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MonkeyNotes-Utopia by Sir Thomas More
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Dialogue

Perhaps the most important device used in Utopia is the dialogue favored by ancient writers such as Plato and Lucian. Dialogue is effective because it enhances the speaker's point of view and allows for a debate on topics that are controversial. Hythloday describes Utopia only because More and Giles are interested to hear about citizens ruled by good and wholesome laws.

Argument is made possible in dialogue. The point of the discussion is brought out forcefully by debate. Dialogue is used for refuting or demonstrating the superiority of one idea to another. The advantage for the author is that he is in a position to speak both for his opponent and himself. He can use dialogue to present many sides of the argument. Also, in books of social criticism like Utopia, dialogue is used as a form of camouflage. The reported conversation between Hythloday, Cardinal Morton and Morton's other guests -- the lawyer, friar and the joker -- is sharply critical of England. A number of social conditions are condemned -- the unemployment; the social inequalities that lead to war and crime; cruel punishments; the abuse of power by the king and his coterie of ministers; the avarice of the rich and the helplessness of the poor.


The reader learns that theft is subject to capital punishment and that if a man has no other way to live he will steal and risk the punishment, that the contrast between wealth and poverty is too savage to be tolerated; and that the maimed and retired veterans of the recent wars have to be treated with sympathy. These were sensitive issues in More's time and he could have been imprisoned had he criticized openly. But here he uses the technique of dissembling and generalizing these ideas which help to elude the censor. Without this mode of disguise, More would have had to publish the book anonymously. As it is, he can conceal himself behind the fact that the ostensible participants in the dialogue are Hythloday, Morton and his guests. Though present in this debate, More does not take a controversial position.

Dialogue has another advantage in Utopia. Cardinal Morton was More's patron. More grew up in his house. Hythloday calls Morton prudent, virtuous and honorable. His tribute to Morton is more powerful when put in the mouth of Hythloday, a one-time visitor, who owes Morton nothing than a week's hospitality.

The two dialogues in Utopia -- the first between Hythloday, More and Giles and the second, the older one, at Cardinal Morton's house reported by Hythloday, are both critical of society. And in both there is a surprising amount of agreement on the verdict arrived at. This agreement has greater validity because it is the result of much debate and discussion.

It is not clear whether More speaks through the character to whom he has given his name, through his fiction of Hythloday, the mariner, or agrees to a certain extent with both. Surely, these issues and positions are ones that he was involved in. Problems are also created by the fact that though More is sure of what he is criticizing and condemning, he is not wholly committed to the reforms he advocates.

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