Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639
Raphael Hythloday, a philosophical traveler who has returned to Europe from Utopia, a far-off island adjacent to a larger land mass, somewhat like England in relation to the continent of Europe. In his account of what he saw there, which forms book 2 of the work, Hythloday never characterizes individual Utopians; the interplay of character in the narrative is between Raphael and his two companions in book 1. Hythloday is an experienced traveler who is supposed to have accompanied Amerigo Vespucci on his last three voyages. He has seen the coasts of the continents that came to be named for Vespucci, as well as countries such as Ceylon and India; later, with five companions, he visited lands even stranger to Europeans. Hythloday thus arrived in Utopia with extensive knowledge of the societies of the earth, and as a student of moral philosophy, Hythloday was well equipped to interpret what he saw. His two companions regard him as a man who desires neither wealth nor power. He is also modest, rejecting his companions’ judgment that he is a man fit to advise a great prince. He understands human nature well enough, however, to know that princes are more likely to listen to a yes-man than to a wise and prudent adviser. Having scrutinized Utopian institutions such as agriculture, justice, the economy, business relations, and marriage customs, he has concluded that communal living and the utter discouragement of any attempt to accumulate property—especially money, jewels, gold, and the like—is central to Utopia’s success. On the basis of his observations, he concludes that sound social and political institutions can keep human pride and dangerous ambition in check and thus maintain peace and harmony in a society.
Peter Giles, the Flemish gentleman who introduces Hythloday to his friend, Sir Thomas More. Giles is a historical personage who, in book 1, is credited with many virtues, including learning, courtesy, trustworthiness, affection, modesty, candor, and wit. He perceives that Hythloday is the kind of person More would desire to meet and converse with. Like More, Giles appears to be much more optimistic than the experienced Hythloday about human moral capacity and society as it exists. He not only agrees with the suggestion that Hythloday would make an ideal adviser to a king but also believes that he would achieve happiness in this role, an opinion at which Hythloday scoffs. Giles is also somewhat chauvinistic, admiring the political institutions of the Europe of his day until Hythloday demonstrates the superiority of the Utopian ones.
Sir Thomas More
Sir Thomas More, the narrator of the encounter with Giles and Hythloday into which the latter’s narrative of Utopian life is incorporated. It is important to recognize that this More is a character to be differentiated from the author. The character More tends to share Giles’s optimistic view of human judgment and moral fiber, and he considers many Utopian customs “absurd.” Along with Giles, the character More learns of a people whose social and moral standards are rational and tolerant rather than specifically Christian and often intolerant of those in different cultures. More finally concedes that many things about the Utopian system—he does not specify which—would be worth emulating. The use of the character More makes it difficult to determine what the author considers most admirable about the imaginary commonwealth. The things that the character specifically mentions as absurd—communal living and the downgrading of gold and items commonly regarded as precious—seem to have attracted the author. The effect of the character More is to provoke confusion in the reader as to the author’s judgment on his imaginary commonwealth, but this ambiguous character also serves as an incentive to reexamine thoughtfully the entire subject of which social values and institutions are basic to the success of a real commonwealth.