There’s a curious little cul-de-sac in Book 1 of Thomas More’s Utopia. After an anecdote about the hypocrisy of court, and its hostility to real political dialogue, Hythloday details an argument that followed those events: an argument between a fool and a friar. It goes nowhere, has no apparent conclusion, and Hythloday apologizes to us for wasting our time. The matter is never referred to again. So why is it there?
The answer is to do with how Book 1 relentlessly dissects the attributes of what we might call “good communication”. It poses several agons, each with two interlocutors with opposing strategies for expressing themselves. Each questions which strategy is really “better”, how good rhetoric can make for bad interaction, and the tension between giving a reader pleasure and transmitting them information. The exchange between the fool and the friar is just one of those exchanges.
To see this, we need to go back to the start of Hythloday’s account, to his own argument with a lawyer whilst meeting Cardinal Morton. The lawyer exclaims that he simply cannot understand why stealing persists despite its death penalty; Hythloday interrupts without leave from the Cardinal, and makes an argument with the following outline:
- It is no wonder: because the punishment is excessive, and does the public no good.
- It is so, because it is both too cruel a punishment, but not preventative.
- It is too cruel, because theft without additional violence is not severe enough to warrant death;
- It is not preventative, because no punishment can prevent a man stealing when he has no other means to live;
- You are like evil schoolmasters; more willing to beat than teach;
- You should provide provision so that all citizens can work, instead.
- You have many injured veterans. But wars are rare, so this is irrelevant.
- You have many idle nobles, who live off of rents.
- These nobles employ retainers who never learn trades, and when their lords die, they are unable to work.
The lawyer interjects – these men must be cherished, he says