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Book excerpt: Utopia by Thomas More

The excerpt below is from Utopia by Thomas More, Third Edition, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, edited by George M. Logan and translated from the original Latin by Robert M. Adams.

The character speaking is ‘More,’ who is responding to traveler Raphael Hithloday’s heartfelt refusal to offer counsel to kings despite his wide travels, deep learning, and extensive experience.

Hitholoday — the name is built from Greek roots meaning “nonsense peddlar” — was recently returned to Europe from world travels. The setting is his description of the (fictional) island of Utopia — from the Greek for “no place” — its history, customs, and residents. During the course of the conversation, the characters debate whether or not to engage in politics or public life.

After Hithloday’s refusal of active participation in politics, More continues to press the need for wise counsel:

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 longstanding 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. You must not deliver strange and out-of-the-way speeches to people with whom they will carry no weight because they are firmly persuaded the other way. 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.

More used humor, indirection, and irony in his efforts to effect changes in policy under King Henry VIII. Ultimately, he was reduced to silence in his refusal to support Henry’s divorce and subsequent remarriage. Henry’s obstinacy resulted in a schism and the founding of the Church of England with himself at its head. Thomas More was beheaded for refusing to go along.

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