The Genius of Sir Thomas More

thomas-moreSir Thomas More (1478-1535)

An argument could be made that the world ended when Henry VIII had Thomas More executed.  Or, perhaps, in less drastic terms, the “modern world” began on July 6, 1535.  What was left of the world of Christendom faded away at that moment.  This argument actually seems more plausible than the claim that some historians have made that the modern world began with Luther and Calvin.  In almost every way, Luther and Calvin–with More, John Fisher, and Erasmus–looked first and foremost to the past for guidance and inspiration.  Luther was a devout Augustinian, and Calvin’s first love was the Stoicism of Seneca.

A few glimpses into More’s personal correspondence reveal much about his innocence and hope.

“For His wisdom better sees what is good for us than we do ourselves.  Therefore, I pray you be of good cheer, and take all the household with you to church, and there thank God both for that He hath given us and for that He hath taken away from us, and for that He hath left us, which, if it please Him, He can increase when He will.  And if it please Him to leave us yet, as His pleasure be it.” (Thomas More to Mistress Alice, September 3, 1529, in Steve Smith, ed., For All Seasons, letter 51)

“The more I realize that this post involves the interests of Christendom, my dearest Erasmus, the more I hope it all turns out successfully.” (Thomas More to Erasmus, October 29, 1529, in Steve Smith, ed., For All Seasons, letter 53)

“Congratulations, then, my dear Erasmus, on your outstanding virtuous qualities; however, if on occasion some good person is unsettled and disturbed by some point, even without a sufficiently serious reason, still do not be chagrined at making accommodations for the pious dispositions of such men.  But as for those snapping, growling, malicious fellows, ignore them and, without faltering, quietly continue to devote your self to the promotion of intellectual things and the advancement of virtue.” (Thomas More to Erasmus, June 14, 1532, in Steve Smith, ed., For All Seasons, letter 54)

More’s greatest intellectual opponent turned out to be none other than William Tyndale (1494-1536), best known for his translation of the Bible into English, but also as the author of Obedience of a Christian Man (1528-1529).

For the first time in the Christian era of the West, Tyndale argued a favor of a “Divine Right of Kings”; that a king had a duty to reform and control the Church.  This is, of course, a complete reversal of the medieval notion of kingship.

“In 1528 Anne Boleyn exacerbated Henry’s lust for imperial power by giving him a book that justified everything he would ever want to do. That book was William Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man. More called this book “a book of disobedience” and diplomatically cautioned Henry about its content. Henry was already highly cautious about the author; he had, in fact, banned Tyndale from England for advocating Luther’s revolutionary ideas. Nonetheless, he was soon seduced by the claims of Tyndale’s book. This book is famous in the history of political thought because it gives the first jurisdiction in the English language for the divine right of kings.” (Gerard Wegemer, Thomas More: Portrait of Courage (Scepter, 1998), 131.)

“We know also of another person who particularly influenced Henry–William Tyndale. The latter’s Obedience of the Christian Man, the first thorough-going apologia of Caesaropapism, argued on the evidence of the Old Testament and early Christian history–and brought to him by Anne Boleyn–made a mark. ‘This is book for me and for all kings to read,’ he said when he had finished it. Tyndale’s sweeping assertion of the rights and duties of princes and their claim to the undivided allegiance, body and soul, of their subjects, may well have opened up a new world for Henry even if he did not yet intend to realize the new order of kingship in England.” (J.J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), 247.


Utopia (or not)

More’s Utopia proves a very difficult read, not because of a poor writing style or heavy-handed prose, but because of the many nuances presented.  More’s own Catholicism (for which he would die) prevented him from embracing any thing resembling perfection in this world, but he also clearly flirted with a number of non-Catholic ideas in the work.  It would be impossible to walk away from the book knowing for certain what More thought about almost any topic presented.  Parts of Utopia are heart-stopping hilarious.  Others just cause one to scratch the head in wonder and perplexity.

Ideas of the Renaissance (good and bad) as well as the known and unknown “facts” of the New World hovered over, near, and throughout the book.  It also anticipates, in odd ways, the rise of Protestantism and the “enlightenment” ideas of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  One can also see elements of More’s work in Shakespeare’s justly famous “The Tempest.”

