower of London
1641 image of the Tower of London, where More was imprisoned from April 1534 to his execution in 1535, c/o University of Toronto Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collections

Yet the dialogue in Book 1 and the description of Utopia in Book 2 are connected, and together they reveal a powerful lesson. Throughout More’s writings, he takes the question of the active life and property ownership hand-in-hand, and it all comes back to the metaphor of the stage-play. In the Dialogue of Comfort, for instance, written in 1534 while More was in the Tower of London, More chastises those who avoid the active life, “whereby for faint heart they leave of good business, wherein they were well occupied, & under pretext… of humble heart and meekness, & serving God in contemplation & silence, they seek their own ease & earthly rest”. He then turns immediately to the issue of property, noting that private ownership is necessary, but artificial. What is important is how property is thought of and used: “if a man keep riches about him for a glory and royalty of the world… taking the poorer for the lack thereof, as one far worse than himself: such a mind is very vain foolish pride”. If, on the other hand, he doesn’t love his riches but uses them for the benefit of the commonwealth, then he has done as much, even more, than one who gives his riches away. The same can be said for someone who, rather than hiding his talents away, uses them for the benefit of the commonwealth. In both cases the person is working within the “stage-play”, playing his part, and doing more good than if he’d rejected the play entirely.

When we read the dialogue of counsel in the context of More’s other works, it seems that Hythlodaeus is right in his critique of European practices, but fundamentally misguided on the question of remedying them.


The next post considers more closely some of the practices that Hythlodaeus criticizes in the dialogue of counsel. And we’ll meet some man-eating sheep.


Works cited:

Erasmus, Desiderius. Education of a Christian Prince, Lisa Jardine (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Hexter, J. H. “Thomas More and the Problem of Counsel”, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 10 (1978).
More, Thomas. Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, Frank Manley. Yale University Press, 1978.
—– Utopia, George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams (eds). Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Plutarch. “That a Philosopher Ought to Converse Especially with Men in Power”, On Morals.
Starkey, Thomas. Dialogue Between Pole and Lupset, Kathleen Burton (ed.), 1948.

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