The book itself, More noted, served as an exploration of the “The Best Form of a Commonwealth” (9)

The following quotes each come from the book.  [N.B. All quotes taken from the 2001 Yale University Press version of the work.  I took many from the Kindle version, but always comparing that one to the print/tangible one.  The page numbers, obviously, refer to the print version.]

“Called once “No-place” because I stood apart. Now I compete with Plato’s state, perhaps Surpass it; what he only wrote about I have alone in fact become: the best In people, wealth, in laws by far the best. “Good-place” by rights I should be called.” [from original title page] “I have taken great pains to prevent any inaccuracy in the book , so too, when I am in doubt, I would rather say something inaccurate than tell a lie, because I would rather be honest than clever.” (5) “For it did not occur to us to ask, or him to mention, in what part of that new world Utopia is located.” (5)

“Most people know nothing about learning; many despise it. Dummies reject as too hard whatever is not dumb. The literati look down their noses at anything not swarming with obsolete words. Some like only ancient authors; many like only their own writing. One person is so dour that he cannot abide jokes; another is so witless that he cannot stand anything witty. Some have so little nose for satire that they dread it the way someone bitten by a rabid dog fears water. Others are so changeable that their approval depends on whether they are sitting down or standing up.   They sit around in taverns and over their cups they pontificate about the talents of writers, condemning each author just as they please, pulling him down through his writings as if they had grabbed him by the hair, while they themselves are safe and out of harm’s way, as the saying goes, because these good men have their whole heads smooth-shaven so that there is not a single hair to grab on to.” (6-7)

“Certainly he has sailed, not like Palinurus, but rather like Ulysses, or even better like Plato.  This man, who is named Raphael— his family name is Hythloday— has no mean knowledge of the Latin language but is especially proficient in Greek; he has devoted himself to Greek more than to Latin because he has totally committed himself to philosophy and he knew that in that field there is nothing of any importance in Latin except some works of Seneca and Cicero.  Out of a desire to see the world he left to his brothers his heritage in his homeland (he is from Portugal).” (11-12)

“We paid no attention to monsters, for nothing is less novel than they are. Indeed, there is almost no place where you will not find Scyllas and rapacious Celaenos and man-eating Laestrigonians and such prodigious monsters, but it is not everywhere that you will find soundly and wisely trained citizens.” (14)

“First of all, the princes themselves, almost all of them, are more devoted to military pursuits (in which I neither have nor desire any skill) than they are to the beneficent pursuits of peacetime; and they are far more interested in how to acquire new kingdoms by hook or crook than in how to govern well those they have already acquired. Moreover, among the counselors to kings, there is none who is not so truly wise as not to need— or at least thinks he is so wise as not to tolerate— the advice of any other counselor, except that they support and fawn on any and all absurdities propounded by the prince’s favorites, whose favor they strive to win by flattery. Certainly nature seems to have arranged it so that everyone is delighted with his own insights. So the crow dotes on its chick, and the monkey on its whelp.” (16-17)

“Noblemen, gentlemen, and even some abbots (holy men are they), not content with the annual rents and produce which their ancestors were accustomed to derive from their estates, not thinking it sufficient to live idly and comfortably, contributing nothing to the common good, unless they also undermine it, these drones leave nothing for cultivation; they enclose everything as pasture; they destroy homes, level towns, leaving only the church as a stable for the sheep; and as if too little ground among you were lost as game preserves or hunting forests, these good men turn all habitations and cultivated lands into a wilderness. And so that one glutton, a dire and insatiable plague to his native country, may join the fields together and enclose thousands of acres within one hedge, the farmers are thrown out: some are stripped of their possessions, circumvented by fraud or overcome by force; or worn out by injustices, they are forced to sell. One way or another, the poor wretches depart, men, women, husbands, wives, orphans, widows, parents with little children and a household which is numerous rather than rich, since agriculture requires many hands, they depart, I say, from hearth and home, all that was known and familiar to them, and they cannot find any place to go to. All their household furnishings, which could not be sold for much even if they could wait for a buyer, are sold for a song now that they must be removed. They soon spend that pittance in their wanderings, and then finally what else is left but to steal and to hang— justly, to be sure— or else to bum around and beg?” (22-23)

“If you cannot thoroughly eradicate corrupt opinions or cure long-standing evils to your own satisfaction, that is still no reason to abandon the commonwealth, deserting the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds.” (44)

“It seems to me that wherever there is private property, where everything is measured in terms of money, it is hardly ever possible for the common good to be served with justice and prosperity, unless you think justice is served when all the best things go to the worst people or that happiness is possible when everything is shared among very few, who themselves are not entirely happy, while the rest are plunged into misery.” (46)

“To engage in superfluous labor against his will, since the structure of the commonwealth is primarily designed to relieve all the citizens from as much bodily labor as possible, so that they can devote their time to the freedom and cultivation of the mind. For that, they think, constitutes a happy life.” (66)

“Certainly fear of want makes all kinds of animals greedy and rapacious, but only mankind is made so by pride, which makes them consider their own glory enhanced if they excel others in displaying superfluous possessions; in the Utopian scheme of things there is no place at all for such a vice.” (68)

“For when nature prompts you to be good to others, she does not require you to turn around and be cruel and merciless to yourself. Nature herself, they say, prescribes as the aim of all our actions a joyful life, that is, pleasure, and they define virtue as following the prescriptions of nature.” (83)

“For according to them, disease brings pain, which is unalterably opposed to pleasure, in the same way as disease is opposed to health.” (89)

“I am fully persuaded that nowhere will you find a more extraordinary people or a happier commonwealth.” (92)

“I tend to think they mastered Greek all the more easily because it is somewhat related to their own language. I suspect that the Utopian people originally sprang from the Greeks because their language, which is otherwise closest to Persian, preserves some vestiges of Greek in the names of cities and magistrates.” (93)

“They have very few laws, for very few suffice for persons trained as they are.” (101)

“They pity the rank-and-file of the enemy’s soldiers almost as much as their own citizens because they know they do not go to war of their own accord but are driven to it by the madness of princes.” (109)

“There are various religions not only throughout the island but also within individual cities: some worship the sun as god, others the moon, others a different planet. Others worship some ancient paragon of either virtue or glory, venerating such a person not only as a god but as the supreme god. But the vast majority, and those by far the wiser ones, accept none of those gods and believe there is a certain single deity, unknown, eternal, infinite, inexplicable, diffused throughout this whole universe not physically but by his power, in a manner that is beyond human comprehension; him they call their parent. To him alone they attribute the origin, increase, progress, changes, and goals of all things; him and no other they honor as divine.” (115-116)

“Through the secret inspiration of God or because Christianity seemed closest to the sect which is predominant among them, although I think it was a matter of no small moment with them to hear that Christ approved of life in common for his disciples and that it is still practiced among the most genuine Christian communities.  But certainly, whatever the reason, no small number of them were converted to our religion and were washed clean in the sacred waters of baptism.” (117)

“And for this reason they believe that after this life punishments are ordained for vices and rewards for virtues.” (119)

“Human nature is changeable.” (124)

“But after these depraved creatures, in their insatiable greed, have divided among themselves all the goods which would have sufficed for everyone, they are still very far from the happiness of the Utopian commonwealth; there, once the use of money was abolished, and together with it all greed for it, what a mass of troubles was cut away, what a crop of crimes was pulled up by the roots! Is there anyone who does not know that fraud, theft, plunder, strife, turmoil, contention, rebellion, murder, treason, poisoning, crimes which are constantly punished but never held in check, would die away if money were eliminated? And also that at the very instant when money disappeared, so would fear, anxiety, worries, toil, and sleepless nights? Indeed, poverty itself, which seems to be merely the lack of money, would itself immediately fade away if money were everywhere totally abolished.” (132).


Execution of More

As Joseph Addison wrote of More, who was beheaded by his friend Henry the VIII for not sanctioning the king’s divorce as well as opposing the 1534 Act of Supremacy, which overturned a thousand years of Christian tradition: “Certainly no martyr ever surpassed him in fortitude.  .  . ‘that innocent mirth which had been so conspicuous in his life, did not forsake him to the last . . .his death was of a piece with his life. There was nothing in it new, forced or affected. He did not look upon the severing of his head from his body as a circumstance that ought to produce any change in the disposition of his mind.’”

The best sources for Thomas More: Steve Smith has published three edited works on More: A Thomas More Sourcebook, Dialogue Concerning Heresies, and most recently, For All Seasons: Selected Letters of Thomas More.  On the ideas and life of Tyndale, see any thing by Gerald Wegemer.

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